Saturday, 23 October 2010
First published in 1998, Peter Lord and Brian Sibley's Cracking Animation: The Aardman Book of 3-D Animation (known in America under the boring title of Creating 3-D Animation) has entrenched itself as a standard text on the subject of stop motion.
After a foreword by Nick Park and an introduction by Peter Lord, the book provides a history of stop-motion, starting with the predecessors of film animation - Muybridge photographs, zoetropes and so forth - before discussing model animation pioneers such as Arthur Melbourne Cooper and Ladislaw Starewich and their successors, amongst them George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, Alexander Ptushko, the Brothers Quay, Jiri Trnka, Jan Svankmajer, Postgate and Firmin, Henry Selick, Art Clokey and others, making for a concise and informative introduction to the medium.
The remainder of the book is an engaging mixture of how-to manual and behind-the-scenes book. Aardman's technical approaches are described at length in a manner clearly intended for people who want to animate themselves. The studio's model characters are shown being constructed from the armature up with advice on how to construct your own ("This Gromit consists basically of a ball-and-socket armature and a body made of fast-cast resin. Plastazote could also be used for the core of the body, which needs to be hard enough to be drilled for fixing the puppet's limbs to it"). Advice is also given on makes of camera, lighting techniques and so forth, and the book also gives introductions to blue-screen photography, the substitution method employed by George Pal. Alongside this are straightforward walkthroughs for such parts of animation production as lip-syncing and storyboarding.
All of this is illustrated with nearly five hundred illustrations covering everything from Wallace and Gromit to lesser-known Aardman productions such as TV adverts and early short films, ensuring that the book has value for Aardman fans with no plans to construct armatures for themselves themselves.
Inevitably, Cracking Animation soon began to date: two years after its publication the studio broke into the world of feature films, an area largely ignored by the book; meanwhile, the rise of computer animation led to a world where "3-D animation" took on a rather different meaning. And so, in 2004 the book was revised to include a lengthy section on the making of Chicken Run, coverage of CGI and Aardman's works in that area, an account of the making of the pixilated web series Angry Kid, a brief section on the Creature Comforts series and short bits on Flash animation and computer games. And now, in 2010, another revised edition - twenty-odd pages longer than the 2004 version, and fifty or so longer than the original - has been released.
Naturally, the newer Aardman productions are covered: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, A Matter of Life and Death, Shaun the Sheep and Timmy Time are all present and correct, as is Luis Cook's award-sweeping The Pearce Sisters, each earning 2-4 pages. Some of the studio's more recent advertising work is also included.
The 2004 edition's slightly vague "new directions for animators" has grown into a more solid section on web-based Flash animation and online games. Although perhaps a little out-of-place in a book on 3-D animation, these are still good introductions to the subjects and also welcome spotlights on an area of Aardman's work that tends to be overlooked in favour of the studio's trademark stop-motion.
A few new pages have been added to the stop-motion history chapter since the first edition; these focus mainly on Aardman's own productions, missing the opportunity to cover the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Madame Tutli-Putli. A potted history of CGI is included but is, unfortunately, in places garbled and inaccurate and seems to have been a bit of rushed job, not up to the standards of the rest of the book.
But if there is any reason to be disappointed with the new edition, it is the removal of material. The overhaul of the 2004 edition's sections on CGI and Flash means that the behind-the-scenes looks at Big Jeff and a couple of CGI adverts are nowhere to be found in the latest edition. True, these are not amongst Aardman's flagship productions, but the development work was still interesting to see.
This aside, it's good to see an already strong book periodically improving itself. Anyone who wants an introduction to the history of stop motion in general and Aardman in particular should give it a look.