When it comes to ranking the best animators of all time, it’s vital to consider the phenomenal influence that animators have on our culture and our childhoods. While animation isn’t limited to children’s films, it certainly occupies the space of films meant to entertain both kids and adults. We fondly recall movies created by greats like Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney, and John Lasseter as foundational to our childhood — and to our children’s experiences. Let’s take a look at those who have influenced cinematic history in America and worldwide.
Winsor McCay was a huge influence on animation, even if you don’t recognize his name. While many know those who came after him, like Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, McCay was the first known cartoon animator in the United States. Initially a cartoonist for newspapers, McCoy ended up being known nationally because of his comic strips called “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and then “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.” He left thousands of works behind, but his “Little Nemo” animated cartoon came in 1911. He is best known for “Gertie the Dinosaur,” a vaudeville-inspired animated piece that allowed McCay to have interactions with the very cartoon character he made. He is remembered as the first to popularize animated films in the United States.
Everyone knows Walt Disney, especially due to his legacy of theme parks. As one of five children, Walt Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago but soon moved to Missouri with his family, where he made a little business creating drawings and selling them to those he knew. As a kid, his family then moved to Kansas City, where he became obsessed with trains. He later attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but dropped out, wanting to serve in the war. The Army would not accept him as he was only 16, but he went to France with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, returning to the US in 1919.
Upon his return, his brother helped him get a newspaper artist job, where he met influential cartoonists and ended up at Kansas City Film Ad Company. He leveled up his animation work there and created some experimental animated films. After creating Laugh-O-Gram, he got his own studio, started making fairy tale-related movies, and folded his studio. Roy Disney, Walt, and their friend cartoonist Ub Iwerks founded Walt Disney Studios, and the rest is history.
The original voice of his iconic Mickey Mouse, Disney died of lung cancer at age 65.
John Lasseter was a strong animator right out of the gate, with “Toy Story” being one of his first films — and an Academy Award winner. With a history of innovative animation at Walt Disney Studios, Lasseter made Pixar Studios what it is, whelming hits like “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc,” and “Finding Nemo.” As an influential studio member, he grew the business significantly when it comes to finances, especially with big hits like “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E,” “Up,” “Tangled,” and the “Toy Story” sequels.
Lasseter was interested in animation from a young age, immediately wanting to work for Walt Disney Studios. He wrote to them with an inquiry, and they responded with an encouraging note to get the right education, then write back. They reached out to him again to attend their new Character Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts, and he was in the first class with Tim Burton. He worked at Disneyland while not attending school. Later, Lasseter took the helm at Skydance Animation.
What’s amazing about these top three animators is how they influenced each other. McCay’s legacy lives on in what John Lasseter does, thanks to the immersive influence McCay had over Disney and other animators.