The John Hubley Story

By Noell Wolfgram Evans

 

 

 

 

Edwin Carp

The history of animation is known to the general public by two names: Disney and Warners. Ask any 'man on the street' what they know about animation and inevitably these studios or their characters will be invoked. The contributions by the artists and management of these studios is immeasurable and their praises should be sung, but not so loudly as to drown out the accomplishment and contributions of other studios and artists, particularly those that became of age or began during animation's Golden Age. You can view of course the technical accomplishments of the Fleischer Studios and the entertainment of MGM but this article will look at the particular accomplishments of one man and one studio who happened upon each other at the right time and changed animation.

John Hubley was born in 1914 in Wisconsin. One can only assume that he spent the long Wisconsin winters with pen and paper in his hand as it wasn't long (1935) before he found himself working as a background artist on 'Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs'. As Disney ramped production up on Snow White, he hired in a large group of new animators and 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 in it's early inception in some way. These 'original' employees felt a loyalty to Disney and a complete faith in the direction he was leading animation. This complete injection of Disney was not something so easily shared by the newer employees. Many of these new artists had been college trained and had studied the fine arts unlike their studio bred counterparts; they felt that there were more ways into which animation could (and should) expand and grow.

These differings of opinions all 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 and throughout Hollywood as well; one of the consequences was the scattering of many members of the Disney 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 those strike leaders and as they left, he was only too happy to move to the Screen Gems studio (located at Columbia Pictures).

Joining Screen Gems in 1941, Hubley found many of his old Disney cohorts. The studio was being run by Frank Tashlin, a former Disney writer who had hired in many strikers and victims of the strike, many of whom had left Disney for artistic reasons more than anything. There was a prevailing belief that the further Disney strove for realism in his films, the more he violated the basic aesthetics of animation. A cartoon was 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 felt was wrong and wished to correct. Tashlin was a very hands off manager which worked perfectly in a group such as the one assembled at Screen Gems. They were given the freedom to really experiment and explore all of the ideas and techniques which previously they had regulated to the privacy of their drawing books.

Not long after Hubley's arrival, Dave Fleischer was brought in to take over for Tashlin. At this point in his career, Fleischer seemed to be more interested in things other than animation which allowed the artists at the studio to continue their 'experiments'. When Fleischer was brought in, one of his first acts was to give John Hubley a promotion from layout artist to director. While involving himself more and more in the production of a picture, Hubley came to realize that the further you pushed a design forward, the stronger the emphasis grew on the writing. It was a thought that would drive Hubley's work for the rest of his life.

With the talent and cooperation 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. As World War II started, many areas of the Government (particularly 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). It was a diverse group run by Rudy Ising (of MGM) and included such artists as Frank Thomas (of Disney). The diversity of recruits into the FMPU worked well for the animators as it forced them to become completely involved 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 where the medium was headed.

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 Hubley saw the Warner Brothers cartoon "The Dover Boys" (directed by Chuck Jones). It was the story of three men, a woman and a villain as set in the Gay Nineties. It's linear drawings and stylized images, so different from anything else done at the time, helped prove to him that his thoughts on animation were correct. 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.

The army was a great training ground if you will because they were concerned completely with getting their message across, how ever possible. This left a lot of open ground for people to work in. This is not to imply that all of the pictures that came out of these situations were experimental masterpieces. By and large, the majority of the work done, across the board, was very 'standard'. At the FMPU many of the pictures they produced did have new elements to them but these were all basically works in progress, experiments and attempts to find the right notes and combinations.

Hubley spoke at a UCLA Writers Conference in 1943 and shared some of the findings of the work at the FMPU: "Writers have been forced to deal with positive ideas, and there have been significant new developments in techniques as a result. But the material has been essentially technical…the inherent human appeal of the medium and it's application to all forms of cartoon production has just begun to be realized."

Hubley was not the only artist seeking the future and truth in the animated film, others had similar thoughts and were working on them. They wrote papers, taught classes and founded studios. One such studio was founded by Zack Schwartz (previously of Screen Gems), Dave Hilberman (a former Disney employee whom Walt derided as being a Communist and who he personally held responsible for the '41 strike) and Steve Bostustow (a former animator and employee at Hughes Aircraft). Schwartz and Hilberman had founded a small studio on the idea that they would finally be able to create the types of things that they wanted to. 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. The company did well but it's best was yet to come and 1944 proved to be an important step in that direction. To begin with, on May 1 the company changed its name to United Film Production. More importantly though, this was the year that brought John Hubley into the fold.

In 1944 Hubley had been approached by the UAW to produce a cartoon that would encourage the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt. He worked out the storyboards and designs and then took the project to United Film to be completed. The team at United was more than pleased to take this task on. They were of course happy for the work as, if they produced a good film, it could lead to a long and profitable partnership with the powerful auto union. There was also the underlying political aspect that appealed to them. The majority of the artists at United had a very liberal view of the world and they felt a strong connection to FDR's victory. For all of the work that was done (and by many skilled (freelance) artists (the picture was actually directed by Chuck Jones)), this was still, in it's essence Hubley's film. In his design of the film, he tried out many of the ideas of stylization he had been working through his mind, many of them proving successful.

'Hell-Bent for Election' was a major success and the studio, rightfully, felt very proud of it's self. So proud in fact that they decided to change their name again (this time to showcase the full encompassing canvas of their work). So it was that on December 31, 1945 the United Productions of America (UPA) was officially born. Unfortunately for the studio World War II was over and with that the Government work, which had once been their bread and butter, started to slow up. Bostustow, Hilberman and Schwartz all began looking for other opportunities into which they could take the company. As they talked, it soon became apparent that Hilberman and Schwartz had one vision of the company while Bostustow had a completely different view. In 1946 Bostustow bought out Hilberman and Schwartz and proceeded to move forward, gobbling up as many remaining government contracts as he could find. Before he did anything though, he named Hubley Supervising Director.

In 1947, an event occurred that foreshadowed the eventual demise of the studio. It was around this time that 'Communism Fever' dug its roots deep into America. The FBI began their quest to find those Americans with Communist leanings and one of the first places they looked was in Hollywood. UPA was a prime investigative target thanks to the large amount of government films that they made. As has already been stated, UPA was constructed by freethinkers, experimentalists. Many of the employees had left leaning political views and several (including John Hubley) had been members of the political parties with loose 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 quickly disappeared. By 1948 Bostustow in order to save the company, was forced to shift it's direction. It was a decision that would cement UPA's place in film history. UPA decided to sign a contract to produce theatrical films for Columbia (who had recently shut down their Screen Gems division). UPA would be given a budget of 27,500 dollars plus 25 percent ownership in everything they created. Monetarily it was a decent deal, the downside to the contract was that UPA had to work with Columbia's two cartoon 'stars': The Fox and The Crow.

The first two pictures released under the contract were, while stylistically interesting in places, still the same thing that other studios had been putting out. In late 1949 UPA finally pulled something different together. 'The Ragtime Bear' 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, bald, obstinate old man was immensely popular in part because he was funny and in part because there was something about him that was 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 (partly a style decision, partly a decision of cost). 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. The average budget given to them by Columbia was 27,500 per picture. This is equal to (and in some cases more than) what other cartoon units were receiving at this time. 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 problems to produce consistently appealing cartoons shows the enormous talent of the animators. They were able to work through their limitations to each their talents.

These talents were on full display in 1951 when theory and practice came together in the groundbreaking 'Gerald McBoing Boing', directed by Bobe Cannon. In a perfect collaboration, UPA married a Dr. Seuss story to their graphic ideals and the results are incredible. 'Gerald McBoing Boing' was a layered story about a boy who could not speak. Whenever he opened his mouth instead of words, sounds came out. His parents and friends shun him and he is left to find his own way in the world. Gerald is essentially the story of a 'handicapped' boy who is unloved. (This goes out to what Hubley said nearly ten years earlier, that the farther out the graphics go, the stronger the writing must become and the graphics for this picture were very minimal. The graphics here were far, ex: there were no distinctions between floors and walls. Cannon's team boiled the story down to its essence and that is all that was shown on screen.) So although Hubley himself did not direct Gerald, his style and ideas can be felt all over the picture.

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Noell Wolfgram Evans has written short stories and articles on a variety of subjects. He has had several plays produced including one in New York City. He currently works for a multimedia production firm in Columbus, OH where he laughs with his wife and daughter.


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