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Book Review: 'Character Animation Crash Course!'

Janet Hetherington chats with producer Max Howard about Igor, the new animated feature whose protagonist is as independent as the company that made him.

In Character Animation Crash Course! veteran Eric Goldberg explains the genesis and function of his animation principles, and lists Golden Age sources where you can see terrific examples of the principles in action.

In Character Animation Crash Course! veteran Eric Goldberg explains the genesis and function of his animation principles, and lists Golden Age sources where you can see terrific examples of the principles in action.

I was fortunate to attend an interactive lecture by Eric Goldberg at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival just prior to penning this review of his new book, Character Animation Crash Course! I felt like a spy planted in the audience as the author presented slides and drew sketches demonstrating the principles of character animation displayed in his book. The lecture was titled "Finding the Character in Your Characters," and Goldberg explained how one could do so by conceiving a character from the inside out and show this in a character's visible attitude. Goldberg called up volunteers, whispered a word in their ears, and then asked them to draw a line of action (the imaginary line that runs through a character to give it thrust and purpose) to match the word. Once the line of action was drawn on the overhead projector, the audience called out the attitude, which might be "shy," "nervous," or "shocked." Such directed exercises are paramount in Character Animation Crash Course!

Anyone following animation of the last three decades should already be familiar with Eric Goldberg's career. He began as an assistant on Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann & Andy and followed it by working primarily in commercials in the 1980s. Goldberg landed at Disney post-Little Mermaid and began his run with the House of Mouse by serving as the supervising animator of Aladdin's wise-cracking Genie. Following this, he co-directed Pocahontas, animated Phil in Hercules, and capped it all off by writing, animating, and directing two killer sequences in Fantasia/2000: "Rhapsody in Blue," and "Carnival of the Animals." Most recently, Goldberg directed the animation in the feature Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

With so many great books already explaining the nuts-and-bolts of character animation, one might ask, "Why do I need this book?" The information presented in Character Animation Crash Course! is not new, nor is it the point of the author to convince you otherwise. Instead, Goldberg explains how he acquired each animation principle and how he uses it, and provides lists of Golden-Age-of-Animation sources where you can see terrific examples of the principle in action. There's also a DVD included, containing many of the book's exercises animated-to-life, ensuring that the book escapes its pages.

In Goldberg's introductory chapter, he tries to set his book apart from the others that have come before by asking, "Where is the book that tells you how to conceive your characters and their movements from the inside out?" If that is the book he set out to write, somewhere along the way he expanded his vision. For instance, why did Goldberg feel compelled to include information on water-, fire-, and smoke-effects animation as well as design, layout and staging? These topics deserve their own Crash Course! book. Yet, as included here, they don't contribute to the author's goal of teaching how to conceive a character and its movements from the inside out.

To home in on his goal, Goldberg might have explained how to animate a scene like the one in the live-action movie Unfaithful, where we see Diane Lane sitting on a train moments after her first illicit tryst and going through a range of emotions from joy to sorrow to fear to regret. Or the scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep drops her dragon queen façade and shows her inner vulnerability after learning that her husband has just filed for divorce. Animated character acting can be just as powerful in its own right. For instance, Bill Tytla's animation of Dumbo gets heartbreakingly inside its character. I was hoping Goldberg's book would get to the root of emotional moments and the sophisticated thought process of character acting.

Character Animation Crash Course! begins with a promising chapter on attitude poses, which advises the reader to get inside his or her characters, believe they exist, and know who they are. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates character animation principles with a bald human character named Norman and an Earless Dog. The two characters twist, turn, and thrust into one solidly constructed pose after another, and this device (along with the author's unbridled enthusiasm) helps give the book a consistency in communication that other books of this kind lack. However, the downside is that these two cartoony characters' poses and attitudes are downright extreme (even for cartoon characters!). Goldberg acknowledges this very problem early in his book by noting that "applying these ideas to more subtle, realistic animation can often be simply a matter of toning down the broadness, but utilizing the same principles…"

The problem with broad treatment (and full theatrical animation in general) is that it's very easy for it to go from "full animation" to "overstuffed animation." On one hand, broad examples ensure that no reader misses the author's points. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine reading a book teaching creative writing by only using exclamation points.

My favorite chapter, "Flexible Drawing for Graphic Characters," shows how a more balanced book from Goldberg might have looked. By utilizing a simple graphic dog whose design is clearly influenced by Gene Deitch's Mighty Manfred, the author effectively demonstrates how the principles of animation may be applied to a flatter drawing style. If 2D animation matures in the direction of last year's Persepolis (with its adult themes and streamlined animation), then this will only become more important as time goes on.

Whatever future direction animation takes, the book's chief asset is its author's obvious love of the medium in which he works and plays. Character Animation Crash Course! offers a good survey of the art and mechanics of character animation. While it may not be essential (especially if you already own books by Tony White, Richard Williams and Preston Blair), it aptly demonstrates how one of today's top animators approaches his craft.

Character Animation Crash Course! by Eric Goldberg. Foreword by Brad Bird. Sillman-James Press: Los Angeles. 218 pages, including a DVD. ISBN-13: 978-1879505971; ISBN-10: 1879505975 ($35.00)

David B. Levy is the author of the book,

Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, (Allworth Press, 2006), which was the first career guide for animation artists working in North America. Levy has been an animation director for six series to date, including Blue's Clues, Blue's Room, Pinky Dinky Doo, The Electric Company and Assy McGee. His latest short, Good Morning (2007), has been featured in over a dozen film festivals, including the Hiroshima International Animation Festival and The New York International Children's Film Festival.