“Times and technologies may change but the fundamentals remain the same”
In animation as in many other walks of life, certain basics are timeless and never go out of fashion. They are the foundation on which great art can be built, and every animator should aim to master them as much as possible.
Therefore I’ve decided to list my best animation books that I feel every artist should take a look at. Most of the books on the list are already decades old and, I believe, will remain the standard books for decades to come. So start building your library today!
1. Animator’s Survival Kit – Richard Williams
For anyone looking to learn how to animate this book is an absolute must, and should be gracing the shelves of any animator from beginner to experienced professional.
Richard Williams is simply a living legend in the animation world, best known for directing the animation on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and his artistic and innovative approach to animation which he developed in large part at London studio through the 70s and 80s, where he was able to assemble the greatest team of animators since the early days of Disney (in fact, he hired many of those old greats 🙂 )
His Animator’s Survival Kit provides a thorough grounding and explanation of all the fundamental principles and techniques of the animation craft, with tons of examples and drawings.
After nearly 15 years in this business I find myself coming back to this book again and again.
2. The Illusion of Life – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
The most beautiful of all the books on this list, The Illusion of Life is the ultimate animation book on the development and culmination of the Disney technique.
The Disney studio effectively invented animation as we know it (the “12 principles” are their invention), and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were two of the Nine Old Men at the heart of that development and the creation of all the Disney classics.
Therefore the wealth of knowledge and experience they bring to the book is unsurpassed and the drawings and art work pulled from the vast Disney library are simply stunning.
It’s not just pretty pictures though. All the principles of traditional drawn animation are laid out in full along with a history of the craft and its major exponents.
It really is one of those most rare of things – a beautiful book full of wisdom. Like a history, art, and how-to manual all rolled into one.
This should be on every shelf, even if you are not a fan of the Disney-style of animation. The quality of the draughtsmanship is worth the price alone.
3. Animation: From Script to Screen – Shamus Culhane
Shamus Culhane was a highly accomplished award-winning animator who worked at all the top studios from the 1930s until the 1980s, and brings a wealth of knowledge from the Golden Age of animation to his work.
This book is a real gem and I’m always surprised at how few people in animation have even heard of it let alone read it.
For me this book has a special place in my heart as it was the first serious book I read on animation as a student, and I still think it is the best one out there at describing the entire craft, production and business of animation.
Describing various techniques along with in-depth explanations of the whole production process and a few worthy anecdotes sprinkled throughout makes this book an absolute pleasure to read.
Although written before the digital age this book is still one of the best.
4. Cartoon Animation – Preston Blair
A former animator at Disney, MGM and Hanna Barbera, Preston Blair was one of the great Golden Age animators and draughtsmen, and one of the first to create a successful handbook on traditional animation techniques.
To some extent this book has been a little overshadowed by Williams’ Animator’s Survival Kit but it is still chock full of wonderful information on how to do traditional hand-drawn feature animation and cartoons.
Where it does beat Williams’ book is that it is purely devoted to the classic Disney / Tex Avery style, and is one of the best books available if you want to learn how to animate in this style.
Should definitely be on any animator’s shelf.
5. Character Animation Crash Course – Eric Goldberg
Anyone who saw Disney’s Aladdin will know what an animation “Genie-us” Eric Goldberg is (sorry for the lame pun but I couldn’t resist!), so it’s a real treat to have a how-to manual from the great man himself.
Goldberg brings the appeal of classic Disney and adds a dollop of Tex Avery to create an energetic and zany animation style. His energy and enthusiasm come through in the book along with some wonderful drawings and examples.
Definitely one for the collection.
6. Timing For Animation – Harold Whitaker and John Halas
This is a fantastic book particularly for beginners and introduces the concept of timing and how to do it properly in animation.
With plenty of drawn examples from weight lifters to bouncing balls and dancers, it is an excellent guide to animation timing and spacing.
Timing For Animation by Halas and Whitaker has been a classic since it was first published in 1981 and every animator should try and get themselves a copy.
7. How To Make Animated Films – Tony White
Tony White is an English animation veteran, having worked with Richard Williams and on various films, cartoons and commercials over a 30+ year career.
He’s also one of the most highly acknowledged teachers in the animation space and has tutored thousands of animators.
His book “How To Make Animated Films” is an in-depth guide to the whole animation process and has been updated to account for the latest digital techniques.
8. The Art of Animal Drawing – Ken Hultgren
Years ago, Ken Hultgren was hired by Walt Disney as one of the most gifted animal draughtsmen around, and was able to show his worth on classic films such as Bambi.
When looking at Ken’s drawings in his Art of Animal Drawing book, you can see why Walt hired him.
His draughtsmanship is superb and packed full of vitality and dynamism. He also breaks down a drawing and shows how to get the line of action right from the start and effectively “build” the structure of the animal.
This is simply the best book on dynamic animal drawing for artists and animators. I use this book constantly…even just for inspiration.
9. Humans and Animals in Motion – Eadweard Muybridge
No list of animation books would be complete without the Granddaddy of moving pictures himself, Eadweard Muybridge.
After all, Muybridge effectively invented the whole moving picture medium…without him we might not even have film at all.
His seminal work started out oddly, so the story goes, as a bet between friends on whether a horse has all four of his hooves off the ground at any one time while galloping. Up to this point, most artists had portrayed horses running with at least one leg on the ground.
Muybridge decided to set up an experiment to test this idea, whereby he had a series of cameras placed one next to the other with tripwires that would get hit as the horse passes, causing a photo to be taken on each one.
This then led him into meticulous motion studies of humans in various activities and a vast array of animal locomotion.
His books are still some of the best examples of reference for humans and animals in motion.
I particularly recommend getting the individual hardback volumes as there is some fantastic information and analysis on quadruped locomotion, such as the order of the placement of their feet during various gaits – very handy for animators.
10. Acting For Animators – Ed Hooks
The only book out there 100% dedicated to acting for animation, this is a must-read, and you will come away with a much better grasp of the acting craft as well as opening your eyes to other avenues for further study, such as Stanislavsky.
Having been on one of Ed’s workshops in the past I can tell you he brings as much energy to his book as he does to the live workshops, and it is filled with his personal insights and anecdotes spanning decades as an acting coach.
If you want to avoid the same old cliched acting that you see in many animations today, then I recommend you read this book.
(Bonus) 11. Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing From Concept to Screen – Steve Katz
Ok so I said there were 10 recommendations but I couldn’t leave this one off the list of the best animation books, as I personally think it is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about visual storytelling and how to compose, frame and direct shots for maximum effect.
Every animator should get to know the information in this book which, although primarily aimed at live action film directors is equally important for the animator and storyboard / previs artist.
This will help any animator to create interesting camera angles and creative composition in their work, instead of the, often seen, boring and static camera.