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The Animator's Survival Kit: The Most Valuable How To Animate Book You Will Ever Want To Own

Karl Cohen reviews or shall we say revels in Richard Williams new book, a masterpiece on how to animate.

In the late 1990s Richard Williams, winner of three Oscars, was traveling around the globe presenting his master classes to sold out audiences. Now, for a fraction of what it cost to attend his seminars, you get as much information as he presented in-person. While you don’t get the excitement of having him there drawing and talking to you, his handsome book is filled with hundreds of illustrations (more than he drew in the classes) and a text far superior to the hastily scribbled notes of people who attend his classes.

This book, The Animator’s Survival Kit, should be a "must have" for every animator, from struggling student to seasoned professional. Animators improve their skills as they go through life and there are valuable lessons in the book for all. When I attended Williams’ seminar I was hearing well-known animators from ILM, Pixar and other studios saying they were learning more than they expected and it was simplifying their understanding of the process. One person went home after the first session and drew for an hour. The next day he was telling people he not only was inspired by the first class, his drawing ability had actually improved.

Colleagues got excited and wanted to buy copies when they heard I had a copy of the book. Two animation teachers came to my house because they needed to see it before telling their school libraries and stores to order copies.

Background In the opening pages of the book the author tells how he was running a successful studio in London when he saw The Jungle Book (1967). At that time he wasn’t a big Disney fan and he didn’t have great expectations about liking the film. He writes he was "astonished" with the animation and, "I realized I didn’t even know how it was done -- let alone ever be able to do it myself. I went back to my studio in shock."

In the years that followed he continually sought after knowledge. "I had to know everything about the medium and master all aspects of it. Cap in hand, I made yearly visits to Milt (Kahl), and Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ken Anderson at Disney." When he had the chance he hired other Hollywood greats, including Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick, to work and lecture at his studios in London and Los Angeles.

When Williams ran studios, his work was known for excellence and perfection. His best known credit was animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When he retired in the 1990s he began to share his knowledge in master classes. Slowly he refined his teaching skills and materials to the point that he felt comfortable putting it all down on paper. This book should provide present and future generations of animators the working methods and drawing techniques that will enable the art of animation to grow and prosper.

The Book Williams’ book may seem deceptively simple at first because the focus is developing useful work habits that allow you to produce the best possible movements. He doesn’t have chapters on character design, costumes, set design, budgets, and other important ingredients of an animated film. Most of the 352 pages are about drawing human and animal movements. You probably know most of the topics he covers: key drawings, extremes, breakdowns, timing, spacing, walks, runs, jumps, skips, flexibility, weight, anticipation, takes, dialogue, acting, animal action, directing, voice recording and many, many more. What may surprise you are his comments about each topic.

His first lesson is a valuable piece of advice -- unplug! That’s right, turn off your stereo or radio when you work and concentrate. The largest drawing in the book shows Milt Kahl at work at his drawing table and young Williams asking, "Milt, do you ever listen to classical music while you’re working?" Turn the page and you find a giant two page illustration of Milt roaring, "Of all the s-s-s-stupid god damned questions…" On the final page Milt tells a very small Williams cowering in the corner, "I’m not smart enough to think of more than one thing at a time!" The author says he took the advice and, "My animation improved right away."

The book is about work methods. Williams' says, "There are no rules -- only methods… I really do think that -- apart from your talent, brain and skill -- fifty percent of the excellence in your work comes from your working method: the way you think about it, and the way you go about it."

Some of the wisdom in this book is attributed to the men who were Williams’ masters. There are wonderful moments that give glimpses into their work ethics, like Ken Harris telling him, "Come on, now, you can have fun doing the drawings later, but the important part first -- time it all out." In his discussion of the use of ones and twos he tells us, "Art Babbitt used to nag at me for using ones, ‘That’s too realistic -- one of the things about animation is that it’s not like life!’ But I would often add ones to Art’s work when he wasn’t looking and it came out better -- and he liked it better."

A great deal of the book is spent on walks because, as Ken Harris put it, "A walk is the first thing to learn. Learn walks of all kinds, ‘cause walks are about the toughest things to do right." He tells how Art Babbitt taught him to study people from behind and, "Follow them along and ask yourself: Are they old? Young? What’s their financial position? State of health? Are they strict? Permissive? Depressed? Hopeful? Sad? Happy? Drunk? Then run around to see the front and check." I think Babbitt’s questions give a good idea at how complex and expressive walks can be. Williams really covers the subtle nuances of body movements to give you the best education he can.

Related to walks and runs are sections on dancing, the movement of athletes and other activities. There are discussions about head movements and expressive uses of arms and hands. His discussion of flexibility in the face includes some of the most amusing drawings in the book.

The book doesn’t cover how to animate robots, spiders, crabs, car crashes, explosions and a lot of other non-human things. It doesn’t tell how the Japanese make female eyes sexy or how Harman-Ising made their animals so awfully cute. And there is no reason why it has to cover any of these things. My only negative criticism are two minor points in his brief encapsulation of animation history. He paints a vivid picture of several key events, but at least one date is off by a year and he makes a questionable statement about The Yellow Submarine (1967).

Williams has written and illustrated a brilliant volume and I suspect it will become as highly regarded as Frank and Ollie’s The Illusion of Life. I suspect it may be several decades before anyone tries to improve upon this work.

The Animator’s Survival Kit: A Manual of Methods, Principles and Formulas for Classical, Computer, Games, Stop Motion and Internet Animators by Richard Williams. London, U.K.: Faber and Faber, Limited, 2001. 352 pages. ISBN: 0-571-21268-9 (hardback US$50) and 0-571-20228-4 (paperback US$30).

Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.