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Keeping Hope Alive: The Animation Book

book review by Tom Sito

The Animation BookTwenty years after Kit Laybourne's The Animation Book first appeared on bookshelves, he has created a new updated edition containing new information with an emphasis on digital technologies.

All Aspects of Animation
The book is a thorough overview of all the tricks and techniques one can use to become an independent filmmaker. In simple language and with copious illustrations, Mr. Laybourne takes the reader step by step through various types of animated filmmaking, like cutouts, claymation, pixilation and more, with exercises one can do at home. He even tackles thorny issues like budgeting, scheduling and distributing films (although you wouldn't catch me working for those pay rates!).

For me the most valuable parts of the book were where Mr. Laybourne explained principles of computer animation like someone who was not born with a mouse in their hands. This will be invaluable to those who up until now have been afraid of approaching the digital realm for fear they'll seem as ignorant as the Latin professor listening to two mechanics argue over his Pontiac's alternator. Because of the volatile pace of technological change, these chapters may date quickly but I applaud the attempt.

The great independent animator Norman McClaren said, "Animation is not Drawings that Move, it is Movement that is Drawn." Unfortunately, Mr. Laybourne's book only shows one all the different ways to move drawings. It's pretty left brain stuff. I wish there was more devoted to the performance of great personality animation, acting, timing -- what Bill Tytla described as, "It's about what happens in-between the drawings." You won't learn here how the skill of a master animator brought Ariel or Mulan to life and charmed millions around the world. Mr. Laybourne states: "The greatest single misconception about animation is that you need to be an artist to do it, that you need to know how to draw." I take issue with that statement. I think one should know how to draw, and all the software and motion capture in the world can't make someone into Glen Keane. But then I'm from a different school of animation.

A Tribute to Art Films
The weakness of this book is also its strength. This book is not about Bugs or Pinocchio. Despite mentioning mainstream studios like Klasky Csupo and a brief nod to Preston Blair, the emphasis here is on the independent art-film, particularly of the New York school, with its aesthetic ties to the National Film Board of Canada, UPA and the now defunct film boards of Communist Europe. George Griffin, Caroline Leaf, John Canemaker, Kathy Rose -- all the old gang is here like an animated version of Seinfeld. I wonder who the toon version of the Soup-Nazi is?

Beneath the 'how-to' stuff, the heart of the book is a manifesto of the New York independent film scene, a plea for its relevancy in the face of encroaching Hollywood incorporation. Now with giant Disney and Warner stores covering Gotham and many students tailoring their styles for MTV and Nickelodeon jobs, does anyone want to be Frank Mouris or Kaj Pindal anymore? Is it really important we know how to animate sand or scratch on emulsion? Or maybe the real question this book asks is why must the only important animation today be the Corporate Hollywood Mega-Product?

Churchill said, "Art without Tradition is like sheep without a shepherd, but Art without Innovation is a cold dead corpse." This book provides beginners with alternatives to mainstream cartoons and in so doing tries to keep alive that sense of innovation and experimentation critical to animation's growth as an art form.

The Animation Book, by Kit Laybourne. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999. 448 pages. ISBN: 0-517-88602-2 ($24.95)

Tom Sito is a 24-year animation veteran and teacher whose credits include The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt and Antz. He is president of the Hollywood animator's union and is currently developing a feature project for Warner Bros.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.