One of the great inspirations in my life was experimental animator Jules Engel, best known for his work on Disney's Fantasia and Bambi, as well helping develop Mr. Magoo and some of the first animated series on television, Gerald McBoing-Boing and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
When I started at CalArts in 1987, I knew him as the director of the Experimental Animation program. He always dressed elegantly, often with an ascot, blue sweater, a hat, and his iconic black glasses. He passed away in 2003 at age 95, certain he hadn't reached old age yet, ready to get home from the hospital to finish art projects he'd started.
On Saturday, CalArts celebrated Engel's 100th birthday with a gathering at the REDCAT Theatre underneath the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Music Hall. Animation magazine editor Ramin Zahed moderated a range of speakers that included biographer Janeann Dill and six of Engel's former students who've done particularly well. Henry Selick, director of Coraline and the Academy Award-nominated The Nightmare Before Christmas, spoke of Jules's unwavering support.
The people in Jules's program were not students but "talents." Stephen Hillenburg, creator and producer of Sponge Bob, said when he came to CalArts, having been a marine biologist, Jules sensed in Hillenburg's drawings a talent and guided Stephen into animation.
Mark Kirkland, three-time Emmy Award-winning director of The Simpsons, found in analyzing Engel's abstract art with his commercial animation an amazing similarity, and Kirkland proved it with imagery. Mark Osborne, co-director of Kung Fu Panda, spoke of Jules's approach to teaching, which was to never squash a student's talent but to allow the student to flourish, even if a film might not be the way Engel would do it.
Joanna Priestley, director of twenty experimental animated films, is one of Jules's former students who has found a career in making short experimental animations, winning awards and a huge following along the way. She screened her latest film that mirrored Jules's own love of language. Mexican-born Jorge Gutierrez, director of El Macho, Sony's animated web series, found that Engel's "foreignness" (Engel came from Hungary), showed that being from somewhere else was no impediment.
All this made me think of my own involvement with the man. Before I joined the faculty, I started at CalArts as the Institute Writer. I interviewed Jules for an article early in my tenure and found him fascinating. Talking with him was like finding the Grand Canyon when you expected just a cut in a riverbank. I also learned we lived near each other, so I invited him over for a family barbecue with friends. He fit right in. He didn't mind getting barbecue sauce on his hands.
For a couple years, we carpooled to CalArts, and when I taught a creative writing class to 6 p.m., sometimes he'd sit in. When I made a good point, he'd be nodding, or he'd laugh with the others if I said something funny. In the car on the way home, we'd go over the high points of the class, which was often a student's writing. "That person is a major talent," he'd say.
I would often call him up to see if he'd like to grab lunch or dinner, and he'd say, "Ya," in that clipped way he had, and then he'd suggest a time. I always worried about being even a few minutes late because I'd find him standing next to his apartment house on the corner of Beverly Glen and Ilona, in his straw hat, cars like crows whizzing past the great artist.
It took perhaps fifteen years before he invited me into his apartment because he simply had so much stuff in it--much of it art that he collected. What didn't fit on walls were in stacks. I witnessed a few times his creation of abstract art. He'd sit at his kitchen table and cut out shapes from colored paper. When he had enough shapes, he'd arrange them on a black sheet of paper, forever playing with where they went. He didn't go by formula, but by instinct.
When the pieces were perfect, he'd glue them down and later make lithographs of his arrangements. He reminded me that in my own writing I needed to have both a sense of play and a sense of completion.
He started doing something similar with words. If he found a word he liked, he'd write in on a scrap of paper and put it in a jar. When the jar started getting full, he'd reach in and take out a handful and, considering their meanings, put them down, putting others back in the jar. His poems would come out something like this:
He self-published a book of eight poems that I can't find right now, but I do have his book Oh, in which, like a good concrete poet, he toys with repetition, shape, size, and placement. One whole page is devoted to "Oh, dear" repeated many times. Another page has "Oh, Now" from top to bottom. He once told me he'd give up animation if he could be a writer. The fact that English was he second language didn't stop him from experimenting.
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