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Jules Engel: The Mentor

Janeann Dill interviews Cal Arts' Founding Director of the Experimental Animation program, Jules Engel, about the tricky business of teaching experimental animation.

Jules Engel.

Jules Engel is the Founding Director of the Experimental Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). Prior to taking his post at Cal Arts, Engel led an extremely noteworthy career in animation. While at Disney, Engel designed the choreography for the Chinese mushrooms in Fantasia. He was also a founding member of the innovative animation studio, United Productions of America (UPA). As a partner with Herb Klynn in their animation studio, Format Films, Engel received an Oscar nomination for an animated film scripted by Ray Bradbury, Icarus Montgolfier Wright. Under Engel's tutelage, the experimental animation department proudly celebrates the impact of its graduates on the world of animation. While these former students are numerous, mentionable are Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas), Eric Darnell (Antz), John Lasseter (A Bugs Life, Toy Story), Christine Panushka (Absolut.Panushka), Ellen Woodbury (The Lion King) and Mark Osborne (More). I recently discussed with Jules the subject of teaching experimental animation. Janeann Dill: The philosophy of education at Cal Arts is based on the model of a mentorship relationship to its students. What is a mentor's role in teaching students? When students come to you with their work, what is it that you look for and what is it that you respond to first? Jules Engel: A mentor is someone who may be trained in academia, but who is more concerned with the 'big' picture of highly personal, cutting-edge experimentation and individual thinking about the arts. This is an important aspect to how the faculty in Experimental Animation at Cal Arts respond to students. Our students come into the department, initially, with a personal vision about their work. This is one of the criteria we use in viewing portfolios for acceptance into the department. So, I, as a mentor, will respond to my students' work with that knowledge. Whether the work is good or bad, the mentor responds to the student from where ever the student is 'at.' I would like to make this statement: It is not what I give to a student that is most important, it is what I don't take away. This is the beginning of my approach to a student who would come to me, as you say, with a need for advice. In other words, I don't take away the initiative that student shows by coming to me with the work in the first place. I don't necessarily pursue an agenda I may have with that student's work. I don't want the students to ever feel that their performance comes about by my telling them what to do or what not to do. JD: Do you think that experimentation in a student's work is taught? JE: Experimentation in a student's work is something that is encouraged. A mentor has to be aware of the talent's personality and the talent's needs to pursue his or her own personal expression and to feel comfortable in that. It's important for a teacher to focus on the qualities of a student's art that work. Then, and only then, the teacher encourages a particular direction to that student and, always, in a non-intrusive way; so much so, that the student is unaware of the teacher's presence in the creative process. When the whole relationship is over, the student should not consciously remember any kind of help to perform that the mentor may have given.

Landscape, a film by Jules Engel; courtesy of Jules Engel and Janeann Dill.

JD: In your teaching, do you show a lot of experimental films to your students? JE: In my teaching I show a lot of experimental filmmaking to my students, or, rather, films that I think are 'of consequence.' Also, in my teaching, I show not only films, but enormous amounts of work by Picasso, artists like Kandinsky, and the English painter, Frances Bacon. It's not good to be stuck in only showing experimental films because it's important to expose students to all kinds of art that may impact their thinking. I show the work of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as well, because all of this has to do with movement and animation is about movement. It's important for the students to know about all of these art forms. JD: What is it that you would like your animation students to remember about you, Jules Engel? JE: That I had nothing to do with their accomplishments! That might sound silly, but it's the truth. Janeann Dill is an artist and filmmaker who writes on various aspects of experimental animation and teaches at Mission College and the Art Institute of Los Angeles.

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