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Literature / The Illusion of Life

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"This book is about Disney character animation, an art form that created such world-famous cartoon figures as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Disney animation makes audiences really believe in those characters, whose adventures and misfortunes make people laugh—and even cry. There is a special ingredient in our type of animation that produces drawings that appear to think and make decisions and act of their own volition; it is what creates the illusion of life."

The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation note  is a Non-Fiction instructional/historical book that was commissioned by Walt Disney himself prior to his death to be written by Les Clark, who was with Disney all the way from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit up to Walt's death. However, Clark died in 1979 while doing preliminary research for the book. An attempt to complete the book was made in the 1980s in a large collaboration project with many surviving Golden Age and Dark Age Disney veterans, the project being spearheaded by two of Disney's Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

The book was published in 1981, and has received universal acclaim and excellent sales, considered by many to be one of the best books on animation available. It has never been out of print since. There is also an abridged paperback "Popular Edition" of the book that removes around 200 pages of content and starts off right around the third chapter, with the section about the 12 Principles of Animation. It also received three companion books, also authored by Frank and Ollie; Too Funny For Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags, The Disney Villain and Bambi: The Story and the Film. A companion art book, Treasures of Disney Animation Art, was also published by John Canemaker (complete with identical cover art to The Illusion of Life, despite having completely different content), containing artwork that Frank and Ollie wanted to put into The Illusion of Life, but simply didn't have room for.

Also the Trope Namer of The Twelve Principles of Animation, which are discussed in the third chapter of the book.

Makes a great companion to The Animator's Survival Kit and Preston Blair Animation 1.

Has nothing to do with existential crises, nihilism (the books idealistic philosophy, like virtually all Disney works, is just the opposite) or with Platonic Cave.

Tropes Used By This Book:

  • Art Evolution: Given that it's a history book about Disney animation, it inevitably contrasts the older stick figure and rubber hose drawing styles with the more naturalistic drawing style Disney developed and refined from the mid 1930's and onward. In particular, it highlights Fred Moore's redesign of Mickey Mouse in "Pluto's Judgement Day" as a big step forward, by changing Mickey's design from a stiff dumbbell to a flexible, spongy pear shape.
  • Bowdlerise: The Goofy character analysis near the end of the book is a condensed version that censors the original 1934 version, which made an unfortunate comparison of Goofy to a "Coloured Boy". The unabridged analysis was posted on Michael Sporn's Splog. Years later, the complete lecture would be presented in Don Hahn's book "Before Ever After", with the only change being the outdated "good-natured coloured boy" line being edited into "good-natured boy".
  • Compressed Adaptation: The "Popular Edition" of the book axes out 200 pages of the book and starts off right at the chapter about the 12 Principles of Animation.
  • Declarative Finger: Brought up in the book, as it was very commonly used by early animators who were still getting used to animating dialogue and thus having to time the accents of the characters actions to it. When the animators got better at finding ways to do this, the finger pointing was derided as cliche and faded out as a result.
  • Digital Destruction: The original 1981 book was printed on high quality paper and the illustrations were more crisp looking. When the book was reprinted later in the 80's and 90's, Disney found out that the original photographic plates for the book were lost or destroyed, so they were forced to scan pages from the original book in high quality and use them as the source materials for the reprints so they wouldn't have to go to the painstaking effort of reconstructing the entire book from scratch. While the reprints aren't bad at all, a side-by-side comparison of the first edition and its reprints reveals a noticeable drop in printing quality.
  • Disney School of Acting and Mime: Discussed frequently throughout the book. Frank and Ollie make a point that the reason the Disney animators do this kind of acting is because it's simply impossible for animation to match the same level of subtle acting or screen precense as live action, even with tools that closely try to emulate it like rotoscoping, and that it's more sensible to exaggerate rather than directly copy real life.
    "The actor is trained to know these symbols of communication because they are his tools in trade. Basically, the animator is the actor in animated films. He is many other things as well; however, in his efforts to communicate his ideas, acting becomes his most important device. But the animator has a special problem. On the stage, all the foregoing symbols are accompanied by some kind of personal magnetism that can communicate the feelings and attitudes equally as well as the action itself. There is a spirit in this kind of communication that is extremely alive and vital. However, wonderful as the world of animation is, it is too crude to capture completely that kind of subtlety. If in animation we are trying to show that a character is sad, we droop the shoulders, slump the body, drop the head, add a long face, and drag the feet. Yet those same symbols also can mean that the character is tired, or discouraged, or even listless. We can add a tear and pinpoint our attitude a little better, but that is the extent of our capabilities."
  • Door Stopper: Over 550 pages, it'll take you a long time to read through this thing. The Popular Edition less so, since it axes 200 pages of content.
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: Walt Disney's thinking expression. Which coincidentally was pretty much his only expression during meetings.
  • History of Animation: Goes into some detail about what was going on at Disney during their Golden Age and Dark Age, and several works from The Silent Age of Animation are occasionally brought up.
  • Lazy Artist: Strongly discouraged in the Solid Drawing part of the "Principles of Animation" chapter, which stresses how much of a handicap it is to be an animator without proper drawing skills;
    "The old-timers were hard pressed to keep up with the demands of the new type of animation. More than one man counseled the beginners, "You should learn to draw as well as possible before starting to animate." Grim Natwick, whose animation career started in New York in 1924, pointed out, "The better you can draw, the easier it'll be for you. You'll have to draw the character in all positions and from every angle; and if you can't do it, and have to stage it from some other angle, it's very restrictive and takes longer." Marc Davis was more philosophic a few years later; "Drawing is giving a performance; an artist is an actor who is not limited by his body, only by his ability and, perhaps, experience." Too many of the men, old and new, were full of tricks and techniques that had looked great in cartooning school but did nothing for them at the Disney studio. The little shadows under the toes of the shows, the slick line, the flashy verve of clothing reacting to violent exertion—all these devices that had impressed us in high school were of little use anymore."
  • Medal of Dishonor: One anecdote mentions that story meetings that weren't successful would have other storymen bestow the "Bomb of the Week" (or Big Bomb Award for Worst Sketch of the Week) award on the drawings. A "1st prize" likewise existed if the storyboard was approved.
  • Milholland Relationship Moment: On the section on exaggeration, animator Dave Hand recalls how he had to do a scene from 1931's Traffic Troubles six times with Walt telling him each time that it wasn't funny enough. Finally, Dave has enough and makes the action so exaggerated he was sure it would get him fired. He ran the scene for Walt, who then turns around and says, "There, Dave, that's just what I wanted." When Dave became a director, he would tell his animators to "make it so extreme that you make me mad".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The book highlights the Silly Symphonies short "Who Killed Cock Robin" for its caricature of iconic actress Mae West, which so effectively caricatured her beyond the level of a Shallow Parody, that Mae herself lauded it!
  • Pungeon Master: Ham Luske. The more unfunny was the pun, the more he laughed and the more annoyed were his coworkers...which made him laugh even harder.
  • Shown Their Work: There's a reason this book is considered one of the best books on animation available.
  • Sidekick: One of the reasons why Disney films frequently featured sidekicks and animal companions is that Frank and Ollie believed "broad cartoon characters" would be able to carry the story more easily. Disney protagonists tended to be more grounded and did not have strong enough attitudes to carry the story alone.
  • Spiritual Successor: Frank and Ollie would author three companion books; Too Funny For Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags (which elaborates on the story and gag process at Disneys, as well as gag techniques), The Disney Villain, and Bambi: The Story and the Film. Treasures of Disney Animation Art counts as this too, since its loaded with artwork that Frank and Ollie didn't have room to put into The Illusion of Life and even reuses the cover art for Illusion of Life.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: It is discussed in the book that anyone who merely states their feelings is not acting.
  • The Twelve Principles of Animation: Not only the Trope Namer, but also the most famous chapter of the entire book.
  • Unintentional Uncanny Valley: Discussed in chapter 13, which delves into the subject of applying live action reference to animation and gives suggestions on how to avoid falling into this.
    "When we say "real", we mean only what the audience accepts as being real, for obviously a real animal cannot act or emote as broadly as animators require. The more an animator goes toward caricaturing the animal, the more he seems to be capturing the essence of that animal, and the more he is creating possibilities for acting. For example, if we had drawn real deer in Bambi there would have been so little acting potential that no one would have believed the deer really existed as characters. But because we drew what people imagine a deer looks like, with a personality to match, the audience accepted our drawings as being completely real. Of course, style and design are part of this, too. A caricature cannot be made without them. But the big point is that characters on the screen appear to be most real when they can be animated to have personalities and this only can be done when there is potential for movement in all parts of the body. In other words, the more realistically animals are drawn, the less real they will appear on the screen.