BOOK REVIEW: Animation Unleashed

Publish date:

Hey, everyone—

A few years ago, I wrote a screenplay which (unfortunately) never sold, but got me a bunch of meetings around town… including a meeting with the Disney animation department. It wasn’t an animated movie, but it had some elements that were very animation-ish, so they asked me if I’d be interested in coming up with some other animated ideas I could pitch. Which I did.

And none of them sold.

In fact, none of them were very good.

At the time, I think I kinda sensed they weren’t that great (except my idea for an animated Marco Polomovie, which I still think would be awesome), but I wasn’t sure what was wrong with them, or why they didn’t seem as fresh or exciting as they should’ve.

And now I know why…

I hadn’t read Animation Unleashed, a new book from Canadian animator Ellen Besen.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never been super-inclined to do animation. I enjoy it, and the past few years have given us some OUTSTANDING animated films (The Incredibles and Wall-E are two of my favorite movies EVER). But I think great animated writers “think in animation”… which is something I simply don’t do.

Having said that, Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know is a terrific book not only for writers and artists working in animation, but for any writer or artist who wants to think about their own non-animated work in new ways.

Before describing what Animation Unleashed IS, let me tell you what it’s NOT. Animation Unleashed is NOT a book that teaches you how to draw. It’s not a book that teaches you how animated movies or comics get made. It also doesn’t teach you the rules of narrative structure or storytelling; you won’t get a beat-for-beat breakdown of Finding Nemo or Madagascar.

What Animation Unleashed does incredibly well, however, is explain the creative and practical principles of animation. The book begins by detailing some basic creative theories behind good animation: using analogy as storytelling, “simplifying and exaggerating” animated elements to let them be more representational, uses of caricature, etc.

Now, lemme say two things…

ONE: this is NOT an academic theory book. I’m not usually a huge fan of academic film theory, especially when it doesn’t serve to make people better filmmakers or artists… but Besen explains things in practical terms that make everything applicable to the creative process. She’s not interested in simply analyzing animation; she’s interested in helping people MAKE animation… and she succeeds 100%. (Like I said, I’m not really an animation guy, but Besen made me understand, appreciate, and think about animation in ways I had never before bothered to.)

TWO: I don’t think anything Bresen says is necessarily earth-shattering… yet what makes this book so valuable, at least for me (as a non-animation guy), is that it makes me think about how animation works differently from other kinds of storytelling. And in doing that, it forces me to think about animation’s unique techniques and philosophies and how to apply them to my own writing.

In her chapter about actual script-writing, for example, Besen talks about how animation tends to be a more visual medium than other kinds of filmmaking, so it’s often helpful to write action first… then add dialogue later. I think she’s absolutely right… but I think this also applies to regular movies and storytelling. Or, at the very least, screenwriters should be focusing as much as possible on telling stories visually, not verbally. Not necessarily a groundbreaking revelation… but by giving animated worlds and examples, Besen got me thinking about my own “traditional” writing in ways and contexts that I hadn’t before.

Some of Besen’s most provocative chapters are those about sound, timing, camera angles, and performance. These are easily the most “animation-specific” chapters, but they’re also the ones that made me think about my own work in the newest, most challenging ways.

In her great chapter about sound, Besen talks about using dialogue sparingly… and even how/when to use gibberish or pure silence instead of actual words. I don’t know if I’ve ever written—or needed to write—a character who speaks in gibberish, but Besen’s point is that genuine WORDS aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying emotional intent. It’s a point well-taken. As a writer, I think it’s easy to fall in love with our words—with actual letters on our page—but Besen does a great job of reminding us that words are far less important than characters' actions or the emotions behind them.

Ultimately, Besen’s book was a surprisingly engaging read, and I recommend it for two reasons:

ONE: it’s a great guide for helping animators think about everything from writing to shot composition in ways that will help them execute it practically. Again, it may not teach you HOW to write or draw… but it helps you think about exactly WHAT to write and draw (and WHY you want to write and draw what you want to write/draw-- which I is often key to doing it well).

TWO: whether you’re a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, or poet, I think you’ll find this book helps you view your own work from a new perspective. Next time I’m blocked when writing a scene or an outline, this will be one of the first writers-block-busters I’ll turn to. After all, what better way to crack writers block than to imagine how to tell your scene (or story) simply through sound design? Or with no dialogue? Or as a wholly animated sequence? That-- no matter what kind of writer you are-- in an indispensable resource.

So check it out and lemme know what you think...

In the mean time, I’ll be spending this weekend at the L.A. Chocolate Salon. Which means next time I post, I’ll probably be about fifty pounds fatter. Fortunately, you won’t be able to tell over the blog…

(Coming up: we’ll talk about how to register and protect your work, we’ll have new entries in the Script Notes pitch workshop, special guests, and more!...)

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