I honestly don’t remember when I saw my very first UPA cartoon. As a kid I had grown up accustom to the antics of Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry. I knew I would one day be an animator and every new animated cartoon that came my way was a visual treat. Then, all of a sudden my world changed and the animated images I saw on screen were nothing like I had ever seen before. This was the work of a studio that called themselves, United Productions of America, and my view of animation was changed forever.
Back in the fifties, UPA became the darlings of the art house. It somehow seemed appropriate when viewing a foreign or independent film the theater would screen a UPA cartoon before the main feature. Mickey, Donald and even Bugs Bunny seemed downright juvenal compared to the sophisticated fare provided by this innovative new studio. While it’s true UPA had been around since the forties, most audiences only became aware of the amazing new studio during the fifties when UPA picked up an Oscar for their brilliant short, “Gerald McBoing Boing.” A zany, near-sighted character voiced by Jim Backus was also embraced by the public and we all loved Mr. MaGoo. Clearly, there was something different about UPA. Their films demonstrated a level of sophistication rarely seen in animated motion pictures. UPA’s talented designers were informed by fine art and were eager to experiment artistically with the amazing medium of animation. Often restricted by limited budgets, the animators learned to move their characters only when necessary. Their animation was not so much limited as it was smart. Even UPA’s music pushed new boundaries, and composers such as Ernest Gold, Boris Kremenliev, and Shorty Rogers were scoring their cartoons. When it came to animated stories it was not unusual for the artists to be inspired by Edger Allan Poe, James Thurber and Ludvig Bemelmans. I remember fifties theater audiences reacting to the UPA logo when it appeared on the screen. “This is going to be good,” was a common response. Grown up audiences had never reacted to a cartoon in this manner before. It was a though cartoons were finally being taken - for lack of a better word - seriously.
I was a young art student in the fifties still eager for a career in the cartoon business. Somehow I managed a visit to UPA’s production facility in Burbank and even scored a few original animation cels to take home. The innovative little studio was hardly embraced by the old maestro, Walt Disney. Because of their progressive politics, Walt often referred to the artists as “the lefties down by the river.” A number of the UPA staffers had played a role in the infamous Disney strike in the forties. Even though years had passed, the labor action remained a sore spot with the old man and he wasn’t going to forget it. However, the brilliant work that came out of UPA was hardly ignored the Disney artists. I can’t help but think directors, Ward Kimball and C. August Nichols were somewhat influenced by the studio across town. The two animated films, “Melody” and Oscar winner, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom,” were clearly a Disney response to the innovative films being produced by UPA.
Sadly, UPA is probably only remembered today by animation historians. The once innovative cartoon studio is no more and their sad passing is a loss for the amazing medium of animation. Compact in size, UPA was a creative powerhouse. It was located near the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank not that far from the Walt Disney Studio. On occasion, we Disney artists would pay an after-hours visit to see what our animation colleagues were up to, and we were almost always amazed. Even though I spent my cartoon career at Disney, UPA continues to be one of the most amazing animation studios ever and their influence on this incredible medium will never be forgotten.