Chapter 11: The UPA Experience
Hell, I was thrilled to the gills to be even a minimum part of that group. It was one of those occasions where you knew you were in a place and time of historic importance. I am sure they all knew they were into something big, and that it was only a question of time before fame and fortune would bless us. Only a little thing like poverty was standing in our way.
UPA was born at a time before cynicism set in to our culture. We all really believed. Of course, as the first outsider brought into the hallowed circle, I believed most of all. I was in the company of titans, and I knew it. Just 22 years old, and I was having my boyhood dream come true, to actually be working in a real movie cartoon studio - no - an animation film studio. UPA was not only creating a basically new approach to animation, but also upgrading the nomenclature. Bill Hurtz was not a mere "layout man," he was a production designer.
Here was a small group of men and women who were onto something brand new - working on the idea that any form of graphic art could be animated.. Out with the "house styles" of Disney, Warners, MGM, or Paramount! Every film was to be approached as an entirely new adventure, its graphic style, mode of animation, music - every element - growing out of the particular story. This seems obvious enough today, but in the early and mid-forties - in a commercial studio - it was a cosmic idea.
John Hubley especially was an original thinker. Just one example from a later period but one that illustrates the point: We were walking down the street together, and John was telling me his conception for an assignment he had from CBS Radio, which was trying desperately to hang onto its advertising sponsors against the then new onslaught of television. How can you use a powerful visual medium such as film, to sell a strictly audio medium? John had a brilliantly original idea: Suppose you have a camera, he said, that visually photographs only sounds? What you will see on the screen are only things defined by the sound they make, and only when they are making the sounds after which they vanish! The result was a stunning, seemingly abstract film called, More Than Meets The Eye, produced for CBS Radio in the mid-1950s. It told a story (on film) only through the use of visualized sounds. It was in the end a losing battle for radio. Perhaps Hub's film only proved the superiority of a visual media, but I thought it was a genius early attempt to sell the evocative quality of sounds!
The most common misconception about the UPA people was that they favored "limited animation." What they actually endeavoured was to get the most that really mattered onto the screen, in spite of miserly budgets. So the emphasis was on ideas - story - rich design, drawn from the greatest painters, designers, and illustrators of the world, present and past - evocative music - and good animation. Some of the greatest animators alive worked on UPA films: Chuck Jones, Art Babbitt, Bill Littlejohn, Bobe Cannon. They had to use fewer drawings ("limited animation"), but superb timing and acting. That was unlimited.
It all gestated during WW II where the U.S. Army Signal Corps had set up a unit to produce animated training films at the old Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. A phenomenally talented group of dedicated refugees from the 1941 Disney strike were holed up there, held together by Frank Capra, safe from combat duty, but doing greater good with their brilliant propaganda films, including the notorious "Private Snafu" cartoons. (Presumably, the brass either didn't know or chose to ignore that the character's name, SNAFU, was an acronym of the soldiers' lament, "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.")
New ideas were born and toilet-trained in this no-holds-barred, non-commercial haven, and after the war they held together in a shoestring outfit burdened with the name, "Industrial Film & Poster Service," organized by Zack Schwartz and Dave Hilberman. The "films" at first were just filmstrips, successions of still frames. Being strong Unionists, (some actually communists), their first real animated movie was a rousing vote-booster for Franklin Roosevelt, sponsored by the CIO union, and titled "Hell-Bent for Election". They wanted to call themselves "United Films," but someone else already had that name. So almost as a gag, they built that name up to heroic proportions: "United Productions of America!" It was a weighty moniker for a tiny group of 12 guys and gals whose only weight was in their ideas.
By 1946 Zack and Dave had split. An obscure assistant animator from Disney, Steve Bosustow, managed to come up with some money, and he became president of UPA It was a tight, hungry band. This was the basic staff in June 1946, when I was first hired:
Steve Bosustow - president/producer
Ed Gershman - business manager
John Hubley - creative leader/story man/director
Phil Eastman - story
Bill Hurtz - production designer
Joyce Weir — animator
Selby Daly - assistant animator 1 (Animation greats, such as Bobe Cannon, Chuck Jones, Bill Littlejohn, Art Babbit, worked as externists.)
Herb Klynn - background painter
Jules Engel - assistant background painter
Ade Woolery - production manager
Gene Deitch — apprentice production designer
Barbara Baldwin — ink & paint supervisor
Maxine Davis — secretary extaordinaire