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Fantastic Planet: Surveying the World History of an Artform in 'Animation Art'

In this months excerpt from Stop Motion, Susannah Shaw describes how to work with companies that make models for you.

When Charles Solomon's coffee-table book The History of Animation: Enchanted Drawings debuted in 1989, it quickly became a fetish item in my library. I immediately wanted a wall-size banner of the five-image sequence from A Hare Grows in Manhattan of Bugs Bunny caught in some explosive gesture, the middle frame stretched insanely in a curveball-fat distortion. Growing up as I had with only recycled Looney Toons, Silly Symphonies and Saturday-morning limited-animation effluent, I felt a slight buzz coming on as I relished images of Ub Iwerks' Pincushion Man, saw Glen Keane's charcoal roughs of the bear fight from The Fox and the Hound, and watched David Daniels wield a machete to cut clay for Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

Time to revisit Duck Amuck, I thought, but more importantly, time to reconnoiter my local library for Private Snafu and the Fleischer Superman shorts. I was beginning to know something about just how much animation I didn't know anything about.

If you did likewise, you're going to do it all over again when you score a copy of Animation Art, edited by Jerry Beck and with contributions from 22 other animation writers. (Full disclosure: AWN managing editor Rick DeMott is one of those contributors.) Ten years after the last edition of Enchanted Drawings, Beck, et al, have put together an addicting book of ready-reference covering hundreds of topics ranging across the whole history of the artform, from Humorous Phases of Funny Faces to Shrek 2, with a plethora of scenic overlooks along the way.

In 12 chapters, Animation Art covers the history of the artform in chronological order, dividing it roughly into five-year intervals through the 1960s and then decade-by-decade through 2004. This is a universal history, and the book's coverage girdles the globe, with each chapter dealing in turn with animation production in North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia. (Only after making this list have I realized that Africa and South America are never mentioned. Sure, no powerhouse studios have sprung out of Cape Town or Buenos Aires, but why not, I wonder? The reasons might be interesting.)

Each two-page spread covers a different topic in capsule form this marks the biggest difference between Animation Art and Enchanted Drawings. Where Solomon's book compiled all of animation history into a single narrative, Animation Art breaks it down into packets of activity dominated by individuals or studios that, in the book and in history, may or may not have had anything to do with each other. There are introductory essays on all the ubiquitous stars, including Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.

For the intermediate student, there are era-by-era views of studios with less American broadcast presence, including NFB, UPA, Zagreb Studio and Pannonia. And for true haystack-divers there are tantalizing peeks at areas of animation most of us never see, including Japanese propaganda cartoons of WWII, Shanghai Animation Studio product from before the Cultural Revolution, and the huge library of Original Animation Video amassed for the Japanese home video market in the 1980s.

The strength of the book comes from its diversity of sources. Not limiting itself to one author's field of study, the book brings more than a dozen different writers to the table, all writing in detail on their own areas of expertise. Animation Art originates with Flame Tree Publishing, a U.K. imprint, and it's written by an international cast of authors for an international audience, one that by definition has seen more of this product than is currently available on American home video. The weakness of the book is part and parcel of its strength depth has been sacrificed for breadth. Like any big reference book, its reach is encyclopedic, but its grasp on any given topic is limited to about 400 words.

Typographically, Animation Art could have used one last proof-read; there are lots of gaffes, no doubt artifacts of the rush to get the book in stores by November, all of which can be corrected in later editions. Also, and how could it be otherwise, I'm sure they missed one of your favorite topics. (There's no mention of Michael Sporn, and I could have used a chunk on Bay Area studios of the 1980s.) But what is here, you need: a well designed, profusely illustrated survey of a century-old art.

Just compiling a list of critically acclaimed shorts and features from around the world mentioned in this book and realizing what is and isn't available on home video is enough to make you cry. But getting frustrated is the first step toward getting important works back in print, and Animation Art should help stoke our fires by turning us on to previously undiscovered delights and reminding us that, yes, most of it is still out there.

Animation Art: From Pencil to Pixel, The History of Cartoon, Anime & CGI General Editor: Jerry Beck with forewords by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Plympton. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing, 2004. 384 pages. $45.00

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, who writes a monthly column for AWN, Fresh from the Festivals. Like most white people, he has participated in one whipped cream fight in his lifetime.