Animation has been with us all our lives–providing comfort, challenging us, and teaching us lessons. The boundless nature of the medium allows storytellers to communicate ideas and emotions in unique ways, connecting people all over the world in a way that live-action is not always able to. So, in honor of the art form, it’s time we pay homage to those who make up the fabric of animated storytelling.
Max Fleischer (1883 – 1972)
The long-time studio head of the envelope-pushing Fleischer Studios, Max Fleischer (alongside his very talented younger brother, Dave) gave birth to Betty Boop, KoKo the Clown, and Popeye. Such creations are enough to propel any animator to industry royalty, but what really distinguishes Fleischer from other creatives on this list is a vision that goes beyond the blank canvas. Fleischer is the inventor of the Rotoscope—a technique that changed animation forever and that Richard Linklater used almost 80 years later in Waking Life, and then again in A Scanner Darkly—as well as The Stereoptical Process, which was a precursor to Disney's Mutiplane camera. Despite Disney’s fierce and unflinching competition, Fleischer Studios managed to create their own market niche by leaning on sophisticated and gritty animations focusing mostly on adult themes, surrealism, and dark humor. Furthermore, Fleischer helped pioneer color and feature-length animation and introduced the Color Classics series as an alternative to Disney's Silly Symphonies.
To know: Max Fleischer is the father of classic Hollywood filmmaker Richard Fleischer, who directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, and Conan the Barbarian.
Walt Disney (1901 – 1966)
Perhaps the most obvious entry on this list, Walter Elias Disney changed the world of animation (and beyond) forever, having birthed a brand that is, to this day, on everybody’s lips. Disney’s work advanced the craft more than any other animator in the industry, contributing significantly to the development of sound cartoons, personality animation, character development, and color in animation. He also pushed the move from short-form to feature-length movies, resulting in the massive success of features like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Despite a warm and outgoing public persona, those who knew Disney intimately described him as a shy, self-deprecating, and insecure man who had exceedingly high standards and expectations. Disney’s work garnered him 7 Emmy Awards, 59 Academy Award nominations, 22 wins, and 4 honorary Academy Awards, establishing himself as a cultural icon.
Watch: A Comprehensive Biography
To know: During the mid-1950s, Disney collaborated with NASA rocket designer Wernher von Braun to make three educational documentaries about the space program: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond.
Friz Freleng (1905 – 1995)
Known for wearing many hats, Friz Freleng achieved a great deal of success not only as an animator and cartoonist, but also as a director, producer, and composer. He was instrumental in the development of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies classic series for Warner Bros. Among his very extensive credits, Freleng helped bring to our world Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird & Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, and Speedy Gonzalez. He directed a grand total of 266 cartoons and was the longest-running and most honored director in the business, having claimed 4 Academy Awards. Later in life, Freleng created De Patie-Freleng Enterprises, a joint-venture with his former Warner Bros. boss, David H. De Pattie, which became known for creating The Pink Panther Show.
Watch: Interview with Friz Freleng
To know: Freleng was a classically trained violinist who timed his cartoons on musical bar sheets.
Tex Avery (1908 – 1980)
Often considered a godfather of the animation industry, Tex Avery is one of the major players responsible for the wacky cartooning style of the 1940s, which would end up being crucial to the evolution of the medium. He worked at Warner Bros. and MGM during the formative years of the industry and is viewed as a groundbreaking artist who pushed Warner away from the sentimentality that made Disney a household name. Avery lobbied for cartoons that appealed to both kids and adults, wanting to pass along to his characters his own trademark speed, sarcasm, and irony. His credits include the creation of Droopy, Screwy Squirrel, and Red Hot Riding Hood, and directing the first animations of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Avery always encouraged his animators to push the boundaries of the medium by having his characters do things that could never be done in a live-action film. As he liked to say, "In a cartoon, you can do anything."
Watch: Symphony in Slang
Watch: Red Hot Riding Hood
To know: Avery performed a great deal of voice work in his cartoons, usually throwaway bits. He also occasionally filled in for Bill Thompson as Droopy.
Chuck Jones (1912 – 2002)
Oscar Award winner and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, Chuck Jones is a legend in the animation industry and the creator of several generation-defining characters. Among them: Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote, Pepe LePew, Michigan J. Frog, Marvin Martian, and Charlie Dog. As if that weren’t enough, Jones also contributed to the development of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Elmer Fudd, and assisted with the animation and direction of holiday favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Between 1938 and 1962, Jones directed more than 200 cartoons for Warner Bros and won three Academy Awards. In 1994, animation historian Jerry Beck edited the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals and Jones’ What's Opera, Doc? (1957) was crowned as the all-time best. He had ten more entries on the list, meaning that over one-fifth of all entries were Jones’.
To know: In 2000, Jones established the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, whose vision is to inspire the innate creative genius within each person that leads to a more joyous, passionate, and harmonious life and world.
Hayao Miyazaki (1941 – Present)
The creator of the first-ever anime to win an Academy Award, Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the most well-known and influential international animator. His five-decade career changed manga and anime forever, and his beautifully poetic and soulful creations have broken through the American mainstream quite like no other foreign animation. Alongside Isao Takahata, Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli, which is responsible for masterworks like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, among others. In September 2013, Miyazaki announced that he was retiring due to his age, but he has since abandoned those plans and is currently directing How Do You Live?, based on a 1937 novel by Yoshino Genzaburō. With a legacy as legendary as Miyazaki’s, The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles dedicated an inaugural exhibition solely dedicated to his life and work that is running right now.
To know: Wes Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron, Bong Joon-ho, John Lasseter, and Steven Spielberg have all mentioned Miyazaki as a great influence in their work.
Don Hertzfeldt (1976 – Present)
Best known for the film It’s Such a Beautiful Day and the series World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt’s work has helped shape a new form of animation and elevate it into the realm of pure and emotionally resonating art. GQ’s Will Leitch has described his work as "simultaneously tragic and hilarious and philosophical and crude and deeply sad and fatalist and yet stubbornly, resolutely hopeful." At just 33 years old, Hertzfeldt was awarded the "Persistence of Vision" Lifetime Achievement Award by the San Francisco International Film Festival. His intense personal style and refusal to go “mainstream” has led to a passionate fan base–one that, as per author Stephen Cavalier, is “usually associated with indie rock bands." Hertzfeldt has been nominated for two Academy Awards, and in 2019 Indiewire ranked World of Tomorrow the 17th best movie of the decade.
To know: Hertzfeldt supports his work through self-distribution such as ticket sales from theatrical tours, VOD, and television broadcasts. He has refused all advertising work.
Other Notable Animators
Ub Iwerks – The father of Mickey Mouse, Iwerks spent most of his career with Disney. He’s responsible for the distinctive style of the earliest Disney animated cartoons. He also made several contributions to the art of animation photography, notably the multiplane camera, which created a three-dimensional effect on screen.
John Lasseter – Lasseter has held many prestigious positions throughout his career, most notably as the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios. During that time, Lasseter directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2, and oversaw the production of all other Pixar projects. The films he was involved in have grossed more than $19 billion, making him one of the most successful filmmakers of all time.
Trey Parker & Matt Stone – The success of South Park speaks for itself. It’s been on for 20 years and has left behind an undeniable social, political, and cultural legacy. The duo has recently signed a deal with ViacomCBS for $900 million.
Will Hanna & Joe Barbera – For five decades, the Hanna-Barbera duo produced a variety of iconic and still-relevant animated series, including Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, Top Cat, The Jetsons, Wacky Races, Scooby-Doo, and The Smurfs. Throughout their careers, Hanna & Barbera were awarded eight Emmys.
Matt Groening – Groening created The Simpsons, the longest-running TV show in the history of the medium. Its success as a prime-time animated show led directly to the creation of similar shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and Futurama (also created by Groening). It completely transformed what animation on the small screen could be, and its potential for razor-sharp and witty writing.
Seth MacFarlane – Following in Groening’s footsteps, McFarlane gave birth to some of the most famous moments in modern animated pop culture. Most notable, he’s the creator of Family Guy, a show valued at over $1 billion, featuring characters that still resonate with the culture at large.
[Header image from Hayao Miyazaki's “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.”]