From the Archives – Thoughts “Understanding Animation” by Paul Wells (1998)

Understanding Animation, by Paul Wells, Routledge Press, 1998
     Written in the style of a textbook, Mr. Wells provides an incredible service with this volume. First, it is actually useful as a textbook, and as such offers a level of scholarship not generally associated with animation. Secondly, it is invaluable for those social gatherings where one’s livelihood emerges as a topic and, surrounded by the likes of dentists, lawyers, and (gasp) pharmacists, you state you’re an animator. First of all, what you’d be doing with such a collection of dullards eludes the author of this piece, but for the sake of argument, you’re in the midst of this difficult milieu…you merely whip out your cribbed notes, and Mr. Wells offers such statements as “the animator is at liberty to completely manipulate the image and create impossible and dynamic relations which need not have any connection with orthodox and anticipated relations.” And while the dentists are reeling from that, you can toss in, “reality is necessarily subjective…since…the completely real becomes identified with the ‘completely fake.'” And to finish off any pharmacists left standing, you dash off that animated film “will demonstrate diegetic appropriateness and correspond directly to the context from which it emerges.” The gathering about you stands in slack-jawed amazement as you walk away toward the buffet and stuff yourself with cocktail weenies. You have to love the sort of ammo this book provides. 
In addition to elevating your social standing far above such unworthy non-initiates, Understanding Animation poses theoretical discussions for each form of animation, then just as it appears to be getting a bit heavy on philosophy, tosses in a chapter entitled, “25 Ways to Start Laughing.” While nearly parsimonious in its illustrations, the book does offer ways to develop a narrative strategy as well as determine your style in the context of the expected audience. 
Once a general mastery of animation techniques has been obtained, and once the study of animation is more for relaxation than examination, then it is time for Understanding Animation. It isn’t on my bathroom reading shelf at this point, but it is on the bedside nightstand.
- Jim Middleton
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