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Book Review: Expanding 'The Animator's Survival Kit'

Richard Williams has updated his legendary Survival Kit and Don Perro explores why it's more invaluable than ever.

The Expanded Edition revisits "flexibility, twinning, silhouettes, animal action and weight." All images courtesy of Faber & Faber and Imogen Sutton.

The Animator's Survival Kit (Faber & Faber) has been around for almost a decade and is one of the must-have animation books in any animator's collection. It is the result of numerous live Masterclasses that Richard Williams, a veteran animator and animation director (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), has been delivering since the early '90s. In 1995, Williams had recently lost control of his life's work, the animated feature, The Thief and the Cobbler. He had retreated to a small island off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Not wanting to go back into the industry, he decided to take his years of experience and lessons learned and develop a lecture, the first of which was held in Vancouver. Fortunately for me, I had just moved to Vancouver to develop a classical animation program at a local community college. At $850, the lecture wasn't cheap, but it was worth every penny. The energy that Williams gave to that first Masterclass was inspiring, not only for the amount of information it delivered but also how an instructor could energize a class. On stage, Williams was bursting with enthusiasm. He would sketch and pantomime his lessons, trying to provide us with as much knowledge as he could in the time he had. After each segment, he would turn to us, panting and dripping with sweat, asking, "So...did you get that?"

Although it's not possible for a technical book on animation theory to capture that raw energy of his first Masterclass, The Animator's Survival Kit packs in much more information than you can effectively deliver in a weekend workshop. The first edition of this book, published in 2001, has become an essential part of any character animator's library. From the age of 10, Williams was a student of animation, looking for the answers that would help him create believable and convincing movement of characters; characters that would live and breathe. He sought out the top animators of the day, asking questions, taking notes and absorbing information regarding the mechanics of animation. When he had his own animation studio in London, Williams brought several of these animation masters over to work for him and to serve as artists-in-residence for him and his staff.

There is no one better prepared than Williams to assemble a book like this. He is a living link between the pioneers of the art form and the international animation community of today. Much of the information in the book relates directly to the creation of character animation regardless of the media used to create it.

Walks are a great example "because they are basic, cyclical and work as a formula of keys that can be evenly divided for inbetweening."

Starting with the basics of frame-by-frame animation, spacing and timing, Williams explains the procedures and the use of key drawings to define animated action. He then jumps (pun intended) right into human movement, with more than a 100 pages of everything you ever needed to know about walks and runs. He examines all kinds of walks from various angles and analyzes how parts of the body move during a walk. Walks are a great example to show us because they are basic, cyclical and work as a formula of keys that can be evenly divided for inbetweening. When you understand walks, you understand keys and inbetweens. Williams starts with the formula and then adapts the keys and timing to create personality and feeling. His simple but clear, appealing sketches and his attention to detail show many of the ways you can create unique personality and mood for specific characters.

After covering everything possible on walks, Williams moves on to one of the most important aspects of character animation: Flexibility. For beginners, making characters look loose and flexible is the toughest thing to master. With a variety of examples that show the movement of joints and how to overlap actions, Williams makes it easy to understand.

The sections that follow show the reader how to animate weight, anticipate an action and the standard procedures for creating a "take" or reaction as well as how to use staggers and animate a wave. The next section explains how to animate to dialogue; however, unlike the walks, Williams skips the basics that are so clearly described in animator Preston Blair's earlier book, How to Draw Cartoon Animation.

"For beginners, making characters look loose and flexible is the toughest thing to master."

The original version of the book then finishes with three short sections on acting, animal walks (a variation of the biped walk formula) and directing. One of the best things about The Animator's Survival Kit is that although it is a technical "how-to" manual, it is also a very entertaining and enlightening memoir. The anecdotes, photographs and quotations of Williams' mentors, including Art Babbit, Grim Natwick, Emery Hawkins, Ken Harris and Milt Kahl, make this a fascinating read.

It is difficult or in this case, impossible to write for every kind of animator. You almost need to have separate sections for 3D animators, 2D animators and stop-motion animators. Things like exposure sheets and numbering pages, dialogue breakdown and peg bars are becoming unnecessary, even for classical animators and some readers may find that information confusing.

And now for the Expanded Edition: The term, Expanded Edition is an accurate description of the new (2009) book. It isn't a revised edition in that it is the same book with a few dozen more pages added to the back. Although this book is still essential for any character animator, a revised edition would have likely updated terms and procedures to make it more accessible to animators outside classical, 2D, hand drawn animation. The 37 pages re-visit flexibility, twinning, silhouettes, animal action and weight. The quadruped section analyzes flexibility of structure in animal runs, using live-action references and providing sequential examples of a horse walk, trot and gallop. There is also a page that shows the wing action of a bird in flight. More in-depth animal studies can be found in two of my favorite books: The Art of Animal Drawing: Construction, Action Analysis, Caricature by early Disney animator, Ken Hultgren, and How to Draw Animals by Jack Hamm.

"His simple but clear, appealing sketches and his attention to detail show many of the ways you can create unique personality and mood…"

There is also a hypothesis of why ultra-realistic CG characters can emanate an uneasy feeling in audiences as well as a final few pages advising quick, sequential gestures (rather than long poses) when drawing a model from life.

Attached to the inside cover is a DVD of just under 10 minutes, promoting The Animator's Survival Kit -- Animated, a box set that combines video from a Williams Masterclass lecture intercut with animated examples of animation theory.

So should you go out and buy the book? If you are a character animator or an animation student and you don't have the older version, yes, yes, yes! The Animator's Survival Kit is an excellent training manual and Williams is a passionate writer when it comes to animation. If you already have the book, you probably don't need the expanded edition. The extra pages are helpful but not groundbreaking and I assume the release of the new book was likely initiated as a promotion for the DVD collection.

And if there ever is a true revised edition of The Animator's Survival Kit, I would love to see an index. My students will then be able to go directly to the principle they're looking for and I can easily locate words of wisdom from one of the great animators, Richard Williams.

Don Perro has been the head of the Commercial Animation program at Capilano University (formerly Capilano College) for more than 15 years.