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Animation ParlourBooks

These Are My Seven ‘Desert Island’ Animation Reference Books

What are the essential reference books that anyone with an interest in animation history should have on their bookshelf? It’s a question I’ve rarely seen discussed and would be curious to hear readers’ feedback. I’m not asking about the best written books about the art form, but rather the books that offer valuable information to those pursuing serious study of the history of 20th century animation.

I whittled down my ‘desert island’ list of animation reference books to just seven titles. There are, in fact, dozens of other excellent books, journals and articles related to specific filmmakers, studios, techniques and styles. I could have easily added another dozen titles to the list and still come up short. However, these are the seven books that I find myself returning to time and time again, and I think they provide a solid overview of 20th century animation for any intrepid researcher/historian/fan of the art form. Please share your favorite reference books in the comments.

1.) Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928 (1982, revised in 1993) by Donald Crafton — Walt Disney was an important figure in the development of animation, but so were Raoul Barré, James Stuart Blackton, John R. Bray, Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay, Otto Messmer, Lotte Reiniger, and Paul Terry. This book covers all of them, and is essential grounding in the early history of animation.

2.) Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (1980, revised in 1987) by Leonard Maltin — Capsule histories of Golden Age theatrical animation studios, still unsurpassed as a primer on that era.

3.) Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999, paperback in 2003) by Michael Barrier — The yang to Maltin’s yin. A highly opinionated and meticulously researched take on Golden Age American animation. The book will be best appreciated if you have some existing knowledge of classic animation.

4.) The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (1981) by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston — Everything that could have already been said about this book has been said. Suffice to say, if you can own just one book about Disney animation, this is it. The development of the studio’s approach to character animation has never been more clearly documented.

5.) Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (1994) by Giannalberto Bendazzi — From Argentina to Zaire, this is the most thorough survey of global animation. I refer to this book frequently, and more often than not, I’ll find the name I’m looking for. A much-anticipated updated edition is due out later this year, which I plan to purchase the moment it’s released.

6.) Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology (1976, reprinted in 1988 as Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art) by Robert Russett and Cecile Starr — Many of the innovative techniques we see in commercials and music videos nowadays were done decades ago by the likes of Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute, Len Lye, and Norman McLaren. This book is still the best source of information about the leading abstract and experimental animators of the twentieth century.

7.) The Animated Film Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide to American Shorts, Features, and Sequences, 1900-1999 (second edition released in 2011) by Graham Webb — Expensive but useful. This is a pure reference work and not something intended to be read, but with over 7,000 entries, it is the most complete listing of credits for Golden Age theatrical shorts, with plenty of credits not even found on IMDB.

Honorary mentions to the following three books: Design in Motion (1962), Film & TV Graphics (1967), and Film + TV Graphics 2 (1976) — These books are short on text, but filled with great images from animation produced between the late-1950s and mid-1970s. This vital, and poorly undocumented, period in animation history coincided with the growth and expansion of international and independent animation, which is in full bloom today. Many important names and films are represented in these books, and I find myself often cross-referencing them with Bendazzi’s book.
  • I used to check “Of Mice and Magic” out of the library all the time in junior high and high school. It was Who Framed Roger Rabbit that got me interested in animation history and OMaM just solidified it.

  • Tim Hodge

    Preston Blair’s “Animation” – the original edition.

    • Nick A

      For learning to animate sure, but not for animation history!

  • Pedro

    1) The Illusion of Life
    2) Richard Williams Animator’s Survival Guide
    3) Preston Blair’s Animation
    4) Drawn to Life 1
    5) Drawn to Life 2

    6) Cartoon Modern
    7) Understanding Comics

    • Henry Cohn

      Cartoon Modern definitely… that book got me to read cartoon brew b/c of Amid Amidi’s columns. Unfortunately I don’t own a copy on my bookshelf b/c I only borrowed it from the library and haven’t bothered buying it.

  • After rereading both of their books last year, I still don’t get why Michael Barrier is always charged with being highly opinionated while Leonard Maltin isn’t. The Maltin book has an opinion about the cartoons every other paragraph, whereas you could go pages in the Barrier book reading firsthand accounts of the various personalities and environments without encountering any kind of film critique. And after all, Maltin is the one who’s made a whole career around selling an annually updated book based on his opinion. I love both guys and their work, but just saying.

    And rely on the Graham Webb book very cautiously, as there are tons of credits (specifically voices) that are just plain wrong. I only have the first edition, so I am basing my opinion strictly on that.

    Oh, wait, desert island picks? Mine would be largely identical to yours, plus Shamus Culhane’s “Talking Animals and Other People”. Yes, it might be apocryphal and self-serving in some respects, but no one has ever captured life in animation more adeptly.

    • AmidAmidi

      It’s the classic saying, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Both have strong opinions, but Barrier carries a generally pessimistic tone throughout, whereas Maltin’s viewpoint is enthusiastic. The books are good companions not only because of the information but also of their approaches to the material.

      In agreement about Culhane. If I had to add a couple more books, it would be on there. Hands-down the most entertaining and valuable biography of a Golden Age animator.

  • martin

    i have the “illusion of life”. never read it, only skimmed through it. i probably should read it; although the title of the book has made enough of an impact on me.

  • Neal Patten

    My area of study is specifically feature-length films. Unfortunately there are not that many quality books that focus on specifically this subject. Graham Webb’s book is useful but definitely takes a lot of time to comb through the thousands of entries to seek out specifically feature length films. What is irritating about his book is he includes films with only a few minutes of animation such as in title sequences. This makes it more time-consuming to separate the fully animated features from the partially animated features.

    Obviously many if not most animation history/reference books include sections on the feature film. However, few books look at this subject specifically while excluding short films, medium-length films, or serials.

    In terms of this subject area, these are a few books currently on my shelf — some of these are sorely lacking:

    The Animated Film – Ralph Stephenson
    Full Length Animated Feature Films – Bruno Edera
    The Animated Movie Guide – Jerry Beck
    100 Animated Feature Films (BFI Screen Guides) – Andrew Osmond
    British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography – Denis Gifford
    Film Cartoons: A Guide to 20th Century American Animated Features And Shorts – Douglas L. McCall
    The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 – Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy
    Animated TV Specials – George W. Woolery

    …. anyone have suggestions for more books that predominantly focus on long-form animation? I follow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences definition of a feature which is 40 minutes or longer.

    • Nölwenn Roberts

      Someone offered me recently “A Disney Sketchbook” which isn’t a teaching book or a History Book but it’s one of the most beautifull Artbook I’ve seen about the Nine Old Men’s drawings (and others), it really looks like if they had drawn directly into it, and it’s really nice to see the roughs of old disney movies (=

  • Neal Patten

    Also — when is the new edition of Giannalberto Bendazzi’s book supposed to be out exactly or can you share more details? I have been hesitant about purchasing it for a few years because I saw in 2003 a revised edition (110 years of cinema) was released in Italian only and have been anticipating its release in English. Is this going to be a translation of ‘110 Years’ or will it be updated to 115 or 120?

  • GW

    I wish I knew of some other books that were as good as this but I don’t know of any. I read some interesting things in one book on Yellow Submarine. Heinz Edelmann admitted to adding about 20% more detail in the art to distract people from the not so great story. The resource I’d recommend is the History of Computer Animation on Ohio State University’s website. It covers computer animation history up to the early 2000’s. Is there a resource that covers the developments of computer animation after that point? If so, I’d like to read it.

    • GW

      Actually, this leaves out Fyodor Khitruk’s book on Russian animation which hasn’t been translated into English.

  • Nik

    Hah! I own all of these except for the two most recent books. My copy of “Experimental Animation” is the most dog-eared. :)

    I would have also included the 1958 book “Walt Disney and the Art of Animation” by Bob Thomas and the 1973 edition of Christopher Finch’s “Art of Walt Disney.”

  • Floyd Norman

    I loved the Making of Raggety Ann and Andy. The book – not the movie.

  • Pablo Calculli

    Arent’ there any good books on Anime HIstory?
    Been searching one for a while, and definitely could be a potential desert-island book.
    But I mean, whole Anime history, not just from the 70’s to the 90’s or something like that.

    • Jimbo

      Check out Susan J.Napier’s book on anime.

    • sam wilson

      Helen McCarthy and jonothon Clements wrote fairly comprehensive encyclopedia.

    • John

      Have you read either The Anime Encyclopedia: Japanese Animation since 1917 by Helen McCarthy with Jonathan Clement or Japanese Animation: From Painted Scrolls to Pokémon by Brigitte Koyama-Richard?

  • the french tex avery book

  • I’d include Karen Mazurkewich’s CARTOON CAPERS (on the history of Canadian animation) and Clare Kitson’s BRITISH ANIMATION: THE CHANNEL 4 FACTOR.

  • Carolyn Bates

    Great list! I need to check out some of the recommends. I had 4 on your list. Here are my faves:
    – The Illusion of Life (when I worked on Tron, I waited in line at Disney for Frank & Ollie to autograph)
    – Z is for Zagreb (gift from Duane Crowther. I love that he inscribed & added a sketch of the Nestle Quik bunny).
    – Film & TV Graphics 2 (I love this book)
    – Experimental Animation
    – Cartoon Modern
    – Of Mice and Magic
    – The Complete Kodak Animation Book
    – Inside UPA
    – The Moose That Roared
    – Animation by Preston Blair

  • Frank Fontaine

    * “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons” Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald (1989)

    * “The Moose That Roared” Keith Scott (2001)

    * “Cartoon Confidential ” Jim Korkis and John Cawley (1991)

    * “Paper Dreams: The Art & Artists of Disney Storyboards ” John Canemaker (1999)

    * “Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History” Fred Grandinetti (1994,2004)

    * “Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat” John Canemaker (1991)

    * the complete runs of “Animato” and “Hogan’s Alley” magazine

  • Barbara

    How would you be able to animate on a desert island? Who would see what you make?

    • The shoreline would be littered with discarded desks from Disney – but then you’d probably use these for firewood or building a raft.
      So the best option would be to knock up a 3D zoetrope with coconut shells and run around your island blinking. Tom Hanks would be there to watch. You could also rope him in to do some voice-over work too.

  • “The Fleischer Story” deserves canonization too. Nobody but nobody has done better by the Fleischers than Leslie Cabarga.

  • Paul N

    “Chuck Reducks,” which I find far more comprehensible than “Chuck Amuck” (although a good second choice).

    Second the Culhane, and maybe throw in “Bill Peet: An Autobiography.”

  • For my history of animation class we are using Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics and it is very good. It is actually a true history of animation. Highly recommended!

  • Right now I’m taking a animation history class where the required reading is “Before Mickey” and the Barrier book. The Bendazzi book is optional, but I’ve been finding myself reading that one more (not saying its better quality because the other two books are good as well). I can’t wait until an updated version comes out!

  • Roberto Naldi

    I would also recommend “Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation: Behind the scenes of 13 classic short animations” by Olivier Cotte, not strictly speaking an animation history book but a wonderful book anyway, very inspiring

  • Rob Nenno

    I always liked Animation Art: From Pencil to Pixel. Not too in-depth, but covers just about the whole animation spectrum. (plus a shout-out to Jerry Beck!)

  • I’ve been wanting a copy of The Illusion of Life. Maybe I’ll get it for myself as a birthday present. A bit pricey for this broke college student, though. Hopefully it will be available at Half-Price Books. Got me a copy of The Animator’s Survival Guide there.

  • “Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology”

    Is there any filmograhy in this book?

  • Thank you for the tips! You have no idea how much these are going to help me!

  • Chris Matie

    Stephen Cavalier’s “The World History of Animation” brings back fond memories of watching the CBS Children’s Film Festival every Sat. morning in the late 70’s/early 80’s, and I am still watching foreign films on occasion, both animated and live action because of it, 30 years later, to this very day :-)

  • Doceo

    From a serious, though decidedly non-professional, popular perspective, focusing on the years c. 1930-1970:
    1. Of Mice and Magic – Leonard Maltin
    2. Enchanted Drawings – Charles Solomon
    3. Hollywood Cartoons – Michael Barrier
    4. That’s All Folks – Steve Schneider
    5. Treasures of Disney Animation Art – John Canemaker
    6. The Fleischer Story – Leslie Cabarga
    7. Cartoon Modern – Amid Amidi
    Honorable mentions: The Art of Hanna-Barbera (Ted Sennett); The Walter Lantz Story (Joe Adamson); Tex Avery (John Canemaker)