UPA: Inventing the Future
Leonard Maltin, in Of Mice and Magic
Nothing pleases writers and readers trying to understand the arts like a clean break. Styles and periods have a messy way of melting into each other at each end as artists and audiences push and pull, sometimes for decades, before the old is no longer visible, and the new is just what is. Animation readers and writers are glad they have UPA. While Disney’s “trusted” artists were away trying to draw every leaf in the Amazon, the radicals back home were working up a way to suggest that jungle with a line and two areas of different color, maybe not even green. “Illusion of Life” was a great style for a walk through a landscape. To race to the moon a method as different from walking as rocket science was needed.
As impressionism came along when the machine age was changing the rules. The vision we now call UPA in honor of the studio most identified with its art and politics came along, conveniently, and inevitably as the Second World War. Walt may have thought it was the Army contracts or the tentacles of the Comintern that were the main changes he was witnessing in his line of business. If you look at what ended up on the screen, the big change was in the way people began to draw. Gone was the realism left over from the nineteenth century. Finally the air of the modernists was let in.
Walt loved the older styles and pursued them as far as possible. Producers who tried to compete head to head in Illusion of Life all went bankrupt. His visual statement was so coherent and powerful that his is the only name of the movie pioneers still in common usage, and standing for both a style and a personality. Illusion of Life and Walt’s dedication to it can’t be denied or explained away.
When people talk about UPA today, as they did at a San Diego Comic-Con panel last week, it is impossible not to mention Walt Disney early and often. You can’t talk about up without down. Walt Disney, more than he ever imagined or intended, stands today for the visual establishment, going back to the French Academy and their yearly, binary selection for the salon. Those chosen had it made, those excluded might as well go back to painting signs. For some time in animation it was: do it Disney’s way, fail, watch your business dwindle away to nothing.
At the core of UPA were artists who had made the cut at Disney but would push the envelope artistically and politically in ways that ended with their exile from his studio. For some there was a disconnect between the glorious product and the rigid production protocols, which fit Disney’s personality perfectly but ran counter to many other people’s ideas of logic or fairness. Some people had more to say than could be said in a studio with someone else’s name on it. Some people were just ready to move on.
Leonard Maltin nails it: “If there hadn’t been a UPA, someone would have had to invent it.”
Fred Crippen, identified by Maltin as notable among “the young talent,” circa 1956, is now a member of the last generation of survivors. The panel’s meat, beside the screening of a couple rare cartoons they made for a television contract, short musical interludes Three Horned Flink and Country Music, was all Crippen.
Crippen laughed when he told us how “low budget” those shorts were. “There must have been a hundred drawings in that picture,” he said. “We knocked them out every two weeks.”
He remembers how some of the UPA people in their New York shop would go to parties in Greenwich Village. I know my home is a hotbed of vice and depravity, otherwise the Giuliani administration would not have allowed the sex shops thrown out of Times Square to relocate here, a hundred yards from the parish church. This was the first time that I’d heard Village party-going as a one-clause, hanging evidence of Communist sympathy. Maybe homosexual, maybe integrationist, maybe drunk on your ass, but prima facie Red? Cool. (Full disclosure: After organizing a demonstration in favor of a new public library as a high school senior in 1969, the Garden City [Go Trojans!] News labeled our suit-and-tie gang of nerds “sleazy, slimy Communists.” Which didn’t sting nearly as much as their suggestion we were dupes getting our marching orders from our teachers!)
Crippen was there when the New York office lost their best people. John Hubley went on to do independent films, P. D. Eastman went on to write Go, Dog. Go! and his partner, Bill Scott, absolved of political suspicions by historians and Crippen, went on to be Jay Ward’s key man, co-writing and voicing Bullwinkle. UPA went on to do less and less interesting films. The red baiters saved America, Ronald Reagan tore down the Berlin Wall and we all lived happily, ever after.
UPA changed how every cartoon would look. Everyone who kids himself or his investors that he’s doing it “the Disney way” is just using fewer of the techniques UPA invented to save their art form from becoming impossibly complicated
Too many people saw Gerald McBoing-Boing as a catalog of shortcuts. These people think Jackson Pollock gives them license to splatter without looking or buy a painting made by a chimp. If some people wanted a chance to fire the backgrounders and in-betweeners, or just give the whole place over to the newest hires, it sure shows in their work. They might have made a few sales, but they otherwise found only a quick ride to obscurity.
Crippen mentioned that UPA’s location in the heart of midtown, close to the Museum of Modern Art was a helpful atmosphere for a group of commercial artists who didn’t mind changing the world
Tee Bosustow, son of UPA founder Stephen Bosustow, is making a documentary about the place called UPA: Mavericks, Magic and Magoo. The clip he showed, about director Bobe Cannon, was proof it will be a fitting tribute to the studio. Can’t wait.
Limited animation is still stuck with its negative baggage. Most names of artistic schools are applied first as sarcasm by critics who oppose it, like “Impressionism.” By the time I got around to interviewing Ron Ward, son of Jay, his dad’s company had made its last series, George of the Jungle. When I spoke the words “limited animation,” he denied they practiced any such thing. I guess that, to him, limited animation was something bad companies did to chisel their audiences. The Bullwinkle look, limited animation if ever the thing existed, was the work of UPA evacuees, some of the best there were. Generations will have to elapse before the term can be used or not on it’s own terms. “Impressionism” survives because it’s logical and useful. We’ll see what happens to “limited animation.”
Maybe the name of UPA will someday fade from memory. I hope not. I am certain they’ll always be visible in the line and color and style of every cartoon made by artists who understand where animation has been and want their work to be part of animation’s future.