15 Famous Animators Everyone Should Know
A roll call of the most noteworthy animation artists of all time.
The history of animation stretches back to the late 1800s and today the animation industry is bigger than ever, with more variety and more volume on offer than you can even get your head around. We’ve seen the types of animation expand over the years along with the scale and number of productions. In this time, certain animators have stood out for their contributions to the craft, and in this list we have highlighted some of the most notable animation artists in history.
If you’re a budding animator and you’re tired of people asking when you’re going to get a ‘real job’, you can just show them this list to shut them up, it’s full of examples of notable animators who have achieved great success and made a huge impact on the world.
When it comes to stop-motion and claymation, Nick Park is arguably the best and most successful animator of this style in the world. Born in England in 1958, he had a keen interest in filmmaking and animation from a very young age, but it was when he joined British animation studio Aardman Animations in 1985 that everything changed. It was here that he created some of the most well-known stop motion animation films of all time. Park is the creative genius behind Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and more, taking various roles as writer, animation director, producer and animator – talk about multi-talented.
Park has received numerous awards for his work, including four Oscars (from six nominations), and Chicken Run has held the top spot as the highest-grossing stop motion animation film of all time since its release back in 2000.
Since becoming a professional animator in 2009, Rebecca Sugar has been a core part of two highly influential and beloved animated shows. Sugar got their first big break when they joined the Adventure Time team in the first season as a storyboard revisionist. Their work was so outstanding that by the second season they were promoted to a storyboard artist. In 2011, Cartoon Network commissioned Sugar to develop a new project that would become Steven Universe. Sugar identifies as non-binary, and is the first non-binary person to have created an animated series for the Cartoon Network.
Sugar worked on both Adventure Time and Steven Universe simultaneously until the situation became untenable, and so they left Adventure Time after season five. Sugar’s work has earned praise for its representation of LGBTQ+ themes. They are an animator who really put themselves into the work, and we feel that the series they've worked on are all the better for it.
There is no better example of an animator who parlayed a love of animation into a big time career than John Lasseter. Born in 1957, Lasseter was obsessed with cartoons as a kid. He then studied character animation at the new California Institute of the Arts, before joining Disney as an animator in 1979. During the very early 1980s, Lasseter developed a fascination with the newly emerging capabilities of computer generated graphics. His enthusiasm actually caused a rift which led him to lose his job at Disney. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lasseter went on to join Lucasfilm, which eventually became Pixar.
Lasseter’s vision for the potential of CGI was more than realized. At Pixar, he directed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars and Cars 2, as well as working as a film producer on almost all of Pixar’s movies, such as Inside Out and Frozen. In total, the films he has been involved in have brought in more than $19 billion in revenue, which makes him one of the most successful filmmakers in history.
The German animator and filmmaker Lotte Reiniger was a true pioneer. Born in 1899, Reiniger developed an early fascination with the German art of ‘scherenschnitte’, which was inspired by the paper cutting and silhouette artform from China. Reiniger also had a passion for the theater and for acting. She combined both her love for acting and for silhouette puppetry and started to make recreations of plays and fairytales. By 1915, Reiniger was working in the film industry, firstly producing title cards, before creating animations, and eventually producing her own films.
To begin with, Reiniger was making short films and advertisements, but in 1926 she produced what is perhaps her best-known work – The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This film is regarded as the first feature-length animated film that was ever produced. Reiniger made more than 40 films throughout her career, and worked right up until the year before she passed away in 1981.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
It could be argued that William Hanna and Joseph Barbera each deserve their own entry on this list, but their careers became so intertwined that they are really inseparable. The pair met while working at the animation department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937, sparking the beginning of arguably the most successful animation partnership of all time. MGM dissolved its animation division in 1957, and so Hanna and Barbera co-founded the Hanna-Barbera animation studio.
The first animated cartoon they produced together was Tom & Jerry, and they went on to produce some of the most recognizable and culturally significant cartoons of their era, including The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear and The Smurfs. The partnership of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera lasted some 60 years, and some of the characters and properties they created are still yielding new material today.
The Japanese animator and director, Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most revered and respected figures in the world of animation for good reason. His animation style is unmistakable, and as a director he has created some of the most incredible anime films in living memory. Miyazaki was born in Tokyo in 1941 and had a strong interest in animation and manga from a very early age. His first animation job was with the famous Japanese studio, Toei Animation. In 1979 he left Toei Animation to join Tokyo Movie Shinsha and direct his first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro. This marked the start of an illustrious career directing and producing feature films.
In 1985, Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli and the studio released its first movie, Castle in the Sky, in 1986. This marked the start of Studio Ghibli’s incredible trajectory and resulted in Miyazaki being considered one of animation’s most successful filmmakers. He’s the man behind Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and more. His crowning glory may well be Spirited Away, which went on to become one of Japan’s highest-grossing films of all time and also won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. No wonder he is one of the world's most famous animators.
The Disney empire is now so big and sprawling and covers so much of the world of entertainment and media that it’s easy to forget it started out as an animation studio way back in 1923. From a very young age, Walt Disney had a keen interest in drawing and animation. He took art classes and became a commercial illustrator before setting up Disney Brothers Studio along with his brother Roy. One of Walt Disney’s earliest creations was Mickey Mouse, and soon after the studio started producing feature films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Dumbo. Films like this really pushed the potential of animated films and went a long way in establishing the animation industry.
Disney would go on to make live-action films as well, including classics like Mary Poppins. By the end of his career as a filmmaker, Walt Disney had set the record for the most Oscar nominations and wins for a single person with 59 nominations and 22 wins, a record that still stands today. Disney also got involved in the world of theme parks, starting with Disneyland. From then, the empire has continued to grow and grow, but it all started with Walt Disney’s cartoons.
The Soviet and Russian animator Yuri Norstein is considered one of the best animators of all time, despite the fact that he has produced a comparatively small number of animated films. Norstein studied art at school and then went on to take a two-year animation course. In 1961, after he completed his studies, he joined the studio Soyuzmultfilm. Here he worked as an animator on around 50 films before getting the opportunity to direct his own in the late 1960s. He went on to direct some incredible films, and was renowned for his sophisticated animation style. Even Hayao Miyazaki says that he thinks Norstein is a great artist, saying that Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog is one of his favorite films.
Unfortunately for Norstein, slow production on his feature film, The Overcoat, led Soyuzmultfilm to fire him in 1985. Norstein remained undeterred and carried on with the production of the film. Amazingly, production is still under way more than 40 years since the film was first started, making it the longest production time of any animated motion picture in history. Norstein is now 80 years old, so let’s hope he finishes it soon.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker
We’re doubling up on entries again with two animators in one, but the creative partnership of Matt Stone and Trey Parker is what has had an impact on the world of animation, and they couldn't have achieved what they have without each other. The pair met through a film class when they were both attending the University of Colorado. They bonded over a shared love of Monty Python and anti-authoritarian comedy. After university, Stone and Parker collaborated on a few feature-length films with moderate success.
The late 90s were tough and the pair struggled to break through. Then, Comedy Central gave the greenlight for a new animated show from Stone and Parker – South Park. The pilot episode was created using old-school cut paper stop-motion animation techniques and took around three and a half months to complete. While subsequent episodes made use of computer animation, the animation style still mimics the cut paper stop-motion vibe. South Park has went on to become one of the most successful animated series of all time, and it is currently on its 26th season.
The child of a poor family from Shangai, Chinese animator and artist Te Wei was born as Sheng Song in 1915. He started out by drawing political cartoons before becoming an animator under the tutelage of his mentor, Tadahito Mochinaga. In his early years as an animator, Te Wei experienced a lot of artistic freedom and experimented with different animation techniques. He became well known for the ink-wash animation style that he used and that was inspired by the painter Qi Baishi.
From the mid-1950s to 1963, Te Wei produced a number of animated films – The Proud General, Where is Mama and The Cowboy’s Flute. He would go on to win both Chinese and international awards for his work on Where is Mama, but tragically in 1964 he was imprisoned for a year during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. After his release, he remained in exile and was unable to return to his studio until 1975. For the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, Te Wei went through another period of intense activity and was to once again work in the way that he wanted.
The origin of Stephen Hillenburg’s animation career is fascinating and unexpected. As a child he was enthralled by the ocean, and also had a keen interest in art. He would go on to study marine science at the Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, with a minor in art. His first job after uni was as a marine biology instructor at the Orange County Marine Institute in 1984. During his time here he was asked by an instructor if he would be interested in creating an educational comic book for kids. It ended up being called The Intertidal Zone and showed the animal life in tidal pools.
After deciding that he wanted to leave teaching behind, Hillenburg eventually enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts in 1989 as a pathway to a career in animation. Soon after he finished at CalArts, Hillenburg got a job working on the Nickelodeon show Rocko’s Modern Life. He then started working on the characters that he had developed for The Intertidal Zone, and pitched a show to Nickelodeon. That show was SpongeBob SquarePants, and thankfully Nickelodeon gave it the greenlight. The cartoon was a total sensation and it’s still running today, becoming one of the longest-running American animated series.
Russian-American animator Genndy Tartakovsky is yet another graduate of the California Institute of the Arts. His family is originally from Moscow, but they moved the United States when he was seven years old as his parents were concerned about the impact that antisemitism could have on their children’s lives. When they relocated to Chicago from Columbus, Ohio Tartakovsky discovered comics and he immediately fell in love with what he found.
After finishing at CalArts, he had a few different animating jobs, but it was when he was hired by Hanna-Barbera that things really developed for Tartakovsky. He first worked with Craig McCracken on 2 Stupid Dogs, and during this time he also started working on his own creation, Dexter’s Laboratory. The Cartoon Network eventually commissioned Tartakovsky to produce Dexter’s Laboratory, and since then he has worked on a huge number of beloved animated shows and films.
We don’t really need to say anything other than ‘Matt Groening created The Simpsons’ in order to convey just what an important figure in animation Matt Groening is. He started his career as a cartoonist in 1978 when he began selling his self-published comic book Life in Hell in the corner of the record store in which he worked. He had just moved to Los Angeles, and the comic strip was his way of explaining to his friends what life was like there. The strip became an instant success and was eventually syndicated in 250 weekly newspapers. Amazingly, Groening kept the strip going right up until 2012.
In 1985 he was approached and asked to bring the strip to life as a series of short animated skits on The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening was scared that the new format would fail and take his comic strip down with it, so he invented a new set of characters – The Simpsons. The skits were a hit and it got turned into its own The Simpsons series, which has since become the longest-running US primetime TV show and the longest running US animated series and sitcom. If that wasn’t enough, Groening has also created the amazing Futurama and most recently Disenchantmen, and he is easily one of the most successful cartoon artists of all time.
The era from 1928 to the early 1970s is what is known as the ‘golden age of American animation’. This was the time when sound cartoons were at their peak, with many of the most culturally significant and financially successful cartoons emerging during this period of the American animation industry. The American cartoonist, character designer and animator Tex Avery was a key figure in this period, and he played a big role in creating some of the most famous animated characters of all time. The main two studios he worked for were Warner Bros. and MGM, and through his work for them he helped to bring characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd to life.
A fun fact is that Avery was the person who gave Bugs Bunny his signature catchphrase – ‘What’s up Doc?’. It was a popular saying at his high school, and he later repurposed it for the famous character. Avery actually started his career as an inker in an animation studio before working his way up to become a storyboarder and then a director. His cartoons were known for their wacky nature and often violent humor.
A true pioneer of his day, Ray Harryhausen was an American animator and special effects creator who was an absolute master of stop-motion animation. Harryhausen was inspired by the 1933 film King Kong, and in particular the scenes that used stop-motion. He spent the 1930s and 1940s experimenting in the production of short animations, and then in the 1950s he started to work in technical effects on feature films. Some of the most notable productions he worked on are The 7th Journey of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.
Harryhausen was a true innovator, and he created a form of stop-motion technique that became known as ‘Dynamation’. What makes Harryhausen such an important animator is not just the work that he himself did, but also the influence he had on other filmmakers. Giant names in film such as Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, George Lucas and Wes Anderson all cite Harryhausen as an influence. It’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for Harryhausen’s contributions to film, then movies would look very different today.
Being an animator isn't just about achieving fame and fortune – animation is fun in and of itself. If you're a keen animator, don't stress too much about trying to get your name in lights – just focus on doing what you love. All of the people on this list worked hard and followed their passion and dreams. If you do the same, there is no telling where you might end up.
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