Thursday, February 18, 2010

Preston Blair Book Causes Problems...

My brother, Tom, was the artist in the family. He was truly gifted, and was supplied with many great books about art. Nobody noticed when I stole them. One of these books was my introduction to animation, a tabloid sized paperback by Preston Blair that I read over and over until the cover fell off and it became a series of loose pieces of pulp (see book above).

Preston blair is the source of multiple bad habits with young animators and students, bad habits that personally took me years to shake. The book is filled with "how to" duplicate, but impossible to understand artwork. The candy like walk and run cycles I still see students tracing today, without a clue to what they are tracing or how those drawings "feel" timed or sculpted within space. Every page is filled with wonderfully alluring classical hollywood designs that completely lack any type of foundational edge or instruction of how to arrive there. Matter of fact, the walk cycle page doesn't even make any sense.(please click below to enlarge and see my revision, I explain why there's always a "jump" when students duplicate these walks)Was Preston Blair a great animator? YES. Great book? Not so sure. The book seems to be focused on creating simple cartoons based on soulless flat shapes, and providing you with breakdowns that would only work if you understood HOW to make them work. Furthermore, the only truly amazing drawings are left with no comment or explanation how the drawings were achieved or timed out (ie the dancing croc.. amazing). I think it is a great piece of animation nostalgia, and NOT a good place to learn about motion or drawing.The great books by Richard Williams(Animators Toolkit) or Eric Goldberg(Animation Crash Course do a much better job, leaving under explained techniques and stylistic distractions aside. I'm currently obsessed with Eric's book.. there is just so many good bits in there! he's amazing. (despite his love for the over-cartoony style) it goes a lot further to explain the HOW and it doesn't limit itself to ill-defined examples with little, false, or no helpful instruction or direction. Eric's book very well could be the best instructional book yet, right next to Glen Keanes very short and to the point notes..Glen's packet includes a vital explanation of the sculptural quality that good drawings have. Blair's guide to constructing characters completely leaves out this sculptural element that is so vital to understand in the early stages of drawing in motion. Keane blows away Blairs shape breakdowns with four easy words and a thumbnail sketch.. (See below, blair art in the background, keane sketch on top)
My personal opinion is that Cartoony-design in general is such an overwhelmingly limited stylistic choice... by using it you are committing to a very short sighted genre where there are few chances to do something original or something based on keen observation that hasn't been exploited a million times in the last century. I think that a majority of contemporary animation is based on this "flat" aesthetic and design that by it's very nature limits the potential of the medium to capture and express the natural world around us.

Preston Blair was truly a great animator. My gripe ends with his book, I have all the respect in the world for the man.


  1. You have a point about the Blair book. My drawings have improved (not on display on my blog) because I had to heavily scrutinize details of human anatomy. Blair's book just dosen't give you enough of a leg to stand on.

    However I have to disagree about Richard Williams' book, it's too complex for a beginner and Williams' animation has always come across as lacking in organic movement.

  2. You are also dead on about what Blair fails to explain, how a shape becomes a character.

  3. On the walk cycle page.
    He most likely wanted to show how the head position moves (so you'd clearly see how cycles repeat) so he just included the two or three extra drawings to complete the head position part of the cycle.

  4. 100% agree with that walk cycle comment/image!

    Never saw the Eric Goldberg book. (but will check it out now) For me personally the Richard Williams book was amazing, I think if I never read that book I wouldn`t be a 3rd as good as I am now.

  5. I like the Preston Blair's book,
    but I guess I support your thoughts about it.

    Off-topic, Bill should make a post about Mind Game!

  6. Comparing Blair's entirely volume-based designs to modern "flat" design, which is the worst design in history, is the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. I am shocked that anyone could possibly take this seriously. Or have the intellectual shortcomings to write it. This is the saddest excuse for an affront to conventional wisdom I've seen since the last time a crazy street person told me climate change was a hoax.

  7. Yep - this exact thing has been witnessed in my classes too - BAD TEACHER, BAD TEACHER! So I no longer suggest it's use, but mention it as an occaisional reference if students are book collectors. I haven't found any one text ever that could work alone.

    There are however some newer British texts that shed light on global animation, its history, origins and foundations - Paul Wells and Joanna Quinn co-authors - Drawing for Animation and Fundamentals of Animation - AVA Publishers

    And don't forget Stanchfield's Drawn to Life and Williams Survival Kit and Goldberg's Crash Course.

  8. Halas and Whittaker's "Timing for Animation" is probably the best "how to" book on animation.

    I just got in Tom Sito's updated edition. Haven't yet gone through it but it seems a bit more cumbersome than the original, a publisher's attempt to be "all encompassing".

    Tony White's "Animator's Workbook" is also outstanding.

    Both of these are more approachable than Williams' book which is a slightly more advanced, more detailed study.

    I prefer them to Eric Goldberg's as well, which honestly, I read once and have never referenced since. Halas and Whittaker is the "go to" source for working with and teaching young animators.

    Like all studies, textbooks are a starting point of inquiry that give you a vocabulary to examine source material. They're not meant to be the "last word". In this regard, Preston Blair's books may be the most successful textbooks of all time.

  9. Let me also add, that I love Joe Gilland's "Elemental Magic".

    It's focus is effects animation but its approach is the best of any instructional book. He's concerned with teaching you how to think and observe and then apply that vision to animation. A beautiful book.

  10. The Dick Williams book is a treasure trove of ADVANCED animation technique and theory, but it's not great for beginning animators. It's important to keep in mind it's a print version of his masterclass, which was intended for experienced animators. I've seen far too many beginning students get confused and go off track with some of what he discusses. It's like learing to ride a bicycle by hopping on a Harley - you may get rolling, but it's going to end badly, quickly. :0)

    The Goldberg book is good, but doesn't address the basics, jumping into character animation right away. That's fine, as that's the book's focus, but again, not a good place for beginners to start.

    A book I've been using in some of my classes is "Animation: The Mechanics Of Motion" by Chris Webster. It's a pretty good mix of explanatory text and illustrations, and covers a good chunk of what beginners need to know.

    I still recommend the Blair, as it's stood the test of time, despite its shortcomings.

  11. The problem with students tracing the Blair walk cycle isn't with the walk cycle... it's that they are tracing it. From page one, the book emphasizes building characters constructively from simple volumetric forms (not flat shapes). The greatest (and most difficult) thing to learn from Blair is solid drawing.

    Anyone who has ever sat down and tried to draw the bear head on the first page learns fast how difficult this is to do correctly. Blair cheats the construction lines on the volumetric skeleton version to make them look evenly geometric. Then in the finished drawing he has added extremely subtle organic variation to the fundamental shapes that make a huge difference in the results. At first, I thought this was a mistake, but since then, I've seen a dozen students have a Eureka moment when they finally figured out the trick. It snaps them into seeing how important the subtleties of their volumes are.

    If Blair's book can be criticized for anything, it is for making it all look so easy. When you read the book, it's easy to say, "Yeah, yeah... I know all that." But when you sit down and try to DRAW the lessons, it's an entirely different story. It takes months of intense work to master what he distills down to a few pages. I think Blair's theory was to let the students learn from their pencils, not from lots of explanatory text. That works great for the most talented and dedicated who are able to think things out, but not necessarily for the more modestly gifted student who need instructions laid out for them.

    I've personally seen the improvement in students' abilities from working with Blair's book (and John K's notes on it). Perhaps that's the best way to judge its effectiveness.

  12. I've been using Presto Blair's book as part of my own learning regimen. Becoming a good draftsman is my first priority and Preston shows how to construct classic animated toons. Could it have been put together better? Sure! I figure no single book will make you a great animator. (I am looking to get Eric Goldberg's book...looks great!)

    I've got Animator's Survival Kit and it has great reference (walk cycles alone are 103 pages. woof!) It can be a bit overwhelming. Right now I just need to get from point A to point B. So I appreciate your references. Quicktime has been invaluable to see frame by frame how an animated scene is put together.

  13. By the way, I think the pages of the Preston Blair book are out of the proper order. It seems to jump around a bit. If I remember correctly, the two editions of Blair's book have the pages in a different order. I wondered about this until I read on Michael Sporn's blog about the other Walter Foster animation how to book that has a flipbook in the margin that is out of order. I think the publisher juggled pages around randomly.

  14. "I think Blair's theory was to let the students learn from their pencils, not from lots of explanatory text."

    I think the book would have benefitted from some more explanatory Text as well as drawings illustrating how the shape is used to create the character. I am sure many have learned from the book but through more trial and error then they should have gone through.

  15. "I figure no single book will make you a great animator."

    Yes of course. There never is one supreme fountain of knowledge.

  16. Learning to draw is about drawing, not reading about drawing. Trial and error is how you learn. I've noticed a difference between students who succeed with the Blair book and those who don't... Some get frustrated and quit. Others get frustrated and fight to get it right. Once you've built a foundation, theories and verbal instructions are more useful. But you've got to make that hurdle first.

    But of course, most people who own the Blair book have read it without ever picking up a pencil to do the excercises. For them, it's just a nice picture book. That's fine, but I don't think that's the book's primary purpose.

  17. "Learning to draw is about drawing, not reading about drawing. Trial and error is how you learn."

    You have a nasty habit of mis-interepting someone's opinion that isn't yours. I never said that you only have to learn by reading words. I said the book would have benefited from more text explanations as well as drawings. Also I never said I was against trial and error, I said that this book puts you through more of it then you need to be. I think one reccomending this book should couple it with the study of human anatomy, the very basis of many cartoon characters.

  18. Reel in. I wasn't talking about your opinions, I was talking about the book. My point was, all the answers are in the drawings if you sit down and draw them carefully the way Blair shows you. Anatomy is important, but that isn't what Blair's book is about. His book is about the basics of streamlined volumetric drawing for animation. Once you master basic construction, there's a million more things to learn.

  19. Pertaining to Blair's method to make these drawings, Mr. Smith here hit the nail on the head when he said using those simple shapes create these drawings makes no sense. Look at the heads of those characters, they are not 100% round. You are essentially sclupting these spheres to create a more complex shape. So just showing a sphere with the proportion lines then skipping straight to the completed work would not help anyone who is just picking up a pencil. And forget about trying to use Preston's method for making limbs, it's basically like shooting in the dark and why I have to reccomend a good anatomy book, you'll learn how limbs are attached to a body.

  20. Practicing from the Preston Blair book has greatly improved my understanding of cartoon construction, animation, and general drawing skills.

  21. Well now i don't feel like a dumb-ass anymore for not understanding why my walks looked so bad in high school. The information was in-complete. I completely agree with you on the flat style currently in animation. the good pieces of animation that use a flat style understand form but choose to use flat as a artistic choice.

  22. You can read a Ken Harris interview here:

    Near the end he has some critical comments about the cycles.

    I like the book for constuction.

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  24. How did anyone ever not figure out the walk cycle problem after one or two tries ? Shoot a pencil test and it becomes obvious that if you just copied the little figures on the page of walk cycles that they were only completing half a step . Then you simply had to draw in the other step, which mirrors the first step, but with arms and legs reversed. (he even tells you this in later editions of the book. It says right on the page that it's half a cycle and that you should switch the arms and legs to complete the cycle)

    And even if someone missed those instructions they could look at the example of the rabbit walking it is a complete cycle , so the idea should have been clear. In the second book (blue cover) "How to Animate Film Cartoons" Blair prints complete walk cycles , so maybe he heard the criticisms about the half-cycles and corrected it in the second volume.

    In my opinion it's not that hard to figure out if one is paying attention, but yeah, I admit it still happens today. It crops up in student work where they are simply copying the examples in the first Blair book without giving it any thought.

  25. I think Mr. Blair nailed it, given the context of the book in time. In my opinion books of this kind in the past expected more of the reader. To be fair to us "moderns," people were not as bombarded with information at that point in history, and had more time. I think that Mr. Blair constructed the book to "leave much as an exercise to the reader" on purpose. We all know animation is a harsh mistress like any art form, and if you rise to his challenge then by the time you are really finished as opposed to just tired of it you will have some very good tools. Unfortunately the book does not work as well for todays students, and that is why all of the other books are preferred today by so many. The Blair book is moving from living teaching tool to historical artifact. Though there are many amazing works currently available that teach animation there seems to be none to fill the niche Blair did - a simplified, "least you need to know" kind of work to get an interested teenager drawing and animating as soon as possible. Should they have the "right stuff," they will soon grow beyond that first book. How awesome would an update of the Blair book by Mr. Plympton and or John K be?

  26. thanks for all the comments.. i suppose my problem with preston's book is more of a personal problem with the order in which students approach the medium.. i'm a bigger fan of starting with the masters and then adding the idea of "motion" into your work.. i believe glen keane would see it that way too. my own obsession with classical art often times makes me grumble with students who are "jumping" right into cartoon-type design, with a book like preston's, without any clue about weight or 3d space. perhaps another subject for a post.

    Zoran- you must not have heard many stupid things if what i said was the stupidest. i once heard a homeless guy in soho yelling that jesus was back and he was constructing a new ark made from banana peels...

    (you know.. actually.. that guy may have been brilliant)

  27. Absolutely. The trouble isn't with Preston, necessarily (though I tend to agree on these points) the trouble is that animators (or students) are the first to neglect art history and classical lessons- they put aside studying real form. Models, life drawing, gestures- sculpture; ceramics; origami for christsakes. They just want to get to the finished product as quickly as possible, and that product may or may not entail knowing how a mouth moves or why, with which muscles. Preston's "how to" isn't helping with that. It's a paint-by-numbers guide of the spacing of frames while the truly important lessons actually occur between them.

    R.Roberts: Saying Richard Williams lacks "organic movement", whatever the hell you mean by that, is ridiculous. Roger Rabbit integrates hand-drawn 2D animation with the lighting and volumetrics of freaking LIVE ACTION. In some cases matching camera moves. There is nothing more organic. Say what you will about the man, but spacing is not one of his weaknesses. If by "organic movement" you mean "skeletal structure" within characters, sure. Maybe. "Weight?" Maybe. Most of his stuff is cartoon with no bones. Not so much the sausage style of Avery or Kricfalusi, but the noodle style of the early-mid 20th. It's still brilliant work, and he's capable of doing things outside of that. If you meant something else, I'd love to hear it. Williams is a craftsman in his own right. The architectural work in The Cobbler and the Thief is a master class. I just read "lacking in organic movement," and parsed "vague cop-out criticism." With no definition or inherent meaning.

  28. "R.Roberts: Saying Richard Williams lacks "organic movement", whatever the hell you mean by that, is ridiculous. "

    Jack - click on R. Roberts blogger profile and go look at his artwork on his blog. You'll see what Rick means by "organic movement". Richard Williams's drawings don't have any of the qualities of Rick's drawings.

  29. Patrick, limiting yourself to any singular style is a bad thing. However, cartooning can be a very powerful tool if used properly. Take a look at the work of Rod Scribner. He made cartooning a genuine art form, taking to new levels of expressionism and emotion.

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  31. I like this book . . .
    thanks for share this post .
    i love to reading books its my best hobby .
    really amazing post . . . .

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  32. (From someone outside the world of animation) My grandfather gave me the Blair book when I was a kid and thought I wanted to be a cartoonist. I didn't become a cartoonist -- I never even learned to draw well -- but the book stood me in good stead much later. I am now a choreographer of comic dances, and I often use techniques I learned from Blair, such as squash-and-stretch, anticipation, and follow-through. (I'm sure that those are standard concepts, found in lots of books, but it was Blair that I learned them from.)