Exploring the Bookshelf of Animation Legend Jules Engel

What kind of books might an animation artist have kept on their bookshelf sixty years ago? They certainly wouldn’t have owned many animation books. In the 1950s, there was no Illusion of Life or Animator’s Survival Kit, and the entire number of books published about animation could be counted on one hand. Inspiration for the classic animation artist lay beyond the world of cartoons and animated film.

I was reminded of this when I found a photo of Jules Engel, a background painter who started at Disney prior to joining the Modernist studio United Productions of America (UPA). The shot below was taken at UPA circa 1954-’55. Engel later made his own independent shorts and created the CalArts Experimental Animation program, which he ran until his death in 2003.

After examining the image (and a similar photo taken from a slightly different angle), I was able to identify many of the books on Engel’s shelf. (Click HERE for a larger view of the image.) Engel’s books span the spectrum of visual arts from photography to painting to dance and theater. His collection confirms much of what we already know about the artists who worked at UPA, and their commitment to exploring the possibilities of the animation medium. Far from working in a vacuum, they were fully aware of the latest trends and ideas in the contemporary art world.

Below is an inventory of the books that are identifiable in the photo of Engel’s bookshelf. I’ve tried to include the covers of the specific editions that Engel owned:

British Circus Life by Lady Eleanor Smith and John Hinde
Jules Engel book

New Theatres for Old by Mordecai Gorelik
Jules Engel book

The Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein
Jules Engel book

The Poems and Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
Jules Engel book

The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans
Jules Engel book

What Makes an Orchestra by Jan Balet
Jules Engel book

Songs to Grow On: A Collection of American Folk Songs for Children by Beatrice Landeck, illustrated by David Stone Martin
Jules Engel book

The Dance: The Story of the Dance in Pictures and Text by John Martin
Jules Engel book

Paul Klee by Will Grohmann
Jules Engel book

A Manual of Historic Ornament Treating Upon the Evolution, Tradition and Development of Architecture and The Applied Arts by Richard Glazier. (Note: The book is now in the public domain and is available for free on Google Books.)

Jules Engel book

Pet of the Met by Lydia and Don Freeman
Jules Engel book

Ballet Alphabet: A Primer for Laymen by Lincoln Kirstein, illustrated by Paul Cadmus
Jules Engel book

A monograph (Ambassador Editions) of British painter Graham Sutherland, including this painting:
Jules Engel book

The Playwright As Thinker–A Study of the Modern Theatre by Eric Bentley
Jules Engel book

A MoMA catalog for an exhibit on 20th century Italian art, as well as the catalog for MoMA’s seminal 1937 show “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.”
Jules Engel book


  • JG

    And what does the contemporary animator have on his shelf? A couple of animation books, feature making-of’s and “software manuals”? That’s closer to working in a vacuum…

    • R. Araya

      Maybe he won’t even have a shelf. Just a desk with a computer, with the manual on the hard disk, and the books would be inside his Kindle.

  • http://she-thing.blogspot.com Caty

    GOLDEN post, Amid, thank you!!!!!

  • http://www.animationinsider.net/ Aaron B.

    Very interesting research. It’s fascinating to try and think of the many ways those artists adapted or appropriated influences from dance, architecture, and poetry both in traditional and non-traditional ways… inspiration frequently comes from the most unlikely of places, so one can only imagine.

    • http://art-candy.blogspot.com/ Andrea

      I imagine that being influenced by dance, architecture, and poetry isn’t the most unlikely place of inspiration. On the advice of Ken Duncan in a podcast I picked up and read Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky and it was relevant and very interesting from the point of an animator who must get into character. Then there were a whole bunch of other books I started and didn’t finish… must get back to those…

  • Trevor

    This is why I come to cartoonbrew. Thanks for this.

  • Josh Parpan

    man, this is why I love CB.

  • http://www.hiddenjunk.net Greg

    Great post, Amid! Thanks for sharing.

  • Daniel

    not only did ppl from that generation read about things outside of animation, but they READ books!!

    It’s amazing how much information there is about animation there are in books nowadays, but 85% of artists and students hardly ever read the books they buy! How many of you have actually read The Illusion of Life front to back? Composing Pictures? …etc

    this just reminds me of reading the transcripts from a don graham action analysis class where students asked intelligent questions compared to today’s atmosphere in the classroom where students expect information to be fed to them..

    • optimist

      I thought everyone had read Illusion of Life-it’s not like it’s text heavy. Composing Pictures, on the other hand, is a very hard read imho.

  • http://Mattjonezanimation.blogspot.com Matt Jones

    Excellent & revealing research Amid.

  • http://www.synchrolux.com Kevin

    The most striking thing to me is how much better book design was decades ago. I want to read these books simply because the covers are so amazing!

  • HC

    There were no animation books that weren’t largely p.r. fluff from about 1921 until the early 1970s. UPA’s artists had to get their inspiration from somewhere. Good thing there was Cubism, 30 years before. It passed as innovative in the animation world of the late 1940s because the going style had been romanticized realism pretty much since the inception of the commercial cartoon. Chuck Jones was still giving what amounted to art history survey classes in his cartoons as late as the early 1960s. There is a long stretch of “Gay Purr-ee” dedicated to art history references (a feature which Jones co-wrote with his late first wife, Dorothy) and his WB short of the same year, “Louvre, Come Back to Me” is knee deep in perfunctory art history references (coincidentally also inside the Louvre), as well. Nothing at all wrong with that approach unless it takes the place of entertainment. UPA certainly began as a high brow outfit. Wonder what books were still on the shelves when they were forced to grind out underbudgeted garbage starring the likes of Heap O’ Calorie, Go Go Gomez and Joe Jitsu, after Hank Saperstein bought the place?

  • http://www.borishiestand.com Boris Hiestand

    Lovely post. It’s sad to see most people in mainstream animation these days only look at other animated films for reference rather than the real world and its many art forms. It shows in the output too!

    • Sarah

      yeah, correct you are sir…it does show in the output
      GREAT post Mr. Amid…more stuff like that, bring on some
      substance to the world of animation and lets abolish the formulas, cliches and stale thinking thanks, and love all these old covers and yellowy pages

  • http://www.oddballcomics.com Scott Shaw!

    What, no issues of THE FOX AND THE CROW?

  • ECJ

    I was lucky to to have Jules as one of my teachers at Cal Arts. I remember him saying how theater was closer to animation than live action film and how important it was to study it. Interesting to see all the theater books in his bookshelf.

  • Chris W

    Wow! What a terrific post!

  • http://pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

    First of all, great post Amid. Some brilliant sleuthing on your part! Love it. It’s great to see the influences that impacted the classic cartoons.

    It’s also interesting to see the wide range of source material that golden age animators drew from. While almost everything in the world is available to us today, most animators only look at or read animation related material.

  • Jorge Garrido

    I want THAT one, and THAT one, and THIS one…! :D

  • Robert Schaad

    I think it’s possible to enjoy this post (great, btw) without pointing out any negatives about the bookshelves or lack thereof of any young animators. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt…as this may inspire them to visit a local bookstore and seek out something that inpires them.

    As with vinyl LPs resurgence…

  • The Gee

    Perhaps not a single soul is considering this but: don’t consider reading these books just because Engel had them.
    Sure, he may have read them. Perhaps he even re-read them. The chances are good they each were important reference books for him. But, there’s so many more books on similar subjects, on the humanities in general. While that may be an obvious observation…don’t take this as a reading list

    Just be curious. If you don’t read often or haven’t read a lot of books in a while (and I’m guilty of that) just get something in, near or outside of your area of interest. And, it is probably best if it is a critical study of some artist, art form or a movement.

    No one may be saying, A ha! More of the keys to the castle!
    But, certainly keep in mind that you can’t know too much about what has been done and why it was likely done.

    (yada yada, right?)

  • Carolyn BAtes

    That’s the coolest post. I would love to see other animators’ bookshelves in future Brews.

  • http://www.framesandpages.com Pat

    Sigh… I work as an animation book dealer and I’m far too busy to actually read most of what’s going thru my hands. Thankfully a CB post like this brings the enjoyment of seeing how other people benefit.

  • http://iggadore.tumblr.com/ R.A. MacNeil

    Great post. I would love for this to become a regular feature.

    Here’s a pic of Jamie Hewlett and his bookshelf that I’ve poured over a couple of times. It’s a bit blurry, but you can defiantly identify several titles.

    Pic

  • http://sparklepony.blogspot.com Peteykins

    Just to play devil’s advocate, this looks more like somebody in the 1950s trying to catch up to the teens, twenties and thirties to me.

    • The Gee

      If the culture and the arts and animation during or right before that photo was taken weren’t sizzling hot perhaps it wasn’t so bad to look to the first three decades of the 20th C. to see what could be applied to animation in the 50s.
      ………………………………………….

      And, about my earlier post, I probably should have mentioned that most of the titles do look interesting. None of the books are ones that are familiar to me but there are a few I wouldn’t mind reading some day.

  • marysz

    Thanks for the great post. The book jacket graphics are amazing. So many of the early studio animation artists got into the field by accident. Also, they had experienced the depression of the nineteen thirties as well as world war two. They had a much richer and well-rounded background than most contemporary animators and it shows in their work.

  • http://www.jjsedelmaier.com J.J. Sedelmaier

    Great idea, Amid !!

  • David

    I’m coming to this post a few days late, but having made some criticisms about Amid’s GhostShrimp article, it’s only fair to give praise where it is due. I found this a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing it with us!