'Get a life' is first rule of animation

The Animator's Survival Kit

January 11, 2002

This book is billed as "the definitive book on animation", and it is certainly an extensive guide to the craft of character animation. It is written by Richard Williams, the triple Oscar-winning, triple British Academy award-winning virtuoso animator who is best known for his animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the creation of the title animation for The Pink Panther .

Williams started out as an ambitious youngster who pestered the great animators from the golden age of Disney until they imparted their wisdom. He does not allow the reader to forget this as he name-drops continually. So just visualise yourself at the feet of a Zen master and try to ignore the slightly patronising tone, for this book has a lot to offer.

Based on masterclasses that Williams has given throughout the world, The Animator's Survival Kit is aimed at classical, computer, games, stop-motion and internet animators. It is not, however, a guide to everything there is to know about animation, but a focused and specific study of the methods and principles needed to represent the movements and speech patterns of characters.

Since the revolution in desktop computing, everyone wants to be an animator, and the production of animation has become much more accessible to a wider range of people. However, simply learning a software application does not bring with it a knowledge of the craft skills developed and passed on by character animators for a century now.

3D computer animators in particular, on a quest to reproduce reality, fixate on learning the technical aspects of a computer program and the embellishments of special effects - hair, fur, radiosity of lighting, blades of grass. Yet their creations, like those of Dr Frankenstein, can seem stilted. This is because they have neglected to study the fundamentals of movement and performance. Instead of allowing the computer to produce rational, predictable movements, it is necessary to add imperfections: the randomness of real life that makes us human. Consequently, it is common practice to use actors as a basis for the movements of computer-generated characters through the process of motion capture. The actors used need to be skilled physical performers because unless there is exaggeration in their movements, the result can look unconvincing. About a third of the book covers this issue with a detailed study of walk cycles. If some of the individual frames Williams suggests were frozen in time, the positions would actually look physically impossible: feet backward, limbs broken and an exaggeration of perspective and foreshortening. However, when shown in motion these walks have personality - the characters do not just move, they perform.

At this juncture, it is interesting to note the parallel between schools of acting and schools of character animation. For animation is more than drawing in time. It is performance. Characters need to act. Both in theatre and in animation, there are theories of performance based on the simulation of reality versus the stylisation of movement. In animation this can be seen in the different styles of performance depicted in contemporary 3D naturalism as opposed to the squashy, stretchy screwball character movements of the 1940s.

For the production of engaging character animation, an animator needs to start with the observation of nature: life drawing; the study of how bodies move; the study of performance - how different movement suggest different personalities. As Williams says: "In order to depart from reality, our work has to be based on reality." This may not be an attitude that is in vogue in educational circles, but it is vital in this area.

The book drifts slightly from subject to subject, and it is irritating that it has no index. It is, however, accessible to the dedicated beginner, extensively illustrated and contains a wealth of practical information. The section on Dope sheets, the traditional method of planning classical animation, may not seem applicable to computer animators, but it is a useful process to consider in an overall project management strategy.

The insights that Williams has to offer to classical and computer animators are valuable. It is a shame, though, that he displays little knowledge of the different types of computer animation as his biggest readership probably lies in this area. Furthermore, the book deals only with character animation and dismisses the many other types of frame-by-frame manipulations that are considered to be animation too.

Birgitta Hosea teaches animation at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design.

The Animator's Survival Kit

Author - Richard Williams
ISBN - 0 571 21268 9 and 20228 4
Publisher - Faber
Price - £30.00 and £20.00
Pages - 342

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