The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams

by D. R. Peak


The Animator's Holy Grail

When cartoonist Winsor McCay, famed creator of newspaper comic strip Little Nemo In Slumberland, first wowed audiences with moving pictures of a cute dinosaur named Gertie taking an apple out of his hand and eating it people marveled and cheered and wanted more. Gertie was instantly transformed from a simple series of drawings filmed in sequence and played back before an audience to a representation of a living, breathing creature. An “actor” if you will. This was the start of the Twentieth Century’s fascination with animated films.

The evolution of film animation has been long and interesting, going through many changes over its evolutionary journey. With The Animator’s Survival Kit Richard Williams, award winning animator who began working on his own animated films in the late fifties and was the Director of Animation for the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has written a fantastic book based on the series of Animation Masterclasses he taught both in America and abroad. Classes attended by traditional animators like those working for Disney and Warner Bros. as well as up-and-coming computer animators such as PIXAR and DreamWorks.

cover art

The Animator's Survival Kit

Richard Williams

(Faber and Faber)

And that’s what really great about this book. Presented as “A Manual of Methods, Principles, and Formulas for Classical, Computer, Games, Stop Motion and Internet Animators,” it’s not just an aid for aspiring animators used to working with the classic pencil on paper method, but its lessons and examples are finely suited for computer users and many others as well. For the basics of animation have always been the same: Use overlapping images to convey the illusion of movement, of life. And Williams writes about true animation, not the herky-jerky stop-and-start style you see in the Flintstones and so much of the cheaper anime out there right now, but the real work that causes one to wonder and marvel at the screen as the pictures unfold before you in a believable and frighteningly life-like manner. He has an honest passion about good animation: the classics such as Disney with its inventiveness and grace, Warner Bros. and Tex Avery and their inspired zaniness, while he also revels in the mind-blowing effects that can be achieved through the use of computers, eager to be witness to the next step in the evolution of animated films. For whether one is a classic pencil on paper animator or a computer guru utilizing “high-tech marionettes” isn’t as important to Williams as the end result. He stresses that the animator’s job isn’t just to move drawings around but to create believable actors with personality and weight, who move fluidly, with believable actions, conveying life.

Ultimately, what Williams hopes to accomplish with his book is to inspire others to also create great animation, to invent as well as be believable.

The book starts off with a brief illustrated history of animation before taking you through the all important basics quickly in a manner both straightforward and elegant. Loaded with drawings on nearly every page he coaches without ever becoming condescending. His instructions are economical and to the point; concise, with easy to understand instructions, and sublimely executed, colorful and always entertaining examples. Williams takes you through all the steps, breaking it down in simple, easy to understand terminology.

After he’s sure you’re catching on he steps it up a notch, showing you ways to create weight on your character (you’re not working with lines after all, but with shapes and mass), how to perform a believable walk or a lip-synch, how to time actions accurately, and even teaches important technical operations such as how to write out time sheets for camera operators. (But he just doesn’t show you the chart, he shows you how it came about over the years, the stages it went through to get to that point, thereby forcing it to make sense in a very clarified manner. “This is done this way because it makes sense, because it works,” he’s telling you. And you see the logic in it right away.)

Williams’ book is also sprinkled throughout with his many varied and often amusing anecdotes, full of great trivia and many stories about the animating greats that Williams was fortunate to have worked with in his more than forty years of being in the business. But even with this he never wastes time or precious book space with extraneous fluff; at nearly 350 pages it’s a fast, yet thorough read. (Many computer “How To” books could learn a lot from this approach.)

This book isn’t filled with the so-called “secrets” of animation, this book is the holy grail itself. As an instructional self-teaching guide this book is invaluable to anyone thinking about working in the field of animation. A virtual classroom in and of itself.

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