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The Essential Animation Reference Library

Animation historian Jerry Beck describes the ideal library of "essential" books on animation.

If watching cartoons is my first passion (and it is), then reading about animation holds a very close second place in my heart. I'm an information junkie and have been collecting books and data about cartoons for over 25 years (yikes!). I have also been lucky enough to contribute to the animation information collective with some books of my own.

So, which ones are the absolute best books through which to explore the world of animation?

That's a common question at AWN and this piece is an attempt at an answer. Of course, it all depends on what kind of information you are seeking. Animation Histories or Encyclopedias? Animator Biographies? How to Animate?

Here are my picks for each:

Leonard Maltin's Of Mice & Magic is one-stop shopping for American animation history.

Leonard Maltin's Of Mice & Magic is one-stop shopping for American animation history.

Animation History

Leonard Maltin's Of Mice & Magic (Plume) is one-stop shopping for American animation history. Twelve chapters covering each animation studio of Hollywood's golden age with complete filmographies will answer most of your basic questions of who did what and when in classic cartoons. To go a little further in depth on each studio, I highly recommend the following: Steve Schneider's That's All Folks! (Henry Holt) for a lavishly illustrated and closer look at Warner Bros. cartoons, Leslie Cabarga's The Fleischer Story (DaCapo) for the tale behind Betty Boop, Popeye, and Gulliver's Travels, and Maltin's own The Disney Films (Hyperion) and Kaufman & Merrit's Walt In Wonderland (John Hopkins University Press) for the complete story on the Disney studio.

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family is an excellent episode guide.

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family is an excellent episode guide.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Encyclopedias are collections of factual data, and no library of animation is complete without them. My own Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide To The Warner Bros. Cartoons (Henry Holt), written with Will Friedwald, lists everything the Warner studio made from 1930-1989; Television Cartoon Shows, 1949-1993 (McFarland) by Hal Erickson is a well-written overview of TV cartoon history. George Woolery fills in another gap with Animated TV Specials 1962-87 (Scarecrow), while Dennis Gifford provides us two excellent reference volumes, American Animated Films: The Silent Era 1897-1929 (McFarland) and British Animated Films 1895-1985 (McFarland). Another good print reference is The Whole Toon Catalog (Facets) which lists almost every animation video tape & disc currently available. New reference books appear each year, and the recent The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family (HarperPerennial), Disney A to Z (Hyperion) by Dave Smith and The Enchanted World Of Rankin/Bass (Tiger Mountain Press) by Rick Goldschmidt are excellent additions to any animation library.

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family is an excellent episode guide." We are at a point now where book-length surveys of cartoon stars are common place. Books devoted to the histories of Bugs Bunny, Tweety & Sylvester, The Flintstones, School House Rock, Tom & Jerry, Felix The Cat, Speed Racer and Donald Duck are some of the best of this genre.

Animator biographies and autobiographies are a great way to peek into the minds of the field's top talent. One of my favorites is Shamus Culhane's Talking Animals And Other People (St. Martin's Press, and current reprint by DaCapo Press). Culhane worked everywhere, Disney, Fleischer, Warner Bros., Lantz, etc., and doesn't mince words about his colleagues and employers. Walt Disney: An American Original (Simon & Schuster) by Bob Thomas is a great Disney bio that is well-written with lots of straight facts. Chuck Jones penned a pair of reminiscences, Chuck Amuck (Farar, Strauss & Giroux) and Chuck Reducks (Warner Books), which are loaded with anecdotes, stories and drawings from his remarkable career. I'd be remiss if I didn't also recommend John Canemaker's excellent Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (Abbeville Press). Other bios worthy of note include tomes on pioneers Emile Cohl (Princeton) by Don Crafton and Walter Lantz (Putnam) by Joe Adamson.

Chuck Jones' indispensable autobiography, Chuck Amuck

Chuck Jones' indispensable autobiography, Chuck Amuck

How To Animate

Books explaining the animation process are always in demand. The Animation Book (Crown) by Kit Laybourne is one of the best basic books on the subject, covering all the techniques and styles. Disney-MGM veteran Preston Blair has written the most essential guide to character animation with Cartoon Animation (Walter Foster), and it should be noted: this is the book with which every animator in Hollywood started. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion Of Life (Abbeville Press) is a must read, and also darn entertaining and lavishly illustrated.

Cartoon Animation: Introduction To A Career by Milton Gray (Lion's Den Publications) is a great book for anyone wanting to understand today's animation industry in general and Disney's Animation Magic (Hyperion) by Don Hahn gives one the step by step process in the making of Disney's recent feature films, in particular.

For me, the definition of an "essential" book, is a book I refer to often in my doings as a professional animation historian. If I only had the titles listed above, I'd be in great shape. However there are many other good books not listed above [for example, Experimental Animation (DaCapo) by Russett & Starr, The Anime Movie Guide (Titan Books) by Helen McCarthy and The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner) by yours truly] that you should not ignore. I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend anything written by John Canemaker, Leonard Maltin, Donald Crafton, and Joe Adamson and plug two great books due in 1999: Michael Barrier's long-awaited Hollywood Cartoon (from Oxford University Press) and Keith Scott's untitled Jay Ward history (from St. Martins Press). I've already made space on my bookshelf!

Jerry Beck is a cartoon historian, writer and animation studio executive. He was editor of The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner), recently co-wrote Warner Bros. Animation Art (Levin) and is currently a freelance writer and consultant through his own company, Cartoon Research Co.