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How Old Were These Animation Directors When They Made Their First Film?

“Animation is a young man’s game,” Chuck Jones once said. There’s no question that animation is a labor-intensive art that requires mass quantities of energy and time. While it’s true that the majority of animation directors have directed a film by the age of 30, there are also a number of well known directors who started their careers later.

Directors like Pete Docter, John Kricfalusi and Bill Plympton didn’t begin directing films until they were in their 30s. Don Bluth, Winsor McCay and Frederic Back were late bloomers who embarked on directorial careers while in their 40s. Pioneering animator Emile Cohl didn’t make his first animated film, Fantasmagorie (1908), until he was 51 years old. Of course, that wasn’t just Cohl’s first film, but it is also considered by most historians to be the first true animated cartoon that anyone ever made.

Here is a cross-selection of 31 animation directors, past and present, and the age they were when their first professional film was released to the public.

  1. Don Hertzfeldt (19 years old)
    Ah, L’Amour
  2. Lotte Reiniger (20)
    The Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart
  3. Bruno Bozzetto (20)
    Tapum! The History of Weapons
  4. Frank Tashlin (20)
    Hook & Ladder Hokum
  5. Walt Disney (20)
    Little Red Riding Hood
  6. Friz Freleng (22)
    Fiery Fireman
  7. Seth MacFarlane (23)
    Larry & Steve
  8. Genndy Tartakovsky (23)
    2 Stupid Dogs (TV)
  9. Bob Clampett (24)
    Porky’s Badtime Story (or 23 if you count When’s Your Birthday)
  10. Pen Ward (25)
    Adventure Time (TV)
  11. Rebecca Sugar (25)
    Steven Universe (TV)
  12. Joanna Quinn (25)
    Girl’s Night Out
  13. Ralph Bakshi (25)
    Gadmouse the Apprentice Good Fairy
  14. Chuck Jones (26)
    The Night Watchman
  15. Richard Williams (26)
    The Little Island
  16. Tex Avery (27)
    Gold Diggers of ’49
  17. Bill Hanna (27)
    Blue Monday
  18. Joe Barbera (28)
    Puss Gets the Boot
  19. John Hubley (28)
    Old Blackout Joe
  20. John Lasseter (29)
    Luxo Jr.
  21. Brad Bird (29)
    Amazing Stories: “Family Dog” (TV)
  22. Hayao Miyazaki (30)
    Rupan Sansei (TV)
  23. Nick Park (30)
    A Grand Day Out
  24. John Kricfalusi (32)
    Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (TV)
  25. Pete Docter (33)
    Monsters Inc.
  26. Ward Kimball (39)
    Adventures in Music: Melody
  27. Bill Plympton (39)
  28. Winsor McCay (40)
    How a Mosquito Operates
  29. Don Bluth (41)
    The Small One
  30. Frederic Back (46)
  31. Emile Cohl (51)
  • Riu Tinubu

    Very nice article! Some of these guys were so young it scares me, but animation is an industry were age and experience are welcome, so seeing people directing their first film late into their lives is only a good thing. The opportunity is always there.

    • Karzay

      I like the wide range of ages too. Everyone peaks at different times.

  • Wasn’t John K.’s first cartoon “Ted Bakes One”, made circa 1979?

    • AmidAmidi

      From the article: “Here is a cross-selection of 30 animation directors, past and present, and the age they were when their first professional film was released to the public.

      This is not an exact science, but I wouldn’t consider a 1-minute interstitial to be a professional film. In that case, Pete Docter also directed numerous commercials at Pixar prior to making his feature. Would those be considered professional films? They are professional works, but they are unlike the first productions of others on this list.

      • Touche. But, then again, John K. directed the animation to the Rolling Stones “Harlem Shuffle” music video which came out over a year before the Bakshi Mighty Mouse. Does that count?

  • Gavin Mouldey

    Well, from Ward Kimball onward I feel reassured.

  • the other Tim

    It’s a little misleading to have Emile Cohl, and Winsor McCay in this post, since they really could not have made animated films when they were younger.

    • Or we could say it’s misleading to include most of the younger ones since they were benefiting from an existing studio structure that they didn’t build themselves.

      It’s fun to see that innovation isn’t limited to 20-something hipsters.

      • the other Tim

        No, it is misleading based on the quote from Jones, talking about folks in the business. There was no business or studio system for the two I mentioned, so no way to make a comparison. It would have been impossible for those two to be younger.

  • cab

    Actually, Bakshi’s first work as a director was one year before “Gadmouse”, on the made-for-TV “Deputy Dawg” show in 1964. One of Bakshi’s “Dawg” episode, “Save Ol’ Piney”, came out that year.

  • derik

    This is great! I don’t feel like crap for being 25 and not doing a thing yet!

  • shadypotential

    wow Seth was 23? that’s incredible. someone must have saw his talent early on

    • Oh most of us did. A lot of us could tell he was gonna go somewhere from the moment he came to Hanna Barbera. He was an incredibly funny guy and was always ‘on’. He wasn’t the best artist but he was very clear in his vision. Some people did think his humor was too close to The Simpsons and he’d never go anywhere but clearly they were monkey asses.

      • shadypotential

        thats good to know. I assume you must of worked with him. It proves you don’t have to be the best artist in the room to be successful in this business.

    • VT

      Just as an FYI, his film was a follow-up to his senior film in school, hence the young age. :) They aired it on the “What a Cartoon” program that kickstarted a lot of careers.

  • Sweet knowledge!

  • Alfons Moline

    Actually the first cartoon directed by Bill Hanna (though uncredited) was “To Spring”, made when he was 25, two years before “Blue Monday”.

    • AmidAmidi

      This list only acknowledges official directing credits. Tex Avery also claimed that he directed a couple of cartoons at Lantz before Warner Bros., but since those are uncedited, they aren’t on the list.

  • David Freedman

    I was 15. The reviews were good, but on 8mm stock, theatres were limited.