Jules Engel, Hungarian/American (1909 - 2003)

Jules Engel is a pioneer in the field of animation as a visual art form. Born in Budapest in 1909, Engel grew up outside of Chicago and then moved to Los Angeles as a young man where he successfully created dual careers as an abstract artist and experimental filmmaker. In this essay I introduce two paintings created by Engel in 1939, "Circles II" and "Circles III," and I discuss Engel’s earliest contribution to the film world of commercial animation, Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Bambi. I argue that Engel’s aesthetic is informed by the principle of abstraction, whether or not the work is representational, and regardless of purpose. To further this point, I analyze the thinking processes underlying the creation of two seemingly very different works of film art which were created much later in Engel’s career: Coaraze (1965), a partially-animated, live-action film, and Rumble (1975), an animated film, both works created by Engel. Engel’s work is grounded in a spatial and rhythmic sensitivity he clearly expressed in each of the works being discussed.

Engel’s contribution to these two Disney films in particular, Fantasia and Bambi, contains a finely tuned visual aesthetic that Engel subsequently explored and developed into his work as a filmmaker and as an artist. Acknowledged as an early California Modernist, Engel’s extensive art exhibition record (over sixty exhibitions in impressive venues such as the Chicago Art Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirschorn, the Walker Art Center, and numerous other notable galleries in the United States and Europe) has paralleled his completion of more than thirty independent experimental and animated films. A creative professional for over six decades, Engel has been rewarded by his peers with an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nomination for an Oscar in 1960; the French Oscar, a Jean Vigo Award in 1965; a Norman McLaren Heritage Award in 1992 from the National Film Board of Canada; and two Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Engel has also been enormously influential as a teacher to international artists and filmmakers who have created a presence for their work from Harvard to Hollywood. As the Founding Director of the Experimental Animation Department in the School of Film and Video at California Institute of the Arts, Engel has mentored his students for thirty years. Engel’s student roster includes Kathy Rose (Performing Artist and Animator), Adam Beckett (Optical Effects Artist, George Lucas’ landmark film, Star Wars), Henry Selick (Director, Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas), Mark Kirkland (Director, The Simpsons), Eric Darnell (Director, Dreamworks’ Antz), Christine Panushka (Animator and Professor, Absolut Panushka, University of Southern California), and Ellen Woodbury (Lead Animator, The Lion King). These are a few of Engel’s graduates who have fostered a tradition of excellence in filmmaking and in art. Acknowledging this, the Donnell Media Center in New York City honored Engel and the Experimental Animation Department from February to April 1997, with a media series, “The Animated Film: A Tribute to Jules Engel and Cal Arts Animation.”

-Janeann Dill

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