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CalArts celebrates the 100th birthday of animation pioneer Jules Engel

CalArts celebrates the 100th birthday of animation pioneer Jules Engel

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This past Saturday, film directors and animators gathered to pay tribute to Hungarian-born artist Jules Engel, a man whose work combined a modernist orientation of serious art with the commercial leanings of animated films. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of his birth. A small man, usually photographed in a chapeau and ascot, with black-rimmed glasses as though he needed to study the world in detail, Engel is not one of the celebrated character animators from the Golden Age of animation. No, he did not favor realistic representation of characters or scenery. His personal films are mostly abstract—a series of shapes and colors gracing the silver screen.Though his work is relatively unknown in the animation community, his influence can be seen in everything from flash animation to afternoon cartoons, from "The Simpsons" to big budget Hollywood films, such as "Coraline."

Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

In 1937, Engel moved to Los Angeles with the intention of attending either USC or UCLA, hopefully with the aid of a track scholarship. He had a range of interests: art, athletics and dance. But instead of attending USC or UCLA, he enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, where he met many artists employed by Disney. His first studio job was with the Charles Mintz Studio, where he worked as an inbetweener—that is, as an entry-level animator who creates drawings that are inserted “inbetween” the more significant pose drawings produced by senior animators. He worked there for a year. In 1938, after learning that Walt Disney needed an animator who also understood ballet, he quit his current job, where the low-grade animation was entirely commercial, and took a desk at the Disney Studios, where he choreographed sequences for "Fantasia."

Engel paired the movements of classical dance with the whimsy and color of animation.Commercial art combined with high art. He composed storyboard drawings that, pose-by-pose, defined the dance sequences for much of the film. His work can clearly be observed in the Chinese Mushroom Dance and the Russian Thistle Dance.

By the mid-1940s, Engel had grown tired of the Disney style, with its leanings toward classical representation, and found work at UPA, where studio executives were more open to experimentation. There, he worked on the Mr. Magoo cartoons, as well as Gerald McBoing Boing and Madeline.

By the 1960s, Engel’s interests were moving beyond the world of commercial animation entirely. He spent time in Paris, where he discussed post-modern trends with artists such as Man Ray. He developed a stage play that incorporated elements of animation into its narrative. By now, his personal art was almost entirely focused on abstraction, shapes and colors, as though he had completely absorbed the artistic leanings of the age.

Jules Engle
Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

After returning to California, Engel created animation from abstract art. His new aesthetic can be observed in the films, “Train Landscape” and "CMobile,” both of which use only shapes and lines to create a visual experience.

But his new aesthetic can be best illustrated in the film, “Accident,” which features the silhouette of a greyhound running across the track. “Accident” contains only 20 individual drawings, but when looped, the drawings present continuous action: the dog forever running. With each subsequent loop, Engel begins to erase or unmake the figure of the dog. At first, a smudge. Then a smear. Then the ghosting of the torso. Until the figure is nothing more than a series of erasure marks beautifully whispering across the screen.From figure to abstraction in under three minutes.

Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

For the final thirty years of his life, he directed the CalArt’s program in Experimental Animation.Separate from the school’s program in character animation, Engel’s program encouraged students to create short animated films with strong personal meaning. These films often relied on images and artistic styles that were not commonly employed in studio animation. His students included Tim Burton (producer of "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), Mark Kirkland (director of over 60 episodes of "The Simpsons"), John Lasseter (director of "Toy Story"), Henry Selick (director of "James and the Giant Peach" and "Coraline"), and Stephen Hillenburg (creator of "SpongeBob Squarepants").

During this week’s tribute, six graduates of CalArt’s experimental program explained how Engel’s influenced their later work. Interestingly, in every single example, these animators explained that Engel’s influence did not direct them toward abstraction, but rather toward creative experimentation. They remembered him as exacting yet encouraging, caring yet honest.

Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

The youngest of the animators, Jorge Gutierrez, told the story of Engel reviewing his audition portfolio for CalArts. By now, well over 80 years old, Engel expressed open hostility for bland commercial drawing, art that wasn’t tied to personal expression.“You know what this is?” Engel asked, pointing to Gutierrez’s cartoon drawing of a barbarian.

“A barbarian?” Guitterez ventured.

“No,” Engel said. “It’s crap.”

Then Engel turned to a different page, where he started to chuckle at one of the images. “Is this supposed to be funny?”

“I don’t know.”

Engel stopped laughing then deadpanned the young artist. “Cause it’s not.”

Engel was about to direct Gutierrez to apply for the Character Animation program, but then he noticed a set of paintings inspired by Mexican folk art. He looked at them and asked about the clear influence of Mexican muralists on Gutierrez’s work. “If you can make this move, and if you make this into a film, then you can make magic,” he said. “Because this,” he added, pointing to the painting, “this is who you are. And this is where you’re from. All the other crappy stuff you showed me is what you like. But this is who you are.”

A few years after graduating, Gutierrez developed the show "El Tigre" for Nickelodeon, a show that combined commercial animation with images inspired by Mexican folk art.

Mark Kirkland, director of "The Simpsons," explained that Engel’s influence could be found in the show’s inventiveness. As an example, he explained the development of one of the show’s more famous “sofa gags.” In this particular sequence, Homer begins life as a single cell organism before evolving into a fish, a lizard, a rat, an ape, and finally a man. The entire gag last roughly a minute and concludes when Homer arrives home to find his family sitting on the sofa, with Marge asking: “What took you so long?”

Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

Lastly, Henry Selick, director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" "Coraline," explained that it was Jules Engel who showed him that narrative could be expressed with images outside of the traditions of commercial animation. “It was actually the puppet animated films that Jules showed me,” he said, “that got me hooked on puppet animation.” To showcase Engel’s influence, Selick presented clips from his work, including his student films and "The Nightmare Before Christmas." But the most direct influence could be seen in "Coraline." As Coraline explores the boundaries of her “Other Mother’s domain,” toward the film’s climax, the world begins to unmake itself, disintegrating into a collection of lines and boxes, shapes and colors, the background images briefly unraveling into the abstract.

Henry Selik
Henry Selick (R) waits his turn to speak at Saturday night's roundtable discussion
Photo by Todd James Pierce

The presentation concluded with a reception, where individuals were invited to view easel displays of Engel’s art—pieces pointedly arranged to demonstrate that current trends in animation have roots far deeper than the traditions of Disney, Warner Brothers and UPA. They extend into experimentation and abstraction, the type of art Engel once constructed into film.

Copyright 2009 Cal Arts. All Rights Reserved

Did you enjoy today's story? If so, then head on over to ToddJamesPierce.com to check out some of this author's other articles. 

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