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Christmas Presents For the Newbie Animator

Finding the perfect gift for the newbie animator.

Tony White's Animator's Notebook

Following on the series of articles that I’m writing on teaching oneself 2D animation, and the fact that animation reminds me that we live in a time-based world, here’s a list of time appropriate gifts for the would-be or newbie animator in your life.

First find out what gear your animator already has. A few subtle questions should clue you, and then you can pick something from the list below that fills a hole in their kit bag of tools. And the good news is, most can be bought online - no trying to find parking, and no tax!

Are they total newbies, starting with next to nothing but their dreams? Let’s start with them.

They’ll need some software. Basic lessons in animation can be found free on the web from all sorts of resources. But without any software, your newbie can’t do much in the way of practice.

So here we go... Animation software with recession pricing that won’t break the bank:

Pencil. (easy learning curve)

Pencil is free.

Yup... free. 

It’s a thoughtful gift. It’s small, it's fast, it's easy to learn, and it works on Mac, PC, and Unix. 

Download and put it on a little memory stick (about $14.00) which can be used for backing up your would-be animators productions, add a nice card, and place under the tree.

Digicel FlipBook (easy learning curve once you get the interface)

Digicel’s FlipBook Lite is regularly priced at $78.00 and there's a Christmas special on now (see below.)

If you can afford a few bucks more than what Pencil costs, this is the tool the pros use. (Well, they use the Pro version but it’s pretty much the same thing just with more layers which your newbie won’t need yet anyway - and you can always upgrade for a birthday present.)

It was designed for the majors and continues to be developed according to their requests. In fact Digicel posts a page with a list of the pros who use this software and it's a stellar bunch. (The Simpsons, for example, is animated in FlipBook.)

With a stripped down interface that lets you work fast and furious, this software is like a great sports car - low to ground, no frills, just all engine. The pros put it to all kinds of service in production. For sketching in line directly on a Wacom tablet, scanning in drawings, timing out a scene, checking registration... there’s nothing at that price that beats it. 

There’s a fall special on now through Christmas offering a 50% discount. Enter “Save50%” (without the quotes) as the coupon code. (Students and teachers qualify for the 50% discount all year round.)

Run, don’t walk, this is a great deal.

Toon Boom (moderate learning curve)

Does your newbie love to draw in ink? Toon Boom Studio is a 2D vector animation software that's great for the paint and ink stage of a production. It supports soundtracks, the scanning of drawings, stop-motion animation, and more. Throw in the included bone animation and lip sync functions and you've a package that'll keep your newbie completely absorbed right through the holidays. On sale now for about $249.00 from Toon Boom Animation direct, it's not cheap but look at it as an investment. Not only will your newbie use it for years but when they do go pro, they’ll likely be using the high end professional tools from the same company (shortens the learning curve.)

Corel Painter (easy learning curve once you get the interface)

Does your newbie love to paint? Corel Painter 12 is a terrific painting software which mimics all the paintbrushes and drawing materials you can imagine. (Note, though, that it has only a limited animation module.) 

Animation studios need all kinds of artists and Corel Painter will allow your newbie to discover if their talent lies in painting the richly textured backgrounds for the scenes. On sale now at Corel online for about $349.00. But if your newbie is a student, get it at a fraction the cost from an academic reseller (google academic software or check out your local school bookstore). And think of all the paint you won’t have to scrape off the furniture.

For the difference between vector and bitmap programs see my post on teaching yourself animation. If you can’t be bothered, think about your newbie’s personality - if they’re highly organized and have a clean room, they’ll likely prefer vector based programs (like Toon Boom). If they’re the paint up to the elbows messy room type, they’ll likely prefer bitmap (Corel Painter). And in case you were about to ask, no, I don’t have a degree in psychoanalysis, I just know a lot of animators.

Note: there is a learning curve with all these softwares, so take full advantage of the Help files and associated tutorials.

Drawing tablets

Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to animate on a computer without a drawing tablet. I own the large, medium, and small Intuos Wacom tablets and they all have their place in a serious studio. The best size for general purpose animation is the medium tablet at 8.8 X 5.5 inches. But it's pricey (about $350.00). The small tablet is also useful and a lot can be achieved with it. It has the same sensitivity as the medium sized tablet (2048 levels of pen pressure recognized) but in a much smaller package, and it comes with the same terrific pen. At 6.2 x 3.9 inches, it tucks in nicely next to a laptop. (I use mine when I’m traveling.) With a price tag of over $200.00 it’s a generous gift that will be much appreciated, but may not be the right choice for the budget minded buyer.

Still pricey but aimed at home users, Wacom also produces the Bamboo series of tablets. The Bamboo Create at about $200.00 measures 8.5 x 5.4 inches, about the same size at the medium Intuos. Designed to recognize 1024 levels of sensitivity (half that of the Intuos) this might be a good choice for your serious newbie. My first Intuos tablet only supplied 1024 levels but it had a terrific pen and it’s the pen that makes all the difference. I own a small Bamboo tablet and my experience has been that the pen is not accurate or sensitive enough for serious work. 

If you buy any of these tablets, keep your bill and make sure your animator tries them before the return period runs out.


I’m a big fan of books. They’re a fabulous resource for learning, and every animator has a least a few manuals they won’t be parted from.

A terrific book on animating story based films is Ellen Besen’s Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know. Also available as an eBook, the contents cover a broad range of topics from animation film structure through timing, character performance, and special effects. The strength of the book is its unique approach to story-telling and narrative development. For those who love to draw but struggle with formulating a story, this might be just the ticket to getting a film underway.

The Animator's Workbook: Step-By-Step Techniques of Drawn Animation by Tony White is a well worn title in my library and deservedly so. I learned the basics from this book and in spite of the dozens of new titles around, I often still recommend it. Tony White’s newer books: Animation from Pencils to Pixels: Classical Techniques for the Digital Animator, (paperback and e-book) and How to Make Animated Films: Tony White's Complete Masterclass on the Traditional Principals of Animation (paperback and e-book) are just as excellent. The Complete Masterclass title contains much of what is in The Animator’s Workbook along with much more. Animation from Pencils to Pixels is a much broader book. It covers project financing, animation pre and post-production, basic filmmaking principles, soundtrack recording, etc. while also including the principles of animation production itself.

Tony White's Animator's Notebook: Personal Observations on the Principles of Movement (paperback and e-book) is a real treat if your newbie is fascinated with creating characters that really move around. The book focuses exclusively on the details of animating various kinds of movement and comes with an associated website (password requires having access to a hard paperback of Tony White's Animator's Notebook). This text and website combo provides the explanations plus animated examples of all the principles outlined in the book, as well as demonstrations of core principles found in all of his books. This is quite neat because you get to see White’s animations in motion and you can compare his results to your own. Bonus treat on the website is one of Tony White’s own animated productions on the Japanese artist Hokusai - a lovely film.

So depending on the skill level of your newbie, I’d go with The Complete Masterclass for those who have few or no skills and just want to get animating, Animation from Pencils to Pixels for someone who is already animating and wants to learn more about breaking into the indie market, and Tony White's Animator's Notebook for those with moderate skill levels wanting to investigate animated movement in more depth. 

If your newbie can’t take his or her hands off the pencil, The Animator's Survival Kit, Expanded Edition: A Manual of Methods, Principles and Formulas for Classical, Computer, Games, Stop Motion and Internet Animators by Richard Williams will be a much appreciated gift. An in-depth manual covering pretty much everything about drawing animated characters, it’s a book that will be valued for years.

And last but by no means least is the classic The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. A masterful book for anyone interested in animation at any level, it’s rich with history, anecdotes, and practical advice from two of Disney’s best known animators. I’ve owned this large hardcover book for years and return to it often for both pleasure (the drawings are gorgeous and the stories absorbing) and learning (there are clear explanations on how to create the highly realistic Disney style.)

Movies and DVDs

$10 will buy you 3 HD, or 5 SD downloads from the National Film Board of Canada’s animation collection. Choose the films, pay by credit card, download, and put them on a memory stick. Add a card. Place under the tree. They’ll be treasured and unlike cassette tapes won’t wear out over time. If you're in a really generous mood, check out the vast number of animation DVDs at the NFB's online store. May I recommend The Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker, The Big Snit by Richard Condie, and Black Fly by Christopher Hinton. Reasonably priced compilation DVDs Animation Greats (eight Oscar nominees and winners) and Animation Greats Collection (double DVD with 18 of the NFB’s best known shorts) are sure bets.

Want to spoil them rotten? Check out the Filmporium, the online store of Acme Filmworks - producers of tv ads, music videos, short films, tv programs, and features many of which you know and love. They sell the award winning Animation Show of Shows DVD seriess. This is a collection of Oscar nominees and winners in the category of Animation Short Film. You can create your own selection based on technique, etc. or get the entire six box set for $175.00. You’ll need lots of popcorn!

Hope this helps make your gift shopping a little easier. Wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday!