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UPA, where animation led graphic design.

A history of United Productions of America, better known as UPA.

Steve Roberts

on 27 November 2014

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Transcript of UPA, where animation led graphic design.

The story of...
United Productions of America, better known as UPA, was an American animation studio of the 1940s through to the present day, beginning with industrial films and World War II training films.
In the late 1940s, UPA produced theatrical shorts for Columbia Pictures, most notably the Mr. Magoo series.
In the late 1950s UPA produced a television series for CBS hosted by Gerald McBoing-Boing.
In the 1960s UPA produced several Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy series and specials, the most popular of which was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

The 1930s led to a rise of labor unions in the motion pictures (as in other industries) such as The Screen Actors Guild which was formed in 1933.
Animators of the Fleischer studio went on strike in 1937 when Max Fleischer fired 15 employees, all of whom were a part of American Art-Union.
The Fleischer strike was eventually solved by forming The Screen Cartoonists' Guild in 1938.
The leader of the Guild was Herbert Sorrell who was described as a "tough left-winger".
In 1941, he began a push and obtained union agreements with Terrytoons, Walter Lantz Productions, Screen Gems, George Pal and MGM.
Leon Schlesinger, who produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros, attempted a lockout, but soon gave in to the union. He then asked, "What about Disney?"
As the biggest and most successful animation studio, Disney was an obvious target for the Screen Cartoonists' Guild.
Sorrell approached Walt and demanded that he sign an agreement with the Guild and threatened to go on strike if he refused.
Walt said that he should put it to a secret vote with his top employees.
Sorrel claimed that he was a fool and he was going to "crush Disney to a dustball"
The final spark that started the strike was when Disney fired Babbit who he regarded as a "troublemaker" and a "Bolshevik" .
The next day on May 29, 1941, the strike began, instigated by Sorrell and lead by Babbit.
Although Disney artists were the best paid and worked under the best conditions in the industry, there was discontent.
Many of the employees had given Disney large quantities of free overtime during the drive to complete the 1937 film Snow White.
Despite the fact that Snow White was an enormous success, Walt Disney kept postponing their bonuses, because he had read a book on psychology and postponing their bonuses might make his animators work harder.
However Hitler's War in Europe cut off 40% of Disney's foreign release market which led to Disney's two following films Pinocchio and Fantasia to fail at the box office.
In return Disney could no longer afford to give the animators their bonuses and the animators feared that Walt would start a string of layoffs.
The salary structure became disorganized, and the only general wage increase Disney granted in those years was self-serving: he brought a number of workers up over the forty-dollar-a-week level, at which point, under the Wagner Labor Relations Act, they ceased being entitled to time-and-a-half for overtime.
When animator Art Babbitt became one of the union leaders he started questioning Walt's authority and "rallying his staff against him" in Walt's words.
The strike occurred during the making of the animated feature Dumbo, and a number of strikers are caricatured in the feature as clowns who go to "hit the big boss for a raise".
Following the strike, irreparable damage to the psychology and mood of the studio had, nevertheless, been done.
Before the strike, the number of employees had been about 1200, but after it ended, it was reduced to 694.
The studio had been one big happy family, but now was riven with tension.
Disney became a bitter and obsessed with communists in his staff.
The strike lasted five weeks.
Toward the end, Disney accepted a suggestion by Nelson Rockefeller, then head of the Latin American Affairs office in the State department, that he make a tour of Latin America as a goodwill ambassador.
His removal from the scene enabled passions to cool, and in his absence the strike was settled with the help of a federal mediator, who found in the Guild's favor on every issue.
The Disney studio signed a contract and has been a union shop ever since.
Many talented animators left Disney.
In 1943, Zack Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow formed a studio called "Industrial Film & Poster Service" .
They were Joined by Bobb Cannon, Art Babbit and John Hubley.
John Hubley was a layout artist who was unhappy with the ultra-realistic style of animation that
Disney had been advocating.
Along with a number of his colleagues, Hubley believed that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of real life (As seen in Bambi): t
They felt that the medium of animation had been constrained by efforts to depict cinematic reality.
At Industrial Film & Poster Service these animators were free to apply their concepts.
Finding work (and income) in the then-booming field of wartime work for the government, the small studio produced a cartoon sponsored by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1944.
This Chuck Jones directed cartoon was entitled Hell-Bent for Election, and was produced for the (third) re-election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The film was a theatrical success, leading to another cartoon entitled Brotherhood of Man (1945), also sponsored by the UAW.
The film, directed by Bob Cannon, advocated tolerance of all people.
The short was groundbreaking not only in its message but in its very flat, stylized design, in complete defiance of the Disney approach.
With its new-found fame, the studio renamed itself UPA Pictures (UPA).

UPA moved to the crowded field of theatrical cartoons to sustain itself, and won a contract with Columbia Pictures.
Columbia had historically been an also-ran in the field of animated shorts, and was not satisfied with the output of its Screen Gems cartoon studio.
The UPA animators applied their stylistic concepts and storytelling to Columbia's characters The Fox and the Crow with the shorts Robin Hoodlum (1948) and The Magic Fluke (1949).
Both shorts were nominated for Academy Awards and Columbia gave the studio permission to create its own new characters.
UPA responded, not with another "funny animal," but the star was a human character, a crotchety, nearsighted old man.
The Ragtime Bear (1949), the first appearance of Mr. Magoo, was a box-office hit, and UPA's star quickly rose as the 1950s dawned.
In 1951, UPA scored another hit with Gerald McBoing-Boing, based on a story by Dr. Seuss.
This won an Oscar.
In 1951, UPA announced plans for a feature-length film based on the work of cartoonist and humorist James Thurber, to be titled Men, Women and Dogs.
(Just one of the Thurber pieces intended for this feature, The Unicorn in the Garden, was eventually released as a short subject.)
Another noteable film is
Rooty Toot Toot of 1951
UPA continued pushing the
boundaries of it's style with
films such as
The Tell Tail heart (1954).
The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings took a toll on UPA.
Columbia, fearful of the investigations, pressured UPA to dismiss anyone with even the slightest hint of communist association, including writers Phil Eastman and Bill Scott.
Hubley, a political activist with genuine communist ties, was dismissed in May, 1952.
When he left, much of the innovation and creativity of UPA left with him.
The studio continued under the management of Bosustow, but the energetic, innovative quality of UPA's cartoons was irreparably damaged.
UPA stopped producing theatrical cartoon shorts in 1959.
During the late 40's and early 50's in the USA there was a witch hunt of anybody who could be considered a communist.
This was know as the McCarthy era.
It was named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, a man obsessed with the communist threat to America.
During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers.
They became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels and committees.
The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists.
In 1947, Walt Disney gave testament to The House Committee on Un-American Activities hearing in L.A. and named people he believed to be communists.
UPA was in financial dire straits so Steve Bosustow sold the studio to a new producer, Henry G. Saperstein.
Saperstein turned UPA's focus to television to sustain itself.
UPA expanded the Mr. Magoo series and brought it to television, along with other animated series, including an adaptation of the comic strip Dick Tracy.
The UPA style of limited animation was adopted by other animation studios, and especially by TV cartoon studios such as Hanna-Barbera Productions.
However, it was implemented as a cost-cutting measure rather than an artistic choice.
A plethora of low-budget, cheaply made cartoons over the next twenty years effectively reduced television animation to a commodity.
UPA's original goal was to expand the boundaries of animation and create a new form of art.
However, many other animators
and illustrators were influenced by
the style of UPA.
Jules Feiffer wrote and designed the 1960 oscar winning film, Munro.
In 1961, the first non American movie to win best animated short
was Surogat by Dusan Vukotic (which Birgitta has shown you)
Even Disney was influecen with movies such as
Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom and 101 Dalmations.

The look went out of style during the late 60's and 70's but by the 80's the clean flat look was in again. You only have to look at Ren and Stimpy
Dexters Laboratory or the Power Puff Girls to see this.

With the coming of Vector graphics animation
applications such as Flash, this style of design
has reached new levels of popularity and is
particularly suited to the flat graphics of the web.

Discontent at Disney
So, a tiny animation studio that you have probably never heard of, went on to influence studios all over the world and, for a short time at least, led graphic design rather than followed it!
It's influence can be seen in a huge amount of animation today!

Disneys graphic style was always that of the Victorian illustrated books he read as a boy.
These young animators wanted to create animation that was modern, stylish and simple.
In the process it revolutionized graphic design.
The look was influenced by modern art, particularly the pre-war abstract, cubist and expressionist movements.
Artists such as Picasso, Miro, Mondrian and Klee.
Their animation was contemporary with early Abstract Impressionism.
It was a key influence of Pop Art.
In turn, many illustrators and artists were influenced by this flat graphic cartoon style.
This can be seen in the illustrations of Jules Feiffer and Saul Steinberg.
Or the paintings of Willem De Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothco, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock,
UPA also produced two features, 1001 Arabian Nights and Gay Purr-ee.
It also distributed Japanese films from Toho Studios in the 1970s and 1980s.
The latest animated series is with Gerald McBoing Boing (2005-2007), shown on the Cartoon Network.
UPA was born out of the strike at the Disney studios in the early 1940's...
Initially UPA contracted with the government to produce animation, but the government contracts began to evaporate as the FBI began investigating Communist activities in Hollywood in the late 1940s.
No formal charges were filed against anyone at UPA in the beginnings of the so-called "Red Scare", but the government contracts were lost as Washington severed its ties with Hollywood.
Full transcript