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Christmas Presents for Your Animator

Finding the perfect gift for the animator in your life.

Directing the Story by Francis Glebas, published by Focal Press.

Following on last year’s list of presents for the newbie animator, here’s the 2012 list of time appropriate gifts for the 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. And the good news is, most can be bought online - fast, easy, and small carbon footprint!

Is your animator a total newbie, starting out with nothing but dreams? Is he or she an intermediate who would love a challenging little upgrade? Or a fast, low-profile tool for rough sketching ideas?

Newbies will need some basic software. On-line animation lessons can be found free on the web from all sorts of resources. But without software your newbie can’t do much in the way of practicing.

Intermediate animators looking for a sturdy frame-by-frame module with stripped down interface will also appreciate these quick, RAM skinny tools.

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

Pencil. (easy learning curve)

Pencil is still 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 Pencil and put it on a little memory stick (about $14.00) which can be used for backing up your newbie animator’s productions, add a nice card, and place under the tree.

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

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

Regularly priced at $78.00, there's a Christmas special on now (see the home page) that knocks 50% off the price. 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 sweet deal.

Toon Boom Studio (moderate learning curve) 

Does your animator 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 cartoon 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 cartoon-loving 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.) 

While some are expensive, check out the numerous on-line tutorials available from Toon Boom.

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

Does your animator love to paint? Corel Painter 12 is a terrific painting software which mimics all the paintbrushes and drawing materials you can imagine.  

Note that this software, while great for painting backgrounds, has only a very limited animation module.

I include it because animation studios need all kinds of artists and Corel Painter is great for painting the richly textured backgrounds for the scenes. On sale now at Corel online for about $199.00. 

If your animator is a student, he or she can get it at a fraction the cost from an academic reseller (google academic software or check out your local school bookstore). That’s a lot of paint you won’t have to scrape off the furniture.

For the difference between vector and bitmap programs see my posts on teaching yourself animation (below). If you don't have time, think about your animator’s personality - if they love cartoons, they’ll likely prefer vector based programs (like Toon Boom). If they’re the messy paint up to the elbows type, they’ll likely prefer bitmap (Corel Painter).

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

Drawing tablets and the Contour Shuttle

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.

Contour Shuttle

This is a great little gizmo for one-button access to keystrokes and macros. Your animator’s shoulder muscles will thank you. It’s fully programmable and comes with a ton of presets for all your animator’s favourite softwares including the Adobe family, Final Cut Pro, etc. The Shuttle Pro is the same as the basic version but with more buttons.


I’m a big fan of books. They’re a fabulous resource for learning, and every animator has a least a few manuals they would want on a desert island.

One of the best introductions to 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.

All of Tony White’s book are terrific. I learned the basics from his first book The Animator's Workbook: Step-By-Step Techniques of Drawn Animation and in spite of the dozens of new titles around, I still recommend it. How to Make Animated Films: Tony White's Complete Masterclass on the Traditional Principals of Animation contains much of what is in The Animator’s Workbook along with a lot more. 

White’s newer books: Animation from Pencils to Pixels: Classical Techniques for the Digital Animator, and How to Make Animated Films: Tony White's Complete Masterclass on the Traditional Principals of Animation are also excellent. 

If your animator 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 a animator will tackle trying to draw animated characters, it’s a book that will be valued for years.

Likely your animator will want to think about adding sound to their production. Designing Sound for Animation by Robin Beauchamp is a great little introduction to getting good sound onto your movie.

And if your animator is feeling a little overwhelmed by the idea of starting on a film of their own, here’s a book that will help get all the ducks in line: Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas. This is a great book, with terrific illustrations and clearly written text, for introductory and intermediate level animators tackling the essentials of pre-production.

Movies and DVDs

$10 will buy you 3 HD, or 5 SD downloads from the National Film Board of Canada’s animation collection. These are films made not by big name studios but by independent animators who started out just like your animator.

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. 

The NFB's online store has a vast number of superb films. May I recommend Oscar winners and nominees:

Ryan by Chris Landreth
The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg by Paul Driessen
Bob’s Birthday by David Fine and Alison Snowden
Madame tutli-Putli by Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski
The Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker
Blackfly by Christopher Hinton
Log Driver’s Waltz by John Weldon
The Big Snit by Richard Condie
The Street by Caroline Leaf
When the Day Breaks by Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby

and the classic The Sweater by Sheldon Cohen.

And if your looking for compilations of greats on DVD look no further than Leonard Maltin's Animation Favorites. Other reasonably priced compilations include Animation Greats (eight Oscar nominees and winners) and Animation Greats Collection (double DVD with 18 of the NFB’s best known shorts), Animation Express and Animation Express 2.

And put in lots of popcorn!

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

If you’re looking for more in-depth information on these products and other animation related softwares, check out my related posts:

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 3

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 2

Teach Yourself Animation - 2D Tools Part 1