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Book Review: 'The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age'

Andrew Farago makes the case why you should make room on your bookshelf for Don Hahn's modern take on The Alchemy of Animation.

Don Hahn's The Alchemy of Animation deserves a spot on the shelf next to other classic reference books for the aspiring animator.

Don Hahn's The Alchemy of Animation deserves a spot on the shelf next to other classic reference books for the aspiring animator.

Nearly every dedicated practitioner of animation has read Preston Blair's Animation from cover to cover, and has probably owned multiple copies of the quintessential "how-to" guide. Old school animators have it on their bookshelves not far from Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas' The Illusion of Life, which is probably sharing shelf space with Richard Williams' The Animator's Survival Kit. Those are all indispensable reference books for the aspiring animator, and just about everything that a person could ever want to know about traditional 2D animation is covered by those three volumes. Accessible to novices but loaded with enough useful advice that even the most seasoned animator can turn to them time and time again, and will be able to for generations to come (Blair's book has been in print consistently for 60 years and is still part of every Animation 101 course reading list).

But what about the up-and-coming computer animators? Or the would-be stop-motion animators? Or, so help us, the wannabe sales and marketing execs? Although I can't say for sure that it will turn up on syllabi in 2068, Disney Editions' latest book, The Alchemy of Animation by Don Hahn, animators are already making space for it on their bookshelves, somewhere between Eric Goldberg's Character Animation Crash Course and their next replacement copy of Preston Blair's Animation.

Hahn is well known to modern animation fans as a producer for some of the most financially successful and popular Disney films of "The Second Golden Age of Animation," including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His animation career started more than 30 years ago when he worked as an assistant animator to Don Bluth on the Disney feature Pete's Dragon, and has witnessed radical changes in the animation industry throughout the past three decades, most notably and obviously with the rise and current dominance of computer animation.

Hahn opens the book with a succinct two-page history of animation, giving readers an understanding of just how the development of the zoetrope leads to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which leads to Tron, which leads to WALL·E. His unabashed enthusiasm for animation history is evident in the introduction, and throughout the book, as well. Hahn offers advice from such major figures as Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, John Lasseter and Glen Keane, providing readers a bit of a "greatest hits" package with his animation tutorial.

From that foundation, Hahn explores the process of feature animation in a three-act format: The Idea, The Creation and Finishing Touches and Post Production. Each section provides enough background that a crew could theoretically use this book as a step-by-step guide in the production of an animated feature film, but the book never gets so "inside baseball" that a general audience will have difficulty following the process (and a thorough glossary is provided in the back of the book, just in case).

Act One kicks off with an examination of the single-most important aspect of creating an animated feature, The Idea. Hahn breaks down several popular features to their core elements, and reveals that the greatest stories can often be expressed in just a few words. The plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Stop the spell. And 101 Dalmatians? Save the puppies. If you need a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation to explain the appeal of your story, you're probably over thinking things.

Once "The Idea" is in place, Hahn dives right into the nuts-and-bolts of professional feature animation, identifying the key members of each production, and clearly explaining just what each team member contributes to the film, and when. I've read any number of film theory books that presume that readers already know the exact division of labor between the director, producer, associate producer and production manager, and any number of animation books that presume that readers don't really care what the breakdown is, and I'm glad that I've got easy reference close at hand the next time I need to figure out just what contribution David O. Selznick made to The Third Man, or at what point in a Pixar production you need to get Randy Newman on the phone.

After the writers and artists have hammered out the story to everyone's satisfaction (or as close to satisfaction as the producers will allow), it's on to Act Two, The Creation. This is the most detail-centric portion of the book, breaking down the process step-by-step for 2D, 3D and stop-motion animation. There's much overlap between the three in the initial creative stages, but each form of animation has its own unique challenges -- set design for a stop-motion feature involves hand-crafting nearly ever individual element of scenery that needs to be durable enough to withstand several days or weeks of intense lighting and physical abuse, whereas 3D animation may involve spending weeks writing a computer program that controls one single aspect of one character's physical appearance.

Once the animation is (seemingly) complete, it's on to Act Three, Finishing Touches and Post Production, in which the editors and composers take control, wrapping things up and getting the film ready for theatrical release. Hahn leaves no stone unturned, wrapping this section with marketing, advertising and even some general advice on how to handle yourself when the media requests an interview.

In addition to its wealth of information, The Alchemy of Animation contains more than 400 illustrations and photographs, including rarely seen (and never seen) concept art and a detailed look at the entire animation process, from Pete Docter's simple "circle and a rectangle" original sketch of Mike and Sulley from Monsters, Inc. to final frames from The Nightmare Before Christmas, this book would be worth the purchase price alone for the sheer breadth of artwork from the past seven decades' worth of Disney and Pixar art reproduced in its pages. Whether you're a veteran story artist, or you're trying to land your first studio job as an in-betweener, or you're delivering coffee and donuts to the higher-ups or if you're just a fan of animation, you'll want to add this to your bookshelf.

The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age by Don Hahn. New York, NY: Disney Editions, 2008. 144 pages. ISBN-13: 978-142310476-6; ISBN-10: 1423104765 ($19.95).

Andrew Farago would like to thank Olusegun Mosuro for his research assistance and input on this review.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.