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“The Animator’s Survival Kit” iPad App:  An Animation Teacher’s Review

As an animation professor at the School of Visual Arts, I try to keep abreast of all the latest animation how-to books. There are many books—excellent and otherwise—that are published regularly, but there is only one author who can tout having had close personal and professional relationships with such Golden Age greats as Milt Kahl, Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, Emery Hawkins and Ken Harris, not to mention having won three Oscars. That animator is, of course, Richard Williams.

Williams’s indispensable The Animator’s Survival Kit is a book that everyone should already own.  It should be sitting next to your Illusion of Life, wherever you do your animation.  I no longer even list this as a recommended book on my syllabus because I expect students to already own it when they enter my classroom.  Thankfully, most artists starting animation school have picked up the book and have already begun applying the knowledge to their projects.

Then, there’s the 16-dvd set of the Animator’s Survival Kit in which Williams teaches a room full of staff at Blue Sky Studios. The $950 price tag on this set has made its amazing wealth of knowledge unattainable to most art students, enlightened amateurs, and even ordinary working professionals.  

The latest incarnation of the Animator’s Survival Kit is the iPad app, which sells for $34.99 at the iTunes store. The app, published by Faber & Faber, is an interactive blend of William’s excellent book and DVD set.  While the app doesn’t include the Blue Sky lectures/William’s dry erase board lessons,  it is much more personal in nature, with new clips of Williams speaking directly to the viewer. The app also includes the expanded edition of the book—a treat for all of us first edition book owners—with sections dedicated to animating quadrupeds and winged creatures, as well as extra animation exercises and personal anecdotes from Williams himself.

The app interface retains the homey look and feel of the original book, using Williams’s handwriting rather than a print typeface.  Each chapter is clearly laid out and accompanied by dozens of clips of animation exercises. One of the real highlights is the playback function available on all the animation exercises which allows the user to play back the animation frame-by-frame, at full speed, or to scrub back and forth through the action. Some of the exercises have an onion-skinning feature that allows the user to closely gauge each drawing in succession, guided by the animation’s motion charts.  

Completing the app is an extras section, showcasing both new and previously seen work by Williams.  The most intriguing is the nine-minute short film Circus Drawings that spans sixty years of Williams’ progress as a draftsman. Beginning as a montage of circus drawings by young Williams (oh, to draw like that at twenty-years-old!), the figures come to life by his contemporary hand.  It’s an unusual but fun film for any artist with an interest in visual progression.

While I highly recommend this app, I realize that not all students own iPads (or Apple products for that matter).  PC users are out of luck for now. Perhaps the next installment will address this compatibility issue. For those who are unable to purchase the app, the traditional book still contains all the essentials of Williams’ advice, even if its format is not as glitzy.

The clarity, draftsmanship, and knowledge of Williams comes through in all three formats—book, DVD series and now, iPad app. Who knows what digital learning tools will come next, but Williams’ Survival Kit will continue to be the standard textbook for generations to come.

Purchase the Animator’s Survival Kit app at the iTunes store.

CELIA BULLWINKEL has worked on feature films (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Chicago 10, Hair High), TV shows (Little Bill, MTV’s Friday, Ugly Americans, Wonder Pets), and far too many commercial projects. “Alpha’s Bet,” her music video collaboration with visual artist and hip-hop pioneer Rammellzee, was exhibited in 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts animation department, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s MFA Illustration program. Her first short film, Sidewalk, recently won first place for independent film at the ASIFA-East Animation Festival.

  • smoothoperator350

    This looks very neat, but sadly I have no way to access it.

    On a side note though, “Bullwinkel” is the perfect last name for an animation teacher.

  • Jeff

    Did anyone else try to “Slide to Animate”? I was hoping….

  • This looks incredible. I’m a self-taught animator and the book was indispensable. Can’t wait to buy this.

  • AmidAmidi

    Innovators understand that to do something fresh and different, you have to understand the skills and traditions of the form being practiced. I receive dozens of submissions weekly from those who haven’t bothered to learn the first thing about those “foolish standards and rules” and it’s not a pretty sight.

  • Trenton Thompson

    Shut up and TAKE MY MONEY already!! lol. But honestly though, did anyone else notice the three Academy Awards leisurely camping in the background like it’s no big deal?

  • smoothoperator350

    Indeed, I doubt that Disney had this book beside him while he was working on Snow White.

    • IJK

      And look how horrid those woodland critters were animated compared to when they started to form and write down their own rules to create better, higher quality, and more believable animation, IE: Bambi.

      • Animator606432

        I never thought they were badly animated. Just had a different feel then the one’s in Bambi and in films afterward. I actually really like the overly exaggerated and human-like movement the animals displayed in Snow White. To me anyway, it made them more visually appealing.

    • bob

      no… but at that point everyone was discovering how to animate. Snow White is essentially a movie of experimentation… also, the artists at Disney wrote down and passed along knowledge to new artists… as they still do… as any studio does………

      basics are important. That’s all. It’s the same no matter what discipline you choose. If learning the basics limits your creativity then you haven’t learned them well enough yet.

  • JamesJohnson

    I would have to ask you then, would you live in a house built by a architect and construction foreman who threw out knowledge of standards and rules? If so, there are deeper issues we need to discuss

  • CG Animator

    You’ve got to know the “rules” (or principles) of animation before you break them ;-) Even the best stuff independent stuff that is more surreal or experimental and breaks a lot of those rules (Bill Plympton, anyone?) has SOME grounding in traditional animation principles.

  • IJK

    Learning the basics =/= Discourages creativity. Does every animator need to re-invent the wheel whenever they animate? No.

    You need to learn the rules in order to break them. Even experienced experimental understand the importance of learning the basics, and you can clearly see it in their work when they decide to deviate from those rules to trick audiences into thinking they were going in one direction when they skid into another.

    You think animators are just magically creative or artists are just born knowing painting, sketching, sculpting techniques? The majority of what we do is learned and then we put those teachings into practice on paper until we perfect it.

    Even those who never picked up a book and learned about inbetweening via trial and error is still teaching himself one of the basics that’s already been discovered, they’re not building anything new.

  • Animator606432

    Unrelated note: you sound more professional than my art teacher this semester. With you actually expecting your students to KNOW something about art before entering the class room.

    It seems that Apple user get to have everything cool first, but even still, I don’t think I could pay $35 for an app. Maybe if it goes down in price in a few months or whatever, Like even $10 or $5 would make me feel a little better about spending that kind of money for an app.

    • That’s the problem. Developing for one screen ratio/device is a lot more affordable and predictable than developing for all windows/android tablets. And the only justification for going through all the testing on hundreds of devices would be a willingness of users to spend a substantial amount money. And as you just confirmed, it can only be expected from Apple users. Two reasons to develop only for iPad.

    • Riu Tinubu

      It’s essentially the same price as the book right? It has all the same contents, and then some. It shouldn’t lower in value just because it’s not a physical object. Though this opinion might be representational of the divide between generations.

  • bob

    yeah… good luck when you try to get a job and can’t even do a walk cycle because you’re too busy being special.

  • Riu Tinubu

    I’m fortunate enough to have an iTunes Gift Card, the universe has looked kindly upon me haha, this is perfect timing, an immediate buy!

  • Riu Tinubu

    Yes but it’s EXPLICITLY stated in the book that you shouldn’t use it as a dogmatic be-all-end-all of rules, it extensive enough that it will always be useful for whatever situation you need and the rules apply to every stylistic choice there could be. Once you learn what the book has to offer you are then supposed to pick and choose what you apply.

    It is most definitely the ‘animation bible’, one that specifically says that it’s *guidebook* as much as it is a *rulebook*

  • Riu Tinubu

    Well, in the UK, the book is £20 the app is £25, which doesn’t bother me very much.

    Ah, sorry for my assumption. But yeah, the only reason a physical price should cost more is due to manufacturing and distribution costs, but for things like books, they’re hardly the be-all-end-all reason for their price.

    In terms of this product, where you essentially get the entire book and then some, I think function, originality, quality and general exclusivity can justify the price. You aren’t going to get another app like this anytime soon, it is literally one of a kind at the moment.

    I agree on the front of music prices, but I believe this is a somewhat different situation.

  • rendernyc

    with that logic the iPad app should be more expensive than the book since it comes “with extra features that you can’t get with the” physical copy

    • Animator606432

      If it comes with a enough extra features, yes it should. But you left out the part when I mentioned manufacturing cost, paying an editor to fix errors, advertisements, etc all play into a part of the cost. I understand that and I understand people need to make a profit. This books is an exception to the rule, as the team understood people wouldn’t want to pay full price for the book and added in more features. And I understand that with books it’s a little different then with movies and music but the price should still be a couple of dollars lower at least.