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Animation Art

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We’re in the midst of an animation onslaught of sorts, or so they tell us: the success of films like Shrek 2, Finding Nemo, and most recently The Incredibles has spawned a number of imitators in the suddenly white-hot arena of CGI animation. At the same time, these films also represent a sea change in the development of animated film, in that traditional hand-drawn or “cell” animation is largely giving way to CGI. Indeed, Disney’s last (and admittedly lame) cell effort, Home on the Range, was a disappointment at the box office and was the final nail in the coffin: Disney shuttered its “cell” animation group in order to focus its energy on CGI.

But animation is far more than “just” CGI, and it’s always been about more than Disney, even if it hasn’t seemed that way to the casual observer. Animation Art explores the rich history of animation around the world. As the book notes, many people assume that Walt Disney was the “father” of animation, but that simply isn’t the case. There were a number of animators working in film before Disney, and even at the same time as his early efforts many of his competitors were producing quality work. It was just that Disney scored with efforts – like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – when others thought that the public wouldn’t be interested in a full-length animated feature. And those successes translated into the resulting “Disney dominance” of recent years.

While the book provides a lot of detail on North American animation, it also features information on the animated history of a host of other countries, including Russia, Japan, and China. It has interesting insights into animation’s use as a propaganda tool in World War II (not merely by the U.S., but other nations as well). It tracks the development of animation through various periods of history, highlighting all the major players and demonstrating how and when they intersected. What is also fascinating is the level of criticism in play, as the authors don’t just document the history involved but also offer critical assessments of the works themselves.

In addition, although it packs a lot of information it doesn’t do so in a “dense” fashion: instead, it is jammed with sketches and images that provide concrete illustration for the associated discussions. Far too often film books seem to adopt the reverse of the old saying about how a picture is worth a thousand words, and opt instead for the thousand words. Fortunately, the editors of Animation Art recognized that it was the imagery that made animation so interesting, and so they don’t stint on the artwork. It covers the incredible diversity of animation techniques and takes the reader from the first stop-motion photography to the current success of CGI and the interesting “extensions” of film served up by animators (such as the Animatrix collection of shorts that offered additional insight into the world of The Matrix).

General editor Jerry Beck has an extensive background in the film industry, has written several books on animation, and has taught at UCLA. The depth of knowledge and insight reflected in Animation Art make it a rewarding and fun book for any fan of animation.

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About Bill Wallo