Search form

The Early Days at UPA

Gene Deitch, who began his animation career at the UPA studio at its start in 1946, describes the UPA animators' enthusiasm for making "different" films from the established Hollywood cartoon formula.

deitch01.gif Gene's work for The Record Changer attracted the attention and admiration of the folks at UPA.

My Humble Start Amid Giants

All UPA could promise me was temporary work as an apprentice. That was all the Cartoonists Union of that time would allow. It was June, 1946, and those were the rules. I could only be a part-time apprentice. But Steve Bosustow, the great spell-weaver, put his hand on my 22-year-old shoulder, and said, "Gene, we are going to mold you into the first pure UPA director!" They had gotten it into their heads that anyone who'd worked for Disney, Warners, MGM, Columbia or the rest, were "spoiled." They wanted young raw meat, which they could cook to their own recipe. They liked my work, and they seemed to think I was "The One." I was enough enthralled to give up my good steady CBS Radio job for the less-than-certain chance to become the first "pure UPA" man.

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.

The most common misconception about the UPA people was that they favored "limited animation." What they actually endeavored 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.

The True Beginnings

It all gestated during WWII 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.

Something About Suffering

We were installed in a tiny loft at the corner of Selma and Vine streets in Hollywood. It was the Otto K. Oleson building. Otto was the supplier of all those huge Klieg lights that sliced and waved through the sky during Hollywood movie premiers. The top floor was unusual in that the hallways between the rooms were roofless. Whenever it rained, we had to stuff wads of drawings under our shirts, and dash with them from room to room!

This humble workplace reinforced one of my favorite theories, developed over the years: "The worst working conditions often produce the best work." When UPA began to prosper, and a great architect was commissioned to design the new studio building in Burbank, things were never the same. The studio promptly began to lose its "brothers and sisters together" joy. Financial pressures, the need to place blame and huddled conspiracies, began to force splits.

I found this ironic situation repeated over and over during my career. Bad conditions tend to hold people together. Elegant surroundings, great offices and impressive furniture lead to pushing and shoving for prime locations and status. But the UPA of the Otto K. Oleson building had no such problems. It was Poverty Productions, and had a fantastic creative cohesion. The basic UPA conceptions bloomed within that building!

You can read more about Gene's career in the world of animation in How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."