Animator Jules Engel's work on display in town

FILM

March 19, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

An unsung architect of the American animation renaissance receives his due at Creative Alliance at the Patterson tomorrow night at 8. That's when artist and animator Janeann Dill premieres a portion of her forthcoming documentary Jules Engel: An Artist for All Seasons, and introduces a selection of Engel's films and artwork.

A contributor to Fantasia and Bambi and a co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Engel, who died Sept. 6 at age 94, founded the experimental animation department at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. His students included Henry Selick, the director of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and Mark Kirkland, who has directed more than 50 episodes of The Simpsons. Even pupils outside the department felt his wonder-working influence - notably John Lasseter, the digital-animation genius behind Pixar.

Uniquely qualified to appreciate Engel as a trailblazer and teacher, Dill enrolled at CalArts-Valencia at age 40, after a full career as a painter, and became one of Engel's mentees. Dill had been specializing in monumental paintings (10 feet by 20 feet or 30 feet). Then she had the urge to create paintings that move in time - one definition of animation. She found the right adviser in Engel, a man of immense culture who was an abstract artist as well as ace cartoonist. Engel helped cement CalArts' belief in the importance of original talent. His motto was, "It's not what I give my students: It's what I don't take away."

At the core of Engel's talent, Dill says, "was his expertise in timing and choreography." He believed rhythm was the root of movie art and was himself a virtuoso of tempi. His mastery of this essential part of filmmaking - and his understanding of its roots in theater and dance - enabled him to inspire talents as different as puppet animator Selick and performance artist Kathy Rose.

"He was a living example of not losing one's self in the commercial world," says Dill. Her sophisticated multimedia presentation depicts Engel as "an artist who made art and who also made a living." His love for dance and modern art made him the perfect choice to design, for Fantasia, the alligators and hippos doing Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" and the Chinese mushrooms and Russian thistles gamboling through "The Nutcracker Suite." Although he had no interest in animals, when he devised the color keys for Bambi, his use of wild expressionist colors - even pinks - in his sketches of deer liberated the imaginations of Disney's character animators.

The Creative Alliance evening begins with a free reception from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. allowing the audience to savor Dill's collection of Engel's output: sculpture, lithographs, frames from his avant-garde live-action film Coaraze (which won France's Jean Vigo Award, and will also be shown in full), and animation drawings from Fantasia and Bambi.

Dill's collection of Engel's art remains on view at the Patterson (3134 Eastern Ave.) for free through March 27; admission to Dill's talk and film show is $10 ($8 for Creative Alliance members). For more information call 410-276-1651 or go to www.creativealli ance.org.

At the Charles

While Robert Altman's elating dance movie The Company occupies one of the Charles' new-movie screens, the theater's revival series presents the director's 1975 masterpiece, Nashville, tomorrow at noon and Thursday at 9 p.m. Among other things, it's prime election-year fare. In the background to this country-music extravaganza, presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker runs on a "Replacement Party" ticket under the motto "New Roots for the Nation." His campaign sums up the idealistic garble of post-Watergate politics.

This week's selection for Cinema Sunday at the Charles is the Coen Brothers' remake of Alexander Mackendrick's classic black comedy The Ladykillers, starring Tom Hanks. City Paper's Lee Gardner will lead the discussion. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.cinemasundays.com.

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