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March 24, 2012

Pixar’s link to Picasso? UPA, the overlooked animation pioneer

Posted in: Animation,TV

Sixty years ago, United Productions of America was the little studio that could — and did. Drawing inspiration from the work of Picasso, Kandinsky and other modern masters, the UPA artists transformed the look of world animation. Their use of bold graphics, striking colors and stylized movements influenced “Sleeping Beauty” and the Oscar-winning “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” from Disney, Warner Bros.’ “What’s Opera, Doc?” and the work of studios from Montreal to Zagreb.

More than 50 years after the studio’s brief heyday (1949-56), its stamp can still be seen in films and TV shows, including “Samurai Jack,” “The Secret of Kells,” “Phineas and Ferb” and “The Princess and the Frog.”

This month, TCM released the first of two long-awaited DVD sets of the UPA cartoons, and on Friday, LACMA will host an evening of films with Adam Abraham, author of “When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA,” and animation historian Jerry Beck, who says, “UPA gave artists license to push animation into new directions and proved there were other ways to tell stories using animation.’”

In contrast to Walt Disney’s use of traditional fine draftsmanship and fairy tale stories, the UPA artists were inspired by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Klee, and the sophisticated cartoonists at The New Yorker. The studio began modestly in 1943, when Disney veterans Steve Bosustow, Zack Schwartz and Dave Hilberman started the Industrial Film Poster Service. In 1945, Bosustow bought out his partners and reorganized the studio as United Productions of America.

UPA took off three years later, when it began producing theatrical cartoons for Columbia. But the artists disliked both the cute postwar Disney shorts and the slapstick Warners Bros. cartoons. UPA films ranged from the charming “Gerald McBoing-Boing” and the comic misadventures of Mr. Magoo to an eerie adaptation of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Rooty-Toot-Toot,” a jazz-inflected retelling of the ballad “Frankie and Johnny.”

The graphic designs led the artists to rethink their approach to animation: An angular, flattened figure couldn’t move in three dimensions like a rounded Disney character. The UPA animators stressed strong poses and more limited motion to create ways of moving that were as stylized as their characters.

“Caricature is as much about knowing what to leave out as what to put in, and the UPA artists did it exceptionally well,” Pixar art director Ralph Eggleston said. “They put in just what they needed to tell the story, with nothing getting in its way.”

Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of “Up,” discovered the work of UPA as a CalArts student. “Seeing the UPA films was was almost like learning a different language because their approach to movement, design and filmmaking was so graphic and so different from the Disney or Warner Bros. films,” he said. “Their approach to movement was based on feelings, rather than anatomy — the way you’d feel performing a movement, as opposed to what happens anatomically. Characters would bend in ways that wouldn’t be physically possible, because the artist wanted to capture a certain feeling.”

In “Rooty-Toot-Toot,” Nellie Bly’s arms interlace in ways no real woman’s could, but the motions effectively suggest her seductive appeal. Docter adds, “In ‘Up,’ we used squares and circles to represent Carl and Ellie throughout the film: Those simple, elegant shapes not only told the story graphically, they represented the characters on a psychological level that recalls the UPA films.”

Disney Feature Animation art director Mike Giaimo, who taught character design to Docter at CalArts, added, “In ‘Up’ the artists play with the shapes of the lead characters and the house in ways that relate to the UPA aesthetic. So many TV shows today push and pull the designs gratuitously, as opposed to designing graphically in ways that really work for the story.”

As Giaimo’s comment suggests, UPA has had an even greater effect on the stylized look of contemporary television animation. He praises the character designs and movements in Genndy Tartakovsky’s Emmy-winning “Samurai Jack” as “elegant and eloquent.”

“The UPA films were very, very artistic, but very character driven: They didn’t just feel like abstract art,” Tartakovsky said. “The characters were more strongly realized than if you’d used traditional techniques. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t reference one of their films.”

– Charles Solomon

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