Jules Engels

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Jules Engels

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Jules Engels was a prolific American animator, artist, director and teacher, where he founded the Experimental Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he worked until his death in 2003, serving as a mentor to new generations of animators. 

Family and early life

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Jules Engels came to America when he was a teenager with his family, where they settled in Oak Park, Illinois. Engels attended the local Evanston Township High school, finding himself excelling in the art class and experimenting with geometric expressionism. 

Career outline

During this time, Engels found a job working as an inbetweetner for Charles Mintz Studios, and met many artists who would eventually go on to work for Disney Studios later on. It was a year later that he was approached to work on Fantasia, the now-classic experimental animated film. Jules Engles created the ‘Chinese Dance’ sequence in Fantasia along with Art Babbit and Elmer Pummer, set to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, featuring dancing mushrooms shaking off their morning dew. Featuring sensuous, gorgeously curved and neon coloured mushrooms bouncing to the beat of the music in a communal dance, this sequence highlights the one tiny mushroom left partnerless in the luxurious movements.

After Fantasia, Engels worked developing colour for a sequence, but soon found his work at odds with the realist approach of work favoured at Disney. Soon after, the Disney animator strike in 1941 led to Engels departing, finding himself enlisting, as the war broke out. Signing originally alongside his friends to be drafted, Engels was rejected due to his poor eyesight and bad shoulder, with Jules adamantly protesting, recruited instead to work for the Motion Picture Unit. Creating war training videos and war adverts, Engels spent two years during the war, eventually creating motion animations with maps and abstractions. 

In 1944, Engels joined UPA Films, a group that changed and radicalized the possibilities of commercial animation. Opening to experimentation with post-modernism, the animation style at UPA would experiment with minimalism, expressionism, surrealism and highly avant-garde and experimental works. Engels worked on creating animated characters such as Mr. Magoo, the Chipmunks, Madeline and Gerald McBoing-Boing, and it was at this time that he started developing his independent career as an artist, in painting, lithography and filmmaking. 

In 1949, Engels’ works were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring his abstract paintings following in the footsteps of artists his admired such as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Calder. In the 50s, his personal works were deeply inspired by the emerging abstract expressionism, and his exhibited during this time at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the De Young Museum in San Francisco. 

After leaving UPA in 1959, Engels worked independently in filmmaking and painting largely, dabbling in the 60′s occasionally to animate for Format Films, started up by his former colleagues. Relocating to Paris in 1962, Engels had an extremely warm reception, where he directed a French animated cartoon which was released by Jacques Tati. In 1964, Engels would work co-directing a live adaptation of The Little Prince, alongside Raymond Gerome. Rubbing shoulders with the Parisian art crowd, with the likes of Man Ray, and Anais Nin, Engels would start creating his own fine art animation in the late 60′s, creating documentaries as well. 

In 1968, Anais Nin, a friend of Engels introducted him to Robert Corrigan, who was the president of Cal Arts. Returning to American in 1970, Engels would head up the animation program at the new CalArts campus, becoming a founding director of the Experimental Animation division. In 2001, CalArts honoured him  by naming the Institute Fellow award after Jules Engels, attesting to his inspiration and legacy in the field of animation. 

Engels passed away peacefully at the age of 94 in Los Angeles County, and one of his final acts was to set up the Jules Engel Endowed Scholarship Fund to support students and creators who push the boundaries of animation, using interdisciplinary techniques to make visual images. 

Personal style

Engels is known for his dual careers as both an abstract artist, and a commercial animator, pioneering techniques in animation.  


“Jules Engels” Welcome to Alternative Projections ». N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

“JULES ENGEL.” (1915-2003). Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.sullivangoss.com/Jules_Engel/>.

“Jules-Engel.” Janeann Dill, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.jules-engel.com/bio/>.

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