Gene Walz offers a look back at Canadian commercial studio Phillips, Gutkin and Associates.
If a monument is ever built to Richard Condie and the Manitoba animation scene, there's an old animation stand in a converted National Film Board storage room that would make a perfect centerpiece.
Now that Richard Condie has switched to computers for La Salla, the old black-piped machine may have few glory days left. But its role in the creation of a local industry is undeniable.
Without that animation stand, there probably would not be a "Richard Condie--Two-time Oscar Nominee." No Getting Started, no Pigbird, no Big Snit. No Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker either, nor Get a Job by Brad Caslor. And certainly no Primiti Too Taa by Ed Ackerman.
As an oversized hand-me-down, the animation stand has had a weird history. Like a lot of Canadiana, it has passed from private to public ownership. From Neil McInnes and Kenn Perkins to the Winnipeg Film Group and now the Manitoba Society of Independent Animators.
The key link in the chain of ownership is Kenn Perkins, the king of the K-Tel commercials. It was at his animation shop that Caslor and Condie and others learned their craft. They swept floors and emptied wastebaskets there just to get a chance to see their own cels under the old Bolex on the animation stand's housing.
Perkins bought the stand from its original owners, Phillips, Gutkin and Associates (PGA) just when it seemed that a glorious era in Winnipeg animation history would disappear without a trace.
The Biggest and the Busiest
During the 1950s, PGA was among the biggest and busiest animation companies in North America. The fact that they accomplished this in Winnipeg, a city of maybe 300,000 people on the bald-headed Canadian prairie, speaks volumes about the creativity and can-do stubbornness that Condie also exhibits.
PGA got into the animation business in 1952, four years after John Phillips and Harry Gutkin formed a partnership to provide live-action industrial films and print advertising for western Canadian businesses. John and Harry were quite an unlikely pair. Gutkin, from Winnipeg's ethnic North-end, was a commercial artist and part owner of a publishing firm. Phillips was the son of a renowned Canadian painter, a quiet man from the WASP-ish south end of town, who left a job as layout man and fashion photographer for the Eaton's catalogue.
The Canadian equivalent of the great Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogues, the Eaton's catalogue was one reason that postwar Winnipeg was the third largest advertising center in North America. It was a good time and, oddly, the right place for PGA to get into the animation business.
PGA did not make cartoons, although they eventually tried to. Their first venture was a movie for the co-ops that were so important to western Canadian development. What's Co-operation All About? was a 20-minute promo, half animation and half live-action. Rudimentary in design and structure, the movie is significant mainly because it forced PGA to invest in the now-historic animation stand.
The specifications for the stand came from the National Film Board. That's more ironic than it appears. For, at the time the NFB was justly famous for Norman McLaren's cameraless (and, therefore, non-animation stand) films. The stand was then built by a local mechanic for Trans-Canada Air Lines (now Air Canada), Harold Rasmussen. Sturdy and reliable as a DC-3, the stand would be crucial to PGA's main claim to fame--hundreds of animated TV commercials.
PGA's First Big Break
When CBC television became a coast-to-coast operation in 1954, PGA had already done some local animation ads. So Harry Gutkin took a sample reel to Toronto to impress the Libby's Foods' executives who had just agreed to sponsor National Movie Night on CBC television. With an amusing storyboard for "Quality Control Cops," PGA got their first big break.
The ad proved more expensive than PGA estimated. With no lab facilities in Winnipeg, many flights had to be made across North America to complete the soundtrack, the editing, the final print, and even the live-action "sandwiches" inserted between the animation sequences.
To complicate matters, a fast-talking "Hollywood producer" convinced PGA to substitute milk for tomato juice in the black-and-white product closeups. A budget-busting trip to New York to mask and recolor each individual frame of the insert saved the account.
The golden age of PGA was between 1954 and 1960. The company was making between 15 and 30 TV commercials per month. Major accounts included Windsor Salt (whose "Wacky Bird" was Gutkin's favorite creation), Esso Oil, the Bank of Canada, Simonize Wax, Blue Ribbon Tea, Kellogg's Cereals, Chrysler Canada, Kraft Foods, and Libby's. Most of these were exclusively Canadian ads; Kraft, Libby's and Windsor Salt spots also appeared on American television.
Although all ads were done in the spare UPA (United Producers of America) animation style popular at the time, PGA still needed between 25 and 30 animators working full-time to keep up with the pace. Some of the animators came right out of local art schools and apprenticed on the job. Among those who worked at PGA and later went on to even better things were Barrie Nelson (who later set up his own animation operation in Santa Monica, California), Barrie Helmer (John Phillips's brother-in-law, who was recruited from the NFB), Jeff Hale, Jan Kamienski (who became a noted political cartoonist), and, perhaps msot famous of all, Bill Mason (whose canoing and wolf films--especially Cry of the Wild--were among the best-selling NFB documentaries of all time).
PGA is also where Charlie Thorson ended his long career in animation. He spent three months here in 1956, drawing the "fuzzy bunnies" and other cute animals he had perfected as a character designer at Disney, MGM, Warner Bros., Fleischer, Terrytoons, Columbia, and George Pal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s.
Most of PGA's talent, however, was imported from Europe. And this, plus a feature article in the prestigious Swiss magazine Graphis, led to a proposed trans-Atlantic alliance with John Halas and Joy Batchelor, England's premier animators of the time.
Beginning of the End
Harry Gutkin met John Halas in New York City in 1960, and the two worked out a plan to alternate production of a weekly cartoon. PGA created a pilot from a series of children's books that Gutkin had published and one of his animators, Ray Darby, had created before PGA was founded. The series was to be called T. Eddy Bear. The pilot was then included on a demo reel with Halas and Batchelor's famous Hamilton the Musical Elephant and a handful of commercials from both companies.
Although the menagerie of animals was cute and kookie and the UPA-style animation colorful and inventive, the sample vignettes were miscalculated and uninspiring. T. Eddy Bear never found a buyer. It was the beginning of the end for PGA.
With production costs rising and profit margins evaporating because of costly trips to labs outside of Winnipeg, PGA struggled throughout the swinging sixties. Twenty-second animated commercials took over 300 person-hours to complete; the average contract was for $5,000 to $6,000. Live-action could be done for about one-tenth of that.
The coup de grace came from the CBC. Canada's government-sponsored TV network ruled that it would no longer accept animated ads for products aimed at children. The CBC was convinced that, "Animation was like a Trojan horse that secretly worked its way into children's minds." Cereal ads for Coco Puffs and Rice Krispies were the first to go. Everything else that was animated was somehow suspect.
So, in 1966 PGA merged with another local ad agency, Brigden's, and reluctantly abandoned animation for print advertising. Luckily, they found a local buyer, Kenn Perkins, for their trusty animation stand. That meant that animation in Winnipeg did not come to an abrupt end. For that we can all be grateful.
Gene Walz ( walz@cc.UManitoba.CA) is head of the film program at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He is currently finishing a biography on character designer Charlie Thorson and is now editing a book called Great Canadian Films.