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Book Review: 'Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation'

Tara DiLullo Bennett chats with VFX Supervisor Gary Hutzel about the fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica and the challenges and opportunities of doing the vfx in-house.

From Neighbors (1952) to Harvie Krumpet (2003), Olivier Cotte's lavishly illustrated book explores what makes an Oscar-winning short.

From Neighbors (1952) to Harvie Krumpet (2003), Olivier Cotte's lavishly illustrated book explores what makes an Oscar-winning short.

The debate over what defines excellence in animation will probably remain forever unresolved due to its subjectivity. Some may value style over story, or appeal over technical competence. However, certain works of animation do achieve a consensual, rarified status regardless of individual tastes. In his important book Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation, Olivier Cotte proves that there is no one special ingredient or technique that makes such a film special; rather, it is a fortuitous combination of skill, perseverance and inspiration that produces great works, no matter what the medium of production might be.

Cotte, an animator and animation director in his own right, chooses and analyzes the following spate of Oscar winners from 1952 to 2003: Neighbors (Norman McLaren, 1952); Frank Film (Frank Mouris, 1973); The Sand Castle (Co Hoderman, 1977); The Fly (Ferenc Rofusz, 1980); Anna and Bella (Børge Ring, 1985); The Man Who Planted Trees (Frederick Back, 1987), Balance (Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein, 1989); Manipulation (Daniel Greaves, 1991); Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (Joan C. Gratz, 1992); Quest (Tyson Montgomery, 1996); The Old Man and the Sea (Alexander Petrov, 1999); Father and Daughter (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2000); and Harvie Krumpet (Adam Elliot, 2003).

This selection is far from arbitrary; rather, it emphasizes Cotte's point. Every technique used to produce animation is represented: Pixilation, traditional cel animation, and stop-motion puppets are featured alongside cutouts, clay, and computer-generated imagery. Painting and drawing directly on cels are among other methods selected by Cotte; no two films feature the same methodology. The diversity of directors and production methods chosen by Cotte guarantees that any reader, novice or expert, will come away with a profound appreciation of how wide-ranging the art of animation truly is.

Each chapter is divided into sections that include information about the idea or inspiration behind the film, screenplay, animation technique, sets and/or backgrounds, soundtrack, and even technical difficulties. It is here that Cotte's experience with animation pays off for the reader. His explanations are clear and concise, and he does well with complicated concepts such as explaining the soundtrack system Norman McLaren invented for Neighbors, or the challenges in filming for IMAX format. Any reader, for example, who does not grasp the difference between stop-motion and pixilation will surely be enlightened after reading this book. That is, if the reader's attention can be drawn away from the beautiful pages of color plates, stills, storyboards, and sketches presented for each film.

Cotte does not depend solely on his own observations, and his book is enriched by interviews with each filmmaker, and, in some cases, the technical crew. Thus, the reader is supplied with fascinating details about each film: Master composer Normand Roger scored the music for four of these Oscar winners, and for four others as well. The Fly was inspired by a Pink Floyd album. Frank Mouris raided doctors waiting rooms and collected trash from friends in order to collect the 500,000 magazine cutout images he needed to complete Frank Film.

Readers will also discover that Tyron Montgomery had to repair his sand puppet 150 times during the making of Quest, and Daniel Greaves still suffers back pain from the rigors of posing his hands alongside his drawn character during the long hours it took to film Manipulation. Actor Grant Munro jumped up and down to the point of exhaustion in order to appear to float in the air in Neighbors, while director Norman McLaren invented a complicated card-based system for composing that film's musical score. Hundreds of other details serve to bring the story behind each film to vivid life.

If there is one common thread noted by Cotte that runs through these diverse films, it is the fanatical dedication of the filmmakers. Many of them toiled for hours solving technical problems, while others, like Joan C. Gratz, had to work piecemeal on a film for years, in-between jobs that paid the rent. At least two of these Oscar-winners, The Sand Castle and Neighbors, went forward without storyboards or even a clear vision of how the film would end; they were intuitive pieces riding on the filmmaker's confidence.

Some of the films were at the mercy of penny-pinching national boards (or state monies) and funding was a problem for the duration of the work. Cotte documents, whenever possible, the struggles -- and victories -- of artistic vision against countless obstacles. As a result, the "secrets" of Oscar-winning animation are revealed to be multi-leveled; Cotte presents the technical and practical secrets of producing a stellar film, but also the secrets of the filmmaker's personalities, passions, and artistic visions that won Oscars.

Cotte's book might have been even more remarkable had it included a companion DVD, such as the one that accompanied Taschen Presss 2004 book Animation Now! Even though The Old Man and the Sea and Harvie Krumpet clock in at over twenty minutes and The Man Who Planted Trees is a half hour long, an accompanying DVD could have included at least snippets and scenes from some of those longer films. The disc would have illustrated and enriched the experience of reading Cotte's fine text, and perhaps this could be a consideration for future editions.

That lone caveat aside, Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation is a richly illustrated and well-researched read for animation students, professionals, and laypersons as well. If one wishes to gain a glimpse of how animators and directors think, plan, and surmount seemingly impossible problems while creating works of acclaimed beauty and genius, one could not do better than reading Cotte's book. Frederick Back was inspired to plant 10,000 trees after reading the novel that led him to make his brilliant film. Cotte may well help to inspire some of today's animators and directors who hope to someday attain an Oscar of their own.

Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation: Behind the scenes of 13 classic short animations by Olivier Cotte with a foreword by Peter Lord. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2006. 280 pages. ISBN: 978-0-240-52070-4 (34.95).

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.