Breathe New Life Into Classic Techniques With The Animators Survival Kit iPad App

On the heels of his 80th birthday master animator Richard Williams breaks down his craft with updated interactive tools.


If you’ve ever taken a serious interest in animation it’s likely Richard Williams’ four and a half pound book, The Animators Survival Kit, sits on your shelf. It has been regarded as a seminal reference text—a Bible even—for anyone trying to master making drawings come alive. Williams is heavyweight in the cel-animation world: a three-time Oscar winner, whose resume includes Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Pink Panther and his unfinished masterwork, The Thief and the Cobbler. Wanting to use the interactivity of the iPad, Williams and his producer Imogen Sutton recently compiled a new app-version of the book.

The app boils the craft of animation down into seventeen chapters, many of which are introduced by videos of Williams. Each chapter dissects core concepts like flexibility, weight, and anticipation. The book provides a vast, browsable encyclopedia of techniques: everything from animal walk cycles to dialogue guides. Williams and Sutton took advantage of the iPad by breaking down frame-by-frame navigable animation examples, some of which include the ability to turn on onion skinning to more precisely understand the spacing and timing of the sequential drawings. This is particularly useful as the iPad also makes for a perfect lightbox, meaning learning by tracing with pencil and paper is a snap: definitely the app’s biggest pro. Though drawing on the iPad still has a long way to go in terms of sensitivity and accuracy, I do wonder if in the next release, tracing directly within the app could be an option.

Screenshots from the app

In addition to granular knowledge, Williams interjects practical advice on things like managing a team and directing—and his own personal insights on the mental tension between working for love vs. profit. Some of his organizational approaches are specific to a pre-computer era, but the overarching psychology of these methods are still useful in coping with the daunting task of collaboratively completing piles of sequential drawings. The pages in the app are pulled directly from the original handwritten and drawn Survival Kit book, which adds considerable charm to what might otherwise be a dry text. 

Screenshots from the app

One of the few things that disappointed me was having seen the DVD lectures, I wish there was more video footage of Williams included in each lesson. In the intro, Williams urges readers to “swallow the whole pill”—to absorb the whole book from start to finish. Though Williams’ personality shines through the pages’ handwriting, IRL Williams has a special knack for exuding all the amazing nuances hidden between frames. His overwhelming passion for animation is infectious and blurs the line between education and entertainment. Watching him explain the techniques he’s amassed through the years makes it easy to plow through chapters, if not gain a deeper appreciation for the illusion of moving drawings. At best, you only get a taste of Williams’ bright teaching methods from a promo included within the extra features. 

Part one of a BBC documentary on Williams from 1965

Even though Williams’ primary tools are a pen and paper, there’s a mountain of principles to be pulled for application to even the most futuristic, creative tools. While the app isn’t cheap (though much less than the DVDs), Williams has done a service by not only sharing what he has learned through his 80 years as an animator, but also archiving the insights gathered by the original pioneers of the field. Artists like: Tex Avery, Milt Kahl, Art Babbit, among others. The most profound aspect of The Animators Survival Kit app is that you are holding a portable version of one man’s legacy. You can feel Williams’ urgency to disseminate his knowledge and awe for his craft—and get the sense that Williams has held onto a youthful wellspring of enthusiasm to push his own personal boundaries. This is only more obviously exemplified through one of the the newly released extra films included in the app—Circus Drawings—a film Williams started in his 20s and completed in his late 70s. Like the printed book and DVDs Williams published in the past, the tools and contents of The Animator’s Survival Kit app are worthy and timeless.