Thursday, February 28, 2008

Masters of Animation: John Hubley

No history of animation can be complete without the mention of John Hubley. Which is why it's so surprising to me that there is so little written about the man. Before Hubley and UPA, cartoons had progressed doggedly in the style Walt Disney had laid down, losing their charm and becoming hollow as the Disney studio insisted that there was only one suitable artistic style in which to tell stories in animation. John Hubley was instrumental in changing that attitude and changing the artistic landscape as a result.

John Hubley was born on 21 May 1914 in Marinette, Wisconsin. When the Depression hit, he was sent to live with an uncle in Los Angeles, where he went to high school and college and, in 1935, was hired as a background artist working on Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was part of the first wave of new employees who were hired to work on the massive Snow White production. He also worked as a background and/or layout artist on Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. The new employees did not feel the same reverence and loyalty towards Walt as those who had been there from the beginning, and it was these employees who were instrumental in the 1941 strike. Hubley sympathized with the strikers, but was one of the employees who was more disillusioned with Disney's quest for more and more realism and his belief that stories should be fueled by gags. Hubley wanted to do something different, and instead of participating in the strike, he simply left the studio.

Hubley was hired by Frank Tashlin, a former Disney and Schlesinger artist who was now running the Screen Gems animation studio for Columbia Pictures. Tashlin hired most of his staff of the strike line, most of them like-minded friends who loved animation and wanted to discover a way to do more than just imitate Disney. These artists were more interested in the aesthetics of animation; they wanted to do more than just imitate life. They were advocates of strong design. Tashlin encouraged them to experiment with styles and explore new ideas, and it was briefly a designer's paradise. There, Hubley found the freedom to make cartoons like Wolf Chases Pigs, The Dumbconscious Mind, King Midas Jr., and the cartoon in which he completely broke with the comforting coziness of circular designs and realism, Professor Small and Mr. Tall.

The animation collective was short-lived; in 1942 Tashlin was fired and replaced by Dave Fleischer, who had just lost the family animation house to Paramount after the failure of the Superman series and his feature Hoppity Goes to Town (unfortunately released on 7 December 1941). He promoted Hubley to director, a move which changed Hubley's approach to animation. Apparently he realized that strong writing was the most important factor in making a film that was heavy on design.

Later that year, Hubley joined the Army and was assigned to Rudolf Ising's Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit. There, animators were forced to take a more hands-on role in cartoon production, doing a myriad of jobs instead of just animating, giving them a better understanding of the entire process. Hubley was further inspired to take what he called "a progressive, intelligent approach to animation." When he saw Chuck Jones's inspired cartoon The Dover Boys, he was thrilled by the linear stylization that was so different from any other cartoon (famously, this was the cartoon that Leon Schlesinger practically disavowed and ridiculed). He was especially struck by the comedy, which came out of character and humanity instead of wild action and slapstick gags. As many other historians have pointed out, the real value of the FMPU was that the Army didn't care about style because they were more concerned with the message; it was a perfect time and place for a man like John Hubley to form and cement his ideas to approach and revitalize animation.

Hubley began freelancing while he was still in the Army, and in 1944 he storyboarded and designed the groundbreaking Hell-Bent for Election, a pro-FDR re-election film for the United Auto Workers Union. The work was done primarily by United Film Productions, the commercial company founded by Zack Schwartz (an old friend from Disney and Screen Gems) and Dave Hilberman (one of the leaders of the 1941 Disney strike). The film was directed by Chuck Jones and proved to be an effective calling card for the animators and producers involved. It was the first time Hubley was able to put into practice all of his new ideas about stylization, and they work very well.

The company became United Productions of America in 1945, and producer Stephen Bosustow bought out Schwartz and Hilberman. He hired Hubley and made him supervising director. But the company became the target of FBI investigations into Communist infiltration in Hollywood. Many of the liberals involved in the studio had previously been Communists; some still were. Hubley in particular had had ties with the Commmunist party. Goverment contracts, the lifeblood of UPA, dried up in the wake of reports that UPA was harboring Communists. In order to save the company, Bosustow went to Columbia and talked to them about contracting their animation to UPA; the Screen Gems cartoons were now unpopular failures, and the person Bosustow talked to was a liberal Democrat who had seen and loved Hell-Bent for Election. A deal was made and, after two test films starring the mainstay Fox and Crow characters (whom Tashlin had created in 1941), UPA cartoons would be officially released by Columbia Pictures. Both cartoons, Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke, both directed by Hubley, were not popular with the Columbia execs. They worried that the cartoons departed too much from the Disney/Warners formula. What convinced them was that both films were nominated for Academy Awards.

By this time, Hubley had met Faith Elliott, a sound effects editor, music editor, film editor, and script supervisor. She, like John, was an art school graduate and very left-leaning. She would influence him with a sense of internationalism that would influence some of his later work.

In 1949, John Hubley directed the cartoon that began the real shift in animation: The Ragtime Bear. For this cartoon, Hubley created the character Mr. Magoo. Columbia was reluctant to have a human character in a cartoon instead of a funny animal, so the bear appeared in the film to allay their fears. In his first outing, Magoo is perhaps the funniest he ever was. Hubley conceived the character as a shortsighted man, but he had also added a layer of what he described as bullheaded obstinancy. He had a handicap, but he refused to admit it and tried to function anyway. Jim Backus was hired to do Magoo's voice and was allowed to improvise during the recording, finding a perfect note of frustration that somehow made Magoo endearing instead of irritating. He found a human frailty in it and played it for laughs. Here, for a change, was comedy out of character instead of comedy out of situation (although the situation is played for some hilarious laughs; Magoo mistakes the titular bear for his fur coat-wearing nephew). He was fresh and new at a time when Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were over-familiar. The cartoon was instantly popular.

This was also the first time that Hubley was able to make full use of the limited animation style he'd had in mind. Hubley was a perfectionist who could blow through his entire budget just redesigning layouts, so the famed limited UPA style was partially a necessity due to cost. But it was also the design style that Hubley had been imagining for years, and perhaps not being able to spend more money on it helped to sharpen his talent. He could work within limitations without compromising quality.

I've already written about the history of UPA here and here. Hubley's time at UPA was short; as supervising director, he didn't have much time to work on his own cartoons. Mr. Magoo was given his own series (against Hubley's wishes) directed by Pete Burness; Hubley directed on other cartoon with his creation, Fuddy Duddy Buddy, before watching as Mr. Magoo fell into sentimentalism and gags. He also directed one of UPA's best cartoons, Rooty Toot Toot, which I touched on at length in the earlier post. It was quite a step forward for Hubley, a creation purely of great writing and line drawings that indicate character (and a great color scheme and musical score that do the same). If Disney's cartoons were the Classical music of the cartoon world, Hubley's cartoons were becoming free-form, experimental jazz. Rooty Toot Toot was released in 1952; the same year, Hubley left UPA amid HUAC investigations. Columbia wanted the former Communist fired; Bosustow stood up for him, but Hubley left rather than strain the relationship between Columbia and UPA. John and Faith married and went into business for themselves.

Their first project in 1955 was an animated feature version of Finian's Rainbow. The Hubleys both loved jazz music, and it influenced their approach to animation as much as Faith's international outlook and John's ideas about writing and design. Under musical director Lyn Murray, the music and voices were all recorded; the cast included Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. But the funding ran out and, for reasons that remain unclear to me (but which may involve blacklisting), the film was never finished.

John and Faith moved to New York and set up a studio called Storyboard. Faith acted as business manager, co-producer, organizer, and artist. John was the film director. They were successful as commercial animators, and it's my feeling that, even if you don't know who John Hubley is, you've seen his work (for example, he designed the Vlasic Pickle stork). The look of UPA cartoons had influenced everything else in animation, which is indicative of just how much people were ready for a change. Even Disney would try to ape the UPA style (and, with Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, win an Oscar for doing so); so would Warner Bros, although that was partially because they stopped spending much money on their cartoons in the late fifties. The animated commercials being made for TV were in the same style, and it quickly became the mainstream.

John Hubley, though, continued to experiment, releasing the independent cartoon The Adventures of an * in 1957. It was made for the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It was animated in the same commercial studio style Hubley had honed at UPA, but it looks nothing like a UPA cartoon. Most animators who leave a studio have trouble shedding the same look (for example, take Chuck Jones's independent cartoons of the seventies, which are proficient but which look almost exactly like his later work at Warners). The Adventures of an * is more avant garde than UPA was willing to go, a very abstract film with improvised dialogue that serves as a meditation on the distractions of life. Many of Hubley's films are meditations of the same sort, and as a result he does have a reputation as being a didactic filmmaker.

Hubley decided that he would only do one film a year and devote the rest of his time to commercial work; his next film, The Tender Game (1958), is a surprisingly beautiful romance between line characters who have no resemblance to physical reality, nor any tie to it. There is no dialogue, just the backing music of Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Many of Hubley's films would be in a similar vein; almost formless but, like a jazz improvisation, returning to key themes and coming to a structured end.

In 1959 he released Moonbird, an expressionistic film about two young boys trying to capture a bird at night. It's a beautiful, affecting cartoon with animation by Bobe Cannon. It's a quiet, moody piece, and the voices are actually the long, unstructured conversation of the Hubleys' sons, Mark and Ray. It's hard to describe this film to someone who hasn't seen it; there's a tendency to talk it up to a standard it can't possibly meet, but it's a special film and one of the milestones of American animation. In 1959 there was nothing else like it; it was the first independent animation to win an Oscar. And it's lovely.

Many of Hubley's films were in the same vein, although he certainly didn't repeat himself. He and Faith found a particular style that suited them and continued to make films that way. In reading up on Hubley, I've found that opinion on his work seems to be split between people who think he was a genius and people who find his work didactic, fitful, and repetitive. I'm firmly in the genius camp; it's impossible to see work like The Ragtime Bear, Rooty Toot Toot, The Tender Game, and Moonbird and not see the hand of genius at work. That none of those films demands attention or insists on themselves too much makes them all the more delicate and special. Of particular mention, I think, are the films The Hole (1962), another Oscar winner that simply animated the improvised conversation between two men (one of them Dizzy Gillespie) about their fears of nuclear proliferation; Of Stars and Men (1964), based on a philosophical monography by Harlow Shapley; The Hat (1964), the conversation of two men on border patrol duty; Windy Day (1968), a film which uses the chatter of the Hubleys' daughters Emily and Georgia in the same way Moonbird had utilized the dialogue of their boys; and the Oscar nominated Of Men and Demons (1969), featuring animation by Art Babbitt.

In 1973, the Hubleys made Cockaboody, which I make special mention of because it's probably my favorite Hubley cartoon. Again utilizing the voices of Emily and Georgia, the film is an expressionist masterpiece. It is simply the two children playing together at home, babbling and making up games and imagining the lives of inanimate objects the way children do. There is something about this movie that is just pure and light without being precious. The film isn't saying "Hey, look at how cute our kids are" the way it might have. Instead it's an improvisation, culled from the recorded tracks used earlier for Windy Day and edited into a seamless conversation (it's impossible to notice the edits, since young children go from one subject to the next with no warning). Michael Sporn has a series of storyboards for the film on his blog here, here, and here, as well as a post of layouts and a post highlighting Tissa David's animation of Georgia walking.

It was also in the seventies that John Hubley directed the 60-episode series of Letterman cartoons for The Electric Company, another reason why I'm sure everyone at some point has seen a Hubley cartoon. (I'm unable to find out if any Hubley cartoons were shown on Sesame Street, but cartoons like Cockaboody are very much like the type of cartoons they used to air on the show in the seventies when the makers seemed to have more faith in the intelligence of their young viewers.)

Letterman and Cockaboody were made in the last years of John Hubley's life. So was Voyage to Next (1974), a beautiful cartoon featuring improvised dialogue between Father Time (Dizzy Gillespie) and Mother Earth (Maureen Stapleton) on humanity's past and its eventual fate. The film was nominated for another Oscar. From there, Hubley went on to make Everybody Rides the Carousel (1975) for television. Based on Erik Erikson's theories of the eight different stages of phyical and emotional age, the film is unforgettable (though the camp is split on that film as well; many find it boring). The film was made in diverse styles that included still illustrations. His final project was A Doonesbury Special (1977), a fun bit of whimsy which is not really indicative of Hubley's best work.

I would also like to mention the work he did on Watership Down, one of my favorite films and one which has especially influenced me in what I search for in animation (I first saw it when I was five or so). Hubley was hired by producer Martin Rosen to direct the film in London, only to be fired because he was taking too long with little to show for it. What remains of his work in the film is probably only the opening sequence (again, there's another great Michael Sporn post on Hubley's work), which as a kid was the part that made the biggest impression on me. Specifically, it was so visceral that it practically traumatized me. The artwork is like nothing else in the film, inspired by Australian aboriginal art and told completely in narration by Michael Hordern. Rosen directed the rest of the film himself.

John Hubley died on 21 February 1977 at the age of 62 during heart surgery; he was still working on A Doonesbury Special, which aired in November on NBC. Faith kept working on animated films of her own until her death on 7 December 2001. His daughter Georgia plays drums and sings for the band Yo La Tengo; Emily is an animator who, among other films, made the animated inserts for the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Through his work, he had changed the unspoken rules regarding how an animated film could look and feel, and had some influence on the style of animation throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. He had also established the viability (and critical acceptance) of independent animation. And he had simply made some of the best cartoons in film history.


Royal Cyclops said...

Nicely done.

I don't know if you're aware of this piece or not, but it's one of my favorites; both the story and the animation.

The Man Who Planted Trees

Ian Lumsden said...

Thank you so much for such an incisive and thorough account of one of the greats. I have referred to your work in today's movie review in the Animation Blog. Keep up the good work. Great to read blogs of this startling quality. I'll post a link on my site.

SamuraiFrog said...

Wow, thank you. I'll put up a link to you, too.