Jules Engel, 94; Innovator in Animation Art

Special to The Times

Jules Engel, an animation artist and painter known for his work at the Walt Disney, UPA and Format Films studios before establishing the Experimental Animation Program at California Institute of the Arts, died Saturday of natural causes at a hospice in Simi Valley. He was 94.

In addition to his teaching and painting, Engel was an independent filmmaker who created nearly three dozen abstract shorts between 1963 and 1998 that were shown at festivals around the world.

For his films, Engel received five Cine Golden Eagle Awards, the Norman McLaren Heritage Award from the National Film Board of Canada and the Annie Award from ASIFA/Hollywood.

But Engel made his greatest impact on the art of animation through his teaching.


Pixar’s John Lasseter, Oscar-winning director of the “Toy Story” films and a graduate of CalArts, said that although he was not one of Engel’s students, he would go to him for advice.

“Jules always encouraged me to think beyond traditional approaches, yet to stay within the framework of character animation,” Lasseter said.

Larry Cuba, the founder of the iotaCenter, a nonprofit arts organization devoted to abstract animation and visual music, said Engel “changed the animation landscape” by nurturing, with his vision and loving nature, the many talented artists and animators who studied with him.

“Jules was the standard-bearer for abstract art in animation,” Cuba said.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1909, Engel moved to Oak Park, Ill., at the age of 13. After studying briefly at UCLA on a track scholarship, he went to work as a landscape sketch artist, then took an entry-level position at the Charles Mintz studio. In January 1939, he joined the Disney Studio as a trainee. He later moved to the story department, where he contributed ideas to “Fantasia” (1940) and “Bambi.” (1941).

During World War II, Engel served in the Army Air Forces in a motion picture unit that produced military training films at the former Hal Roach Studio in Culver City. Illustrator Van Kaufman, who served with Engel, recalled in a 1982 interview that Engel “was excellent at the semi-abstract style we used on a lot of the military films.”

Along with many other artists from the film unit, Engel joined the fledgling United Productions of America (UPA) in 1944. UPA pioneered the use of modern graphics and limited animation in America, winning Oscars for “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (1950), “When Magoo Flew” (1954) and “Mister Magoo’s Puddle Jumper” (1956). Engel worked on many of the UPA shorts as a color stylist and background painter.

“Jules was a good background painter: He could follow a style, and he had the sensitivity to follow the lead of the designers,” former UPA President Stephen Bosustow said in an interview some years ago. “So he was very valuable; he wasn’t a guy who just put on paint on a background card.”


In 1959, Engel and his friend Herb Klynn, another UPA veteran, organized Format Films, the studio that produced “The Alvin Show” (1961) and an animated version of “The Lone Ranger” (1966). At Format, Engel produced the Oscar-nominated short “Icarus Montgolfier Wright” (1962), which Ray Bradbury adapted from his short story.

Engel went to CalArts as the school was being organized in 1968. He established the Experimental Animation Program and was named a fellow of the institute in 2001.

“I let the students find their own style,” he once said. “It’s not what I give my students. It’s what I don’t take away.”

Many of his students became noted animators and filmmakers: Glen Keane, who animated the title characters in Disney’s “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan”; director Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Ed Wood” and “Beetlejuice”); Christine Panushka, USC School of Cinema-Television professor; Eric Darnell (“Antz”); Peter Chung (“Aeon Flux”); and Vanessa Schwartz (“The Janitor”).


“Jules’ constant refrain was that in animation, everything is possible -- it’s a medium with absolutely no limitations,” Keane said. “He was most critical when he saw you following any established path, and always tried to get you to do something that was uniquely your own. I came to animation knowing absolutely zero, and he served as my guide for two years. After nearly three decades at Disney, I still cling to the ideas he planted during those years.”

John Canemaker, director of animation studios at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, said, “Jules was an amazing, charismatic teacher who was not only an influence on the hundreds of students he taught during almost 30 years at CalArts, but was also an inspiration to animation teachers around the world -- including myself.”

Engel was also an abstract painter, participating in group shows at the Chicago Art Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His work was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Jack Rutberg and Tobey C. Moss galleries in Los Angeles.

His last exhibit, “Films, Paintings, Drawings, Constructions and Lithographs,” was held at the Moss Gallery earlier this year.


Engel left no immediate family. A memorial service will be held at the Old North Church, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Friends suggested that donations be made to the Jules Engel Scholarship Fund at CalArts or the Jules Engel Preservation Project (contact: Cindy Keefer: