Jules Engel

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Jules Engel (March 11, 1909 – September 6, 2003) was an American filmmaker, painter, sculptor, graphic artist, set designer, animator, film director, and teacher. He was the founding director of the Experimental Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he taught until his death, serving as mentor to several generations of animators.

Early life[edit]

Engel was born in Budapest, Hungary and immigrated to Chicago at the age of thirteen, where he grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and attended Evanston Township High School. In 1937, Engel traveled to Los Angeles originally to gain an athletic scholarship to either the USC, or the UCLA, as he was on the track team while in high school. He would eventually settle in Hollywood and study at the Chouinard Art Institute in downtown Los Angeles. It was during his studies at Chouinard that he met many artists who would go on to work for Walt Disney Animation Studios, and who would later recommend that he work there. In the meantime, he worked for Charles Mintz Studios as an inbetweener.

Disney period, Fantasia and Bambi (1938–1941)[edit]

A year later, he was asked by Disney Studios to work on the film Fantasia, which was released in 1940. At the time, Disney Studios was intending to integrate "low" art (animation) and "high" art (classical music), and the studio needed someone who was familiar with the timing of dance. Because of his drawing talent and his growing knowledge of dance, Engel was assigned to storyboard the Russian sprites and Chinese mushrooms dance sequences of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.


For the Nutracker Suite sequence, Engel emphasized the contrast between the bright figures and dark ground. The Chinese Dance routine has brought much debate in the animation community surrounding Engel, Art Babbitt, and Elmer Plummer over who can claim responsibility for the sequence. Engel could claim responsibility for the choreography (timing) for the final sequence, but to this day, animation scholars and former students alike continue to debate the issue.[citation needed]


The director of Bambi, David Hand, asked Engel to do color work for the film, which was released in 1942. He worked on the timing for the sequence where Bambi first encounters his childhood playmate, Faline, which required a lot of movement analysis. After completing the sequence, he became committed to the entirety of the project after hearing the score for the film, which he thought had a lot of abstraction and movement. He began doing color sketches because he felt that the color schemes they were using during production was too naturalistic. Engel's time at Disney would come to an end with the development of the Disney animators' strike. While the union won the case over the studio, Engel didn't go back, largely because while he enjoyed the place, he felt uncomfortable being surrounded by colleagues that he felt didn't share his passion for the aesthetics of animation.[citation needed]

Motion Picture Unit (1942–1944)[edit]

During World War II, he was in the service alongside the likes of actor Ronald Reagan, and famed children's book writer Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in the First Motion Picture Unit as an animator. Originally, Engel was waiting to be drafted in the U.S. Army, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight (indicated by his glasses), and a bad shoulder. He was adamant in joining the war cause because he did not want to deal with the embarrassment of facing up to his friends who were already drafted.[citation needed] The Air Force eventually recruited Engel for the Motion Picture Unit to work on training videos and war bond advertisements. He would eventually work on drawing instructions for the newer models of the weapons being produced, and maps based from looking down from an airplane, where he infused his earlier practice of abstraction.

UPA days (1944–1959)[edit]

Engel was one of a group of animators which also included William Hurtz, John Hubley, and Herbert Klynn who later left Disney to join the United Productions of America studio. At UPA, Engel worked as a background artist on cartoons like Gerald McBoing Boing, Madeline, and Mr. Magoo. The environment at UPA was much more open-minded to change, unlike his former employer, Disney.[citation needed] It was during this period where Engel was not only inspired by paintings by Kandinsky, and Klee, but also Miró, Matisse, and Dufy, as well as the Bauhaus book "Language of Vision". Engel would later claim responsibility for discovering the children's book Madeline, and suggesting to Stephen Bosustow to buy, copyright and develop the series.[citation needed]

In 1945, Hazel Guggenheim (of the art patronage family) arranged for Engel to have his first exhibition of painting at the Frederick Kahn Gallery in Los Angeles. As the story goes, Engel and Guggenheim were visiting the gallery when Ms. Guggenheim suggested that Mr. Kahn should give Engel an exhibition. Taken by surprise, Engel agreed to have an exhibition if Kahn would agree not to sell anything.[citation needed]

Format films (1959–1962)[edit]

With former UPA colleagues Herbert Klynn and Buddy Getzler, Engel launched Format Films, and produced several popular US television series, including The Alvin Show (1961–62) and The Lone Ranger (1966–67), as well as one-off animated shorts, among them the Ray Bradbury-scripted, and Oscar-nominated, Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), and 11 subcontracted LT/MM Road Runner shorts.

Live-action in Paris[edit]

In 1962, Engel left for Paris where he directed a French animated cartoon, The World of Sine, which received the French Label Qualité Award. The World of Sine was purchased and released throughout Europe by Jacques Tati.

In Paris in 1964, Engel co-directed The Little Prince, with Raymond Gerome. This was a theatre production combined with animation and live performance on stage.

He was set designer for Le Jouex, and avant garde play starring Michelle Boucett.

While he was in Paris and after he had come to the attention of renowned cartoonist Siné, a fan of the UPA work, Engel directed an experimental live-action film, Coaraze, which won the Prix Jean Vigo. During his stay in Paris, he was friendly with other artists at the time, including Man Ray. In the late 1960s he began making his own personal fine art animation. He also made several documentaries on other artists.

"To CalArts and Beyond!"[edit]

Returning to the U.S., Engel continued his films on artists, directing a film for Tamarind Lithography Workshop called A look at a Lithographer and American Sculpture of the Sixties and also a film, Max Bill, about the Swiss artist.

In 1968, Engel's friend Anaïs Nin introduced him to Robert Corrigan,the first president of Cal Arts. Corrigan hired Engel to start an animation program at Cal Arts' new campus in Valencia. In 1970, Engel became the Founding Director of CalArts' Program in Experimental Animation, widely recognized as one of the world's foremost centers for animation arts. In 2001, CalArts hailed his indelible contribution to the arts by conferring on him the title of Institute Fellow, the highest honor it awards to faculty. The Fellowship has only been given to two other faculty to date, Alexander Mackendrick, and Mel Powell.


Engel died of natural causes on September 6, 2003 in Los Angeles County. He was 94. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie was dedicated to him.

Continuing his legacy[edit]

In one of his final major acts, in May 2003, Engel established the Jules Engel Endowed Scholarship Fund. The recipients of the awards are those students who have carried out their work at CalArts in Jules' name, having demonstrated rigor, daring imagination and great curiosity about the world, leading to inventive, interdisciplinary projects.

Engel was also a painter and produced a prolific body of oil paintings, lithographs and other graphic artworks. His paintings are in the collections of major museums, and recently there have been exhibits of his work at Tobey C. Moss Gallery in Los Angeles. He was still working on a new series of lithographs just before his death.

Today, many of his students carry out his influence through their work, including John Lasseter, Henry Selick, Tim Burton, Stephen Hillenburg, Joanna Priestley, Christine Panushka, Peter Chung, Glen Keane, Ellen Woodbury, Eric Darnell, Mark Osborne, Steven Subotnick, Fern Seiden, Patrice Stellest, Janeann Dill and Mark Kirkland.

The Engel Animation Advancement Research Center (EAARC) offers a slate of animated shorts drawn from leading international festivals. The program is structured around the themes of personal struggle and forbidden desire in the context of a polarized, conflicted world.

Former students of Engel, Christine Panushka and Dr. Janeann Dill, currently act as his representatives for some matters (excluding his films, which are not administered by them). Panushka served as the executor as Engel's estate, while Dr. Dill is his biographer. In 2003, Center for Visual Music (CVM) and Cal Arts presented a major retrospective of Engel's films at Redcat Theatre, Los Angeles. Both iotaCenter and CVM have preserved a number of Engel's films in an effort to preserve his cinematic legacy. CVM established the Jules Engel Preservation Project shortly after Jules' death.

In 2008, CalArts celebrated what would have been the 100th Birthday of Engel at REDCAT to continue the Endowed Jules Engel Fellowship, the Jules Engel Centenary Celebration, at which a panel of former students remembered their mentor and where a seven-minute short film of excerpts from a documentary film by Janeann Dill was screened: JULES ENGEL: AN ARTIST FOR ALL SEASONS. See The Institute for Interdisciplinary Art and Creative Intelligence (IIACI), a virtual ThinkTank advancing the critical study and creative practice of the global arts across the disciplines.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, co-written and directed by Stephen Hillenburg (who was one of Engel's students at the California Institute of the Arts), is dedicated to him.


External links[edit]

Work and statements by Engel