Thursday, September 27, 2007


(Animation for Sesame Street by Michael Sporn)

From the earliest pen-and-ink novelties to the most sophisticated computer-generated full-length features, animated films have always been a cross between art and magic. Of course, they’re part science too: it’s the split-second afterimage in our brains (known as “persistence of vision”) that makes us think a speeding series of still pictures is actually a scene in motion. But it’s the animator’s tricks, plus the ability of great animators to “act” through their imaginary characters, that really makes animated images come alive.

As a young artist I learned some of those tricks as an apprentice to two masters of the hand-drawn animated film. Working as an “in-betweener” on Michael Sporn’s Oscar-nominated “Dr. DeSoto” showed me how speed and rhythm reveals a character’s personality. And John Canemaker – whose autobiographical film “The Moon and the Son” won last year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short – taught me that good animators are good observers, recreating the world using only line and color. But today with the Internet, you can learn from the pros without ever leaving home. Whether you prefer traditional Disney-style or anime cel animation, stop-motion with puppets or clay a la Wallace and Gromit, or the 3-D computer images of films like “Happy Feet” and “Ratatouille,” there are sites that will introduce you to old classics and show you the latest techniques. You can even post your work online and get feedback from other students and veteran animators. So get ready to start making movies!

The most basic trick used by animators to make the invented look real is exaggeration, and the first lesson in every animation drawing course is squashing and stretching a bouncing ball. Larry's Toon Institute (by Larry Lauria, who helped design Disney's Magic Artist software), goes from the bouncing ball to character construction, timing, posing and learning how to “thumbnail,” or plan out, a scene. The site is part of the Student Corner at the Animation World Network, which also offers forums, advanced how-to’s, and Animation World Magazine, with columnists including Bart Simpson’s voice, Nancy Cartwright. Another site, Karmatoons, by Doug Compton, whose credits include Bugs Bunny, gives you his wonderfully-illustrated teaching notes from his time with the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon Art. Then there’s Acme Animation, where you can print out instructions on the bouncing ball and watch a video on how to make a flour sack fall. Pay the $99 registration fee, however, and there’s much more to this online school. Acme members can post their projects for public viewing and get feedback from other students and working professionals. As you work your way through more advanced levels you’re developing a portfolio that can help you get into art school or even a job in animation.

Lots of kids begin making animated films with clay, puppets, and other objects that are easy to move around. At, you can find forums for your questions on technique, and the links page is extensive. Their related site, StopMoShorts, offers “puppet training” challenges such as walking, tripping, jumping and dueling. When you’ve completed the challenge, post your video for feedback. There are also interviews with such titans of the art form as Ray Harryhausen (“Jason and the Argonauts”), tutorials, and clips from classic films. I’ve mentioned Brickfilms before but I love it: Lego pieces are used for the sets -- and the stars.

Kids who want to learn computer animation can check out the Flash Animation tutorial by Samik Dutta, a 16-year-old homeschooler from India, at the Amazing Kids Animation Station. (Flash is the software used for a lot of the animated website elements.) The site also offers a showcase just for kids to display their animated videos.’s animation page has a Flash Kids' Corner with lessons for ages 12 and under, as well as a list of free computer animation software you can download. And you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the studio that practically invented 3D computer animation at the Pixar website.

Finally, if you’re interested in the history of animated films, the online Optical Toys Exhibit at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics shows you such early devices as the Zoetrope, Kinora, Magic Lantern and Stereoscope in action. And my mentor, Michael Sporn, keeps a blog (his “Splog”) which riffs on animators past and present and has a blogroll worth checking out.

Update: Just found, a website about the history of flipbooks, with video clips of some antiques. (Translated from the French.)

Still more updates: Animation Mentor is an online school for advanced character animation.


Michael Sporn said...

This is a great article. You've listed a number of great sites I wasn't aware of. Thanks for the info.

Rene said...

great animation, cool article. Thx! I found this cool webservice to print our own animation as an flipbook

Regards, Rene

Jennifer said...

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