ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.8 - NOVEMBER 1999
Toons in Training
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As soon as war broke out the Disney studio found themselves occupied by the military. As part of the war effort, Disney produced thousands of feet of film for all branches of the service (predominantly the Navy). At one point during the conflict, it was estimated that 90-95% of Disney's output was war-related. The studio that had so recently produced Pinocchio and Fantasia now turned out such riveting entertainment as Blanking and Punching and Fixed Gunnery and Fighting Tactics. Disney was also tapped by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to make educational films for the benefit of Latin America; it was assumed by our government that these nations were possibly prone to Nazi infiltration, and our good will was presumed through helpful films such as Cleanliness Brings Health and Water, Friend or Enemy. It is uncertain whether Disney's concern for the well being of our neighbors actually kept Hitler out of Caracas or Buenos Aires, but they did provide a government-subsidized profit for Disney through the lean war years.
At Warners the mood was more jocular, and the studio took charge of providing training films that had the secondary purpose of lifting morale. Their prime creation during the war was an inept infantryman named Private Snafu (do I have to translate?). Developed by Phil Eastman and Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, the series ran from 1943-45 and gave our fighting men perfect instruction on what not to do if they were to come home alive. Warner luminaries such as Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones directed with hilarious results as this khaki-clad klutz bumbled his way through lessons that included Fighting Tools and Booby Traps. A lesser known series, Seaman Hook, was also produced for the US Navy. The greatest legacy left by the countless feet of film used to train and educate our troops was this: animators learned to work in a simple, graphic style and use highly limited animation to maximum effect. Within a few years these principles would find their way into mainstream animation, changing the face of the medium.
After the war there was still a good market for training films, but fewer producers. Disney at one time had Westinghouse and General Motors as clients, but Walt was more interested in resurrecting his studio. Two of his employees, Herb Lamb and Tom Codrick, split off to form an industrial film company; Walt was more than happy to sell off his contracts to them. In fact, many of the Hollywood studios went Disney's route and returned exclusively to the production of cartoon shorts. The Golden Age of animated training films was temporarily over; when most major studios did take outside contracts, it was in the more lucrative field of commercial advertising. A notable exception was UPA, which found the time to produce educational films such as Pump Trouble for the American Heart Association and More Than Meets the Eye for CBS.
This was a temporary lull, but then several events occurred that would bring the educational film back into demand. The 1950s was dominated by the Cold War and the military soon increased their orders for training films. In a related event, the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union set off a national panic about the state of American education and legislation such as The National Defense Education Act provided a windfall for producers of educational films. New technologies resulted in the creation of agencies such as NASA, which was soon in the market for an animation department. Finally, the major motion picture studios began closing their animation units during this era; many animators were free (or forced) to try their luck in advertising...or in the field of training and education.
Some individuals did well in this enterprise, despite the dangers. Frank Capra and UPA joined forces to produce a science film called Our Mr. Sun for the Bell Telephone System. This film was distributed to schools, after making its debut on TV, as part of Bell's mission to interest young minds in science. When UPA animator Bill Hurtz (a favorite of Capra's) left the studio to join forces with legendary animator Shamus Culhane, the Bell contract followed and so did films such as Hemo The Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays and The Unchained Goddess. These films featured live actors Richard Carlson and Dr. Frank "Brother Research" Baxter bantering with animated characters as kids learned about the human body, space, and the weather. I fondly recall these films from my own elementary school days, and many of my antiquated "boomer" buddies have warm memories of them as well.
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