Students and others who aspire to work as professional animators may wonder what the biggest companies in the animation industry are. Different companies specialize in various types of animation, of course, so it’s essential to have a complete picture of the industry’s options. The following is a comprehensive list of the biggest animation companies across all mediums.
Walt Disney Animation Studios/Walt Disney Television Animation
When you think of the biggest companies for animation, Disney is usually the first that will come to mind. The pioneer of animation as it is known today, the Walt Disney Company continues to lead the pack when it comes to both prestige and size of modern animation companies. Walt Disney Animation Studios produces its top-of-the-line feature animation productions while Walt Disney Television Animation division focuses on animating their television properties.
One of the reasons is longevity, as Disney Animation has produced feature films since 1937 when it brought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the screen. However, even this company, synonymous with animation, had its failures, notably, The Black Cauldron in 1985. Personnel changes due to termination or resigning occupied the 1980s with the departure of Brad Bird and Tim Burton. The former became animation director at Warner Bros. Animation; the latter became famous after hits like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Frankenweenie.
Warner Bros. Animation/Warner Animation Group
Warner Bros. Animation is part of Warner Bros. Entertainment, whose parent company is AT&T WarnerMedia. The company primarily creates animated television productions based on their various properties, such as Scooby-Doo, the Looney Tunes cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and characters from DC Comics. In 2018, the United States Department of Justice ruled that AT&T could purchase Time Warner for $108.7 billion, forming the new name of WarnerMedia.
With the rising popularity of feature animation films, Warner produced a live-action/animated movie, Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in 1996. It has produced feature-length theatrical films under the banner of Warner Feature Animation as it merged with Turner Broadcasting System and Hanna-Barbera Productions, which resulted in the direct-to-video cartoon films featuring Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry.
In 2013, the conglomerate formed Warner Animation Group that produced Storks, The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie, and Smallfoot. Another Space Jam starring LeBron James was released in July 2021 to negative reviews.
Warner Bros. has many divisions: WB Pictures Group, New Line Cinema, WB Television Group, WB Animation, WB Home Entertainment, WB Consumer Products, WB Studio Operations, and WB International Television Distribution. These entities bring viewers weekly TV series, such as Mom, Young Sheldon, Prodigal Son, Black Lightning, Manifest, and many more. WB Pictures Group generated $4.4 billion in worldwide receipts in 2019!
Industrial Light & Magic
When it comes to the special effects used in feature films, no studio holds higher prestige than Industrial Light & Magic (also known as ILM). This company essentially pioneered film special effects. Per USA Today, ILM was formed in 1975, using the profits from the success of American Graffiti by George Lucas to create the special effects for his upcoming Star Wars.
It was money well-spent, as ILM morphed into special effects creations for hits, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Willow, The Abyss, Terminator 2, The Perfect Storm, Pearl Harbor, The Avengers, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. According to their website, ILM has 1,200 employees worldwide as art directors, computer graphics artists, software engineers, and technicians. However, after The Walt Disney Company acquired ILM as part of its purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, staffing was reduced in 2013. It remains one of the largest visual effects companies in the motion picture industry.
DreamWorks Animation originated in October 1994 as DreamWorks SKG (surname initials of the founders) as the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg (formerly of Disney), and David Geffen (music executive). The company is a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, a division of NBCUniversal. Starting with traditionally animated projects such as The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), they then moved on to computer-generated features, including hits Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Shark Tale (2004), Madagascar (2005), Kung Fu Panda (2008), and The Boss Baby (2017). In 2004, the animation division succeeded in becoming a publicly traded business on the New York Stock Exchange. Following this milestone, in 2006, DWA formed a distribution agreement with Paramount Pictures, which had recently acquired DreamWorks SKG.
A visit to the DreamWorks site reveals current job openings in Visual Development, Modeling, Character effects, Lighting, Matte Painting, Technical Directors, Design, and many more. They also offer paid internship opportunities three times a year for college students, lasting 12 weeks at the Glendale, California studio.
Pixar Animation Studios
As with most animation companies, they have an interesting genesis. Pixar is no exception, as it began as Computer Graphics Lab (CGL) in the late 1970s, founded by Dr. Alexander Schure, who also established the New York Institute of Technology. The company innovated 3D computer-generated imagery films using an eight-bit paint system to create animation. Many of the founding members went on to have stellar careers at Microsoft, Cisco, Nvidia, Netscape, and Silicon Graphics.
When Schure encountered financial troubles, CGL became Francis Ford Coppola’s interest, and George Lucas’s lured some of the creative talents from CGL to Lucasfilm in 1979. A designer, John Lasseter, in late 1983 suggested their digital Picture Maker has a better name; he offered “Pixer,” which soon became – Pixar.
Known as one of the most prestigious computer animation studios globally, Pixar is noteworthy for numerous mega-grossing animated movies, Toy Story in 1995. On a budget of $520 million, it has had sales exceeding $3 billion worldwide, making it the 20th highest-grossing franchise. The company followed with Toy Story 2, 3, and 4, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Up. In 2016, it celebrated its 30th Anniversary with the release of its seventeenth feature film – Finding Dory.
It’s easy to confuse Pixar players as it is part of Disney Enterprises, Inc., along with 20th Century Animation, Lucasfilm Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Marvel Animation. And that is only the companies involved in animation!
Again, this is an animation company gobbled up by a bigger fish, namely Universal Pictures, a division of NBCUniversal, owned by the conglomerate- Comcast. Founded in Chris Meledandri in 2007, he produces the feature films, with Universal handling the finances and distribution. The studio has ten films on its hit list, including the enormously successful Minions that grossed $1.159 billion globally. Despicable Me 3 (2017) did well with $1.03 billion in sales, and Despicable Me 2 (2013) brought in $970.8 million.
Future projects for Illumination Entertainment are Minions: The Rise of Gru, set for July 2022, and an animated film based on the Mario character of Nintendo fame. A fourth Despicable Me is a possibility.
Sony Pictures Animation
Like the examples listed above, Sony Pictures Animation is the animation division owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. In 2001, Sony Pictures was on the verge of selling its visual effects facility, Sony Pictures Imagery (SPI), when it witnessed the success of Stuart Little 2 and DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek.
They have enjoyed financial and critical success with hits such as Hotel Transylvania in 2012 that grossed $340 million, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse grossed $375 million, catapulting them into place as a significant player in the animation business. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in particular, was viewed as a game-changer – it required more animators than any Sony Pictures Animation project before it, which received the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In 2019, Sony announced an alternative division devoted to animated adult films with two R-rated projects titled Fixed and Black Knight. The studio is slated to release TV shows, including The Boondocks, a remake that initially aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim channel.
Cartoon Network Studios
Cartoon Network Studios, originally part of Hanna-Barbera, it’s currently owned by Global Kids, Young Adults &Classics division of Warner Bros. Entertainment, a subsidiary of AT&T’s Warner Media (small world, isn’t it?) Its primary responsibility is the production of animated programs for the Cartoon Network.
The animation studio produces the original animated series that air on Cartoon Network, for example, Samurai Jack, Adventure Time, Ben 10, Steven Universe, and Mighty Magiswords. Cartoon Network has not had the same financial success as some other animation studios.
Nickelodeon Animation Studio
Nickelodeon Animation Studio, owned by ViacomCBS, started in 1990 as Games Production Inc. and later to Games Animation. By 1992, the company became Nickelodeon Animation Studio, and then changed to Nickelodeon Studios Burbank, and Nickelodeon Animation Studio New York opened in 1999.
In this endeavor, Nickelodeon opened a new 72,000 square-foot Nicktoons animation studio in Burbank in 1998. The studio’s purpose was to create cartoon characters suitable for children’s television viewing from the outset. The studio is responsible for many of Nick’s hit shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly OddParents, Rugrats, Invader Zim, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, to name a few.
The studio also acquired the rights to adapt certain animated films to television cartoon series: Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They have also worked on Nick Jr. properties such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues and theatrical productions involving their animated properties.
Laika is a relatively recent player, entering the animation scene in 2005. Located outside Portland, Oregon, to enter the animation scene, the studio has made a name for itself by having most of its films receive praise and Academy Award nominations. The company specializes in stop-motion animation for all of its feature films. Stop-motion refers to how objects move in small increments between individually photographed frames. When the frames are strung together, they give the illusion of continuous motion. As popularized by Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Claymation is an example.
Laika comes from the name of the first animal (dog) to orbit the earth, as launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
The studio reached recognition in 2009 with the release of Coraline, which received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Feature Film and eight Annie Awards for Best Music in an Animated Feature – winning three!
Video game companies also produce significant quantities of animation and hire considerable numbers of animators. Electronic Arts, also known as EA, founded in 1982, is a publicly-traded company headquartered in Redwood City, California. For the fiscal year 2021, it posted net revenue of $5.6 billion due to the incredible demand for electronic games, such as FIFA, Battlefield, Madden NFL, Need for Speed, and F1.
EA boasts of having 2,700 of the best technologists who research, innovate, develop, create, and market their array of video games. It also forms relationships with independent animation studios to commit to producing challenging games.
Interested individuals should check out the EA site for career openings in software development, game design, production, or project management. When it comes to the most prominent companies for animation in video games, EA will frequently come up. The company offers an enticing array of benefits, including paid maternity and paternity leave, adoption assistance, onsite fitness centers, childcare resources, and medical health programs. And you could end up working in the United States, Canada, India, South Korea, China, Singapore, or Australia.
Founded in 1998, Rockstar Games is another sizable video game studio well-known for creating great games with jaw-dropping animation. Most notably, Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto franchise, L.A. Noire, and others. The Grand Theft series has been the most lucrative, with over 250 million worldwide copies. They have several subsidiaries worldwide that work on different projects in the various franchises, such as Rockstar North, Rockstar Leeds, Rockstar London, Rockstar India, and Rockstar San Diego.
Its humble beginnings date to 1979 when four software programmers created Computer Arts Inc. Their first gaming success came in 1982 with the introduction of Pitfall which sold four million copies. The company has been named a Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For from 2015 to 2018 per Great Place To Work.
Currently, they operate three divisions:
Activision: Animation games as Call of Duty, The Haunting, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
King: Interactive games for the mobile environment.
Blizzard: Home to Diablo, WarCraft, and Overwatch.
Countless animation studios operate worldwide, some large and numerous smaller independent studios. All offer the opportunity to express your talent in the feature film animation or cartoon entertainment business.
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