Illustration of Mary Blair. Image by Michael Neltzer / CC BY-SA 3.0

Most of us can remember the excitement of rushing to watch our favorite Saturday morning cartoons. With the help of CGI technology and updated graphic tools, artists have come a long way since the early days of animation. Whether you’re a fan of tlhe traditional, hand-drawn aesthetic or prefer the impressive depth and power of computer animation, there’s something for everyone.

To make it in the imaginative but prestigious animation industry takes a high caliber of artistry and a keen eye for delivering memorable visual storytelling. Here are some of the most influential animators responsible for making your favorite characters come to life.

Bill Hanna (right) and Joseph Barbera (left). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Bill Hanna (right) and Joseph Barbera (left). Source: Wikimedia Commons

1 & 2. Will Hanna & Joseph Barbera

After forming Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1957, Will Hanna and his colleague Joseph Barbera brought to the small screen beloved family cartoons like Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, and Scooby-Doo. With only a handful of channels, children woke up to their cartoons as their main source of entertainment from the late 1950’s through the 1980’s. The shows’ quirky family dynamics and slapstick humor were popular among families just starting to enjoy the domestic tranquility of the era.

 

Illustration of Mary Blair. Image by Michael Neltzer / CC BY-SA 3.0

3. Mary Blair

One of the few female illustrators at the early Walt Disney Animation Studios, Mary Blair is an understated yet significant figure in animation. Her role in a creative field during the 1940’s was impressive in itself, considering that there weren’t many opportunities for female artists at the time. As one of the primary animators on Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, her bold colors and fine-art elements helped distinguish the elegance of the Disney look, also prominent in the original Disneyland attraction “It’s A Small World!”.

 

Brad Bird (center). Photo by The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek / CC BY 2.0

4. Brad Bird

Another acclaimed Pixar artist is animator, director, and screenwriter Brad Bird, who has directing credits for Ratatouille and The Incredibles (he even did voicework for character Edna Mode). Bird attended the California School of the Arts and cites revered animator Milt Kahl as a mentor. Though most associated for his work at Pixar Studios, Bird also served as the director for 1999’s The Iron Giant. His films are defined by heartwarming characters and their emotionally resonant narratives.

 

“Chuck Jones” by Alan Light is licensed under CC BY 2.0

5. Chuck Jones

The wild and ludicrous misadventures of the Looney Tunes cartoons were created by notable Warner Bros. Studios animator and director Chuck Jones. He first introduced to audiences familiar characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Wile E. Coyote in the 1930’s. A graduate from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Jones pursued a lifelong dream to develop his own animation style. The appeal of his cartoons lied in his attention to movement and precise comedic timing, sustaining a career which spanned 60 years.

 

6. Lotte Reiniger

Though popular forms of animation include traditional two-dimensional and computer animation, Lotte Reiniger was the first to incorporate shadow puppetry. The German animator drew influence from classic fairy tale stories a decade before Disney reimagined them for mainstream audiences. In addition to utilizing silhouettes puppets, Reiniger invented an early tool in cinematography ubiquitous in modern movies: the multiplane camera. Creating more than 50 films and even launching her own studio Princess Productions in 1953, Reiniger’s unusual whimsical style and career remains celebrated today as pushing the limits of animation.

 

Photos by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

7 & 8.Matt Groening & Seth MacFarlane

Though both have enjoyed success on independently produced projects, the works of animators Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening are intertwined. Groening’s long-running series The Simpsons formed from a desire to skewer pop culture, while MacFarlane’s Family Guy was inspired by Groening’s work (he originally wanted to work for Disney). Both men carved a niche in animation; the premise of dysfunctional families set against the backdrop of a sitcom turned 1990’s prime-time TV on its head. The shows’ trademark irreverent humor punctuated the monotony of suburbia, much to the pleasure of similarly disillusioned viewers.

 

Photo by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

9. Tim Burton

A filmmaker with a strong balance between both live-action and animated mediums, Tim Burton’s signature style of dark whimsy is instantly recognizable to audiences. An alumnus of the California Institute of the Arts in 1976, Burton left his job at Disney to hone his stop-motion animation. His fixation on gothic motifs are evident in A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, which showcase striking and dramatic color contrasts. The jarring art style is an unexpected yet appropriate vehicle for his stories’ subtle emotional themes, which transform the macabre into marvel.

 

Photo by FICG.mx / CC BY 2.0

10. Hayao Miyazaki

Highly regarded to be in a master class of his own, Miyazaki has entranced viewers through films that ooze pathos and childlike wonder. While he has collaborated with Disney, Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli has grown to establish itself as a tour-de-force in animation. Cherished classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Princess Mononoke are both universally and critically acclaimed. Notorious for working without a finished script, Miyazaki’s preference of choosing storyboarded over text-based scripts speaks volumes to his painstaking dedication to his craft.

 

“Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse” by gwaar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

11. Walt Disney

And of course, Walt Disney. A household name not just in animation, but in the wider film and entertainment industries, Walt Disney’s wondrous and lucrative career all famously started with his mouse muse. Developing hundreds of films over his lifetime, Disney’s work quickly set the industry standard of which to aspire to and challenge. 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first animated film to feature the combination of narrative and visual splendor. His influence lingers in the halls of today’s top creative studios and the vacation mecca of his world-famous Disney resorts. He’s also partly responsible for the founding of California Institute of the Arts, the alma mater of many of the above animators.


If you’re looking to make the cut in the animation industry yourself, you’ll need all the tools you can get. Browse our courses in film, animation, and motion graphics. These three in particular can keep you on the cutting edge:

Visual Storytelling: Envisioning a Narrative for Film and Video Games

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Introduction to 3D Modeling and Animation with Maya

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Introduction to Motion Design: Animated GIFs

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