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What is Great Animation?

Noted historian and professor Karl Cohen surveys top artists and educators on what is great animation.

An image from Paul & Sandra Fierlinger's new film, Slocum; at sea with himself. Courtesy of Paul & Sandra Fierlinger.

Since the late 1970s I’ve been saying animation is a great, if not the greatest art form of our time.  I recently decided to ask students, animation artists, teachers and studio administrators, what is great animation?  I wasn’t expecting to find a single answer as a lot has to do with personal taste and how one relates to it in their life.  What I hoped to learn was some of the many ways people admire it.

I began by asking my San Francisco State animation history students at the start of the spring semester what they thought was really exciting animation.  When the semester was ending they were asked to write a short paper on what they thought was great animation.  I was curious to see if their interests and answers had changed since the course had begun.  Had the course influenced their thinking?

Comments By Students

On the first day of class I asked what films they expected to study.  Most students had relatively little exposure to animation outside of first run features, anime, TV series, music videos and whatever they had discovered on the Internet.  When asked what their favorite animated films were they mentioned The Simpsons, Family Guy and other TV shows, Disney features from the 1990s, and several anime titles.

Most were surprised when I told them that I would barely cover most of the works they were familiar with.  In fact one year a student was so upset with that news that he dropped out as he thought the course was going to be about anime!

My course exists mainly to inspire animation students, so they see a lot of historical and contemporary shorts from the US and abroad.  They are unfamiliar with most of them as they are not easy to see.  Most are important works of exceptional artistic or literary merit; ones that advanced the art and technology of animation.  There isn’t time to show run-of-the-mill work. 

For their final paper I asked them to select and write about three films that they have seen and consider great works.  They did not have to be ones seen in class.  I was delighted that their papers showed they had given a lot of thought to the assignment.

One student picked silent stars (Wall-E, Gromit and the male star of The Triplets of Belleville). Another wrote about acting by faceless characters (Luxo Jr., a silhouette short by Lotte Reininger and the Oompahs, a UPA short staring musical instruments).  The most frequently discussed film was Madame Tutli-Putli from the National Film Board of Canada, followed by UPA’s Tell Tale Heart, Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts.”  One student wrote about three modern stop-motion horror films, Door by David Anderson, M. Tutli-Putli and Nightmare Before Christmas, while another found M. Tutli-Putli, Chris Landreth’s “Ryan” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialog” exciting explorations of the human condition. 

A few students stressed the storytelling abilities in certain works including films that had no narration (the Pixar short For the Birds and Balance by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein).  An Asian student wrote about classic Chinese shorts.   Other nice papers were on expressive acting, new directions in animation, things animation can do that can’t be done in live action films and developments in stop-motion work.

Several things surprised me.  The only Disney feature mentioned was Fantasia.  One paper mentioned the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from it and another discussed the “Night on Bald Mountain.”  Nobody wrote about TV animation, features from DreamWorks or shorts by the Fleishers, Disney, Otto Messmer, Winsor McCay, or Tex Avery.  Several foreign features that were briefly mentioned but not shown in class were discussed.  They included Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Mary and Max, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Richard Williams’ unfinished Thief and the Cobbler.  I also noticed that many of the films chosen had received Oscar nominations.

Delegates from Masters of Animation Week in Trivandrum, India in 2000. From left to right: Nicholas Blechman, Bill Dennis, Harvey Deneroff with his daughter Allegra, R.O. Blechman, David Fine, Bill Plympton, Joanna Priestley, Will Vinton and Arnab Chaudhuri.

Delegates from Masters of Animation Week in Trivandrum, India in 2000. From left to right: Nicholas Blechman, Bill Dennis, Harvey Deneroff with his daughter Allegra, R.O. Blechman, David Fine, Bill Plympton, Joanna Priestley, Will Vinton and Arnab Chaudhuri.
Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

Comments By Independent Animators

Since I could only glean so much information from my students’ papers I asked several friends involved in different ways with animation for their comments.

Paul Fierlinger.

Independent animator David Ehrlich is a visiting professor at Dartmouth and at Beijing's Communications University.  He says, “Great animation, like someone you love, you want to see over and over again without a single thought of anything else.”

Joanna Priestley, whom Bill Plympton calls “the queen of independent animation," says “Great animation leaves me with deep inspiration in my life and work.  Occasionally, great animation gives me a deeper understanding of what life means.”

Paul Fierlinger who has directed My Dog Tulip and over 800 shorts, says, “Great animation is the kind of film that surprises from beginning to end, but also throughout the screening there is this strong urge to stop the film and find a friend to share it with.  This has a lot to do with originality of form and sound that come together to stir up strong emotions.  But just the joy of encountering exceptional art is enough to fulfill the label ‘great animation.”

Signe Baumane.

Signe Baumane is creating Rocks in My Pockets, a personal feature.  She writes, “For me animation is great because it can be used as a visual shortcut to complicated ideas and feelings.  That's why animation tires normal audiences out after 70 minutes; it is so dense with meaning that it makes an audience's brain work harder.  Very stimulating.”

Emily Hubley says, “For me, the two greatest aspects of animation are the element of surprise (for both the creator and the viewer) and its universality. I've found that the most oblique personal epiphanies will resonate with others as long as they are true.”

French animator Leonard Cohen, who’s short Plato won the Best Student Animation prize at Annecy in 2011 and presently lives in California, writes, “Thanks for asking about greatness in animation. That's something people should think about.  For me, animation is a mix of mathematics and music.  It is a matter of combinations. It is the media that never looks the same.  What excites me is the multiplicity of magic tricks: visual, optical, artistic possibilities possible.  Animation allows us to experiment, to treat any subject, idea, concept or story in new ways.  It allows us to invent.”  Leonard’s film Plato is a brilliant study of such possibilities. 

Comments By Commercial Animators and Administrators

Marcy Page.

Marcy Page, a National Film Board of Canada producer whose credits include Madame Tutli-Putli and other Oscar nominated/winning shorts, says, “There are so many possibilities for greatness in animation.  I like the phrase ‘Art that moves.’  Animation can both choreograph all manner of form and move one emotionally.  It is great when an animator blends perfectly a quirky medium with just the right ‘message,’ when the two are so integrally wrapped in a way that neither McLuhan nor anyone else could have predicted.  Animation can consume any other art form in its wake and compress the disparate bits into humor, surprise and awe...endless possibility.”

George Evelyn is the co-creator of Sheriff Callie's Wild West, a Disney Junior show for tots that is presently in production.  George told me, “Animation is a great job.  What I like about my particular niche in the Animation Universe (I've been doing pre-school TV shows for the past couple of years), is that we're sort of carrying on the old 1930's tradition of classic surreal talking-animal cartoons, with nutty colors, slapstick comedy, and lots of singing and dancing. But we get to do it with ultra-modern CGI.”

William Dennis.

William Dennis, a former VP of Disney Feature Animation and founding partner of the International Animation Consulting Group wrote two points of view on what's great about animation.  “First, from the point of view of the artist, animation is a medium that allows even the most bashful of us to express ourselves 'on stage'.  With a decent amount of creativity and a couple of props (pencil or stylus), you can put it out there for others to enjoy (or not).  What can be better than that?”

“From a business perspective, what I like most is the seemingly unlimited scope of opportunities for producing revenues from animated projects. First, virtually all of the same revenue producing avenues available to live action projects are open to animation projects including theatrical release, television release, games, DVD etc. etc...  But in addition, revenues from merchandise, publications and direct to video are particularly well suited to animation projects and can make the difference between profit and loss.”

Ken Pontac has written for many TV series and was the co-creator, director and co-producer of “Bump in the Night” (ABC-TV).  He says, “Great animation inspires, delights and surprises its audience.  It shows them something they’ve never seen, and makes them think of something they’ve never imagined.  Technique is only part of the equation.  The crude cut out style of South Park has told stories as meaningful and entertaining as the most fluid Pixar feature.”

“I suppose that I’m focusing more on story than style, but, after all, I’m a writer, not an animator. All things being equal, I think the greatest animated films ever made were the old Warner Brothers and MGM shorts, which set me on the path that’s brought me to where I am today. The timing, the energy, and the economy of content that created so much impact in a seven-minute film are unsurpassed, and the result has delighted generations and generated billions in revenue.”

John Hays.

John Hays, a founder and president of WildBrain, has had a rich and varied life working in animation.  He says, “Animation is great because it's the only art form that can include ALL the other art forms.”

J.J. Sedelmaier and his wife opened J.J. Sedelmaier Productions Inc. in 1990.  It is one of our nations top animation studios, known for cutting-edge commercial animation, print campaigns and other cool things.  He writes, “My attraction to animation has always been anchored in the endless opportunities it provides me to combine design. story and sound design, choosing or developing a graphic vocabulary, a ‘look,’ that pushes the idea as far as it can go, and then marrying it with a unique audio identity.  That still juices me like it did on Day 1!  Gathering a group to work on the project is also a joy.  It's always different and it's not unlike what I would imagine assembling a repertory company to perform a piece of theater is like, each player with something unique to contribute but never playing the same role the same way twice.”

J.J. Sedelmaier.

“When Patrice and I started our company over 20 years ago, animation was just beginning to garner a mainstream adult audience.  The Simpsons, and MTV with their station/network ID’s, were demonstrating how animation and cartoons could attract and hold the interest of more than just kids.  I’m most proud of being involved with helping this transition move forward by helping launch projects like MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head, and co-creating with Robert Smigel, Saturday Night Live’s “Saturday TV Funhouse” series.  People like Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, Richard Williams, and Paul Fierlinger have all been instrumental in exploring and pushing the craft into areas unthinkable years ago!  It’s been wonderful to see animation get so much of the credit its due, and it’s been an honor to be a small part of the community!”

Kevin Coffey has run Cartoonland in San Francisco since 1982.  He has also worked for Wildbrain, ILM, Colossal Pictures, Mill Valley Animation and other studios.  He says, “I am the proverbial ‘little guy,’ the smallest of one-man operations who can make a living as an artist without leaving his living room.  I've worked on some big projects (there's an extended 2-D sequence of mine of ghosts in Sellick/ Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas), but a lot of the stuff I do these days is never seen by the general public (corporate animation, web only animation etc.).  Same with illustration work.  For every high profile children's book I illustrate for a major sports franchise there's 10 that will never be seen by the general public (textbook illustration, web-only illustration and first time authors whose work isn’t widely distributed).”

“It's subjective, but a commercial artist has to learn quickly if he wishes to earn a living.  He better create artwork that ‘works’ for the client and expect most clients to ask for changes.  Still artwork or moving artwork requires balancing elements in space to create pleasing compositions that easily read.  Then there's the entertainment value of those elements and with animation added there's the performance of these various elements to be considered.  It is best to build on a house that has solid foundations.”

“For me, great animation can be defined by two words- ‘it works.’  Composition, design, color and subject matter come together combined with great animated performances to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.  There are countless examples in the enormous sea of work that is the history of animation - Little cartoon bugs breaking into a funny ‘fey’ dance in an early Silly Symphony, a bored fairy sprinkling morning dew on a spider's web in Fantasia - a horrific, monstrous mosquito spreading malaria to an entire community of people - a child discovering their own super powers in The Incredibles - it just doesn't stop.  There are thousands and thousands of great moments in the history of animation, sometimes just a few seconds long. My goal is to create a few of these moments before finally putting down my pencil.”

Comments By Educators

Maureen Furniss.

Maureen Furniss, CalArts faculty, founding editor of “Animation Journal” and noted author, told me, “I think that great films are films that tap into the essence of being human, across cultures. It’s kind of that simple, at least to me. That accounts for the greatness of a wide range of narrative films that are aesthetically different, such as Adam Elliot’s films which are quite limited in their animation, to the incredibly detailed layers in the animation of Frederic Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees and non-narrative (maybe dreamlike) or abstract films can represent significant themes of humanity or states of being also, without using the device of a linear ‘story’ to relate them.”

Duan Jia, an animator who heads the animation department in the Creative Media College of the Beijing Film Academy, writes, “Through animation, everyone can create different worlds, one by one, that never repeat, never come to an end.”

Tsvika Oren.

Tsvika Oren, who teaches in Israel, writes, “My definition of ‘Great animation’ is movement of visuals, figurative or abstract, which influences my feelings and thoughts as in Joanna Quinn’s Wife of Bath Tale, Frederic Back’s The Mighty River and Sara Petty’s Picture Windows.  A great animated film is one which becomes a personal experience, a film that moves and stimulates me, a film I want to see again and again.  Not necessarily one with great animation.  Rather, it must have the most suitable animation (and design, sound, timing, etc) for its created world, based on profound and sensitive observation, in order to be a great film.”

Ed Hooks.

Ed Hooks, who has traveled around the world teaching Acting for Animators and has written a best selling book on the subject, says, “Like music, animation communicates directly with the heart.  It does not need to be translated in order to be appreciated.  When a story is told through animation, the audience accepts it openly and playfully.  This attribute of animation makes it one of the most powerful methods of communicating, one tribe to another.  It is a common and universal language.  I think Walt Disney set us on the right path when he gave Mickey Mouse a brain.  Instantly, Mickey became one of us and took his place on the storytelling stage along side of the best human actors in the world.  Would ‘The Iron Giant’ be as moving if it was live-action?  Not to me, it wouldn't. How about The Grave of the Fireflies or Spirited Away, would they work as live-action?  No, never.  Animation is unique, powerful and heart-felt, and that is at least part of the reason why animation is great.”

Chris Robinson.

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa Animation Festival, has written several books and writes a controversial column at awn.com under the name of “The Animation Pimp.”  He says, "The best animation - whether indie or commissioned - comes from artists who know that animation is whatever the fuck it wants to be - not what Walt, Blair, schools, executives, broadcasters, buyers and lots of lousy teachers tell them it is.  Walt Disney and Preston Blair should be condemned as the enemies of animation.  They - and their lazy preachers - teach you to FOLLOW...to APE, not to THINK and EXPLORE and EXPERIENCE on your own."

My (Karl Cohen) own view is based on studying and working with animation as a teacher, film exhibitor, writer and independent and commercial filmmaker.  I see great animation as a wonderful way to explore life from many different directions.  It can be a private personal study or a commercial project.  It can amuse, communicate serious messages, make us feel a wide variety of emotions and/or it can be a highly intellectual experience. 

Animations’ potential is only limited by the boundaries of our imaginations.  While it can duplicate the real world, its greatest potential is to go beyond what has been done before, to expand the universe of creativity.  Surrealism, to go beyond what is real, is basic to most animation.  It allows us to believe in and experience the impossible.  Like day dreams we can venture into unknown worlds that can be idealized golden moments or take on terrifying journeys into dark places.  People usually are comfortable going along with the animator’s work as it allows for a safe passage where ever it takes us.

To be a successful animator one does not need to master every skill.  If the work’s content or the person’s technical skills capture and hold our attention, flaws in other areas of the production are often overlooked.  Story isn’t always important to us.  Unlike the world we live in the animated world does not have to conform to any preconceived rules.  Animation at its best is a remarkable form of art and I suspect it will remain so for many centuries to come.

Alternative Points Of View

Janeann Dill with Jules Engel, Los Angeles,

1998. Photo Courtesy of ©Janean Dill.

In the process of researching this paper two people sent me notes that questioned the importance of greatness in animation.  Dr. Janeann Dill did her graduate work at Cal Arts (MFA) and European Graduate School (PhD), is a fine artist (painter), experimental animator/animation artist and the authorized biographer of Jules Engel.  She wrote, “As a young writer, I asked Jules Engel which of his films was his favorite.  He introduced his response by saying ‘I don't know about favorite, but the most important ...’.  Ever the positive artist-teacher-mentor, Engel's response taught me to think more critically about my use of language.  This conversation reminds me of that conversation.  I have grown uncomfortable with language that heightens a subjective and personal hierarchy, such as ‘favorite’ and ‘great,’ although I understand the asking as a way to stimulate discourse, so I want to respond.”

“The compelling qualities of animation that attract my attention and hold my interest are its direct ability to unpack an idea in time and its inherent interdisciplinarity to reach across the boundaries of cinema, technology, literature, dance, music, philosophy, science and art.  To experience a particular animation as interesting or more compelling than another, i.e., to elicit a greater or lesser aesthetic experience, means that the animation communicates a consciousness in its creator of being as equally committed to the particular idea of the piece itself as to the inherent qualities of the animation mode.  That moment is the moment I walk away and want to share the good news that an intelligent work of art can move one to absolute joy!”

George Griffin.

The second person is independent animator George Griffin whose works I’ve admired since the late 1970s when I saw Candy Machine and The Club.  More recently his abstract images in Koko capture the essence of the Charlie Parker performance on the film’s soundtrack; his figurative A Little Routine is a loving moment with his daughter and New Fangled is a caustic or cynical moment at an advertising agency meeting.  George is a remarkable fine artist whose personal work can not be pigeonholed into a style, school or technique.  He creates what is appropriate for the project at hand.

When I asked George to be part of this project he suggested I take into account the avant-garde/experimental films work of Robert Breer (1926 – 2012), an important American artist who for over 50 years worked in many mediums including animation.  Breer’s animated works do not fit neatly into this project (about 7 or 8 of them are on YouTube including Fuji, 1974, that was added to the National Film Registry in 2002).  They are important abstract kinetic works of art that are extremely personal experiences.  He was a part of the East Coast avant-garde art world and his work at various times reflects elements of Abstract Expressionism, the absurdness of Dada, the spirit of fun found in Pop art and the severe boldness of Minimalism.  He provided film for early Happenings in NYC and exhibited work with Alexander Calder and other kinetic artists.  He was an important part of American art landscape for several decades.

Breer Courtesy of

Anthology Film Archives.

Breer’s work is difficult for the general public to relate to as there is neither a traditional story nor a cast of characters.  He works with abstract lines and forms that create their own patterns of movement.  There can be themes that may be repeated from time to time (the same or similar images) and his designs may grow and metamorphose into other forms.  There may be visual counterpoint to the passage you are seeing and various visual moods can be expressed. 

Unlike the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Butte and other pioneers of abstract animation, he used sounds and music sparingly.  In A Man And His Dog Out For Air (1957) the only sounds are birds chirping.  In Fuji the soundtrack seems to come from the wheels of the train he is on clicking on the rails.  In the works of his I’m familiar with, he is not illustrating pieces of music; he is using sound to enhance his kinetic art.

Color is another element he uses sparingly.  Instead Breer stays focused on exploring the many ways he can use shapes and lines.  In some of his early films like Blazes (1961) his work reminds me of the bold splashy forms of abstraction expressionist paintings from the 1950s, but in A Man and A Dog Out For Air we see no bold forms.  Instead we see constantly changing lines that flow in a somewhat lyrical way.  In Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons (1980) forms reminiscent of his early works appear along with drawings that suggest Pop Art subjects (a roll of Scotch Tape, tin cans, etc.) and semi-figurative images of animals that appear and disappear quickly.  His films seem to be explorations of new concepts and the result is a rich range of works.  You can find his work online and articles about him using Google.

Jules Engel in his studio, 1949. Courtesy of Tobey C. Moss.

Photo credit: Lou Jacobs Jr.

As I reflect on Jules Engel’s comments and the works of George Griffin and Robert Breer I was reminded that some animation exists to please the public and other works are private/personal experiences.  If the latter also excite the public, great, but that is not necessary for them to be considered significant works of art.

I thank all who have contributed to this intelligent discussion about animation.  An interesting observation in reviewing this research project is how we used the word “great” in slightly different ways based on the way we are related to the art form.  When I began this project I told people I expected a wide range of answers as the word’s meaning is actually quite vague.  What I didn’t consider at first is that the word is somewhat inappropriate to use when describing the work of some significant artists.  We must use other criteria, knowledge and words to express our thoughts and feelings about their work.

It has been a pleasure researching and writing this article and I hope it influences some readers, especially students, to go deeper into their exploration of what animation can be and to not simply and superficially call it great.

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Here is a list of links to a number of key short films mentioned in the article.

Luxo Jr, by John Lasseter

Creature Comforts, by Nick Park plat

Ryan, by Chris Landreth

Dimensions of Dialoguepart 1 and part 2, by Jan Svankmajer

For the Birds, by Pixar

Balance, by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein

Plato, by Leonard Cohen

Madame Tutli Putli, by TheNational Film Board of Canada

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frederic Back

Wife of Bath Tale, by Joanna Quinn

The Mighty River, by Frederic Back

A Little Routine, by George Griffin

A Man And His Dog Out For Air,

Fuji, by Robert Breer

Army Knife, by Robert Breer 

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Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.

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