IAMLA Fantasy World Exhibit (2019-06) by Lluvia HigueraItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
From creating some of the most iconic characters in cartoon history to producing today’s box office record-breaking films, Italian Americans have figured prominently in the world of animation. Their presence as directors, voice actors, animators, and more, from the earliest days to the present, continues to shape this exciting entertainment medium.
Magic Lantern (1822) by J. JohnstonItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
The history of animation
Broadly defined, animation is the technique of displaying successive images to create an illusion of movement. Over the past 400 years, people have utilized forms of artistic expression to create representations of movement. First developed in the 17th century, the magic lantern was an early type of projector that used images printed on transparent plates, usually made of glass. When the plate containing the image was placed behind the magic lantern’s lens and in front of a light source and mirror, the images on the plate were projected onto a screen and enlarged.
Drawing of the Cinematograph (1890) by LumiereItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Eventually, more sophisticated forms of animation began to surface. In 1895, the cinematograph, a camera used to project moving images, was combined with transparent celluloid film that could rotate through the images with great fidelity and speed. Early animators took advantage of this by drawing special effects into live-action film. However, they soon realized celluloid film’s potential as an inexpensive medium for longer productions.
A still from Fantasmagorie (1908) by Émile CohlItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
These innovations paved the way for one of the first forms of drawn animation, traditional animation. In traditional animation, every line in a scene needed to be transferred from one frame to another with minute changes. Then, the completed frames would be photographed onto celluloid film, which would give the appearance of movement when run in succession. The intensive production process required the creation of hundreds of hand-drawn frames to create a film that lasted only minutes. The first animated cartoon, Fantasmagorie (1908) by Emile Cohl, and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) by Winsor McCay, employed this technique. Fantasmagorie lasted less than 90 seconds despite having 700 frames.
Photograph of Quirino Cristiani (1920) by Quirino CristianiItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Other animators during that time avoided the laborious process inherent to traditional animation by utilizing puppetry. Among them was Italian-Argentine director Quirino Cristiani, who is credited with creating the first animated feature-length film, El Apóstol (1917), which had a running time of 70 minutes and employed 58,000 frames. His later film Peludópolis (1931) is recognized as the first animated feature film with sound.
The Process of Making Animated Cartoons (1919) by Bray StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Unlike traditional animation, which requires each item in a frame to be redrawn, cel animation employs a static background on top of which a transparent sheet, or “cel” is placed. By simply drawing new character cels, the characters’ movements and expressions could be modified without having to reproduce the background scenery. This quick, cost-saving process helped establish animation as an adaptable and attractive medium.
Cel animation diagram (2016) by No MagnoliaItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Early on, animated short films, also known as cartoons (from the Italian word cartone, or “big paper”), were screened in movie theaters as lead-ins for feature films. In 1915, American animator John Randolph Bray opened a studio in which he developed an assembly-line method for creating animated films. It was at this studio that animator Earl Hurd invented cel animation, which became the dominant technique until computer animation was developed.
Steamboat Willie (1928) by Walt DisyenItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
The addition of sound in 1899 created possibilities for further artistic innovation. American animator Walt Disney immediately recognized the technology’s potential, and in 1928, his studio released Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. It became an instant hit around the world and led other studios to expand their animation divisions, including Warner Bros., which produced the animated series Looney Tunes beginning in 1930.
Signed portrait of Adriana Caselotti (1940) by Adrianna CaselottiItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
With the development of three-strip Technicolor animation in 1932 and financing provided by Italian American banking pioneer A.P. Giannini, Disney was able to produce the first full-length cel animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. Disney cast Adriana Caselotti as Snow White and paid her $970 (the equivalent of $18,000 in 2019) for her role. The exclusive contract Caselotti signed with Disney precluded her from accepting other acting work. Unfortunately, Disney never hired her again. Years later, Caselotti filed suit against Walt Disney Productions over royalties, and the two parties eventually reached a settlement.
A still from Fantasia (1940) by Walt DisyenItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Italian Americans at Disney
Several Italian Americans distinguished themselves among the talents of the Disney Company. Animators like Nino Carbé and Grace Godino utilized increasingly realistic art styles to capture the elements that made Disney movies believable to audiences around the world. Carbé’s expertise in the animation of water in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence of Fantasia (1940) elicited praise for the animation’s weighty, realistic quality.
Photograph of Grace Godino (1970) by Grace Godino EstateItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Godino’s contributions to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs allowed for the movie to be completed even as Disney suffered extreme financial distress.
Rico Lebrun (standing) (1942) by Rico Lebrun EstateItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
During the creation of Bambi (1942), fine artists including Rico Lebrun were brought in to educate animators on the fluid and naturalistic movement of animals. His educational sessions often included live models of deer and carefully rendered handbooks on the skeletal systems of these woodland creatures.
A still from Pinocchio (1940) by Dinsey StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Women at Walt Disney Studios began breaking important gender barriers in the field of animation. Bianca Majolie (born Bianca Maggioli) was hired as Disney’s first female storyboard artist. She worked on Cinderella and Peter Pan, and created the outline for the Silly Symphony cartoon "Elmer Elephant." This tenderhearted story about an elephant that was teased for his looks is considered a precursor to the film Dumbo. She also provided a translation of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio that would serve as the narrative basis for the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio.
Walter Lantz (1980) by Walter Lantz StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Walter Lantz, whose name was changed from Lanza during his family’s immigration to the United States, had just separated his company, Walter Lantz Productions, from Universal Studios and was searching for a new character. Inspiration struck during Lantz’s honeymoon. After hearing a woodpecker tapping on the roof of the lakeside cottage where Lantz and his wife, actress Grace Stafford, were staying, Stafford encouraged her husband to develop a character based on the bird. Thus, Woody Woodpecker was born. Stafford would later be chosen in a blind audition to provide Woody’s voice.
Joseph Barbera (1980) by Hanna Barbera StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
As television grew in popularity, animated shows became increasingly common, with Hanna-Barbera at the forefront. Joseph Barbera had met William Hanna in 1937 while working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s cartoon unit. They directed the Academy Award-nominated short Puss Gets the Boot, a cat and mouse cartoon. The cartoon’s success led the men to develop a new series named Tom and Jerry. It became the most successful animated series in the history of the Academy Awards, with 13 nominations and seven wins. When MGM closed their cartoon unit in 1957, Barbera and Hanna decided to form their own studio, Hanna-Barbera Productions.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (1973) by Hanna Barbera StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Joseph Barbera, right, and William Hanna, left, pictured with some of the characters conceived through their creative partnership.
Scooby-Doo (1970) by Hanna Barbera StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Altogether, the Hanna-Barbera company produced over 3,000 animated half-hour television shows and pioneered many cost-saving techniques, such as limited animation. Several of their shows, including The Flintstones, The Huckleberry Hound Show, and Yogi Bear, would become icons of the golden era of television animation
Joe Oriolo (1930) by Oriolo estateItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
In some cases, cartoons from the early age of animation were rebooted for modern audiences. Joe Oriolo, who created the character Casper the Friendly Ghost, worked with Felix the Cat creator Otto Messmer and was responsible for bringing Felix the Cat into the burgeoning 1960s television scene. Oriolo created the pilot for the Felix the Cat television series and continued to produce the television show before assuming complete creative control of Felix the Cat, a role he held until his death in 1985.
An orchestra providing the soundtrack for a film screening (2000) by WikipediaItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Musicians in animation
As the production of animated films and shows grew during the 1930s, the role of music in animation began to change. Though it was an important feature from animation’s earliest days, music began to take on a secondary role by enhancing the emotion of movie scenes. In many cases, musicians were brought on as official contributors.
Henry Mancini (1980) by Mancini estateItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Often, composers contributed to both film and animation, as in the case of Henry Mancini. Mancini, who was born in Cleveland’s Little Italy in 1924, would go on to create some of the most iconic scores in Hollywood. In addition to numerous films, he composed for Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther, whose recognizable theme accompanied the animated Pink Panther character throughout the film and for years to come.
Image of Vince Guaraldi with Schroeder from Peanuts (1966) by Charles SchulzItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Other composers, such as Vince Guaraldi, stumbled into the world of animation. Guaraldi was jazz artist who had won a Grammy for his 1962 song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and his catchy music inspired producer Lee Mendelson to contact him for a collaboration on a new production, the Peanuts 1965 Christmas special. Guaraldi worked on the Peanuts series for nearly 15 years, during which he composed 17 television specials and a feature-length film, among other projects.
Michael Giacchino's highlight reel (2018) by Michael GiacchinoItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Composer Michael Giacchino’s credits include some of the most popular and acclaimed film projects in recent history, including The Incredibles, War for the Planet of the Apes, Ratatouille, Star Trek, Jurassic World, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Coco. Giacchino’s 2009 score for the Pixar hit Up earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Broadcast Film Critics' Choice Award and two Grammy Awards.
The Silver Surfer (1966) by Jack KirbyItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Animation’s influence in comics
Like animation, comic books convey movement and stories through successive images. Several Italian Americans have shaped the field of comic storytelling, including John Buscema, who is known as one of the most celebrated pencilers at Marvel Comics. Buscema co-created the Vision, an android member of the Avengers, and worked on The Avengers, The Sub-Mariner, and The Amazing Spider-Man. In 1968, Stan Lee (creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, and more) and Buscema collaborated to create The Silver Surfer comic series, which tells the story of an alien on Earth struggling to understand humanity.
The Amazing Spiderman #100 cover (1963) by Stan LeeItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Considered one of the greatest inkers of American comic books, Frank Giacoia was born in 1924 near Naples, Italy. He would eventually ink Marvel’s Captain America series in the 1960s, where he worked with original creator Jack Kirby to bring Captain America to life. Giacoia’s most coveted work includes his collaborations with Stan Lee and penciler John Romita Sr. on The Amazing Spider-Man during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The original cover art for The Amazing Spider-Man #100 was sold at Heritage Auctions in 2018 for a record-breaking $478,000.
The Flash (1940) by Gardner Fox and artist Harry LampertItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Carmine Infantino is best known for his redesign of the DC Comics character the Flash, which ushered in the Silver Age of comics during the 1960s. During the Silver Age, comic heroes presented more personality and depth than the characters of the previous Golden Age. The Flash’s new costume became the now-iconic red jumpsuit with yellow lightning-bolt bands around the waist and biceps. The sleekness and simplicity of the new costume served as an inspiration for the costumes of other Silver Age heroes, such as the Green Lantern and Spider-Man.
Mary Jane Watson (1964) by Stan LeeItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
John Romita Sr. produced his most celebrated work at Marvel in the 1960s, when he assumed oversight of The Amazing Spider-Man, which became Marvel’s top seller less than a year later. He soon made The Amazing Spider-Man his own by introducing a style influenced by his experience with romance comics. This can be seen in changes to his characters’ physical appearance, as well as more frequent references to the characters’ social lives. He also created Spider-Man’s first romantic interest, Mary Jane Watson. In 1973, he inked one of Spider-Man’s most memorable plot points when Gwen Stacy, another of Spider-Man’s romantic interests, was killed during a battle with the Green Goblin.
Computer animation for the "Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" TV show (2012) by O EntertainmentItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
The dawn of modern animation
The reign of hand-drawn animation came to an end in 1972 when a new method of creating computer generated animatics was developed. This method was far more economical and convenient than cel animation. The rise of computers in the 1990s led to the production of Toy Story (1995), the first full-length 3D animated film. Since then, computer animation has become the industry standard because of its inexpensive and versatile nature.
Jason Figliozzi Portrait (2018) by Jason FigliozziItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Italian Americans continue to figure prominently in the field of animation at powerhouse studios like Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. Jason Figliozzi is a graduate of the Ringling College of Art + Design and has worked on numerous feature films and shorts at Walt Disney Animation Studios, including Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. He served as an animation supervisor on Big Hero 6 and Ralph Breaks the Internet, and he was the head of animation on the short film Inner Workings.
Wild Canary's highlight reel (2018) by Wild Canary StudiosItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Carmen Italia and fellow industry veteran Richard Marlis founded Wild Canary Animation, a full-service, state-of-the-art animation company that produces original content for the entertainment industry. Some of Wild Canary’s most celebrated work includes two television series it created for Disney Junior: Puppy Dog Pals, which won a Daytime Emmy and is the network’s number-one rated show, and Miles from Tomorrowland, which has been honored with an Environmental Media Award.
Life of Pi still featuring the Bengal tiger (2012) by 20th Century FoxItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has since become a staple in many Hollywood films. Life of Pi and Starship Troopers, storyboarded in part by Giacomo Ghiazza, have won Oscars and other international awards for their impressive use of animation to recreate a life-like Bengal tiger and enormous battles in space.
The Incredible Hulk (2008) by MarvelItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
Anthony and Joe Russo
Several other landmark films, including many of those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have become symbols of the capabilities of CGI in film. Box office record breaking directors Anthony and Joe Russo, known for their work on Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers Endgame, frequently use CGI to make fantastical characters and locations like the Incredible Hulk, Wakanda, and Asgard seem believable to audiences.
The cast of the Avengers with Joe and Anthony Russo (2012) by MarvelItalian American Museum of Los Angeles
The end result has captivated audiences around the world, resulting in two of their movies placing in the top five highest-grossing films of all time (Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War).