Book Review: 'Animation: the Mechanics of Motion'

Mary Ann Skweres shoveled her way through the snow and crowds of Sundance to discover the spotlight on animation.

Animation: The Mechanics of Motion by Chris Webster.

Animation: the Mechanics of Motion by Chris Webster this is one of the good ones. Webster must be a great teacher, because it comes across in this book. He makes a complicated subject understandable and he makes it sound fun to do. Websters book will give you an understanding of how the various parts of animation are done and the book is put together in a way that smoothly leads you from simple to complex. There is a CD included.

One way to review a how to book is to point out what you can learn from it. Notice that can, because the only way to learn animation is to do it. You read the book and do the exercises, and if you understand what you are doing, you may start to become an animator. Or one of the many career jobs the book teaches about. Pay attention to all of them, because to really be an accomplished animator, you must understand all of the underpinnings, not just the drawing. Also, more than one artist started out to be an animator and wound up fascinated by some other faction of the field, and made their career there.

In Print Since 1920

There are a lot of animation books out there. In his preface to the book, Webster says the first available textbook was by Edwin George Lutz, published in 1920 and is still in print to this day. Ever since the persistence of motion was discovered, people have wanted to know how to do animation. Most of the principles applicable then have proven to be basic to CG, stop motion and puppet animation today. Webster gets to the heart of any textbook by saying, Be aware of what you are doing; dont just do things think!

In a section that is extremely useful and all too rare, the book gives you a list of the things you will need before you begin. He then goes on to explain the persistence of motion, and how the eye makes frames per second work for it. This segues nicely in to a discussion of timing, pacing and phrasing three things that arent usually stressed enough. The book emphasizes timing through out as something necessary to achieve realistic motion. He gets into the physics of timing and the difference that the age of a person makes to the action.

Exercises That Require You to Think

The exercises at the end of each chapter are well thought out and will require the student to think as well. He tells you what the aims and objectives of the exercises are. The first one is to make a flipbook, so you understand the use of sequential images. One of the things Webster does that makes this book user friendly is to give suggestions on how to start for those who are still a little intimidated by the subject.

Pay Attention in Class

The cartoons Webster used are great, not only useful, but entertaining as well. In the discussion of stretch and squash he has people dropping things off an apartment building, complete with reactions from those watching. Lest you think this sounds frivolous, this section also talks about the arc of a parabola, variable bounce height, bounce decay and impact and force. Did you pay attention in science class? From there he goes into keyframes, inbetweens and a discussion of pose-to-pose and straight-ahead animation. All this in preparation for the next exercise. As you might expect the exercises get more complex as they go along.

The walk cycle is explored in relation to what the character is carrying, whether or not the object is heavy and where he is lifting it, what he is wearing and how fast he is going. Webster discusses overlapping action, follow through and drag, such as when hair or clothing moves, or the fat in a face. A section of questions you should ask yourself about these things is revealing. Webster insists that you think, but, at the same time, he makes complicated actions clear.

Arcs and Cycles

A really good section is on arcs that are described in a head turn. They are clearly illustrated and show the line of action and what happens if you dont use an arc (really dull animation). He then talks about cycle animation and the different kinds of cycles. You are asked to film your exercises to see for yourself if they work.

The book gets back to walk cycles when the chapter on figurative animation comes along. Webster demonstrates how thoroughly he illustrates his lessons when he does 10 pages on different kinds of walk cycles. He gets into the center of gravity, the difference between walking with something heavy and a bag of feathers, balance and anticipation all really necessary if you want your animation to look realistic. And even cartoony animation has to be believable.

No Simple Off-the-Shelf Solutions

There are good chapters on what many animation books cover lightly, characterization and acting. Webster says, The one thing you must realize from the start is that you will not find simple, off-the-shelf solutions to your acting problems. There is no faking it. He gets into the psychological side of acting as well as the physical, citing temperament and pace, character interaction and planning a scene. The exercise where you have to animate a feed sack to act looks like fun; remember that flying carpet in one of Unca Walts films?

In the chapter on design, he cautions that design means more that the characters, and then starts on storyboarding. He shows the difference between a presentation storyboard and a working storyboard, dips into character construction and concept art and even shows an armature plan for a 2D stop-frame model.

The Difference Between a Horse and a Bird

The chapter titled, Animals in Motion, clearly explains the differences in how to animate a horse in motion and a bird in flight, but he doesnt attempt to show a lot of animals, the basic principals are what he is after. The chapters on sound and technical are particularly good and detailed. Websters Great Britain origins show when he speaks of dope sheets and bar charts (which we would call X-sheets) and paint and trace for ink and paint. The rest is universal.

Even those almost always ignored production managers get their day as the production process is explained. The book starts with a forward by Peter Lord, a wonderful intro by Mike Milne and winds up with a glossary of terms. Animation: the Mechanic of Motion is an impressive textbook that should be a big help to animation students.

Animation: The Mechanics of Motion by Chris Webster. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2005. 259 pages, includes Mac/PC CD-ROM. ISBN: 0-240-51666-4 ($36.95).

Libby Reed started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren.