He was the animator behind some of your favorite cartoons!
Leo Dan Sullivan grew up in Lockhart, Texas, his father in the Army, the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1952, Cartoon Brew reports. Even as a child, Sullivan was in love with animation, that passion only heightening when he made it to Hollywood.
“I would go to the movies and see all these cartoons and I thought it was little people running around in costumes doing it. Then I started doing some research when I was in high school and I said ‘Hey, this is fantastic,’” Sullivan previously told reporters.
He eventually got his start in the business running errands for Bob Clampett’s (Looney Tunes) Snowball Productions. By the early ‘60s, Sullivan had landed a job as a cel washer on Clampett’s Beany and Cecil series. Clampett soon promoted Sullivan to a position as an inbetweener on the series, officially launching his career as an industry animator. The rest was history, Sullivan making his mark in animation, working for all of the major studios like Hanna-Barbera and Marvel Productions, contributing as a layout artist, sheet timer, and animator for many classic cartoons like The Flinstones, Scooby-Doo, Fat Albert, The Transformers, Mighty Mouse, My Little Pony, Super Friends, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs.
Sullivan parlayed his work as an animator into a successful and lucrative production and management business. In 1966, he made history as co-founder of Vignette Films, alongside Floyd Norman, Richard Allen, and Norm Edelen. The first Black-owned animation production company, they focused on producing empowering educational films about notable Black figures like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. Vignette also served on a number of Hollywood TV productions including Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert (1969), the Soul Train series opening and the sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Turn On. The team credited Sullivan with propelling the company to new heights and stretching their capacity with his remarkable production skills.
“It was Leo Sullivan’s confidence that took us to the next level…It was also during this time that I learned that my partner Leo was an excellent movie producer. Actually, it would not be exaggerating to say he’s better than most. During this time, it was highly unlikely that a Black man would ever be given such a position in a major studio,” wrote Norman in his memoir Animated Life.
By the 1970’s, Sullivan was overseeing major animation departments while still producing work through his own company. He did commercial work for advertising agencies in the Caribbean and managed animation studios in Asia and Los Angeles. He also published a video game honoring the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen and worked on animated characters for the California Science Center.
Sullivan continued to reinvent himself over the span of his 6 decade career, launching AfroKids.com in 2016, a platform “dedicated to empowering families and building children’s self-esteem and cultural heritage through educational and entertainment media.” Up until last year, Sullivan was still promoting his work, talking about the inspiration behind Afro Kids and why he felt it was important for him to continue contributing even at 80 years old.
“I realized that Black characters, different ethnicities, were marginalized. Sometimes marginalization comes in subtle ways… The only way to escape that is to go out on your own and see if you can build something that is more in line with what could build up our people…Why I stay out here even at my age is so [young people] can see, when they look at me as an old man, I work with computers, and my wife works along with me. We make the content. We work with young musicians, artists, and everything, to create some of these things,” Sullivan said on a podcast.
Throughout his career, he made it a point to pay it forward, offering mentorship and opportunities to young artists. He served as a professor of animation at the Art Institute of California in Orange County and would often visit younger students at school, talking about careers in film and sponsoring field trips to the movies. Sullivan has been honored twice by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and earned an Emmy for his work. The trailblazing filmmaker passed away on March 25th at the age of 82, droves of condolences coming in from his peers in the animation industry.
“The Black film community has lost a legend,” read a post from Afrokids.com.
This is my long time pal and business partner, Leo Sullivan. We made history back in the sixties when we photographed the Los Angeles 1965 Watts Riot using this Bolex 16mm camera. The very same camera I purchased from Roy Edward Disney. -Floyd pic.twitter.com/Wg1F1QrIT4— Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (@FloydNormanDoc) April 1, 2023
The Twitter account for Norman’s documentary where Sullivan was a main focal point also posted about the legend’s passing, sharing a video montage of Sullivan’s accomplishments and writing, “Our friend Leo Sullivan has passed on…Take a moment to celebrate Leo with this tribute.
On our “Great Day In Animation” shoot, Leo Sullivan and his family were the first to arrive and among the last to leave. There were 3 generations of professionals there and he is among the folks of whom we all stand on the shoulders of. Thanks Leo, for helping open the door. 🖤🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/yPh8IAccmA— Marlon West (@marlonw) March 29, 2023
Walt Disney Animation vfx supervisor Marlon West shared personal moments he shared with Leo during a “Great Day in Animation” shoot, and Proud Family creator Bruce W. Smith also sent his condolences, sharing Sullivan’s contributions to his career.
“Leo was a legend for real. My first ever job in this business was in a studio working under Leo, Floyd and the ever elusive, extremely talented Phil Mendez. All Black men. Leo taught me what to expect as a Black man entering the animation industry.Thank you brother Leo,” Smith wrote.
Leo was a legend for real. My first ever job in this business was in a studio working under Leo, Floyd and the ever elusive, extremely talented Phil Mendez.— Bruce W. Smith (@BruceAlmighteee) March 31, 2023
All black men.
Leo taught me what to expect as a black man entering the animation industry.
Thank you brother Leo. https://t.co/WuX5yeuH72
Cover photo: Remembering Leo Sullivan, trailblazing founder of Hollywood’s first Black-owned animated studio/Photo Courtesy of Ethelyn Sullivan