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2009 Brew Holiday Gift Guide #1: Richard Wiliams Masterclass

This review is long overdue – by a year in fact – and I hope Richard Williams and Mo Sutton can forgive me for the delay. They sent me a review copy of Wiliams’ Animation Masterclass DVD, The Animator’s Survival Kit and I have watched it in fits and starts over the past year with animation director Yvette Kaplan. As a non-animator, I was highly entertained by Williams lectures, drawing and demonstrations, but I realized that Yvette was a better judge of the information, knowledge and principals being discussed. Therefore, I’ve asked her to write this review for readers of this blog:

Richard Williams’s 16-DVD box set is an impressive and impressively packaged expansion of his best-selling book of the same name. Based on the now legendary Masterclass he taught at Blue Sky Studios in New York, actual footage of the class itself has been combined here along with over 400 specially animated examples of the principles he covers. Between the classic and in-depth nature of these lessons and William’s touching sincerity, generosity of spirit and profound love of the art form, if he had titled the set “Animation’s Survival Guide”, he would not have been wrong.

And Dick Williams does indeed dig deep in this extensive tome. More than thorough, it sometimes borders on the obsessive; but what is an animator if not obsessed? Dick Williams is obsessed with the beauty of movement, and he has structured his lessons very specifically, with the basics, and even before. In DVD #1, accurately titled, “Starting Right”, he describes how he himself learned the art of animation through dedication, hard work, struggle and persistence spread over the course of many years. Of course he stresses the importance of life drawing and keeping sketchbooks, but it’s when he gets personal that the real magic starts. He has no end of praise and credit for the impact of his mentors, most notably master animator Milt Kahl, of whom he speaks with obvious affection and even awe. According to Williams, it was Kahl who opened his eyes when he was just starting out, who got him seeing and thinking in a special way, and pushed him to strive for excellence and beauty.

Next, he moves on to the tools of animation. Disc 2 is titled “Timing and Spacing” and it is actually an entire DVD dedicated to the beginner’s animation class stand-by, the bouncing ball. But this is a lot more than your standard bounce or ball: Williams breaks down the laws of physics and weight in such detail only a mathematician could compete. He treats even this seemingly mundane animation exercise like a work of art in progress. He shows us examples of every possible variation and how the spacing (between the drawings) determines everything. There are so many possibilities and choices it made my mind reel. Yet challenging as the concepts are, Williams happily manages to make them ultra clear by using a Penny moving across a variety of spacing charts, an example I thought brilliant in its simplicity and clarity.

He then moves onto even MORE Timing and Spacing, since after all, “It’s all in the timing and spacing.” On this DVD he breaks down the concepts of exposure sheets and the numbering system, whether to use one’s or two’s, and how to decide where in-betweens should fall. He proves his points with clear and sometimes amusing examples of how variations in spacing charts, or the skill level of the in-betweener, can make or break the movement and sometimes surprise us, in both good ways and bad.

The level of detail and sense of endless possibility that Williams applies to everything is nowhere more evident than when he talks about the animated walk. He devotes four whole discs to this one topic, acting out nearly endless variations with his own amazingly rubbery cartoon body. He dissects the low, the pass, the high and the contact drawings, the flexibility of joints, and then moves on to variations on the themes like sneaks and runs and of course animal walks, using stunning animated examples. He impressed me completely by breaking down a horse gallop , (something I always found daunting) in such a way as to make it clear to me for the very first time. He even breaks down an 8-legged walk with patience and clarity, and I’m positive that if there were such a thing as a 12, or even 200-legged creature, we’d have seen that too!

Appropriately, Williams ups the ante once basic skills are internalized. Getting deeper into the difference between merely making something move and making it live and breathe, he becomes his most inspiring with Disc 9, which is devoted to Overlapping Action and Weight, and Disc 12, on Anticipation and Accents. He also loosens up a little with a couple of discs devoted to fun principals like “Takes” (what animator could resist that one?) and a disc titled “Vibrates”. That one is a particular favorite of mine as I love to use the technique in my own limited way to add little nervous trembles and tics when appropriate to liven up an otherwise talking head on a TV series.

It’s only during the last few discs, that Williams finally puts the icing on this well made cake and gets down to focusing on creating animated performance. There are two discs devoted to Dialogue animation, yet surprisingly only a single disc for Directing and Performance. Two discs on Timing and Spacing, four discs on walks and only ONE on how to make a character ACT? Isn’t that the heart and soul of animation and what we all want to achieve? How can that be?

My guess is the answer lies in Disc #16: “Putting It All Together.”
By the time the conscientious and dedicated viewer has made it to this point, he or she has delved deeper into the techniques of animation than most students ever get the chance to. Yes, it was a long journey, but now, armed with the proper tools, and a master’s mind set, the Animator’s Survival Kit graduate can start his or her work in earnest: making characters live and breathe and think and act. Not like carbon copies of someone else’s work, but in their own unique voice.

And it all becomes clear; by consolidating the fruits of his many years of love and labor into a finely crafted and curated tour of a Master Animator’s mind, William’s has given us the same gift his mentors gave to him. This time, packaged for a new generation, inside a single, albeit BIG, box on 16 DVDs.

Sounds like a pretty great gift to me. You can watch excerpts from the Masterclass or order the set directly from Williams on his website.

  • Michael

    $1,032 for the set? I guess I’ll stick with the book :\

  • greg m.

    Dear Santa…

  • At that price sadly I don’t think this is going to be on many people’s xmas shopping list. Where’s my review copy? :P

  • amid

    Michael and Gagaman: For those who understand what they’re getting, this is a very reasonably priced course. A 10-week continuing ed class at a major university will set you back $600-800 and the quality of instruction won’t come close to this. CalArts will set you back $150k. A thousand smackers for this set is a decent investment for anyone who is interested in becoming a great animator.

  • Yeah, it’s understandable as a course, but not merely as a Christmas gift, not the kind of thing you’d buy someone else like say, a box set of old animation on DVD or something. I guess I’m just reading int too much of the title of the article, as it’s more a review of the product in general.

  • I briefly taught at a not-too-great film school a few years ago – and left for that same reason. Afterwards I realized that if the students spent a fraction of their tuition on a good camcorder and editing software, then dedicated themselves to a year of solid filmmaking, they’d be miles ahead.

    I was fortunate to attend one of Richard Williams lectures in Toronto a few years ago. Without having seen the DVDs – but having seen a live lecture, I think that the Richard Williams DVD set would be the animation students’ equivalent of a camcorder.

  • great review Yvette!

  • This set is clearly not designed for those with a light interest in animation.

    A ten week course at any university will get students neither the caliber of instruction nor the caliber of instructor this set offers.

    And, unlike the instructors you will get at university, this instructor will be with you for life.

    There was a young man who came to my shows years ago in 1980.

    He showed me the super 8mm films he had made at home.

    They were excellent.

    He was one of the very few who had the gift to be a real artist not just a screwdriver in someone’s toolbox.

    He went to Sheridan, graduated, animated on major films like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and, in the eyes of many (including his parents, God bless them) was a success.

    But to me he has always been a failure because to achieve the success he achieved he had to murder his own gift.

    Richard Williams has never had the success he richly deserves.

    He is too much his own person for that.

    Everything Richard Williams has done, however, has been absolutely first rate.

    A thousand dollar investment in this set of dvds will not only give you a resource that you will be able to “draw on” (pun intended) all of your life it will also allow you to bypass entirely animation school and that is a good thing for anyone out there who has the gift that kid had.

    The web opened up a door that allows independent artists the chance to share their work with the world.

    Invest in Richard Williams’ course, make your personal films and get them out where people can see them.

    In 1981 another young artist began frequenting my programs. He drew comics. He got pink slips from everyone he sent his work to. Finally he began to publish his own comics as street books for 25 cents each (two 8 1/2 X 11″ pages folded in half made an 8 page book). Photocopying allowed him to do cheaply what artists before him could do only at great expense.

    I have only one rule for artists: OWN YOUR WORK. Do not sell it. Lease it.

    He was one of the few who listened.

    A publisher came along and offered to publish his books. He insisted on owning all the rights.

    The book was called “YUMMY FUR.” The artist was Chester Brown.

    It went out, was a huge underground hit, won several Harvey awards and revolutionized comics.

    Artists at DC and MARVEL said to Chester, “We wish we could do what you are doing.”

    Well, they could have but they sold their birthright for a bowl of soup.

    Again, there is only one Richard Williams.

    There is only one Chester Brown.

    For those out there with unique gifts this box set is the perfect gift to give your self.

    Draw on it.

    And when interest in your works sparks the interest of the people whose only gift is money remember to insist on retaining all of your rights to your ideas.

    “Boy, am I glad I listened to you,” a fellow told me recently.

    “What did I tell you?” I asked him.

    “You said never sign a contract.”

    “That is right. What happened?”

    “My band got offered a contract. Everyone signed it but me. I took it to my father’s lawyer. He read it. he said, ‘They built the mortgage on the studio they shot silent films with RIN TIN TIN in into this thing. If you sign it you will not make a dime.'”

    There is another lesson Richard Williams gives that is not in this book but which comes from his life and his work.

    It is the lesson of what happens when a genuinely creative talent gets caught in the machine.

    He suffers.

    His work suffers (look at THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER).

    Frankly, for every independent artist out there this set is the perfect Christmas gift.




  • While the DVD’s are definitely pricey, they sure have been a great help to us animation students here at SVA. The school owns 3 copies (2 are for faculty/in-class use & one is available for students to take out) & we regularly play them in the studios during class time. We’ve learned a great deal from Dick’s DVD’s.

    Speaking of which, the other day we watched the first disc focusing on walks, & we really got a kick out of Dick demonstrating different walks & runs for 40 minutes. He must’ve burned off a hell of a lot of calories, he was panting & catching his breath half the time. & all in the name of education.

  • Brian

    I’ve had this book since I was about ten years old, and it’s still one of my prized possessions.

  • I concur with everything Yvette says. As a long time Dick Williams fan, I wasn’t surprised by how much detail he goes into, but I impressed with how much he throws himself into every lecture, And I was also impressed with how well organized the material is. I was also impressed with how useful the simple demo animations were, this is so much clearer than seeing it in the book. Again I agree with Yvette about the scarcity of material on acting, but I wasn’t surprised; as an avid reader of his book and Frank and Ollie’s Illusion of Life, I always felt the Disney animators’ book dug deeper into the emotions of their characters. But that does not diminish the value of this set. I feel most good acting comes from within, so the more you feel it and the less you learn it the better. If you can master the mechanics of animation as Williams lays it out, the acting should come naturally. If you are a working animator you the price is reasonable. If you are a student, get your school to get it for their library.

  • Yes it is expensive.
    But this is the JUICE, super concentrated dammit.

    When I started out there was the series of Preston Blair books and The Illusion Of Life, both out of print at the time. I could only leaf through those when visiting Borge Ring. Then came Shamus Culhane’s “From Script To Screen”.
    Though all of these books are still very valid and wonderful in many ways(and back in print thank Zeus), Williams’ book and DVDs piss all over them in terms of the sheer volume and conciseness of HOW TO info. He gets to the essence of how we do things from the start, and stays there until you are as knowledgeable on the subject as you can be. The rest is up to your talent and tastes.
    And those of your director.
    And the producers.
    And the budget.
    And the time you have.

  • I thought this was around 1600 bucks last time I checked, it’s starting to sound like a better deal. I agree with Amid, thinking of this as a class-alternative. Also, it would be a good theme for a sixteen-hour DVD party. BYOB.

  • Scott

    This is a good course for learning the MECHANICS of animation—but not for learning about ACTING or CHARACTER. Williams has never been known as a “character animator” beyond moving characters around (which is not the definition of “character animation.”)–as all of his characters move pretty much the same. His arguments that “ones are always better” is, as any good animator knows, complete b.s.–bourne out by many of his characters’ lack of weight and sometimes basic physics.

    It’s a terrific set for the mechanics, though. And so passionate. I just wish he were as passionate about acting and character.

  • cmd+v

    Most animators don’t make $1000 in one paycheck. The book will have to do

  • Spike

    I understand the value of the teaching in comparison to going to CalArts, but what about in comparison to the book?
    Beyond some animated demonstrations, the videos on the website don’t seem to offer anything that wasn’t in the book.

  • Ben

    Time for another Cartoon Brew contest? :)

    Oh well, this will probably make a good graduation gift. The irony…

  • squirrel


    Must get

  • guest

    a sound investment in your career. sadly, the dvd format is, simply put, dead. a blu-ray set would be much better-> less disks; a format that will be supported for the next 8 years.
    would you pay that kind of money to get the lectures on laserdisk?

  • John Hoare

    I think you’ll find the DVD format will be supported for the next 8 years – and for at least as long as Blu-Ray…

  • Donald C

    If I wasn’t on a tight budget, this would be what I wanted for Christmas.
    Richard Wiliams is an idol of mine.

    Perhaps next year.

  • Hmmm … would I pay this kind of money to get the lecture on laserdisk? Think for a minute … YES! I’d go out and search for a laserdisk player to play this on and marvel at it until the player died. Then I’d go to the Smithsonian to borrow their laserdisk player – if this were the only format available. C’mon, this material is offered up at this price and ‘guest’ is complaining over the format? If I were an animator, and I ain’t I would give my type A blood for this set of lectures.

    (and as I understand it, won’t bluray players still play standard dvd’s?)

  • Jeffrey McAndrew

    I agree, DVD has already started to become obsolete. In 10 years Blu-Ray will be standard. Blu-Ray also is a better protection against piracy right now which is certainly in Mr. Williams best interest.

  • Man!! There’s a BOOK of this already. Do we really need a DVD BOX SET?!

    *I guess people need to make $$$

  • I’m not an animator, but if I had a thousand bucks right now, that’s the kind of thing I would buy with them!

    Still, you should consider to give a discount to students that prove they are matriculated in some college art program. Kind of like the school versions of software, you know?

  • troy joseph reyes

    man i wish i had the cash to get it,been unemployed for a year, will seek out the book, always wanted to be an animator. i was recently looking at my own work and trying to decide what steps to take to get it out there, i came to the conclusion that my stuff is just too unique to pass mustard at any studio or comic publisher, reg hartt is right, i will pursue an independent carrer, i will present my own vision and not that of some corporate conglomerate, i will not be just another tool in someone else’s toolbox.

  • cristinel

    The book is all you need.

    This is the same as the cake but with the cherry on the top.
    Still the same cake.

    Even if I`d had the money I wouldn`t buy it.

  • Donald C

    Ariel, The book is not animated.

  • Neil

    I’ve had the book for a long time, but from clips i’ve seen having Richard Williams explain in his own unique way complete with body actions really illuminates what is in the book. There is a new expanded version of the book which ties in nicely with DVD’s.
    Also i really wish more of Richard Williams work was available on DVD ‘The Island ,Christmas Carol etc they deserve better than the streamed content you have to wade through on the net.

  • Chris Webb

    If I had the money, I would buy the DVDs. But I will have to save for them.

    Can someone who has seen both the book and the DVDs tell us if there is info on the DVDs not covered in the book? Are the value of the DVDs only in seeing the examples animated, or is there more or different info in the DVD than in the book?

  • For an impoverished young animator, this beautiful collection of teaching would be enormously valuable, but impossible to afford. I suppose that’s why its availability has flourished via “alternate” procurement venues since early 2009, ripped to DIVX. While such a thing is obviously regrettable, in the absence of funds, that dark option is difficult to resist.

  • Abu

    Maybe he will sell the DVDs one at a time at some point? I wouldn’t spend that much for a DVD set in one chunk, but one at a time might be a little easier to swallow.

  • matt

    For those commenting on DVD being outdated, you’re thinking it through from the wrong end (your end). The videos were made a few years ago before Blu-ray was a blip (and let’s face it, while it’s doing well it’s still relatively niche and this title is even more niche again), and weren’t actually recorded in high-def. BD production also costs more at this point than DVD. From what I recall there were sessions done at Blue-sky and Aardman, but don’t quote me verbatim there.

    Don’t get me wrong I’m a monster Blu-ray fan and have a couple of hundred, but I think both from a production cost view and potential audience (who have Blu-ray players), it doesn’t make much sense at this point. The only thing that would be a good idea would be that despite the material being standard def, you could probably get it all on 2 or 3 BDs. But it’s a bit disingenuous to complain about it being regular DVDs.

    Just my 2c.

    Abu, that’s a good suggestion for the price thing.

    I pleaded with the effects facility I was at at the time to get this as I couldn’t afford it myself, and of course it came in just when my contract finished. Didn’t even get to see it! D’oh!

  • DVD dead? Two years after the HD format war ended Blu-ray still only averages about 12% of video discs sold.

    But “TASK Animated” sounds like a great set. I don’t have $1000 and I don’t want to download a pirate version so I’ll hope a set comes up on the used market soon.

  • Steve Brown

    Are you seriously suggesting that his DVD is equivalent to a four year education at one of the best animation schools in the world? Do you really think that animation mechanics is the only subject taught there? Maybe I should ask Glenn Keane or James Baxter what they think, the next time they lectures there.

  • james madison

    This is a great idea. It can only aid in enhancing the book.

  • matt

    True robcat, but 12% is actually pretty good (ESPECIALLY after a format war), and absolutely as good as DVD at the same point in it’s lifecycle. DVD was launched early 97 but didn’t take off for a few years, with the old wisdom being “who wants to OWN all that stuff instead of just renting?”. Both DVD and Blu-ray will be around for a while yet, as now the conventional wisdom is “you mean I wouldn’t really OWN it?” in regard to internet downloads/cloud computing/streaming and so on. Well, that and the fact that whatever mainstream America may be used to, truly high speed internet is about a decade off for most of the world.

    Back on topic, I think it may have been Mo Sutton who told me about the DVD/Blu thing and why when I emailed about exactly that. Can’t find the damn email…

    Also, does anyone know the latest about Richard’s personal film? The seminars, books and these videos have taken him away from it, but he was working on a personally animated film that he wanted to complete before really talking about it. The only thing I’ve heard (can’t recall whether it was from the horse’s mouth or not when I asked at one of his seminars) is that it’s more of an abstract thing than what we’ve seen from him before.

    Anyone? Jerry? Amid?

  • Haha, if this is supposed to be the equivalent of a course for a student, can I put it up for a loan?

    My hope is my existing loans will just someday disappear when the economy or someone goes bankrupt, since they don’t seem to be shrinking much with monthly payments. Damn the interest rates!

    So what’s another $1000 with Sallie Mae? Who cares? College is a rip off.

  • Donald C: THe book animates when you “flip it”, doesn’t it?

    My point is, with today’s internet, you can practicly learn all the steps of animation from the web.

    All you need is a $45/month internet connection.

    Besides, DVD will be OLD NEWS in a few years. Soon we wont be able to watch DVD’s anymore cause Blu-Ray will take over.

    Books never change with time.

  • Adam VM

    I don’t even have enough scratch to buy the freaking book.

    Oh well.

  • Simon

    The DVDs are great, but a lot of that material is covered in the book.

    Williams would be better off selling the DVDs individually, so animators could brush up on specific topics that they struggle with and build their collection gradually.

  • I would be very surprised if anyone ever releases a Blu-Ray player that doesn’t play DVDs.

  • guest

    frankly, the dvds are overpriced.
    even if you calculate a steep 30 bucks/disc-> 480 bucks for all 16.
    heck, make it 500. for profits sake.
    right now it is 65 bucks/disc. and don´t tell me, the production was sooo expensive. every fucking tv show costs more per minute than that.
    they ask you to pay premium for his knowledge, which is not wrong. but with the kind of money you would have to invest i can see a lot of people looking for other options…

  • FP

    —Blu-Ray also is a better protection against piracy right now—

    That’s funny.

  • annie

    I see in these comments the book vs. dvd argument a lot. Different ppl learn in different ways. Sounds like a great addition for universities and a good thing for ppl who just don’t do well with books.

    thanks for the review!!

  • Ghartanker

    The 65 bucks price tag per disc is pretty much standard.
    I own a few dvd tutorials by Digital Tutors and others websites, and the price is quite the same for all of them. Some as low as $45.00 but the majority gravitates around $65.00 for a particular subject, which I suspect is the equivalent to one of the 16 DVDs.