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Masters of Animation

John Grant's new book offers profiles of some of animation's greatest animation artists. While a nice collection, Jerry Beck has a few reservations...

In 1987, John Halas wrote a book called Masters of Animation, which surveyed the top animation artists of the time, with a particular emphasis on international and historical talents like Osamu Tezuka, Karel Zeman and Jiri Trinka for example.

Watson-Guptill Publications has just released a new book with a similar concept and the exact same title (but it's completely unrelated). Masters of Animation by John Grant (author of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters) is just out at the bookstores, and it gives in-depth profiles of 37 top animation filmmakers, past and present.

And although Tezuka, Zeman and Trinka are missing here, and Grant acknowledges his oversight of other contemporaries like John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Katsuhiro Otomo, this book offers us a nice selection of animation notables with a slant toward U.S. and British leading lights.

Each chapter gives a biography of the selected animator, an illustration or two, and highlights a few of the filmmaker's best works in a sidebar spotlight. U.S. cartoonists featured include Tex Avery, Don Bluth, Bob Clampett, Harman & Ising, The Fleischer Brothers, Chuck Jones, Walt Disney, Paul Terry, Will Vinton and Bill Plympton, to name a few. Nick Park, Terry Gilliam, Richard Williams, Hayao Miyazaki and Bruno Bozzetto are some of the international names that each get a section.

His biographies are generally pretty good, but are laced with opinions, which I find unnecessary in a book called Masters of Animation. For example, Grant takes swipes at Chuck Jones' input in the creation of Pepe LePew and Wile E. Coyote. Is that kind of speculation required in a book celebrating "masters?" Grant gives fellow Warner Bros. cartoonist Robert McKimson a chapter, and defends him from other authors who have (justifiably) criticized his lesser work as a director. He then spends a paragraph pointing out mistakes about Speedy Gonzales' origin in Jeff Lenberg's Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. After questioning Jones' creation of Pepe LePew, Grant now gives full credit for Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy and the Tasmanian Devil to McKimson without further qualification.

For the most part, however, the bios are pretty standard, with no new research or information provided. Still, it's nice to have them all in one volume. Jim Henson is the one subject included that really doesn't fit. As much as I admire the puppeteer, and he does have some legitimate ties with animation, most of the others showcased in this tome are frame by frame artists.

I was pleased to see John Hubley get some attention, and George Dunning and Ralph Bakshi get their due. His chapters on Bill Tytla, Otto Messmer and Winsor McCay read like condensed versions of previous (and superior) John Canemaker books and articles. Canemaker, himself, is rewarded with his own chapter as well.

The illustrations are colorful, but generally poor. Bad video frame grabs, or poor scans, make up much of it. The cover of an 8mm home movie version of Ragtime Bear to illustrate John Hubley's remarkable career? I think not! I also noted an exact frame blow-up from Peace On Earth and a special piece of art commissioned for Duck Amuck, both created for my book The 50 Greatest Cartoons (1994), had found their way into Grant's publication.

Masters of Animation

celebrates the greats and can introduce one to many significant cartoon creators. But further reading may be required to get the full picture.

Masters of Animation by John Grant. New York, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001. 208 pages, 75 illustrations. ISBN: 0-8230-3041-5 (US$29.95)

Jerry Beck is an animation producer and cartoon historian who is simultaneously developing a show with MTV Animation and writing a book for Harry N. Abrams Publishers. He also has a cool Website at www.cartoonresearch.com.

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