3D Computer Animation Books - Theory and Practice

10 Amazing Books on 3D Computer Animation

One thing about animation is that many of the same principles apply whether you're working traditionally or in 3D. Aside from learning the technical aspects of your software, just about every "golden rule" in traditional animation carries over into the realm of CG.

As a result, only half the books we've listed here are specific to computer animation, while the other half present concepts and knowledge that can be applied whether you're working on paper or in pixels.

Whether you're looking to specialize as a character animator, or want to become a full blown CG generalist, writing, directing, modeling, and animating your own short films, you'll find all the information you need in the books on this list:

Richard Williams

The Animator's Survival Kit is the quintessential animation text. You'll see it on every "best animation" book-list on the internet, and with good reason—Williams is comprehensive and clear, and the book does more to demystify the craft of animation than any volume prior or since.

It's not a technical guide—reading this book won't show you how to set keyframes or use the graph editor in Maya, but it will give you the foundation of knowledge that's necessary to create convincing and entertaining character animation.

Eric Luhta & Kenny Roy

How to Cheat is one of the go-to texts if you want a crash course in the technical side of 3D character animation. There are similar books out there for 3ds Max, but since Maya is the runaway choice for character animators we included this one.

Unlike the Animator's Survival kit, this book focuses on the tools more than the foundation and is meant for someone who already has basic knowledge of the Maya interface.

The previous (2010) version of How to Cheat in Maya is still available on Amazon, but only buy the old volume if you're still using a pre-2010 iteration of the software—otherwise you're better off with the revision.

Todd Palamar & Eric Keller

Yes, Mastering Maya is included on our 3D modeling list as well, but that's because at almost a thousand pages this book covers pretty much the entire spectrum of CG production.

Along with How to Cheat in Maya, this text will tell you exactly which tools you need to use and which buttons you need to press in any given situation. If you already know Maya, and just need to become a more efficient animator, get How to Cheat. But if you're looking for a primer on the whole production pipeline and happen to be using Maya, there's no reason not to have this book in your library.

Ollie Johnston & Frank Thomas

I've seen this book compared to the holy grail on more than one occasion, perhaps because it's written by two men who are nothing short of legendary in the field of animation, but also because the insight and passion they've imparted onto the pages is just that valuable.

Frank & Ollie slip in plenty of practical tidbits, but this isn't so much the book that teaches you animation as it is the one that inspires you to try it. It's an instructional text, but also a historical one, and the authors enthusiastically tell the story of Disney Animation and what it meant to work there while the studio was at its creative peak.

There are better resources for learning composition, timing, or squash and stretch, but as a holistic discussion on the art of western animation, The Illusion of Life has no equal.

Ed Hooks

At their very core, animators have an awful lot in common with actors, so it should be no surprise that a thorough study of acting can greatly improve an animator's understanding of movement, interaction, and expression.

This recently updated gem combines practical acting instruction with scene-by-scene breakdowns from popular CG films like Coraline, Up, and Kung Fu Panda. This is a great, great book, and in my opinion, one you don't want to miss.

John Halas & Harold Whitaker

Even though this book​ is written with traditional animators in mind, it's a gold mine whether you're on cels or in CG. Timing may be the single most important aspect of successful animation, and this book gives you practical guides for proper timing in common animated situations (walk cycles, heavy lifting, bouncing ball, etc.)

The second edition (published in 2009), was updated to include information on 3D workflows, making an excellent resource even better.

Tony Mullen

In our list of books for modelers, we commented on how much Blender has improved in the last few years, and the truth is with Blender being the all-inclusive software package that it is, there's absolutely no reason your financial situation should hold you back from creating exquisite works of 3D art.

Introducing Character Animation will bring you up to date on the Blender 2.5 UI, and runs through (basic) modeling, keyframes, function curves, rigging, and lip syncing in the best open-source CG package in the universe.

Jason Osipa

The art of facial modeling & animation is unique enough from the rest of the pipeline that it really does require a stand-alone textbook, and for many years this has been the definitive treatment o​f the subject.

The information on expression libraries, facial animation, lip syncing, and Python scripting is all excellent. This is also a nice road map for basic facial anatomy, for these things the book is definitely worth the price of admission.

My only complaint is that Jason's modeling workflow is quickly becoming antiquated. He uses vertex modeling for everything in the book. This is fine (even preferable) for laying out a base mesh—it's the easiest way to ensure good topology and edge flow.

But time is money in this industry, and ZBrush/Mudbox can honestly make the facial modeling/blend shape process about a thousand times faster. Hopefully, this book will receive an update in the near future that accounts for digital sculpting in the facial animation workflow.

Francis Glebas

Animators—especially independent animators—must also be storytellers. Whether you're developing your own short film, or just need to know how to frame a shot to create tension, drama, or humor, this book will have something to offer you.

Even if you're a character animator who never plans to direct a short, it's good to know how and why your director's creative decisions were made. And if you happen to be someone with directorial aspirations, well, this is simply one of the best educational resources out there on visual storytelling.

Eric Allen, Kelly L. Murdock, Jared Fong, Adam G. Sidwell

Don't let the bland cover art fool you—even though this book is starting to get on in years, it's still one of the most in-depth and worthwhile resources available on 3d character rigging.

As an animator, you don't necessarily need to learn rigging, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Animators must work very closely with character technical directors to ensure that the characters respond and deform the way they should, and an animator that speaks the rigging language can communicate more successfully with his TD.

Of course, this entry counts double if you're a CG generalist, or if you're working on a student short where you'll actually be the one rigging your models.

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