is More: John Hubley's Animation Revolution
Noell Wolfgram Evans) The history of animation is known to the
public generally by two names: Disney and Warners. Ask any 'man
on the street' about animation and inevitably these studios or
their characters will be invoked. Their contributions are immeasurable
and their praises should be sung, but not so loudly as to drown
out the accomplishments and contributions of others; particularly
those that came of age during animation's Golden Age. You can
view, of course, the technical accomplishments of the Fleischer
Studios or the entertainment of MGM but this article will look
at the particular accomplishments of one man who happened upon
a studio at the right time and changed animation.
In 1914, John
Hubley was born in Wisconsin and we can only assume that he spent
the long winters with pen and paper in his hand as it wasn't long
(1935) before he found himself working on Snow White and The
Seven Dwarfs. As Walt Disney began production on Snow White,
he hired in a large group of new artists. These were essentially
the first people to be hired into the company. All of the previous
employees, for the most part, had started with Walt or been involved
with the studio since its inception in some way. These 'original'
employees felt a loyalty to Disney and a complete faith in the
direction he was leading animation. This 'following' was not something
so easily shared by the new employees. Many of these new artists
had been college trained, unlike their studio bred counterparts;
their studies led them to feel that there were more ways (than
just the 'Disney Direction') into which animation could (and should)
expand and grow.
of opinions came to a head in the spring of 1941 when over 300
Disney employees went on strike. Ostensibly the strike came about
due to Disney's intermittent payment practices, but it is hard
not to believe that some of the workers did not see this as an
opportunity to rebel, to make a statement, against the Disney
and its final settlement had major repercussions in the Disney
Studio, one of which was the scattering of many members of the
staff. John Hubley was one of these movers. While not one of the
visible leaders of the Disney Strike, many of the thoughts and
theories concerning animation that Hubley had were shared by the
strikers and as things settled, he was only too happy to move
to the Screen Gems studio (located at Columbia Pictures).
Gems, in 1941, paired Hubley with many of his old Disney cohorts.
Ex-Disney employees made up a large part of the staff, a staff
who shared a belief the Disney way was not the ideal to strive
for. They felt that the further Disney strove for realism in his
films, the more he violated the basic aesthetics of animation.
Cartoons were after all, drawings on a flat piece of paper. By
adding dimensions and depth, Disney was moving the medium away
from its natural origins. It was a direction that many artists
here wished to avoid. Thankfully at Screen Gems, they were given
the freedom to really experiment and explore all of the ideas
and techniques on screen which previously they had regulated to
the privacy of their drawing books.
Not long after
his arrival, Hubley was given a promotion from layout artist to
director. While involving himself more and more in the production
of a picture, he came to realize how married design and story
truly needed to be. As he worked in all aspects of a film's production,
he continued to strengthen his belief that the further you pushed
a design, the stronger the emphasis grew on the story.
With the talent
assembled, there is no telling how high the Screen Gems studio
could have climbed. As WWII entered America though, it was a question
that would go unanswered. With the start of the war, the branches
of the Armed Forces set up film units in Hollywood to produce
instructional and informational shorts to be shown to their 'employees'.
In 1942, John Hubley joined the Army and was assigned to the Army
Air Force First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). There was a large
cross section of industry workers in the FMPU, it was a veritable
who's who of the animation field. This diversity forced the animators
to become completely integrated in the filmmaking process. For
the first time, animators had to assume a variety of tasks, one
day you might be doing fill-ins, the next you were working layouts
and on the third day you were washing cels. This work helped the
artist to get a complete hands-on understanding of how an animated
film really worked. It also gave the animators a chance to really
get together and exchange ideas and theories and opinions about
every aspect of animation, where it was headed and how it should
In March 1942,
Hubley contributed some of his ideas to an issue of The Animator,
an industry publication.
progressive, intelligent approach to animation, and realization
that it is an expressive medium, is imperative if we want to
keep animated cartoons from stagnating. Development and growth
of animation is dependent upon varied, significant subject manner
presented in an organized form, evolved from elements inherent
in the medium. Among the least understood of these elements
are the graphic ones. In spite of the fact that animation is
almost entirely concerned with drawings, drawings which must
function in both time and space."
In 1943 these
ideas would begin to be realized in the Warner Brothers cartoon
"The Dover Boys" (directed by Chuck Jones). Its linear
drawings and stylized images, so different from anything else
done at the time, helped prove to Hubley that his theories were
practical and could be effective. Hubley would often speak fondly
of the way Jones used new animation techniques on a story of comedy
on a human level, as opposed to the typical cartoon of comedy
for comedy's sake.
not the only artist seeking the future and truth in the animated
film at this time. Zack Schwartz, Dave Hilberman and Steve Bostustow
had founded a studio based on the 'ideal future' of animation.
Schwartz and Hilberman had founded a small studio so they could
create the types of works that interested them. Soon though, thanks
to the large amounts of government work floating around, they
found that their studio had grown from two men painting in a small
room to an actual operation. On May 1, 1944, the fast growing
'company' took the name: United Film Production; this was also
the year that John Hubley became a part of the process.
In 1944, Hubley
had been approached by the UAW to produce a cartoon for the re-election
campaign of Franklin Roosevelt. He designed the film, worked out
the storyboards and then took the project to United Film to be
completed. For numerous business and political reasons, the company
tore into the project with all of the resources available. In
the end though, for all of the work that was done by many skilled
(freelance) artists, this film still presented Hubley's vision
of animation. Through his design, he was able to integrate many
of the ideas of stylization in conjuncture with story that he
had written and theorized about.
for Election' was a major success and the studio realized that
this could open the door to a lucrative and artistically interesting
new business area for them. So to help show that they were now
taking on a large variety of types of work, on December 31, 1945
they changed their name again, becoming United Productions of
America (UPA). With the end of the war, Bostustow, Hilberman and
Schwartz all began looking for other opportunities into which
they could take the company. After much discussion, in 1946 Bostustow
bought out Hilberman and Schwartz and proceeded to move forward,
naming Hubley Supervising Director in the process.
company's focus shifted, the world's view was also changing on
a grand scale. In 1947 the FBI began their quest to find those
Americans with Communist leanings and one of the first places
they looked was to Hollywood. UPA, with their government contracts
and freethinking, experimentalist artists was a prime target.
Many of the employees had 'open' political views and several (including
John Hubley) had been members of political parties with 'questionable'
affiliations. The FBI compiled quite a detailed report which was
presented by J. Edgar Hoover to members of the defense community.
Whatever Hoover said, it worked as the government and industrial
contracts at UPA quickly disappeared. By 1948, Bostustow, in order
to save the company, was forced to again shift its direction.
long before UPA was offered a contract to produce theatrical films
for Columbia (who had recently shut down their Screen Gems division).
UPA was given a budget of $27,500 plus 25% ownership in everything
they created. The downside was that UPA had to work with Columbia's
two cartoon 'stars': The Fox and The Crow.
first two pictures released were, while stylistically interesting
in places, not any more unique than what other studios were putting
out. In late 1949, though, UPA finally pulled something different
together. 'The Ragtime Bear', an early non Fox and Crow short,
would have been just another forgettable little story had it not
been for the supporting character of Mr. Magoo. Although many
artists, including Jim Backus (as the voice of Magoo) had a part
in Magoo's creation, his essence came straight from Hubley. The
shortsighted, old man was immensely popular because he was funny
and familiar and yet fresh and new.
is doubly significant because it displays one of the first real
uses of UPA's famed limited animation style. To contrast: Disney
used one cel for each frame of film, UPA used one cel for every
two to three frames of film. It is often perpetuated that the
artists at UPA were forced into their trademark 'limited' style
of animation because they had no money to work with, this is not
exactly the case. Their average budget was equal to (and in some
cases more than) what other cartoon units were receiving. The
problem, as Hubley pointed out in later years, was that each artist
was a perfectionist and in working each image to be exactly as
they wanted it, they
would quickly eat through their budget, so compromises had to
be made. That they were able to work through their monetary roadblocks
to produce consistently appealing cartoons shows the enormous
talent of the animators.
were on full display in 1951 when theory and practice came together
in the groundbreaking 'Gerald McBoing Boing'. In Gerald (a Dr.
Seuss story), UPA finally found the perfect tale to wrap their
experimental and expressive graphic ideals around. 'Gerald McBoing
Boing' is a layered story about a boy who could not speak. As
the story says: 'Whenever he opened his mouth instead of words,
sounds came out'. It's essentially the story of a 'handicapped'
boy who is unloved. Although Hubley himself did not direct Gerald,
his style and ideas can be felt all over the picture. Particularly
in the use of sparse graphics and shifting colors which convey
the consistently changing mood of the scene while complimenting
perfectly the complex narrative.
1951 Academy Award that Bobe Cannon won for directing Gerald struck
Hubley deeply. There had always been a rivalry between the men,
this only deepened it. Determined to prove that he could perform
his ideas better than anyone, Hubley essentially 'split' UPA into
two sides, with Cannon leading one and he leading the other. While
Cannon took animation in a limited form to make a statement, Hubley
pushed animation in for artistic reasons. The result of this work
is on display in 1952's 'Rooty Toot Toot'. Working with Paul Julian,
John Hubley had finally completely partnered design with animation;
using flat images, colors, lines and settings to evoke and provoke
the mood and feel of the picture. The film was a huge success
and although he lost that years Academy Award, Hubley's revolution
and art directors everywhere began consistently pushing their
teams to copy the UPA style. It was validation for what UPA had
been preaching, that the ideas of form and content in an animated
film could merge together in a manner that may not provide the
ultimate realism, but rather may enhance the story and in hand,
the ultimate experience.
were not a proud time in Hollywood (or American) History, in particular
in 1951-52 when there was a witch-hunt not seen since the days
of Salem. Only this time there were not witches being searched
for, there were Communists. At the center was the House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC) before which citizens were called
and asked to reveal what they knew about their own involvement
as well as the involvement of their friends and neighbors in the
Communist party. Some people talked, they 'named names'. Those
who were named and those who refused to talk were quietly blacklisted
from the community. With its freethinking members Hollywood was
an especially live target. This was also true for UPA. Many in
the organization were asked to sign papers, rescinding their previous
actions, some were asked to testify. John Hubley was one of these
men. He made no apologies or admissions for things he may have
done, believing he had done nothing but explore artistic avenues.
Unfortunately HUAC saw things differently and as Hubley refused
to cooperate, pressure was placed on UPA to take action. On May
31, 1952 UPA relented to the pressure and released John Hubley.
left UPA he took with him the creative spark that had taken the
studio to such glorious heights. UPA still had Gerald and Magoo
but they no longer had their 'edge' and before long they would
be turning out the same formulaic cartoons that they had been
formed to rail against.
Hubley had to look to alternative areas for work. For a while
he worked in a freelance capacity for Ray Patin Productions (among
others). By 1953 he had pulled things together enough to start
his own studio. Working behind frontman Earl Klein, Hubley opened
the doors to 'Storyboard Studios'. His earliest and largest volume
of work came from television advertising. With no credits on commercials,
he could work a little more freely than he could have in film.
His perseverance appeared to pay off later that year as the studio
was awarded a contract to produce an animated version of 'Finian's
Rainbow'. Just as pre-production started though, the financing
suddenly dried up. The reason? His refusal to talk to HUAC had
come back to haunt him.
In 1956, searching
for a new start, Hubley moved his studio to New York City; it
was a move that rejuvenated him. Not only did the advertising
work continue and grow, but John was now able to return to creating
more personal projects. Along with his wife Faith, he produced
work for television and film. Their shorts were nominated for
seven Academy Awards of which they won four. Several of the films,
including 'Moonbird', 'Everybody Rides the Carousel' and 'The
Story of an *' have become modern animation classics, inspiring
audiences and artists today.
of John Hubley is an important one because it transcends animation,
integrating its self deep in the human psyche. Art, belief, friendship,
betrayal, conviction. It's a story that resounds today because
at it's essence, it is the tale of a man working to break out
of the system, gain artistic freedom and perhaps start a revolution
along the way. A revolution to make a thing as great and as free
as it possibly can be.
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife and daughter.
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