Book Review: Masters of Animation

Authors: John Grant
Publication Date: 2001
Publisher: Watson Guptill
Pages: 208 pages

 

It’s been a few months now since the last book review, but after getting a few new titles for Christmas, I finally have enough material for some more. So, to kick off, I’d like to take a look at a surprise discovery I made last year – Masters of Animation by John Grant. I’ve already reviewed one of Grant’s other animation books (nearly three years ago – good grief, where’s that gone?), but I didn’t realise he’d written another until I happened to find this while browsing through his Goodreads page. Sadly, Mr. Grant passed away this February, so this review is dedicated to him.

Grant #3

The book has a subtle, sophisticated cover in glossy black and opens with a one-page introduction in which Grant neatly summarises what makes animation so appealing. I was glad to see that he took special care to deconstruct that tired stereotype of it being just for kids, reminding his readers that it’s just a medium like any other, which can be used to tell any story for any audience.

Then we get into the main body of the book, which explores the lives and careers of the artists whom Grant has selected as masters and essentially represents the crème de la crème of twentieth century animation. The book covers the following artists: Tex Avery, Frédéric Back, Ralph Bakshi, Raoul Barré, Don Bluth, Bruno Bozzetto, John Randolph Bray, John Canemaker, Bob Clampett, Walt Disney, George Dunning, the Fleischers, Friz Freleng, Terry Gilliam, Paul Grimmault, Halas & Batchelor, Hanna & Barbera, Harman & Ising, Jim Henson, John Hubley, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, René Laloux, Walter Lantz, Winsor McCay, Robert McKimson, Norman McLaren, Otto Messmer, Hayao Miyazaki, Nick Park, Bill Plympton, Lotte Reiniger, Jan Švankmajer, Paul Terry, Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, Will Vinton and Richard Williams.

{Just a small note: While it is a shame that there are only two women and one non-white artist in this selection, it has to be remembered that the animation industry was – and to some extent, still is – rather white and male-dominated. Undoubtedly a newer list would be more diverse, but the artists featured here do still represent a variety of nations and backgrounds, and they truly were the best at their craft in their day}.

Masters of Animation is closer to being a textbook than an art book, with some double-page spreads packed with four dense columns of writing (much like the other Grant book I covered). That said, it’s good stuff; Grant was one of the most comprehensive animation historians there was, and even the most well-read enthusiast is likely to learn something from this volume. I must admit, I hadn’t even heard of a couple of these people before! Aside from a handful of misprints here and there, it’s a beautifully written summary of the artists’ works, offering a wealth of information to the animation buff and the newbie about some of the industry’s key players in its first century of existence.

Grant #4

Personally, the only glaring omission I noticed was that of Quirino Cristiani, the creator of the world’s first animated films as well as the first with sound. Grant erroneously credits Lotte Reiniger as the creator of “the world’s first animated feature”, but as I explained in my review of her film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, this isn’t true. Hers is the oldest surviving animated film, yes, but Cristiani’s now-lost works predated hers by almost a decade. It’s rather an odd thing for such a thorough researcher to overlook, especially as he frequently refers to the work of Giannalberto Bendazzi, the “discoverer” of Cristiani who brought his legacy back to light near the end of the director’s life (and whose book on the subject will also be reviewed here in time).

With that quibble aside, Grant’s detailed, readable accounts of the early years of the industry make up a fascinating patchwork of a story. There was a lot of squabbling, backstabbing, and poaching amongst the animators of the day, struggling to make a name for themselves while the new artform began to take shape. Defining what animation was and who it was meant for was not a simple process, and many individual artists kept hopping from studio to studio or even started a few of their own in their experimentations, all while trying to avoid bankruptcy – which was never far away in the fickle world of the old Hollywood studio system. Many of the figures included here were friends – or foes – and their tales frequently overlap or tangle together. Reading the whole thing from cover to cover, as I did, gave me a better understanding of the wider industry and its players than I’d ever had before. On top of this, Grant also includes a selection of neat summaries of each artist’s best or most famous works, which is especially helpful for those you’re not familiar with.

I would recommend this one for any serious animation scholar, as it’s a real treasure trove of information. However, I would do so with the caveat that since the book is rather old, it would be a good idea to cross-check the facts online as you go (always a good habit to get into anyway), as some of the dates and references may not be totally accurate (I did notice one instance where a birthdate was misprinted, implying the artist’s career had begun in their childhood!). Not that I’m criticising Grant’s research skills – on the contrary, this is a thoroughly engrossing and enriching account of twentieth century animation, which I’m sure you’ll find yourself reaching for time and time again.

 

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope I’ve encouraged you to check out this book. I will now be turning my attentions fully to How to Train Your Dragon, but I won’t make any promises about when that will arrive as I don’t want to disappoint anyone. My family are currently preparing for a funeral, unfortunately, but as that’s at the end of the month, the review should arrive before then. Then we’ll be getting on to Rise of the Guardians, Frozen II, and Your Name! There’s plenty to look forward to, so until next time, take care and staaay animated!

 

Buy it on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0823030415/ – UK
https://www.amazon.com/Masters-Animation-John-Grant/dp/0823030415/ – US

2 Replies to “Book Review: Masters of Animation”

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