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Richard Williams - The Animator's Survival KitReview of
The Animator's Survival Kit
Review by Paul Naas

Book: The Animator's Survival Kit
Author: Richard Williams
Year: 2001
dFX Review Rating: 8.5 out of 10
More Info from

1. Drawing in Time
2. Time to Draw
3. It's all in the Timing and the Spacing
4. Lesson 1
5. Advancing Backwards to 1940
6. More on Spacing
7. Walks
8. Runs, Jumps, and Skips
9. Flexibility
10. Weight
11. Anticipation
12. Takes and Accents
13. Timing, Staggers, Wave and Whip
14. Dialogue
15. Acting
16. Animal Action
17. Directing
18. Review

For many years the most highly regarded "how to" books on animation have been The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and the many incarnations of Preston Blair's Animation. There have been several books published in recent years about the techniques and processes of animation, but none of them have achieved the "must have" status most animators bestow on the work of Thomas, Johnston, and Blair. That's all about to change, with the publication of The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams.

Some early reports from British animators who got an early look at The Animator's Survival Kit predicted that it could replace The Illusion of Life as the must-have book in every animator's library. After having a look at the book, it won't be replacing Thomas and Johnston's work, but it certainly is every bit as valuable and outstanding in its own right.

For those unfamiliar with his name, Richard Williams is the multiple Oscar-winning animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie widely credited with sparking the 80's animation resurgence. For the last few years, Williams has crisscrossed the globe teaching an animation masterclass to animators of every discipline and from nearly every major studio.The Animator's Survival Kit is a book version of the content of his class. Anyone who's taken the masterclass and reads the book will find that they compare favorably to each other (they will also find an inside joke at the bottom of page 278).

The format of the book is unique. It has very little typesetting - nearly all the text is hand-written by Williams, and text blocks are sprinkled throughout the staggering number of illustrations the book contains. While this all contributes to the book being a fast read, it's a volume that rewards detailed study. Its contents are an inspiration, and anyone who can read cover to cover without getting an overwhelming urge to try out some of these techniques is probably in the wrong business.

Listing the contents of the book comes close to doing it a disservice, because merely saying that it covers subjects such as walks, takes, working methods, and so on doesn't begin to describe the depths to which Williams goes in discussing these subjects. At times the book reads like a stream of consciousness, as though while describing a technique, a thought struck Williams on how to improve upon what he'd just shown. He then takes off and shows an example of the improvement, then another, and another.

While the content in The Animator's Survival Kit is presented using traditional drawn animation, it has much to offer animators working in other techniques. Topics like eases, soft and hard accents, and timing and spacing are universal, and are covered in detail in The Animator's Survival Kit. Examples showing the many ways to turn a head from a side view to a front view or to have a face transition from a smile to a frown are applicable regardless of the technique the animator is using. Other techniques he shares would seem to apply only to drawn animation, but work just as well in computer animation. For example, Williams advocates animating by using a combination of straight ahead (starting with the first pose in a scene and working in sequence until finished) and pose to pose (defining the key poses first and then filling in the gaps). He suggests creating the key poses first and then going back through the scene several times in "straight ahead runs", fleshing out the details and using the keys as guidelines, improvising along the way. This technique is very similar to how many computer animators approach their work - starting with strong key poses and then adding in the secondary actions and additional animation in subsequent passes.

Other techniques may not transfer as well to the computer realm, but are valuable nonetheless. For example, Williams describes how to do a stagger vibration, such as when a character nervously reaches for an object. This technique has stymied many an animator, but Williams provides the secret - draw the action straight ahead, then shoot the drawings slightly out of sequence, skipping back and forth (drawing 1, 3, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 6, etc).

The Animator's Survival Kit represents not only Williams' experience, but also the knowledge he gained from working with industry legends like Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, and Milt Kahl. For those who never had the opportunity to learn from these industry giants, having their combined skill and experience distilled through Williams makes the book even more valuable.

Williams doesn't limit himself to discussing the act of creating footage, but also delves into peripheral issues that can help an animator produce better work. For example, he strongly advocates "unplugging", or turning off music and other audio distractions while working. Based on Kahl's statement, "I'm not smart enough to do two things at once", Williams believes that music and such are distractions that detract from an animator's concentration and therefore the character's performance.

Williams uses the phrase "the possibilities are endless" several times in The Animator's Survival Kit, and perhaps that's this book's greatest contribution. Through the examples he gives and techniques he shares, Williams gives us a peek at the endless possibilities of animation while providing some very useful tools to help us explore those possibilities. Anyone who's serious about doing the best work possible should add this book to his or her library, read it thoroughly, and refer to it often. The techniques and tips in The Animator's Survival Kit will serve any animator well.

You can order The Animator's Survival Kit (Softcover Edition) by clicking here.
You can order The Animator's Survival Kit (Hardcover Edition) by clicking here.

Paul Naas is a veteran animator with experience in many different areas of the industry. He's worked in film, TV, video games, location-based entertainment, and interactive multimedia. When he's not pushing pencils or pixels, Paul can most often be found hanging out with his wife and son or perfecting the transition to a B9 chord on his guitar. He currently manages a multimedia group for a Fortune 500 technology company, where he uses the skills he developed teaching animation to sell wacky project ideas to corporate bigwigs.

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