My Hero, Fred Crippen

Here’s how the story goes. A new animation production company suddenly found itself in a heap of trouble in their first few months of production. Call it a blessing or a curse, the young company had formerly operated as a compact, boutique animation production house. Now, suddenly they found themselves with more work than they could ever have imagined. After years of producing commercials and other short form animated content, two half hour animated network shows were dropped into their laps. You might consider this a dream come true. In reality it was becoming a nightmare. Consider this. Normally, the company ran efficiently with a half dozen people handling everything from business, production and post. Now, the tight, efficient little group had expanded to nearly a hundred or more and occupied a much larger facility. Writers, directors, producers and artists faced a production crunch and looming deadlines. Air dates were set in stone and huge fines were levied for missing a deadline. Because of the dreaded circumstances the studio boss decided to make a radical decision. He would set up small production units to create shows outside of the main facility. One might compare these teams to “shock troops” in a war situation. This tightly knit group of professionals could do every necessary job and deliver a show on time and on budget. This was a risky move, but the only way the studio could save itself from a total meltdown.

As shows were being parceled out to independent producers, two young black animation professionals decided to throw their hat into the ring. As expected, the studio production manager scoffed at our proposal. “What do you guys know about producing an animated show? I’ve got animation veterans who can’t get the work done. What makes you think you could do any better?” My partner, Leo Sullivan and I had produced motion pictures in our own shop some years earlier and knew the job better than most. However, being black in the nineteen sixties hardly guaranteed job opportunities and work was hard to come by even if you knew your stuff. Young white filmmakers struggled to prove themselves in this very competitive business. Imagine what you faced if the color of your skin was black. We were about to throw in the towel when the big boss suddenly spoke up.“Give them the show,” he said, quietly. “Let them do it.” Suddenly taken aback, the production manager took a nervous drag on his cigarette and complied with his boss’s orders. Leo Sullivan and I had instantly become television producers because one man decided we could do the job and do it well. In a world where young black men had to prove themselves daily, this exceptional gentleman didn’t need any proof. Our work spoke for itself and the color of our skin mattered little. If that doesn’t seem all that insightful today, remember this was the nineteen sixties and a very different world.

Who was the gentleman who made that remarkable decision many years ago? Probably a name you wouldn’t recognize unless you’re a serious student of animation. His name is not on the hallowed walls of Disney, nor is he considered one of the icons of Warner Bros Animation. Yet, his amazing animation and his delightful wit helped define midcentury cartoon making. After leaving art school, Fred Crippen and his wife headed for New York to begin a career in the animation business. Almost immediately, Crippen scored a job at United Productions of America where the innovative cartoon company was producing television commercials for the then growing television market. However, success at UPA wasn’t enough, so Fred Crippen packed his bags and headed west. He opened his own shop, a studio he called, Pantomime and began creating clever and funny television commercials. Every studio tends to have downtime, and Fred found a way to utilize the time when the little studio wasn’t cranking out ads for the small tube. He came up with a TV series called, “Roger Ramjet.” The hero, voiced by LA radio announcer Gary Owens proved that you didn’t need lots of money to be delightfully entertaining. The episodes were only about five minutes in length, but honestly had more wit and charm than an hour of the animated dreck being cranked out by the big time competitors down the street. It was around this time I was chasing my dream of becoming an animator but nobody in the industry would give me a shot. Not surprisingly, my first animation gig was a gift from Fred Crippen. Children’s Television Workshop had a New York show in development and they needed animation content. My first assignment was animating short segments for the critically acclaimed children’s program, “Sesame Street.”

After his experience with network television, Fred Crippen decided the “big time” just wasn’t for him. He went back to doing television commercials with a small reliable crew and a much simpler life style. The big time and the big bucks seem to have little appeal for Fred Crippen. He found he was happier creating animated product that was not only appealing to audiences, but had wit and intelligence as well. There was a purity in Crippen’s animation. An honesty often lacking in big studios where artists seemed more concern with impressing others. Fred made what he did seem easy and his inspired sketches were the perfect example of everything cartoon animation is lacking today. When we were doing “Sesame Street” many years ago I was given an assignment to animate the show opening for the letter, “F.” I arrived at the studio late one Friday afternoon as Fred Crippen was watching my animation on the Moviola, (an editing machine of the day) and was laughing his head off. I can’t tell you the enormous sense of satisfaction and pride that filled me that evening. Here was one of the Masters of animation watching with approval the material I had animated. I drove home that evening feeling on top of the world.

I’ve been told a good deal of Fred Crippen’s work can now be seen on YouTube. It is well worth a visit to the website where you’ll see the work of a Master Animator. His impressive work includes TV commercials and UPA’s “The Boing Boing Show.” His short form material and titles done for various clients include, “The Edifice” seen in the Saul Bass film, “Why Man Creates.” Always busy as heck, Fred Crippen still found time to enjoy life and he did it with the same exuberant enthusiasm that characterized so much of his career. However, I’ll mostly remember Fred Crippen as the outrageous Democrat who fought for fairness for all people and demonstrated that by the way he lived his life and conducted his business. Fred Crippen was a Master animator and a gentleman. He was my hero and there will never be another like him.

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The Way Things Work

The lights came up in the small screening room where we had just viewed several clips of impressive movie footage. In this particular instance our visual development artwork had been scanned into the computer and effectively manipulated to create some pretty cool visual effects. Since our producer and directors were present I wanted to show my appreciation and enthusiasm for the film we were creating. Like a Disney fan boy I turned to the development team seated behind me and gushed, “I really want to see this movie!” 

I may have wanted to see the animated movie we were developing, but that day would never come. The movie was everything I loved about animated filmmaking and it was the reason I came into this crazy business. For the past year we had been creating a fun story, compelling characters along with an awesome visual sensibility. Because the motion picture was everything an animated movie should be, I knew we would have no problem engaging an audience and I couldn’t wait to bring this animated film to the big screen. However, you don’t always get what you wish for and in this particular case this notion proved to be true. I often remind my young students that while they love animated filmmaking, this magical medium remains a business and should be regarded as such. As much as we might enjoy creating wacky and zany cartoon characters, this unique art form is still about commerce. And, commerce is subject to all the machinations of the corporate world and the market it serves. Goofy cartoons are still a product that is marketed and sold to consumers. We would do well not to forget that. We’re the filmmakers and we create the finished product. Yet, we’re not the ones making the important calls. Business choices determines whether a movie lives or dies. While such decisions appear to be made by caprice, it’s usually driven by corporate strategy and a deliberate plan. Sometimes the decisions made are well informed and often times they appear to be downright foolish. In any case, none of this is our concern. We are simply the cartoon makers.

Anyone who has been in this fascinating business for forty or fifty years or more has experienced the pain of seeing a beloved project crash and burn. You watch in sheer horror as the movie you’ve poured your heart and soul into be ripped from the production schedule and shoved onto the shelf to be revisited another day. More often than not, that day never comes. I’ve watched movies big and small sent to the motion picture trash heap. These were projects we loved. Movies we were invested in. After months, or on occasion, years of work, we had little choice but to walk away. When you’re a professional you dry your tears and move onto your next project. Thankfully, your enthusiasm for the new project helps erase memories of the old, and you pour your heart into the new adventure in this amazing world of animated filmmaking. I think I’ve been luckier than most. The majority of movies I’ve developed have actually made their way through the production process and come out as real films. Not all were great, mind you, but at least they got made. I remember the LA screenwriter who had several scripts optioned. Yet, none ever made it to production. The poor screenwriter had the distinction of being the author of several films that were never made. Welcome to Hollywood.

I was sincere many years ago when I said, “I really want to see this movie.” I did want to bring that particular film to the big screen because I thought it would be awesome. Little did I know plans were being made to move in a totally different direction. And, the scuttling of the animated movie was part of that plan. Whether you call it a devious plot or a well planned conspiracy, it all came to pass. The premiere animation unit was turned on its ear and artists numbering in the hundreds were sent packing, never again to return. Of course, this was an insightful business decision and we’re all the better for it, right? Well, at least a handful were the beneficiaries, and the rest … not so much. I’ve had to learn the hard way that’s the way things work in the wonderful world of animation and probably always will.

 Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.

Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.

Sketching Fairies

It started with drawing lessons, and our animation boss was determined we learn the characters inside and out. Long before we began our task of final clean-ups of the animated art we had to first prove ourselves as artists. Sure, we were simply doing in-betweens and clean-ups, but our work had better be on the mark since it would be scrutinized by the animators and the directing animators as well. In time, our work would have to past muster in sweatbox sessions with the director before being given the final once over by none other than the boss himself, Walt Disney.

Back in 1957, I was given my feature animation assignment and I joined the“ Fairy Unit” lead by animator, Fred Hellmich. The team consisted of Disney veteran, Chuck Williams and Jim Fletcher doing lead clean-up. Rounding out the team were, Rick Gonzalez, Bob Reese and myself. We would spend the next two years pounding out footage for the feature animated Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty.” Of course, there would be a number of character animators “looking over our shoulders” during the process. As expected, several veteran Disney artists were assigned to animate the fairies and I’m afraid I can’t remember all their names. On a side note, a number of these talented artists never received their well deserved screen credit on the movie but that’s the way things were back then. Talented guys like Hal Ambro, Hank Tanas, Don Lusk, Jerry Hathcock and George Nicholas would be going over our fairy drawings, but the heat would really be on when these sketches were handed to directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Our animation unit moved into offices on the second floor of Disney’s Animation Building. We shared the upstairs unit with sequence director, Les Clark who had been handed the opening sequence of the film. Layout artists, Homer Jonas and Jack Huber shared an expansive office down the hall from us as they began sketching the triumphant opening sequence of the motion picture. In case you didn’t know, that marvelous opening of the movie is largely the work of Homer and Jack. These talented guys managed to pull off a spectacular film opening with very little animation. Should you study the colorful sequence you might notice that most of the movement is being created with selective camera pans and trucks over static artwork. On another note, the wing was also the home of Mickey Mouse Club director, C. August (Nick)Nichols and writer, actor, Bob Amsberry. It was a fun place to be but eventually we had to leave our upstairs office and relocate to G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. This wing remained our home throughout the remainder of the movie. Our young colleague, Bob Reese always managed to befriend the “kids” on the Disney movie sets and he would sometimes bring them to our offices over in animation. We had visitors such as Annette Funicello and Tim Considine in our offices on occasion and that was a pretty big deal.

Of course, most of our time was spent doing the difficult and challenging work of creating finished drawings of the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather. The drawing lessons Freddy Hellmich put us through early on truly paid off when we found ourselves in the thick of production. Creating the art for Walt Disney’s masterpiece “Sleeping Beauty” was a challenge to be sure. However, it remains one of the best experiences of my animation career.

 We spent most of 1957-1958 drawing these three wonderful ladies. It was my first Walt Disney feature film and it's an experience I'll never forget.

We spent most of 1957-1958 drawing these three wonderful ladies. It was my first Walt Disney feature film and it's an experience I'll never forget.

Life Remains Animated

I think the memorable line is from the movie, “The Shape of Water.” If I had known I would live so long I would have taken better care of my teeth and had more sex. Anyway, it’s something like that. So, here I am at the ripe old age of 82 zipping around the country teaching classes and meeting people. In the past year or so this has become routine and travel has become part of my life. These days I find myself walking off and on jetliners like an older, blacker version of Casey Neistat. Of course, this late in life activity was hardly expected. While I always feared my animation career would slam to a screeching halt one day I never anticipated this new chapter in my life. It would appear the older I become the busier I seem to get. Who knew?

My recent high profile can be blamed on a documentary motion picture that bears my name. When I gave the young filmmakers permission to document my life and career I honestly never anticipated the outcome. Documentaries hardly ever burn up the silver screen and most are simply forgotten. When our producers decided to make an Oscar run when the movie was released, I thought they were being overly optimistic. Of course, audiences did resonate with the film in a way that was totally unexpected and I confess I was totally surprised at the way people, both young and old embraced this modest little film. While we hardly made any headway at the Motion Picture Academy it was satisfying to know we had made a movie that audiences truly enjoyed. As an old filmmaker myself, I can’t think of a better compliment.

Because of Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey I found my life had totally changed. The New York City filmmakers were the guys I entrusted with my life and of course they did me proud. Who knew on that fateful day three years ago when I entered the halls of the San Diego Convention Center with my pal, Rick Law, things would never be the same. We were there to congratulate the celebrated poster artist, Drew Struzan on the completion of his documentary. When director, Erik Sharkey wondered about his next project, Rick Law was quick to speak up. “Here’s your next documentary right here,” he replied, pointing to me. Naturally, my immediate reaction was to simply roll my eyes and think, “Yeah, right!” Who the hell would want to watch a documentary about my life? It so happened, a few people wanted to do just that. In the years that followed, we zipped across the country screening our little film to mostly sold out houses. Even after the movie made its move to the small screen courtesy of Netflix, the film continued to play for theatrical audiences across the country. Of course, if the filmmakers were present to give a post screening Q&A we were usually guaranteed a full house. Yet, something else grew out of these screenings. Because I usually answered questions from eager students concerning the animation business and the Walt Disney Studio in particular, I began doing a series of lectures on animation. Suddenly, I found myself in demand to deliver what eventually became known as, my Master Class in Animation.

This latest trip across the country sent me to the campus of Ohio State University where I had the opportunity to speak with an enthusiastic group of young students. While travel can be a hassle, I’ve never had a poor reception on these trips and I’ve found the young people full of interest and ambition. It’s an honor to share my knowledge and experience with these young men and women who will one day have the responsibility of running the country and the world. I have no fear. We’re in good hands, and I mean that sincerely. After Ohio, it was on to New York City for a session with producer and directors, Michael and Erik. In Brooklyn, we met this amazing young man who regarded me as one of his heroes. This kid wants to be an animator and filmmaker and he shared his sketchbook with me. Paying this old timer the ultimate compliment, he even sported a cool sweater and a fedora like the one I wear. Few things in life give you the kind of satisfaction I garnered that evening. When a young person chooses you to emulate there is nothing more satisfying and heartwarming. It makes every choice you made during your lifetime seem more meaningful and you feel a special mixture of pride and humility.

After a delightful evening in Brooklyn it was time to head back to our hotel and prepare for our next east coast jaunt south to Jacksonville Florida. It would only be a two hour flight but it would take us from chilly weather in New York to a sudden summertime in Florida. Off with the winter clothes and time to enjoy the warm embrace of summer in Jacksonville. It’s another screening of “Animated Life” followed by my Master Class in Animation. I’ll tell you all about it next time.

 This delightful young man at our Brooklyn screening wants to be an animator like me. As a cartoon old timer I can't imagine a greater compliment and this kid makes me feel so proud.

This delightful young man at our Brooklyn screening wants to be an animator like me. As a cartoon old timer I can't imagine a greater compliment and this kid makes me feel so proud.