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Book Review: 'Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Develope

Chris Perna, lead artist at Epic Games, tells Peter Rizkalla how Gears of War 2 raises the bar with more graphical richness and complex animation.

Ellen Besen's exhaustive book not only lists every element that might make up an animated project, but it also sets out to further the reader's understanding of how this information is applied in active form.

Ellen Besen's exhaustive book not only lists every element that might make up an animated project, but it also sets out to further the reader's understanding of how this information is applied in active form.

Some people are just natural list-makers. It might be safe to assume that one of those people is Ellen Besen, the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know. Like the title, the book that follows is exhaustive -- but in a good way!

The skeptic might ask, what good are a list of principles without the proper understanding of how (and in what circumstances) to apply them? Luckily for us, Besen had a larger purpose beyond explaining the essence of how animation functions. In the book's introduction, she writes, "... harnessing this essence was the key to making animation which didn't just move but had something to say." With that one sentence, I was converted to Besen's cause. This scholarly book not only intended to list every element that might make up an animated project, it also set out to further the reader's understanding of how this information is applied in active form.

Besen, who is a former faculty member at Sheridan College's School of Animation (1987-2002) as well as an award-winning director of films for the National Film Board of Canada, begins with a chapter entitled "General Principles" and the heading, "We Can't Use What We Don't Understand." She writes, "... Animation has an especially vivid ability to make analogy literal." She backs it up with the example of how, in the medium of animation, a man who feels like a puppet on a string, can actually be a puppet. What might appear to the reader as common sense, becomes another link in the chain of what sets animation apart from other forms of motion pictures.

Throughout the book, Bryce Hallett's humorous illustrations punctuate the author's text, adding further understanding to each concept. Additionally, Besen proudly lays her own research on the table by providing sources where the reader will find an example in active form. These examples run the gamut from classic animation to TV series, as well as from recent indie films by the likes of Bill Plympton, Chris Landreth and a whole host of NFB works.

Besen's examples take on a whole new meaning when read by someone as familiar with animation as she, allowing the reader to mentally catalogue other examples that might reinforce a particular principle. For instance, reading a section on "Breaking Out of the Boundaries of Realistic Performance," (from Chapter 6,) triggered my memory of Konstantin Bronzit's indie film Switchcraft (1994), where a character's walk across the frame is aided by the character dematerializing in mid-step, only to re-materialize at its final destination, which is a few steps away. The director's device is a fine example of how each animated project can utilize the unique properties of this medium. In live action, a similar effect would have us believing the character is a ghost or, at least, on hallucinogenic drugs.

As a teacher, and a sometimes-thesis advisor, I found myself wishing that every animation school based a foundation year class upon the teachings collected in this book. All too often, students dive into their animations hoping to ape a particular style or genre of animation. In their rush to animate, they make hasty choices (if they make any at all) on key foundation areas such as writing, design, and color. The smart students will seek out Animation Unleashed, devour it on their own time, and begin to apply what they newly understand.

From the perspective of an industry professional reading this book, I gained additional insight on this medium that can only come from reabsorbing all this information neatly arranged in one place. I was reminded that animation is a series of informed choices and that none of them should be taken for granted.

Besen concludes with the hope that her book will help readers reach their own creative aspirations, which may ultimately lead to better animation in the world. With this book, Besen has done her part. The reader is left with the obligation to take this information and create animation that not only moves, but has something to say.

Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animatior, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artists and Game Developer Should Know by Ellen Besen, illustrated by Bryce Hallett. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2008. 245 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-932907-49-0. ($26.95).

David B. Levy is the author of the successful book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, (Allworth Press, 2006), which was the first career guide for animation artists working in North America. Levy has been an animation director for six series to date, including Blue’s Clues, Blue’s Room, Pinky Dinky Doo, The Electric Company, and Assy McGee. On his own, Levy has completed six, award-winning independent animated films. His latest short, Good Morning (2007), has been featured in many film festivals, including the Hiroshima International Animation Festival and The New York International Children's Film Festival. Levy has served as president of ASIFA-East (the New York chapter of ASIFA International) since September 2000. He teaches animation at Parson's School of Design, The School of Visual Arts, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He regularly lectures at Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2007, Levy signed a development deal for his own series creation and developed a TV property for an independent producer. Levy is married and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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