The 10 Greatest Pioneers of Animation You Should Know About

6. Mitsuyo Seo (1911 – 2010)

Mitsuyo Seo

There’s no doubt about what an influence Osamu Tezuka has been for Japanese animation. The creator of Astoboy, one of the earliest and more emblematic anime characters, Tezuka managed to entertain millions through several generations. Nonetheless, Tezuka admits that if he hadn’t seen the work of Mitsuyo Seo as a child, he never would have worked as a cartoonist and animator.

Turned away by the largest companies, Seo started his career as a member of the Proletarian Film League of Japan, an organization mostly dedicated to produce newsreels and documentary for political meetings but also made dramas and animated shorts. Despite being suppressed by the Japanese government in the 30’s, forcing Seo to spend a few weeks in jail, he remained a leftist despite the turbulent times of circa-WWII Japan.

However, Seo was forced to produce propaganda films, which became his most famous work. Commissioned by the Japanese Navy and starring Momotaro, a popular Japanese folk figure, Momotaro: No Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles) and Momotaro: Uni no Shimpei (Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors). Both films depict Momotaro leading a gang of anthropomorphic animals rescuing islands from the control of demons and European imperialists.

Although first animated film in Asia is China’s Princess Iron Fan by the Wan brothers, Seo made the early sketches of a worldwide-famous art and entertainment industry that is Japanese animation or, as it is commonly known, anime. His last production, a pro-democracy work titled Osama no Shippo, was deemed too leftist by US-occupied post-war Japan and was never released. Sao spent his final years working as an illustrator for children’s books.


7. Karel Zeman (1910 – 1989)

Karel Zeman

Considered by some as the father of Czech animation and often referred as the “Czech Mélies”, Karel Zeman started his career combining puppetry, stop-motion and live-action in the 40’s and early 50’s, always experimenting what could be done with the combination of these techniques in two and three-dimensional spaces.

He refined his style into an amalgamation of highly-stylized live-action in a fantastic setting (Proto-Steampunk Victorian era, Arabian Nights-like Middle East) with the fantastic elements done using a wide array of animation techniques.

But what also made him stand out where the stories he chose to tell. Like Ray Harryhausen in the United States, Zeman tried to portray the wonder and magic of fables.

While Harryhausen became famous for his work with Greek mythology (Jason and the Argonauts, the original Clash of the Titans), Zeman is memorable due to his inspiration from the scientist romance of Jules Verne, the fables of Baron Munchausen and the illustrations of Gustave Doré in productions like An Invention for Destruction (renamed as The Wonderful World of Jules Verne for its US release), Baron Munchausen, The Stolen Airship and On The Comet.

Karel Zeman animation

The world envisioned by Karel Zeman is one made in imitation of the art and beauty of old-time illustrations, science and technology is just a guise for a type of modern magic that makes everything possible and the wonder and idealism of very few are enough to vanquish the evil ambitions of powerful and sinister men that usually gloat in palaces surrounded by buffoonish henchmen.

Nowadays those who he influenced, such as Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson or Jan Svankmajer, are far more known than Zeman. However, thanks to the creation and interest of science fiction with a Victorian aesthetics, known as Steampunk, in the last few years a renewed interest on the works of Karel Zeman has made him earn new admirers around the world.


8. Norman McLaren (1914 – 1987)

Norman McLaren

Perhaps Canada’s most important animator, the work of Scotland-born Norman McLaren is somewhat obscure for general populace, probably for its experimental, but well-regarded in artistic circles, especially in the country that he made his home.

Although he experimented with diverse methods of animation, he was mostly known for developing a technique known as pixilation, in which he would draw directly into film instead of photographing an object and that invented in his art school years due to not owning a camera.

After earning a reputation in several film festivals, he was invited in the 1940’s to assembly an animation team for the National Film Board of Canada, an institution that would grant him control and freedom for his work through the rest of his career and, in return, McLaren would give back not only several works full of imagination and dexterity, but an entire generation of animators that made the National Film Board of Canada a point of reference in experimental animation.

Norman McLaren animation

In 1952 McLaren won an Academy Award for his most famous work: Neighbours, a parable about the escalation and futility of war told as two neighbors fighting to death for a single rose growing between their properties. Using live-action actors through stop-motion and creating the soundtrack through scratches done on the edge of the filmstrip.

The most controversial production of the National Film Board of Canada, a segment where both men attack each other’s family was cut, only to be reinstated later on when the anti-war sentiment become more commonplace.

Currently, the Montréal district where the NFB has its headquarters is named after McLaren and his works are preserved in the Memory of the World Program run by the UNESCO.


9. Bruno Bozzetto (1938 – Now)

Bruno Bozzetto

Animation is an ever-changing industry. This is especially clear in the last few decades where computer-generated images have slowly displaced the more expensive and time-consuming traditional ink-and-paper technique.

This has brought down studios, cut many formerly-available job positions, forced many to adapt and left those who cannot adapt, unemployed. This is not the case of Italy’s Bruno Bozzetto, who has managed to maintain a 50-year spanning career knowing how to reinvent himself while keeping his wit and iconoclastic style intact.

Bozzetto first came to prominence in Italy with his character Signor Rossi, an everyman-type of character who always manages to get into absurd situations that poke fun of mundane modern life. The character provided to be wildly popular, producing several shorts and three feature films in the 60’s and 70’s.

But it was in 1976 that Bozzetto made what could be regarded as his finest work: Allegro Non Troppo, a halfway parody-homage of Walt Disney’s Fantasia with a far grimmer outlook at life and existence but still bound with the same sharp satire that is proper of Bozzetto with scenes like, for example, life pouring from a Coca-Cola bottle along with Ravel’s Bolero.

Bruno Bozzetto animation

In the 80’s and 90’s, Bozzetto continued to harvest international success with Mister Tao (winner of the Golden Bear of the 1990 Berlin Festival) and Cavallette (nominated for the Oscar in 1991) and collaborates in television in the US and Italy with the short Help! for Hanna-Barbera-produced What a Cartoon! Show for Cartoon Network and the cartoon series La Famiglia Spaghetti for RAI.

But it was in Adobe Flash animation that Bozzetto would find a new life for his observational comic vignettes. In the turn of the millennium, Bozzetto produced a series of minimalistic shorts, including “Italy Vs. Europe”, that have become viral and provided that the internet is not just a ground for a younger generation.


10. Mainframe Entertainment (1991 – Now)

Mainframe Entertainment

To talk about a single pioneer when referring to computer animation is an impossible task. While is true that traditional animation is a group work, the process to make computer animation makes it harder to people stand out individually.

The CGI boom from the 90’s made it possible to studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks to earn its place in the entertainment industry, but other important contributors never got the opportunity to shine outside their niche. This is the case with Canada’s Mainframe Entertainment and their ground-breaking 1994 television show, Reboot.

Mainframe Entertainment reboot

Although several other studios had worked with computer-animated shorts and scenes, nobody before had tried to produce a complete a feature film, much less a television series. Though the series premiered in 1994, preproduction had started in the late 80’s and evolved along the available technology.

The highly-aesthetic technological nature of the setting, inside a computer where the protagonists have to fight off viruses, helped to manage the limitations at the time and helped the audience to accept with more ease the then-brand new technique.

Although Reboot became a highly-acclaimed success, Mainframe Entertainment failed to replicate its popularity with other shows and slowed lagged behind in terms of market and technology to more powerful animation studios that had started to get into computer animation. Since then, Mainfrane (now called Rainmaker after an acquisition) has kept a low profile making mostly licensed direct-to-DVD movies, including over a dozen Barbie films.

Author Bio: J.E. González is a writer and journalist from Venezuela. With a degree in Social Communications, he has a passion for world culture and narrative arts. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxmordon.