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Review of Animators Unearthed: A Guide to the Best of Contemporary Animation

By Walton Wood

Robinson, Chris. Animators Unearthed: A Guide to the Best of Contemporary Animation. New York, NY; London, UK: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Animators Unearthed begins with Chris Robinson’s diagnosis of, and proceeds as a response to, the seemingly universal situation of contemporary animation: while the graphic novel continues to rise in popularity and legitimacy, animated films (which make comparable artistic strides) are relegated to the same pile as generic mass-market “cartoons”. While Robinson acknowledges that animated television shows can be artistic and certainly enjoyable, his goal is to showcase contemporary animation’s best and most underappreciated (read: generally unknown) artists. In this sense, it is the spiritual successor to his 2006 Unsung Heroes of Animation, as it offers another round of this historian/commentator’s top picks from the animation scene.

The most immediately striking aspect of the book is how easily it reads; there is no real criticism, and “auteur” (used only once, but undergirding Robinson’s approach) is the sole theoretical term to be found. Instead, Robinson keeps the spotlight firmly focused on the artists themselves. Their animated films are frequently summarized and interpreted for uninitiated and underexposed readers, but these editorial forays are always grounded in, and frequently interpreted through, the artist’s biography: how they came to animation, how they survive as artists, what influences their art, and how it is produced. As such, Animators Unearthed itself isn’t a “deep” study, but it does implicitly suggest itself as a resource—or at least a starting point— in any cultural inquiry regarding the filmmakers, their work, and the current international environment.

Several small, black-and-white images are provided at the start of each chapter, usually a portrait of the artist and a couple scenes from his/her work. While these work fine, more illustrations of a higher quality would have been a nice touch—particularly since Robinson’s intended popular audience (and even professional and academic readers, for that matter) may have a difficult time getting their hands on some of the films mentioned and discussed.

The book’s problems are formal ones. One example, largely inconsequential but still representative, is in the last chapter: the artist under examination is Joanna Quinn, but most of the page headers read “Skip Battaglia” (the subject of the first chapter). Along these same lines, the book is plagued by quotations and parenthetical statements that go unclosed, or else close without having opened. This is not a serious problem from the standpoint of reading, as it’s usually fairly clear where these statements begin or end, but it is nonetheless persistent throughout the book.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the absolute lack of citation or reference. Animators Unearthed is stuffed to the brim with quotations and interesting information about the authors, their processes, and histories, but Robinson doesn’t let us in on exactly how he learned all of these tidbits. As the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (the biggest and oldest animation event in North America), it’s a safe bet that Robinson comes into contact with the animators fairly frequently—but his precise means and dates of contact go undisclosed.

All of that said, there is nothing horribly wrong or broken about Animators Unearthed as a piece of writing. On the contrary, it is incredibly enjoyable and fun to read, even if the animators and films under discussion are frequently strange or unsettling—like Chris Landreth’s disturbing surrealist depictions, or Joanna Quinn’s real-life abduction by nuns. At times, as when detailing Landreth’s relationship and work with Ryan Larkin, or praising Don Hertzfeldt’s I Am So Proud of You, Robinson expresses a deep-seated emotional response stemming from an awe of, and respect for, these artists and their work. Robinson, in short, never misses a beat; his style is subjectively charged and unapologetic, but maintains a consistently entertaining and straightforward approach.

Finally, some of the greatest pleasures of this book are the flashes of recognition it brings: remembering a beloved short or skit and suddenly being able to put a name and face with the artist. And that, of course, is precisely what Animators Unearthed aims for: it successfully highlights the brilliant minds behind those animations that we know and introduces us to the ones behind those we never knew existed.

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