Authorship in animation
We will discuss authorship in contemporary animation: how independent animators hone their craft, and share and finance their work. We will also look at a few important names in independent animation today, and discuss current issues around representation and equity.
Jump to the different sections with the links below:
While young animators today can share their work through social media, Youtube, and Vimeo, festivals were the only way to share independently produced animation for many years. Some of today’s most well regarded festivals started as early as the 1960s, and continue to be vital venues for independent animation. Having a film selected at a festival is a great asset on a resume, provides networking opportunities, and can help in finding funding for future projects. Many new animation festivals have popped up since the early 2000s (a full list can be found here). The most prestigious (and historically important) ones are:
“The Annecy International Animation Film Festival (AIAFF) (see official website here) has been described as “the world’s top reference for animation films.” [It] dates back to the 1960s, making it the world’s oldest film festival dedicated entirely to animation. This “friendly” event that’s open to all” highlights open-air screenings, exhibitions, and signing sessions. Categories include Feature Films, Short Films, TV and Commissioned Films, and Graduation Films. The festival, which receives more than 2,600 films from all over the world each year, typically takes place annually in June.
Since 1972, Animafest Zagreb (see official website here) has been “the festival by the filmmakers for the filmmakers.” It is the second oldest film festival in the world completely dedicated to animation. Competitions include Short Films, Feature Films, Films for Children, Student Films, and Croatian Films. Animafest’s Grand Prix winners (Short and Feature films) directly qualify for the Academy Award and the main European animation award, Cartoon d’Or.
Established in 1976, the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) (see official website here) is held each year in September, the festival also highlights special screenings and retrospectives of classic and rare animation. Official competition categories include Feature Animated, Independent Short Animated, Student Animation, Commissioned Films, and Films/Videos Made for Children. OIAF is sponsored by major studios such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney Television Animation, and many others. Each year the festival receives more than 2,000 entries.
Founded in 1982, Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film (ITFS) (see official website here) is one of the biggest animated film festivals in the world. In 2016, the festival featured more than 600 films and more than 80,000 visitors. Per the Stuttgart website, “the festival takes into its scope the whole spectrum of current productions in the animated film sector, including the intersections between games, architecture, art, design and comedy. With GameZone, the ITFS takes an especially close look at transmedia and the convergence of animation and computer games.” Competitions run the gamut from International Animation to Young Animation to Animated Games.
The Hiroshima International Animation Festival (see official website here) is a biennial international animation festival held in August in Hiroshima City, Japan. Endorsed by Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA), Hiroshima has been around since 1985 and it is qualified as an Academy Award Short Film Festival. In 2016, the competition attracted 2,248 entries from 78 countries and regions. More than 33,000 people participated during the five days of the festival.
Establishment of the first training programs
“Most early animators were self taught and for the most part had aspired to careers in newspaper cartooning. Sometimes they were lucky to catch a few tips from some of the more gifted animators sitting at desks next to them like Ub Iwerks or Otto Messmer. These natural animators patiently helped new artists who often found themselves promoted overnight from cel washers to animators because of production needs. There was no formal training at any of the studios because when an artist was hired he was already expected to know how to draw and to learn quickly on the job the requirements of animation because new product had to be produced weekly to be competitive. One of the things that made Walt Disney a visionary in animation was his realization of the necessity of training in order to transform animation from a quickly fading novelty into a storytelling art form.
In an interview with Fletcher Markle on Sept. 25, 1963, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show Telescope, Walt stated, The first thing I did when I got a little money to experiment, I put all my artists back in school. The art schools that existed then didnt quite have enough for what we needed so we set up our own art school. We were just going a little bit beyond what they were getting in the art school where they worked with the static figure. Now we were dealing in motion, movement and flow of movement the flow of things, action, reaction and all of that. So we had to set up our own school and out of that school have come the artists that now make up my staff here and, more than that, the artists that make up all of the almost all of the cartoon outfits in Hollywood were directly or indirectly out of my school.
In 1931, barely four years after the birth of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney made an arrangement with Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard to pay the necessary tuition to send his artists to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles for night classes. Mrs. Chouinard, a Pratt Art School graduate, opened her own art school in 1921 and in less than a decade, it was listed among the top five art schools in the United States. It maintained that position for the rest of its nearly half century history.
Disney animator Art Babbit was also holding informal life drawing classes at his home during this time for fellow Disney animators and Walt quickly realized he needed to set up a Disney Art School on the Hyperion Studio lot itself to control the training and focus it more specifically on the needs of animation. Walt decided to hire Don Graham, an instructor at Chouinard and former engineering student from Stanford University, to supervise this new training in addition to his teaching responsibilities at Chouinard. Graham is remembered today as an inspirational instructor who was patient and articulate. Graham had an incredible knowledge of drawing and art history in addition to being an outstanding draftsman himself. Graham had quickly adapted to the needs of the animators so instead of having a static model, he developed an action analysis approach where the model would do quick extreme movements like handstands and then disappear with the artists having to capture the motion they observed. In addition, Walt brought prominent artists and intellectuals through the studio to lecture and consult. Some of these guest lecturers included Rico Lebrun, Jean Charlot, Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali and Frank Lloyd Wright. Artists were immersed in every form of media from music to theater to dance to film and more.
In the 1950s, when her school was in danger of closing, Mrs. Chouinard phoned her old friend and Walt Disney paid the mortgage and endowed the school with $10 million. Walt Disney was always committed to training for artists that would embrace exposure to everything from sports to ballet to film to music. It was his dream and vision to create such an specialized school for future artists, and that dream was realized in 1961 through the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to create The California Institute of the Arts, commonly known as CalArts, with a campus now located in Valencia, California. It was the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States created specifically for students of both the visual and the performing arts.
(from “The Birth of Animation Training” by Jim Korkis)
Most animators today are professionally trained. Undergraduate and graduate specialized animation programs are available at the University level all over the world. Here is a list of some of the most prestigious programs today:
Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD) was established in 1931 by circus baron, art collector, and real estate developer John Ringling. RCAD opened with just 75 students and 111 course offerings. Today, the school serves more than 1,600 students enrolled in 13 BA and BFA degree programs and nine minors. The Computer Animation program is one of the most popular programs at the school, accounting for around 20% of the student population. Established in 1990, the BFA in Computer Animation allows students to do it all. Students learn to create characters and tell their stories, as well as design, paint, model, texture, animate, light, composite, and edit original films. The program also focuses on teaching students how to combine essential technical skills with conceptually original ideas that affect an audience emotionally, visually, and intellectually. RCAD graduates have worked on every Oscar-winning animated feature since 2003, with 14 alumni working on 2016 Oscar winner Inside Out and 21 working on 2017 Oscar winner Zootopia. Alumni have also worked on 49 of the 50 top grossing animated feature films of all time, including recent films such as Frozen, Ferdinand, Coco, and The Boss Baby, and Big Hero 6. Graduates have also gone on to work at Blue Sky Studios, Cartoon Network, DreamWorks Animation, Electronic Arts, Lucasfilm, Blizzard Entertainment, Nickelodeon, Pixar, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and many others
Walt and Roy Disney formed California Institute of the Arts (CalArrts) in 1961 through the merger of two existing Los Angeles schools for art and music. The school became the nation’s first postsecondary institution to offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in both the visual and performing arts. Just shy of a decade later, the new college, CalArts, opened its doors to offer programs in art, design, film, music, theater and dance. The School of Film/Video is the largest school at CalArts, accounting for nearly 30% of the student population. Programs offered include a BFA in Character Animation and BFA and MFA degrees in Experimental Animation. The BFA in Character Animation is a four-year program that the school says is “designed for students who seek an understanding of the art of character performance and storytelling in animation.” Courses for the program are taught by “experienced professionals who work at the forefront of traditional, CG and independent animation.” Crowned the “Harvard Business School of Animation” by the Los Angeles Times, CalArts has produced hundreds of successful alumni who have generated billions at the box office worldwide. The school lists Tim Burton, Mark Andrews (director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Oscar winning animated feature Brave), Eric Darnell (co-director of Antz, Madagascar, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Mark Osborne (director of Kung Fu Panda) among its most famous alumni.
Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) was founded in 1978. Offering more degree programs and specializations than any other art and design university, SCAD houses the School of Digital Media, which has five options for aspiring animators including a BFA in Animation (Atlanta, Hong Kong, Savannah), an MA in Animation (Savannah, eLearning), an MFA in Animation (Atlanta, Savannah, eLearning), and Minors in Animation or Animated Illustration and Publication Design. Both Minor options require 25 credit hours of study. The BFA in Animation teaches students to master 2D, 3D, Stop Motion, Digital Modeling, Rigging, Lighting, Look Development, and more. The school says students in the program will “collaborate with and take electives in other majors, such as visual effects, motion media, interactive design and game development, sound design, film and television, and sequential art.” Students will graduate from the program as “dynamic, multifaceted” animators, who are “extremely marketable and ready to take the industry by storm.” Graduates of SCAD’s animation programs have landed positions at major studios such as Walt Disney Animation Studios, Digital Domain, and Bento Box Entertainment.
The School of Visual Arts (SVA) was founded in 1947 as Cartoonists and Illustrators School. The school serves more than 3,700 students enrolled in over 30 programs. With nearly 400 students, 50 faculty and 40 courses Animation is the largest program at SVA. Students have a range of degree options to choose from including BFA degrees in Animation, Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects, and Cartooning. An MFA in Computer Art (Focus Animation, Motion Graphics or Fine Art) is also available as well as Continuing Education (CE) Animation courses. Students have studied and worked at studios such as Titmouse, Augenblick Studios, and Plympton, as well as numerous independent animation studios across New York. SVA animation graduates have gone on to work at major studios such as Blue Sky Studios, Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Lucasfilm Animation, Nickelodeon, Sony Pictures Animation, Warner Bros. Animation, and independent animation studios across the globe.
Gobelins, l’école de l’image (Gobelins, School of Images) was originally founded by the Parisian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIP) in 1964. One of the world’s oldest animation schools, Gobelins serves more than 1,105 students (including 508 apprentices) enrolled in French Professional Baccalaureat and MA degrees in Animation, Audio and Video (Filming and Post-Production), Graphic Design, Motion Design, Photography, Printed & Multimedia Communication, Web and Mobile Design, and Video Games. Students in the BA Program will master all digital and traditional animation techniques (2D and 3D), from pre-production to post-production, using professional methods from animation studios in France and abroad. Course highlights include 2D and 3D Digital Animation, Anatomical Drawing, Character Background and Design, Film Editing, Layout, Modeling and Rendering, Production Planning, Scriptwriting, Special Effects and Compositing, Storyboard Writing, and Sound Design. The specialized American website Animation Career Review has ranked GOBELINS as the number one animation school in the world
One of Canada’s premier polytechnic institutes and one of Ontario’s leading postsecondary institutions, Sheridan College is known as the “Harvard of Animation.” The Bachelor of Animation emphasizes classical principles of animation in a variety of forms, including 2D Digital, 3D and Stop Motion. The program covers the Art of Storyboarding, Life Drawing, Layout, and Digital Painting, and more. Students will have the opportunity to work collaboratively and individually from “story pitch to finished film.” Other program highlights include the opportunity to gain professional experience during a mandatory three-month work placement and participation in Annual Industry Day, where students meet with employers from across North America. Graduates of the Sheridan FAAD Animation Programs go on to work in television and feature animation at major studios across North America.
Bournemouth University (BU) in Poole, England, traces its roots back to the early 1970s, when Bournemouth College of Technology was created. BU houses the prestigious National Centre for Computer Animation (NCCA), which is one of just a few research-intensive animation centers in the UK. In addition, BU “is one of a small number of institutions from around the world who have been granted Houdini Certified School status by Side Effects Software,” says the school. “Houdini is an Award Winning Industry Standard VFX and Computer Animation Software taught across the NCCA framework of Undergraduate and Postgraduate courses.” BU – NCAA Animation graduates enjoy a near 95% employment rate (or further study) within six months of graduation. Alumni have worked on films such as Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Avengers, and many others.
The advent of tablets, powerful consumer animation software, and online education/tutorials provide many opportunities for young animation enthusiasts to experiment with the medium. While these technical assets cannot replicate the networking, and breadth of the training one gets access to through at a professional school, it will be interesting to see if they lead to a new generation of self-trained animators.
Even though the tools for creating animation are increasingly affordable, the time and dedication needed to create a short film requires funds for the artists’ living expenses. Even short student films are often a collaborative process and require expenses outside of the main animation process (i.e: for sound design, music licensing, application to festivals etc.)
Private grants and government funding have allowed independent artists to flourish over the years. However, many grants are small, and a grant-seeker must win several to make one film. The list below includes a few funding sources (while these are animation-specific, many grants are open to filmmakers working in all media – including animation).
The LAIKA Animation Fellowship provides a production grant to produce a stop-motion animated short film as part of the Project Involve initiative (more information here).
The GLAS Animation Grants are awarded to individual animation filmmakers living and working in the United States. They are not currently available to students or for commercial projects (including music videos, tv show pitches or web series) (more information here).
NFB’s Filmmaker Assistance Program (FAP) is designed to help developing independent filmmakers complete their films/videos by providing technical services and support (more information here).
The BFI Short Form Animation Fund awards money from the National Lottery to support higher-budget animated shorts from teams based in the UK (more information here).
The list below includes a list of important independent animators working today around the world. This list is subjective and by no means exhaustive, but aims to represent a range of techniques, tones, and themes:
Paul Driessen (born 1940)
“Presently based in France, Dutch-Canadian animation director Paul Driessen has been consistently prolific in the world of animated shorts since the early seventies. Initially developing his style at the National Film Board of Canada, Paul has subsequently produced over twenty-five films both in Canada and the Netherlands. Amongst these are such acclaimed works as “The Killing of An Egg”, “2D or Not 2D” and the Oscar-nominated 3″ Misses”. ” When I was little I made funny drawings, one-panel cartoons. I just happened to get into animation, a bit by chance again, and the style kind of developed from childish and cartoony to what I do now. My style of animation itself used to be quite limited, as with The Yellow Submarine and early sixties commercials, when limited animated was popular, brought about by the UPA movement. I grew up with that style of course, which was a lot of fun – it’s simple and it goes fast. It’s only over maybe the last ten years that I really appreciated animation itself for its fullness, how far you can go and how much you can stretch. It’s more work of course but for an animator it’s quite exciting to do. In my later films, like “Oedipus” (2011), if you look at the animation frame-by-frame the images are pretty weird, sometimes I leave out bodies, volumes, you’ll see only the eyes and the line, dimensions change, but it’s all very fluid, it just keeps going.”” (from “An Interview with Animation Director Paul Driessen” by Ben Mitchell). “Cat’s Cradle” (1974) (11 min) (see below) was one of Driessen’s early films with the NFB. “The artist plays cat’s cradle with ideas, especially the notion that one thing leads to another and that lives lead from one to another. Without words but featuring a witch’s brew of sounds.”
Michael Dudok de Wit (born 1953)
Michaël Dudok de Wit is a Dutch animator, director and illustrator based in London. He won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for “Father and Daughter” (2000) (9 min) (see below) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for “The Red Turtle” (2016). His trademark style consists of painterly, ink-like strokes. Most of De Wit’s shorts are dialogue-less. In a quasi-imitation of a watercolor aesthetic, the look of “Father and Daughter” was technically achieved using a combination of charcoal and digital processes in Photoshop. “The film took two years to make, spread over four years because of the teaching. That’s quite long for a short film but I really felt very precious about telling almost the whole life of one person in the space of about eight minutes without rushing through it, without listing the daughter’s main activities in her life, keeping it very stylized, very simple, because it’s about one basic emotion.” Father and Daughter immediately performed well at festivals, hailed as a critical triumph to this day and winning multiple awards across the globe including a BAFTA for Best Animated Short in February 2001, followed by an Academy Award for the same category the following month.” (from “The Films of Michael Dudok de Wit – Interview & Competition” by Ben Mitchell)
Don Hertzfeld (born 1976)
“Over the course of a dozen short films, Hertzfeldt’s wry absurdism and honesty has earned him a cult following. Longtime fans usually start with “Rejected,” (2001) (9 min) (see below) the iconic commercial parody known for lines like, “My spoon is too big!” and “My anus is bleeding!” It was nominated for an Oscar in 2000, went viral on early YouTube, and is widely regarded as one of the first essential 21st century animated shorts. All of his films are made from the funds of fans purchasing his other movies. He hasn’t taken money from studios or even grants, and he wants to more of this model. “We have to reprogram audiences to actually support the things that they want to see more of,” he says. “Imagine asking a plumber to come fix your pipes, except you’re not going to pay him, you’ll just give him great exposure and a nice review. You’d get punched in the face.” He’s been able to commit to this model because he animates alone. Previous to “World of Tomorrow,” (2018) he exclusively used an old analogue animation machine like the ones that made Disney classics; like a monk, he seals himself away for years at a time and occasionally returns to show the world something wonderful. 2015, Hertzfeldt’s first digitally-animated short film, World of Tomorrow, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize, his second. Illustrator Julia Pott performs the voice of the short’s lead character, opposite Hertzfeldt’s then-four-year-old niece, who was recorded while drawing and playing. Her spontaneous, natural vocal reactions and questions were then edited into the story to create her character.” Some of Hertzfeld’s work has recently been licensed by Netflix. (from “Don Hertzfeldt Explains How to Go DIY and Still Make Money” by Beckett Mufson)
William Kentridge (born 1955)
“William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Having witnessed first-hand one of the twentieth century’s most contentious struggles—the dissolution of apartheid—Kentridge brings the ambiguity and subtlety of personal experience to public subjects. Using film, drawing, sculpture, animation, and performance, he transmutes sobering political events into powerful poetic allegories. In a now-signature technique, Kentridge photographs his charcoal drawings and paper collages over time, recording scenes as they evolve. Working without a script or storyboard, he plots out each animated film, preserving every addition and erasure. Aware of myriad ways in which we construct the world by looking, Kentridge uses stereoscopic viewers and creates optical illusions with anamorphic projection, to extend his drawings-in-time into three dimensions.” (from art21.org). Watch the 53 min documentary “William Kentridge: Anything is Possible” (2010) by Charles Atlas, Susan Sollins on art21.org to delve deeper into Kentridge’s work. In the excerpt below (2 min), William Kentridge describes Johannesburg, South Africa, providing a social and historical context for his animated films, including “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris” (1989).
Yoji Kuri (born 1928)
“The contemporary Japanese animator Yoji Kuri has enjoyed the most successful international career of all the many independent Japanese animators whose work stands in contradistinction to the more elaborate, more collaborative, and more commercial productions from such industrial giants as the Toei and Toho studios. Kuri’s early years were spent as a cartoonist, but by 1960 he had established a small independent studio which centered upon a solitary 35mm animation camera. In the following year he completed Human Zoo , which won the Bronze Medal at the Venice Film Festival in 1962. As the film-scholar Millie Paul suggests, it was this award that truly launched his career. The brief animated work that followed—such as the erotic Aos , the abstract Locus , the educational Discovery of Zero —allowed him to develop his reputation and style. The 1967 film “The Room” (5 min) (see below) (which grew out of one of Kuri’s flip-books) provides some insights into that style, and the structures which came to mark his collaborative, independent animation through the 1960s and 1970s. “The Room” is made up of 19 brief tableau units, each of which is largely confined to the rather surreal space of a stark and simple line drawing of an empty “room.” Such simple, black-and-white line drawings are typical of Kuri’s style. Further, while “The Room” was shot—frame by frame, in an admixture of animated cels and cut-outs—on color stock, rarely does color appear in the film (and only then to heighten an effect or to underscore a mood). Tableau One provides the film’s titles, which appear within the room’s simple space. What follows are 18 disparate tableaux with almost no narrative causality or continuity between them. Each tableau itself is distinctly marked by often bizarre metamorphic transformations. Not only for “The Room” but for all of Kuri’s extensive production (which likely exceeds 400 films, many unreleased, many others international prize winners), one must keep in mind Kuri’s total control as an independent artist. All funding, conception, scripting, graphics, shooting, sound, editing, and even distribution are—in the main—from his hand. As a result, Kuri’s films, such as The Room , are very personal, yet remarkably international, partly due to his penchant for soundtracks which avoid spoken language and which instead consist of an “international language” of sound effects and/or music.” (from film reference.com)
Caroline Leaf (born 1946)
“Caroline Leaf’s (born in Seattle, Washington) animated films are renowned for their emotional content and graphic style, which evolves from the innovative handcrafted animation techniques that she has invented. Her art is tied to storytelling and to exploring the unusual materials that she uses for drawing and making movement. At different times, this has been beach sand manipulated on a lightbox, watercolor and gouache fingerpainting on glass, and images made by scratching in the soft emulsion of exposed color 35mm and 70mm film stock [you can see Leaf talk about her process in this 1998 35 min documentary by Eric Roberts on the NFB website]. In 1972 Leaf moved to Montreal at the invitation of The National Film Board of Canada. and worked there as a staff animator/director until 1991. Leaf’s under-the-camera techniques were necessarily solo work. They did not allow for teamwork as was possible in traditional cel or computor drawn styles of animation studio production. Leaf was director and animator for all of her films, as well as designer, story adaptor and/or scriptwriter, and she worked closely on the sound tracks and editing of her films.” (from greatwomenanimators.com) The award-winning “The Street” (see below) (1976) (10 min), “is a poignant interpretation of a short story by Montreal author Mordecai Richler. It makes a strong statement about how many families respond to their old and infirm members. In washes of watercolour and ink, Leaf illustrates reactions to a dying grandmother, capturing family feelings and distilling them into harsh reality.” (from nfb.ca)
Nina Paley (born 1968)
“Nina Carolyn Paley is an American cartoonist, animator, and free culture activist. She was the artist and often the writer of the comic strips “Nina’s Adventures and Fluff”, but most of her recent work has been in animation. She is perhaps best known for creating the 2008 animated feature film “Sita Sings the Blues” (2008) (you can watch or download the entire movie (82 min) for free on Paley’s website), based on the Ramayana, with parallels to her personal life. The production was largely completed by Nina Paley, primarily using 2D computer graphics and Flash Animation. Paley estimated her total hours of work on the film to 9,360. In 2018, she completed her second animated feature, “Seder-Masochism”, a retelling of the Book of Exodus. Paley distributes much of her work under a copyleft license (granting the right to freely distribute and modify intellectual property with the requirement that the same rights be preserved in derivative works created from that property). (from Wikipedia)
Suzanne Pitt (1943 – 2019)
Suzanne Pitt started her artistic career as a painter. “In 1968 she began making animated films which were inspired by her paintings “My painted images seem to have a past and future and through animation I could imagine and dramatize their stories”. Her film “Asparagus” (1979) (18 min) (see below) [which took 4 years to complete] premiered in an installation at the Whitney Museum [the installation included the movie-theater set piece used in the film] and ran for two years with David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” in the midnight shows at the Waverly Theater and the NuArt theater in Los Angeles.” (from the artist’s official website). The film combines many different techniques and has a dreamlike (non-) narrative “A retrospective of Suzan Pitt’s prize-winning animated films was presented in 2017 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout the 1980s Pitt designed animated projections for various theatrical projects, in particular two groundbreaking operas in Germany.” (from Wikipedia)
Bill Plympton (born 1946)
While Plympton started his career in Illustration and Cartooning, he is better known for his animation work. “In 1988, his animated short “Your Face” (4 min) (see below) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. He also became known for other animated short films, including “25 Ways to Quit Smoking” (1989) and “Enemies” (1991), the latter of which was part of the “Animania” series on MTV, where many of his other shorts were shown. In 1992, his self-financed, first feature-length animated film, “The Tune” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2005, Plympton animated a music video for Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say” and the following year, he created the music video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Don’t Download This Song”. (from Wikipedia) Plympton is a very prolific filmmaker. His filmography includes 8 animated feature films, 4 live-action feature films, over 45 short films, and 7 music videos. He still works primarily with hand drawn animation with pencil and paper (you can find out more about his process in this 2018 interview).
The Quay Brothers (born 1947)
Stephen and Timothy Quay are American identical twin brothers and stop-motion animators who live and work in England. “Most of their animation films feature puppets made of doll parts and other organic and inorganic materials, often partially disassembled, in a dark, moody atmosphere. With very few exceptions, their films have no meaningful spoken dialogue. [Aside from their personal work,] they have created music videos for His Name Is Alive, Michael Penn, and 16 Horsepower. The critical success of “Street of Crocodiles” (1986) (21 min) (see below), gave the Quay Brothers artistic freedom to explore a shift in subject matter, in part originating in literary and poetic sources that led to exploration of new aesthetic forms, but also because they were able to make extensive experiments in technique, both with cameras and on large stage sets. ” (from Wikipedia) ““Street of Crocodiles”, the film that put the Quays on the map, based on a short story by Bruno Schulz, is a wordless fever dream in which a puppet has his strings snipped and explores an underworld of animated household items such as lightbulb creatures and ghostly illuminated dollheads. While drawing some degree of influence from master Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, Street of Crocodiles was unlike anything else happening in the mid-1980s, and had an enormous impact on everything from design to rock videos when it was released.” (from “The Quay Brothers: a nightmarish inspiration for Christopher Nolan” by Jordan Hoffman). The filmmaker Christopher Nolan is a huge fan of the brothers’ work and directed a short documentary, “Quay” (8 min) about them in 2015.
Wendy Tilby (born 1960) & Amanda Forbis (born 1963)
“Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis met at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver where they studied film, video and animation. Each went on to create their own works with the National Film Board of Canada (“Strings” and “The Reluctant Deckhand”) before co-directing “When the Day Breaks” (1999) (9 min) (see below) which received over 30 international awards including the Palme D’Or at Cannes, a Genie Award, an Oscar® nomination and the Grand Prix at Annecy, Zagreb and Hiroshima International Animation Festivals. “Wild Life”, their latest short with the NFB has won several prizes and in 2012 was nominated for an Academy Award. Tilby and Forbis have also collaborated on assorted commissioned projects and directed numerous TV commercials. Interview, their acclaimed spot for United Airlines, was nominated for an Emmy® in 2004.” (from the artists’ official website). ““When the Day Breaks” illuminates life’s most ordinary aspects a toaster, a lemon, a trip to the store and endows them with a visceral power. Co-directors Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis use pencil and paint on photocopies to achieve a textured look suggestive of a lithograph or a flickering newsreel. With deft humor and finely rendered detail, [the film] evokes the promise and fragility of a new day, hinting that these moments are what will some day form our memories; that the everyday is what defines us and connects us.” (from awn.com)
Animation – wether in the independent or studio realm, has been dominated by white men. Thankfully, conversations around the lack of diversity in the field has started to have some impact on studio hires and types of projects funded, giving voice to a new and until now untapped pool of talented artists. Not only is the animation world getting richer aesthetically, but the thematically as well as minority filmmakers address subject matters absent from the history of animation until then.
Some of today’s most exciting animators are people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. The following list is by no means exhaustive and new talent is emerging each year but it aims to highlight a few important names (for more, please visit greatwomenanimators.com and “8 Black Animation Artists Every Cartoon Fan Should Know” (2020) by Annaliese Yi)
Steven Clay Hunter (born 1969)
Steven Clay Hunter is the director and write of “Out” (2020) (9 min) (see below) the short film from Pixar Animation Studios that introduced the studio’s first gay main character. The film, is one of seven from Pixar’s SparkShorts program, which seeks “to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques and experiment with new production workflows,” (from the studio’s website). Before directing “Out”, Steven Clay Hunter has worked at Disney and Pixar since 1997.
Pilar Newton (born ?)
Pilar Newton is an animator, cartoonist and educator. She got her start doing animation production art on shows such as “Courage the Cowardly Dog” for Cartoon Network and MTV’s “Daria.” In 2008 she established her Brooklyn-based production company PilarToons LLC. Pilar also teaches animation at the City College of New York and the School of Visual Arts. “Strong” (1 min) below is a personal short Pilar created for a “Analogue to Digital class” she recently took at SVA.
Peter Ramsey (born 1962)
“Peter Ramsey is best known for his films “Rise of the Guardians” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) (see trailer – 3 min – below). He won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for the latter, becoming the first ever African American to do so. In addition to his two major directing credits, he’s also served as a second unit director, storyboard artist, and illustrator on a plethora of films and TV series over the past three decades, including “Independence Day”, “Fight Club”, “Puss in Boots” and many more.” (from “8 Black Animation Artists Every Cartoon Fan Should Know” (2020) by Annaliese Yip) “Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just the next great leap in superhero movies because of its introduction of the comic book multiverse, but because it treats black and Latino heritage as a key piece of a superhero identity, and that’s just as important as any spider symbol.” (from “Into the Spider-Verse’ and the Importance of a Biracial Spider-Man” by Richard Newby)
Taylor K. Shaw (born 1993)
“Taylor K. Shaw is the founder and CEO of the studio Black Women Animate. The studio’s website says that it’s the first and only animation studio “designed to improve the representation of Black women in the animation.” The company consciously hires women of color to bring a much-needed diversity into the industry. It trains talents, offers production services, creates original content, and has partnered with animation companies such as Cartoon Network. Taylor K. Shaw is a visionary changing the world of animation for the better.” (from “8 Black Animation Artists Every Cartoon Fan Should Know” (2020) by Annaliese Yip) “I discovered the lack of access and resources provided to black women in animation, my dream was no longer to staff one show. It evolved and is now to transform representation in animation – one show and one artist at a time.(…) Since our inception, we’ve partnered with most major animation studios to amplify our training and development efforts. We are currently in development on two network projects, both with artwork created by rising black female talent. We have an original slate of both adult and children’s animated content, all created or co-created by black women.” (from “Black History Month: Taylor K. Shaw on Black Women Animate and an Invitation to Dream” by Taylor K. Shaw).
Logo for BWA. Click here to view a short video (1 min) introducing the organization’s mission.
Bruce W. Smith (born 1961)
“Bruce W. Smith is best known for creating and directing Disney Channel’s “The Proud Family”. He founded Jambalaya Studios for the production of this series. “The Proud Family” was Disney Channel’s first animated series with a young Black girl as the lead. Smith created this show loosely based off his own family — an African American family living in the suburbs. He went on to be the supervising animator for Dr. Facilier in Disney’s animated film “The Princess and the Frog”, which featured the studio’s first Black princess. He’s worked on other films such as “Frozen” and “Wreck-It-Ralph”. Recently, he co-directed “Hair Love” (2019) (6 min) (see below) with Matthew A. Cherry , an award-winning short film about a Black father who must do his daughter’s hair for the first time.” (from “8 Black Animation Artists Every Cartoon Fan Should Know” (2020) by Annaliese Yip)
LeSean Thomas (born 1975)
“LeSean Thomas is an animator, producer and director who has worked on both Japanese and American productions. His most recent work is as creator of the show “Cannon Busters” (2019) (see trailer – 2 min – below), a Netflix anime series. Previously, he made the pilot “Children of the Ether”for Crunchyroll. He was the supervising character designer and co-director of Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks”, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Comedy Series and a Peabody Award. He did storyboards for “The Legend of Korra” and was supervising director on “Black Dynamite”.” (from “8 Black Animation Artists Every Cartoon Fan Should Know” (2020) by Annaliese Yip)
However, a lot of work still has to be done to achieve a more diverse and equal field: “According to 2019’s USC Annenberg report, only 3% of animated film directors are women — and just 1% are women of color. Across 52 of the top animated films from 2014-2018, the gender ratio of males to females across 9 key roles or unit head position was 8.5 to 1. In 2019, Disney announced that three filmmakers of color will develop animated features for the studio. This effort in inclusion and diversity behind the scenes at the directorial level is a step in the right direction. The same year, Bobby Rubio became the first Filipino-American director to helm a Pixar animated short. His directorial debut, Float, tells the story of a father who discovers his young son has the ability to float. It was inspired by Rubio’s own son, who was diagnosed with autism. Recently, Matthew Cherry, one of the directors behind the Oscar-winning animated short film “Hair Love” signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros TV. And now the short is also being turned into an animated series by HBO Max. And studios like D’ART Shtajio, Japan’s first major anime studio created by Black animators, make it possible to tell more Black stories. The company, founded by Arthell and Darnell Isom, two Black background artists, and animator Henry Thurlow, has worked on anime projects like Tephlon Funk, Indigo Ignited, and Xogenasys, and most recently an anime-inspired music video for The Weekend.” (from “Animation Still Needs More People of Color Behind The Scenes” by Sim Dhugga)
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