The animation industry is pushing 100+ years old and it’s constantly growing. And there’s so much to love about animation beyond the entertainment.
Learning to animate is a huge undertaking that involves a lot of moving parts. Production companies often hire hundreds of artists to help with all those animation jobs from storyboarding to background design.
Usually this complex process is shrouded in Hollywood mystery, but there’s one way to peek behind the curtain and learn about animation: with documentaries!
I’ve curated my top picks for the absolute best animation documentaries out there. You’ll find tons of variety from animated movies to TV shows, from classics to modern-day tales of true animation magic.
1. The Pixar Story
Pixar first shocked the world in 1995 with its release of Toy Story. This was the biggest all-3D animated movie of its day and since then Pixar has done nothing but grow.
The Pixar Story is a 2007 documentary chronicling the massive undertaking that is Pixar Animation.
It spans about 90 minutes long with rare never-before-seen footage of the crew including Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.
It’s also one of the most recent documentaries in this list so it’s got some of the highest video quality you can find.
The interviews are phenomenal and this really takes you through the whole journey of Pixar’s rough launch through their biggest breakthroughs and their 2006 sale to Disney.
I cannot recommend this enough to all animation lovers. Even people who prefer 2D animation(like myself) can still learn a ton from this incredible movie.
2. Six Days To Air
When it comes to longevity there aren’t too many shows beating South Park’s massive two-decade run. Well, aside from our yellow friends in Springfield.
South Park is such a fun show to watch. But the most impressive part of South Park is the production where its two creators(and their team) plan, write, record voices, and animate an entire episode every week.
If that sounds insane it’s because it is. Most animated TV shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons require at least 5-6 months per episode.
6 Days to Air is the official South Park documentary first recorded & released in 2011. It follows the team through a typical season of the show’s production where they start planning an episode on Thursday, work all the way through the week and need to have it over to Comedy Central by Wednesday.
South Park’s team can move fast because the animation is simple and they work overtime during production. Catching a glimpse of this madness is truly inspiring and horrifying at the same time.
This doc is one of my absolute favorites and it’s something you’ll find yourself watching many times over.
Unfortunately it’s not released on South Park Studios and the only place I’ve seen it streaming is on Amazon.
Still it’s a must-watch for any true primetime animation fan.
3. American Experience, Walt Disney
PBS “American Experience” hosts a bunch of videos and smaller documentaries across various topics in US history.
One beautiful animation-focused doc is simply titled Walt Disney. The is pretty new first being released in 2015 with some incredible audio/video work.
It’s one of the more detailed videos I’ve seen that looks into the life & times of Walt Disney.
This follows his massive rise in popularity over the 20th century and the many films he released that changed the way animate.
In total this spans 4 hours long so it’s one hell of a documentary.
Basically one of the coolest Walt Disney docs you’ll find and it’s chock full of rare footage.
And there’s only two places I’ve found to watch it.
First is on the main PBS site where you need to buy a membership to get streaming access. This can be a cheap monthly fee and you can cancel right away after watching.
Or you could grab the DVD on Amazon if you prefer to own a copy.
Both routes work just fine so it’s really a personal preference.
If you’re serious about Disney and the history of animation then at some point you’ll wanna make time for this 240-minute Disney documentary.
4. Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants
It’s surprisingly rare to find documentaries on animated TV shows. But one of the most iconic shows in the history of animation stars Nickelodeon’s yellow sponge who’s lucky enough to have his own documentary.
Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants is a 45 minute documentary about the full creation and production of SpongeBob.
This used to be on the VH1 website but I cannot find it streaming there anymore. Actually, I can’t find this streaming anywhere!
It was originally released in 2009 as part of the First 100 Episodes box set containing all of SpongeBob season 1-5. The doc was more of a bonus feature that, in my opinion, got drastically undersold.
This covers everything like interview with board artists, animation directors, background painters, voice actors and plenty of content with Nick execs including Stephen Hillenburg himself.
If you can find this anywhere online then be sure to check it out.
If you can’t find it anywhere then save yourself the grief and pick up a copy of the DVD set.
I know it seems weird to buy a whole DVD set just for the documentary. But I’ve seen this so many times I’ve lost count and to me it’s easily worth the price tag. SpongeBob & Nickelodeon fans will likely agree.
5. Frank and Ollie
Moving back to Disney we have this cool 1995 documentary about two of Disney’s original Nine Old Men .
It’s called Frank and Ollie which follows the life of Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. These are two of Disney’s oldest animators and at the time of filming they still appear quite chipper!
All of the nine old men have long since passed but Ollie lived the longest from 1912 up until 2008(that’s 96 years old!)
I really enjoyed this doc more for the background into old school 2D animation techniques.
You won’t learn much about modern animation from this documentary. So really, it’s not for everyone.
But if you’re a fan of Disney Animation Studios or just a fan of Hollywood history this is well worth grabbing.
6. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Far from Hollywood across the Pacific Ocean sits the land of the rising sun with its wildly popular Studio Ghibli animation studio.
This studio has published some of the most iconic works in Japanese animation, many of which came from master animator & director Hayao Miyazaki.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a 2013 documentary released only in Japan. This follows a behind-the-scenes look at Studio Ghibli with intimate details on their animation process.
Thankfully it was ported to the English-speaking world—with English subtitles.
I’ll admit, this can make it hard to watch if you’re not used to videos with subtitles. It’s a lengthy two-hour documentary so there’s a lot to take in.
But if you’re a Miyazaki fan or just a true-blue anime lover then you’ll really enjoy this. True fans will basically fall in love with this!
I’ve yet to find it on any major streaming service besides Amazon but at least with them you get it totally ad-free.
7. Ed, Edd N Eddy Behind the Scenes
Now here’s a really obscure documentary focusing on the 1999 cartoon Ed, Edd n Eddy.
This was Cartoon Network’s longest-running original series spanning a decade from 1999-2009 until Adventure Time claimed that trophy.
But the Eds are an iconic part of TV animation history and this documentary is perhaps the best look you’ll ever get into A.k.a. Cartoon.
Creator Danny Antonucci shares plenty of tips for animators along with a detailed process of the show’s development. Most episodes start with a script, then move to boarding where jokes & visual gags are added.
Danny checks these boards until the episode gets his stamp of approval to send overseas for animating.
If you loved this show as a kid you’ll be floored by this documentary. It’s a quick watch too(about 30 minutes) so I think anyone with a passion for animation would really enjoy this.
8. The Sweatbox
I’m not sure why this 2002 documentary is so unknown but it’s one of the roughest and most brutally honest videos in the animation world.
The Sweatbox follows the gruesome trials & tribulations that arose from the creation of Disney’s early 2000s film The Emperor’s New Groove.
It’s a gritty doc without any hi-def video or audio.
But it’s definitely watchable and should keep you on the edge of your seat the whole way through.
9. The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story
Disney paved the way for modern animation so it should be no surprise that so many documentaries follow his works.
But this documentary actually follows one of Disney’s animators Ub Iwerks, the original creator of Mickey Mouse.
This full doc was first created in 1999 and it’s one of the best for going behind the scenes at Walt Disney.
Very few people even know about Ub Iwerks which just goes to show how murky the animation industry has been with promoting their hardest-working artists.
If you want a beautiful 90-minute detailed view of a top Disney animator then give this flick a chance.
You can also check out a small preview on Amazon just to see what it’s like.
10. Where No One Goes: The Making of How to Train Your Dragon 2
I still have no idea why this documentary is so hard to find. It was an official doc from Pixar yet this has basically been wiped off the face of the earth.
I swear Pixar really did create this documentary offering a deeper look into the making of How To Train Your Dragon 2.
With a release of 2014 this is one of the newest movies to feature a behind-the-scenes documentary. So if you love the animation industry and even want to call entertainment art your fulltime career then I really suggest trying to find a copy of this doc.
Edit: after some research it looks like this documentary(or something very similar) can be found as a special feature on the Blu-ray version. It may also be on the DVD too.
Many people are saying there’s an hour-long behind the scenes feature as an extra if you buy the movie so this may be the same documentary. I don’t have the DVD or Blu-Ray so I can’t say for sure. May be worth looking into!
11. Chuck Jones Extremes and In-Betweens – A Life in Animation
Animation director Chuck Jones shaped so many of the classic cartoons we know & love.
He truly is a legend of the Looney Tunes era working on the best cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Roadrunner & so many other iconic characters.
This Chuck Jones documentary is pretty short but also packed with great info. Most of the videos are spliced with rare never-before-seen footage of the WB animation lot.
And there’s plenty of commentary from modern animators along with studio executives who share their thoughts on Chuck’s work.
This first came out in 2002 but it’s tough to find online.
12. Imagining Zootopia
Walt Disney’s Zootopia was first released in 2016 to widespread praise.
It has since gained a cult following and even got its own documentary “Imagining Zootopia”.
This offers a behind-the-scenes look at all the work involved in modern 3D animation. You’ll hear from many different artists who specialize in character design, vis dev, and 3D modeling to create what you eventually see on the screen.
I’d say this video is a huge eye-opener for anyone who wants to work in animation as a career.
And considering all the older animation documentaries I’m thrilled to see this covering such a newer film.
13. Dream On Silly Dreamer
Walt Disney Studios saw a massive resurgence from the 1980s up to the early 2000s. There was a drop in quality after Walt died and that slump stuck with the company for years.
But their upswing is one of the most memorable in entertainment history featuring amazing films like Aladdin, Lion King, Hercules, and Little Mermaid.
Dream On Silly Dreamer is a 2006 documentary that covers all of Walt Disney Animation’s growth up to that point. It starts back in the ‘80s and shows how the company started producing massive hits one after another.
You’ll find plenty of great interviews with lead animators, directors, inkers, and background painters who share their thoughts on the golden era.
I’d describe this documentary as honest and true-to-life of what the company went through in those two decades from 1985-2005.
14. Waking Sleeping Beauty
Waking Sleeping Beauty also follows the biggest resurgence of Walt Disney’s Animation Studios.
This doc totals 90 minutes long and it’s one of the few documentaries published in recent times(2010) detailing what it used to be like in the studios.
Strangely this documentary feels almost like a time capsule rather than a planned movie. It doesn’t have any on-screen interviews at all, instead opting for classic footage from Disney’s golden years.
It first debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in 2009 and was released to the public in 2010.
Any true animation lover will adore this documentary. It’s got so much rare footage and it really takes you back to the old school days of 2D animation.
15. I Know That Voice
To wrap the list I wanna share a documentary that’s not super animation-focused, but definitely covers a slice of the animation world.
I Know That Voice tells the oft untold story of voice actors who speak your favorite animated characters to life.
Some of the most infamous voice actors are featured in this doc include Tom Kenney, Yeardley Smith, John DiMaggio, and Billy West(among dozens of others).
Anyone who truly loves animation will be in their glory over this documentary.
The video is high quality with 720p/1080p HD options for viewing in hi-def. Not to mention you get a full 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes recordings and interviews with some of the most prolific voice actors of our day.
Be sure to give this a chance if you’re a fan of animation. Especially if you want to create your own cartoons just to get a better idea of how voice acting works.
Not to mention some of the clips in this movie are wildly funny and will keep you brimming ear to ear long after it’s over.
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