An Animated Personal Vision : CalArts Teacher Jules Engel Is Honored for Lifetime in Film


Jules Engel, the dapper founding director of the experimental animation program at CalArts in Valencia, will be honored tonight for contributions to animation that began 55 years ago with “Fantasia.”

The occasion will be the 23rd Annual Annie Awards--the animation world’s highest honor--at the Television Academy Theatre in North Hollywood. The 77-year-old artist and educator will be one of three recipients of the Winsor McCay Award, the highest honor awarded by the International Animated Film Society’s Hollywood branch. The prize is named for the legendary creator of “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), America’s first great animated film.

Disney veteran Vance Gerry, and Dan McLaughlin of the UCLA animation department, also will be honored for lifetime contributions to the field.

CalArts has two quite different animation tracks: one in character animation, which prepares students for careers at Disney and other mainstream studios, and Engel’s program in experimental animation.


“The people I get are the artists who have a strong personal vision,” Engel said recently in the Valencia studio he shares with several dozen students who have managed to get into the highly competitive program. Student work hangs on the walls, and Engel points to such state-of-the-art amenities as imported bulletin boards that spontaneously close up the holes made by push pins, the animators’ ubiquitous tool, within 24 hours.

In Engel, the students have a mentor who is an artist in his own right and a man who has participated in several of the major milestones in animation history.

Consider “Fantasia,” for instance, the 1940 film that many critics regard as Walt Disney’s masterpiece.

The Hungarian-born Engel was a young man when he joined Disney’s new studio in Burbank in the heady days after feature animation was invented with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). An abstract painter, Engel was hired to do choreography and color-keying for one of the most famous sequences in “Fantasia,” the Chinese dance that is performed by mushrooms to music from Tchaikovsky’s the “Nutcracker Suite.” (He also choreographed the Russian dance, performed by thistle boys and orchid girls.)

A lover of both ballet and abstract art, Engel was called an egghead by some of his Disney colleagues, a longhair. But, he said, “I brought what they didn’t have. Dancing and movement were in my gut, so for me, it was a piece of cake.”

He emphasized that he was the choreographer, not the animator, of those winning mushrooms and agile thistles. “I was the Balanchine, and the man who animated it [Art Babbitt] was the dancer.”

From “Snow White” on, one of the signatures of a Disney film was its detailed background. But the mushroom dancers appear silhouetted against simple black.

“I fought for this idea,” Engel said. An elaborate background was superfluous, he argued: “You don’t need that crap. You just bring the group together and let them move.”

Engel has always suspected that Disney approved the unprecedented black background because the movie had grown so expensive. Whatever the reason, the decision is seen by many critics as a crucial step in the development of modern, non-naturalistic animation.

Later, while working on “Bambi” (1942), Engel did the storyboard, the visual script that the animators followed, for the meeting between Bambi and the lovely doe Faline.

“Bambi’s” art director, Thomas H. Codrick, had been impressed by the purples, reds and other colors Engel used in the Chinese and Russian dances, a palette that was influenced by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Dufy and other modern artists whom Engel admired. The men working on “Bambi” had largely limited themselves to tawny browns and other real-life tones for their forest tale.

“They didn’t realize they could use all those colors on the deer,” Engel said. “Once they did, it exploded.”

Although his own 49 abstract films couldn’t be less Disneyesque, Engel believes Disney was a giant. “Only two people came out of Hollywood so far of large consequence--Disney and Chaplin,” Engel said. “Disney died in 1966, and he’s still with us.”

Engel’s tenure at Disney ended when he was drafted during World War II and assigned to the Army’s First Animation Unit in Culver City. The Army needed animators to get out such patriotic messages as “Loose lips sink ships and also bring down airplanes.” As Leonard Maltin and other historians of animation point out, the Army didn’t care how innovative the animators were, as long as they got the job done.

The Army animation unit was full of talented artists, Engel said. It was also relatively collegial. Everybody there was in the entertainment industry, and so nobody paid much attention to rank. Everybody knew the war would be over eventually, and then the people who had had pre-war clout, whatever their present rank, would be deciding who worked and who didn’t.

“The little guy in ‘Shane’ . . . Alan Ladd, he was a private,” Engel said. “He was going around picking up butts, but nobody was going to say, ‘Go back. You missed one.’ ”

After the war, Engel joined Hollywood’s newest and most exciting animation studio, United Productions of America, or UPA, which pioneered a jazzy, stylized form of animation that was utterly new. The studio’s first hit was a 1949 short called “Ragtime Bear,” which had a secondary character soon to become an enduring star--the nearsighted Mr. Magoo.

But the studio’s breakthrough cartoon was “Gerald McBoing Boing,” an Oscar winner in 1951, chronicling the adventures of a little boy who couldn’t talk but communicated only in sound effects.

Instead of the realistic milieu of a Disney cartoon, Gerald’s world is a succession of lines and color fields--a world that exists entirely within the imaginations of the men who made it.

“ ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’ was the thing that opened up the whole concept of what animation could be,” Engel said.

What Engel brought to UPA, he said, was its distinctive use of color, more reminiscent of abstract art than of realistic painting. Engel remembers an actress friend gushing about a wonderful French cartoon she had seen about a French schoolgirl, called “Madeline.”

“That wasn’t made in Paris,” Engel told her. “It was made in Burbank!”

In 1959, Engel co-founded his own studio, Format Films, which won an Oscar nomination for a 20-minute animated film called “Icarus,” scripted by Ray Bradbury. The studio folded when the animation industry collapsed in the mid-'60s. In 1968, writer Anais Nin--Henry Miller’s pal--told Engel: “They’re putting up a school in Valencia. I think you should talk to them.” Engel has been at CalArts since its founding 26 years ago; he remembers when red-tailed hawks were the principal residents of the campus.

From the beginning, Engel said, he exposed his students to “the UPA kind of things,” as well as animated films from all over the world. An artist as well as a teacher, Engel paints, sculpts and makes both animated and live-action films. He lives in Westwood, rather than the Santa Clarita Valley, because museums and galleries are nearby.

The CalArts programs have become beacons for aspiring animators around the world. “I had 29 countries in this room today,” Engel said recently, referring to the nationalities of would-be students who had submitted portfolios of their work. Engel said he looks for an indefinable quality in an applicant’s work, “that one something that is totally a personal vision.”

Premier Disney animator Glen Keane was one of his students, as was Henry Selick, the director of “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). Other Engel proteges include MTV animator Peter Chung; performance artist Kathy Rose, who combines animation and dance, and Mark Kirkland, director of “The Simpsons.”

Vanessa Schwartz is another in whom Engel saw a spark. Schwartz, now 26 and a master’s degree candidate at CalArts, was studying costume design when she first met Engel. “I didn’t know anything about animation,” she recalled. But she confessed to Engel that she was dissatisfied. She wanted to sew less and deal with character more.

Engel asked to see some of her costume drawings and advised her to study animation. “He told me, ‘You may not end up an animator, but animation would be good training for you.”

Schwartz’s animated short, “The Janitor,” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994. As to wandering into Engel’s domain, she said, “I think I got really lucky.”