Jules Engel, Mentor & Inspired Artist Passes

We are sad to report that Jules Engel, founding director of CalArts’ Experimental Animation program, passed away on Sunday. Born in 1918 in Budapest, Hungary, Engel began his professional career in animation as a color designer at the Walt Disney studio. Although his credits include work on such classics as Disney’s Bambi and UPA’s Gerald McBoing-Boing, he is best known as a mentor to literally hundreds of students. Engel died quietly in the company of friends on Sunday evening at a Simi Valley, Calif. hospice.

In conjunction with his lifetime achievement award from the Italian festival Cartoons on the Bay, Animation Magazine featured a look at Engel’s career. Here we reprint it in full:

Hungarian Rhapsodist: Jules Engel, a master of animated movement and expression is honored at Cartoons on the Bay

BY CINDY KEEFER AND RAMIN ZAHED

“Do you know the dancing mushroom scene in Fantasia?” asks renowned animator and CalArts professor Jules Engel. “Well, that was me!” The man behind the famous Chinese and Russian dance sequences in the Disney classic explains, “They wanted all these flowers and junk in that scene … and I thought why don’t you just make it simple. Just focus on the mushrooms.”

Throughout his fascinating life and career, this quest for simplicity and a sophisticated appreciation for art and beauty has always steered the animator in the right direction. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Engel moved to the U.S. as a young man. After a stint in the army, he began his career in the late 1930s at Walt Disney Studios where he was first recognized for his work on Bambi and Fantasia.

“We were working on a scene for Bambi, and originally we could only hear a frog,” recalls Engel during a leisurely Saturday lunch at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. “Walt [Disney] came up with the idea that it wasn’t enough just to hear the frog … we had to see it. And you know what? He was absolutely right. All those first dozen pictures–they were all Walt. He had a complete feeling for what would work and what wouldn’t.”

Engel was also one of the original members of United Productions of America (UPA), where, during the ’50s, he worked on classics such as Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing and Madeline. According to his biographer, Dr. Janeann Dill, Engel has created more than 33 personal films and received five Golden Eagle awards, an Annie Award, a Winsor McCay Award, the Fritz Award, a Jean Vigo Award, and the Norman McLaren Heritage Award.

In 1960, Engel received an Oscar nomination for Icarus Montgolfier Wright, a film scripted by Ray Bradbury and directed and produced by Engel and his partners at Format Films, the late Herb Klynn and Buddy Getzler. Coaraze, a film Engel made in France in 1965, garnered the Jean Vigo Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar.

“I was recently watching one of those UPA shorts like A Unicorn in the Garden, and the colors are still amazing,” he says. “People always think they are made in Europe, because they have a different feel to them.”

As the founding director of the CalArts Experimental Animation Program, Engel has taught several generations of students about the importance of his favorite art form. His former students include Henry Selick, Eric Darnell, Kathy Rose, Stephen Hillenburg, Joyce Bornstein, Mark Kirkland, Christine Panushka, Joanna Priestly and John Lasseter.

The key to being a good teacher, he says, is not being the king of the classroom. “They should look at you as a friend, not the enemy. You can’t criticize them harshly, because artists are very sensitive. Never forget that you’re dealing with art. You’re playing with color and shapes. It’s not medicine. These aren’t life-threatening things. Don’t forget to have fun.”

“Experimental animation is closer to music, which can move away from any obvious image, and gives us an experience that can only be the property of music,” he has noted in his classes. “In my work, movement in itself is the expression that gives us both an aesthetic and an emotional experience.”

Engel’s lifelong aesthetic journey hits another high point this April when he receives the prestigious Pulcinella Award for Career Achievement at the Seventh Annual Cartoons on the Bay Festival in Positano, Italy. A still from one of his works titled Rumble was recently featured in the Los Angeles Times, and the short screened at The L.A. County Museum of Art as part of iotaCenter’s touring exhibition series. In addition, seven of his films are on their way to Spain for the ANIMAC Festival as part of a special tribute; a show of his artwork is slated for spring; and his biography is in progress.

Engel often talks about the influences of other art forms on animation. “In my teaching I show a lot of experimental filmmaking to my students, or rather, films that I think are of consequence,” he notes. “I also show not only films, but enormous amounts of works by Picasso, artists like Kandinsky, and the English painter Francis Bacon. I show the work of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as well, because all of this has to do with movement; animation is about movement.”

He likes to refer to his films as visual music, and calls the background a sound score. He states that the use of color could be close or distant, and by its use, lines could be in an active or passive state. He explains that color can create space, it can project the coming scene or situation, it can be dramatic or expressive for any form or inhibition.

And what does the master animator make of all this attention? “It’s incredible,” he smiles, glowing with a certain Old World charm. “You’re just going along your own path in life, and suddenly, all these things come your way. I am very lucky, you know. Everything is moving in a good direction. [Abstract animation] has been around for a long time. It’s a good healthy time to present it to the world.”

When asked about his reaction to the restored prints of his films, he says, “I look at the films now with a different eye. When you show them to other people, you can see they’re working. They prove themselves with time. But they need to get out so other people can enjoy them besides me!”

Fans of this accomplished artist can take a magical expressionist journey with him as he continues to make magnificent art. He will have a show of 32 new prints at Tobey Moss’s gallery in Los Angeles this spring (http://www.tobeymossgallery.com). For those who may not be able to attend the Cartoons on the Bay tribute, this exhibit is a wonderful way to appreciate the lasting legacy of a 20th century artistic pioneer.

Cindy Keefer is director of the iotaCenter in Los Angeles, a non-profit study center and archive, working with the preservation, access, distribution and exhibition of abstract and avant-garde film and video.