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Less is More: John Hubley's Animation Revolution

John Hubley(by 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.

These differings 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 system.

The strike 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).

The Hubley Collection on DVDScreen 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 get there.

In March 1942, Hubley contributed some of his ideas to an issue of The Animator, an industry publication.

"A 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.

Hubley was 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.

'Hell-Bent 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.

While the 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.

It wasn't 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.

Mr. MagooThe 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.

This cartoon 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, Gerald McBoing Boingthey 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.

These talents 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.

Rooty Toot TootThe 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 had begun.

Advertising 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.

The 1950's 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.

When John 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.

Blacklisted, 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.

The story 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.


Noell Wolfgram 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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