Nine Animators Who Became Live Action Directors

Brad Bird

This list is in honor of Pixar's Andrew Stanton, the latest animation director (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) to try his hand at live action (the heavily motion-captured sci fi epic John Carter, which opened this weekend to dismal box office). Now, I myself was trained as an animator. I got into it in high school; when I was accepted into CalArts' experimental animation program, my first reaction was, "Great. Now I don't have to do any more animation, I can focus on live action." Seems I'm not the only one. Here are nine more directors who crossed over.

  1. Brad Bird. Stanton's Pixar cohort, who directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille (as well as Warner Bros.' cel animation classic The Iron Giant), had a much more successful transition with the recent Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, a worldwide box office smash.
  2. Tim Burton. Burton got his start at CalArts (as did Stanton and Bird), was a gen-you-wine animator at Disney, then made Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and the rest is history. He never abandoned his love for stop motion animation, though, having overseen The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and the upcoming Frankenweenie - ironically, adapted from Burton's first live action short!
  3. Gregory La Cava. Though he rates a "Who?" today, La Cava was history's original animator-turned-director. Way back in the 1910s, La Cava made well over 100 animated shorts before becoming a prolific silent film director in the 1920s. Later in his career, La Cava helmed classics such as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door. He died days before his 60th birthday in 1952.
  4. Frank Tashlin. Another forgotten director, Tashlin - like La Cava - was originally a cartoonist. He wound up helming dozens of animated shorts in the '30s and '40s, many of them for Warners' Looney Tunes division. In the early '50s he graduated into directing comic vehicles for human cartoon Jerry Lewis. Though they were big hits at the time, none of Tashlin's 20+ features are considered classics today (unless you're a Jerry Lewis fan). Like La Cava, Tashlin also died at 59 (in 1972).
  5. Mike Mitchell. Back to CalArts alumni we go for this entry, though Mitchell may well be following in the footsteps of Tashlin. After receiving awards and acclaim for his 1999 animated short Herd, Mitchell was scooped up to direct his first live action feature that very year: Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Nowhere to go from there but up, right? Not so fast: Mitchell went on to make Surviving Christmas, Sky High, Shrek Forever After, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked.
  6. Terry Gilliam. I'm sure Mike Mitchell's a nice guy, and he's clearly making loads of money, but let's get the bad taste of his cinematic output out of our mouths, shall we? It's impossible to question the artistic integrity of former Monty Python animator Gilliam, whose career struggles as much as Mitchell's coasts. But I don't even need to namecheck Gilliam's films to declare that, fifty years from now, he may remain the most respected - and certainly the most idiosyncratic - filmmaker out of this whole lot.
  7. Mike Judge. Has the creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill actually animated anything? No matter. Limited though his style may be, Judge is inarguably an animation director, and has written and directed three live action features, at least two of which have achieved cult status: Office Space and Idiocracy.
  8. Savage Steve Holland. This list wouldn't be complete without the creatively named Holland, who graduated from my own program at CalArts. His feature film career peaked early with his debut, the '80s teen comedy Better Off Dead. After releasing the less-beloved follow-ups One Crazy Summer and How I Got Into College, Holland has worked extensively as a TV director, usually on crappy family comedies (Lizzie McGuire, Big Time Rush, etc.).
  9. David Swift. Swift had a fascinating career, beginning as an assistant animator at Disney (where he worked on Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, among others), then inexplicably becoming a top TV multi-hyphenate (writer, director, producer, creator) in the 1950s. In the '60s, he directed hits like The Parent Trap and Pollyanna (back at Disney) as well as the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the title of which reflects Swift's own good fortunes. He died in 2001.