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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.