When the people who worked with animator John Hubley (1914-1977) spoke of him, they agreed that he was a creative genius, a designer who would push the envelope of his medium, a man of vision with the ability to follow a dream. Working with him could also be very difficult.
Hubley was born in Marinette, Wisconsin on May 21, 1914, into an artistic family. His grandfather was a painter, and his mother attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Growing up watching his grandfather in his studio, Hubley knew that he would be a painter. He went to college in Los Angeles, California, then studied painting at the Art Center there for three years.
At the age of 22, Hubley went to work at the Walt Disney studios. Disney was undergoing a rapid expansion, as work was beginning on the studio's first feature-length cartoon, Snow White. Young artists were in demand to do the large amounts of work, and the studio provided training and apprenticeships to determine the best people to work on the important features. Hubley soon found himself at work on Snow White,, painting backgrounds and preparing layouts. He was art director for the classic Pinocchio, working with the animation director to determine the layout and general look of the entire film. He had the same role on Bambi and Dumbo, and for the opening sequences of Fantasia.
The famous Disney strike occurred in 1941. Many of the younger art school graduates that had joined Disney after the success of Snow White, and who were now part of a large production company, found themselves at odds with Disney's paternalism. Both in matters of compensation and creative freedom, the artists felt cheated. Walt Disney's goal was greater realism in his studio's animation, which went against what many, including Hubley, saw as the unlimited possibilities for imagination, stylization and fantasy in the medium.
Hubley was one of the first to walk out, and soon found himself working at Screen Gems, making cartoons that were released by Columbia Pictures. The studio was run by former Disney animator Frank Tashlin, and employed many former Disney artists. There, Hubley told interviewer John D. Ford, "we tried some very experimental things; none of them quite got off the ground, but there was a lot of ground broken." There was certainly more artistic freedom at Screen Gems than at Disney, but the final product still had to meet the criteria of the studio heads who wanted safe, familiar products. In 1942, Tashlin was replaced by veteran animation producer Dave Fleischer, who was much less open to experimentation, and preferred to run a more Disney-like operation.
From FMPU to UPA
The United States had entered World War II in December 1941. Soon Hubley took the opportunity to join the Army, specifically the newly formed Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), designed to create training films for the large number of recruits entering the Air Force. Hubley was assigned to the Animation Unit, working with veteran Disney animator, Frank Thomas. While the Air Force had strict guidelines about what they wanted to be taught, they were far more flexible than any commercial studio had been in terms of presentation. The animators at FMPU found creative freedom they had only dreamed about.
In 1944, Hubley was given his first chance to apply this freedom to something other than teaching someone how to fire a machine gun. The United Auto Workers (UAW) approached Hubley about making an animated cartoon to support Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1944 presidential election. The script had been written and Hubley worked with fellow animator Bill Hurtz to prepare the storyboards. (Storyboards are an early step in many films-animated, live-action, and advertising-where the script is first translated into a visual medium, like a large comic strip so that the filmmakers can get an idea how the progression of action and scenes will look before committing more time and money.) When a studio was needed to produce it, the task fell to newly formed Industrial Film, started by two former Disney employees and a former Screen Gems animator. Industrial Film had never made a film before as a company, but Hell-bent for Election was made, and an association between Industrial Film and Hubley was forged. When the UAW approached Industrial in 1945, with a script for an anti-racism film, Brotherhood of Man, Hubley was chosen to direct. He was still in the Army, though and could only work weekends and evenings, so the credit for directing went to another.
On December 31, 1945, Industrial Film was incorporated as United Productions of America, or as it came to be known, UPA. Hubley was now a regular employee. The studio survived on government and industrial films for awhile until a FBI report listed communist ties to numerous employees, including Hubley. This put an end to most government contracts. Fortunately, the fledgling studio had struck a deal with Columbia pictures-which was unhappy with the productions of its own Screen Gems Unit-for distribution.
Columbia wanted UPA to continue to use its established cartoon stars, the Fox and the Crow. The two cartoons Hubley directed featuring those characters are dull. Clearly he wanted to work on something new.
For his third Columbia release, Hubley created his most famous and long-lived character. After convincing the decision-makers at Columbia that UPA's strength lay in its human characters, not in anthropomorphous animals, Hubley made Ragtime Bear, and introduced Mr. Magoo as a supporting player. He was based on an uncle of Hubley's, who was bull-headed and obstinate. Magoo had the additional handicap of being incredibly nearsighted, which caused him to incorrectly perceive almost everything he saw. Magoo's long life must also be credited to the man who provided his voice, veteran broadcast and nightclub performer, Jim Backus. After the first recording session with Backus reading the script seemed to lack something, Hubley told Backus to keep to the main plot but to improvise the dialogue. Magoo had found his voice, and Hubley found another technique he would use throughout his career: spontaneous, and sometimes overheard, conversations in place of scripted dialogues.
Hubley did four Magoos before feeling restricted by the character and his actions. Magoo became the mainstay of UPA, lasting long into the 1960s and television specials, but Hubley was disappointed with where the character went. "They just took very limited aspects of his character," he told John D. Ford. "Mostly his nearsightedness-and hung onto it." UPA enjoyed its success, but found it had to make commercially appealing films to stay successful.
Although he became busy supervising the studio, Hubley was able to create a few more critical successes-still well regarded to this day-while at UPA. One was Rooty Toot Toot, a retelling of the Frankie and Johnny legend. Hubley also collaborated with Paul Julian on the main titles and linking segments for Stanley Kramer's live-action film, The Fourposter.
In the early fifties, Hubley fell victim to McCarthyism and the general wave of anti-Communist sentiment sweeping the United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) listed many in the entertainment industry as suspected Communists, with information obtained in often unconstitutional and unsubstantiated manners. Most found themselves out of work, as public groups, investors, and sponsors pressured studios and networks. Tired of where the studio was going, frustrated with doing too much on the business end of the studio and not enough creatively, and not caring to fight the charges, Hubley left UPA and formed his own studio, producing mainly commercials.
Soon afterward, in 1955, he married his second wife, Faith Elliott. The two had met years before when both were working on the Columbia lot. Elliott had worked in the live-action film industry in various capacities before marrying Hubley. Working together in his new studio, which they had relocated to New York City, they realized the difficulty of combining art and commerce. As part of their wedding vows, they promised to produce one independent film a year.
The first film they worked on together was Adventures of an * (asterisk), commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum. Hubley told interviewer John D. Ford that film came from a "need to break through and play around with more plasticity. We wanted to get a graphic look that had never been seen before. So we played with the wax-resist technique: drawing with wax and splashing it with watercolor to produce a resisted texture." The film had a large influence on European animators, Hubley added, "For a while that little * became a symbol in Europe of the breakthrough for animation." Not content to repeat themselves, the Hubleys let every subsequent film explore a different technique, both graphically and in terms of structure.
It was also the first of many films about human growth and development that the Hubleys would create. The theme was returned to again in notable films like Moonbird (1959), Cockaboody (1974), and the epic Everybody Rides the Carousel (1975) about the stages of life. Moonbird used a soundtrack of the Hubley's children at play. The Hubleys used improvised or found soundtracks in many of their films, along with jazz musical accompaniment from many leading musicians, like Shelly Manne and Quincy Jones. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie even improvised dialogue with Dudley Moore for 1964's The Hat.
Moonbird was Hubley's first film nominated for an Academy Award, winning the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) in 1959. This was the first of three Oscars that he would garner, sharing the award with Faith in the same category in 1962 for The Hole, a film about the imagination and the horrors of nuclear war. In 1966, the couple won once again for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature, animation keyed to two of the popular band's songs. The Hubleys received four more nominations, over the next eleven years, including one in 1977 for A Doonesbury Special.
Bringing Garry Trudeau's comic strip characters to life for a half-hour television special was the last project Hubley worked on. Trudeau was a student of Hubley's in 1973, when he suggested that even though the strip was static (Trudeau had often been criticized for the copier-like uniformity of his drawing) the characters were strong enough to translate into motion. As Trudeau wrote in his introduction to the book based on the show, "He believed strongly that any aspect of the process of human growth could be symbolized and that no idea was too weighty to be dramatized visually."
Trudeau and the Hubleys began working on the project in November of 1976, but John Hubley became ill soon after. He died of cancer in New Haven, Connecticut on February 21, 1977. Faith Hubley and Trudeau completed A Doonesbury Special as a tribute to John Hubley.
John Hubley's influence is still around. Faith Hubley is still keeping her vow and creating at least one independent film a year, collaborating with their daughter, Emily, also a filmmaker. The influence he had in Europe is still felt, as the international organization for animation education and preservation that he helped to found in 1960, ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation), is still going strong, with chapters around the world.
And there is the intangible. Bill Scott, one of the creative minds behind-and the voice of-1960s cartoon icon Bullwinkle, worked for Hubley at FMPU during World War II and collaborated with him at UPA. He provides this coda to the Hubley's life, as quoted by Keith Scott: "I loved 'Hub' as a leader. He was the guy way out on the end of the string, pulling animation as a medium after him, as far as its expanse and what it could do. He was one of the first to bring both social and moral passion into animation, and to expand the frontiers beyond what it had been: moving versions of old German fairy-tale illustrations. Anything you could visualize could be animated. That was the genius of Hubley, and it was very exciting to be hooked up to somebody like that."
The American Animated Cartoon, edited by Danny Peary and Gerald Peary, Dutton, 1980.
Barrier, Michael, Hollywood Cartoons, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Maltin, Leonard, Of Mice and Magic, New American Library, 1980.
Scott, Keith, The Moose That Roared, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Stephenson, Ralph, The Animated Film, Tantivy Press, 1973.
Trudeau, Garry, A Doonesbury Special, Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977.
"Faith Hubley," Onion AV Club,http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3610/ (January 1, 2001). □
Animator. Nationality: American. Born: Marinette, Wisconsin, 21 May 1914. Education: Attended the Art Center, Los Angeles. Military Srvice: 1943–45—worked on training films for United States Air Force. Family: Married the editor Faith Elliot, 1955. Career: 1935–41—worked as assistant animator, Walt Disney; 1941–43—worked for Screen Gems unit of Columbia; 1946–52—animation director, United Productions of America (UPA); initiated TV series Dusty of the Circus; 1954—formed Storyboard Productions, and Hubley Studio, 1965: later television work includes credits designs, specials, and series including Sesame Street and Everybody Rides the Carousel. Awards: Academy Awards for Moonbird, 1959; The Hole, 1962; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature, 1966. Died: 23 February 1977.
Films as Director:
Old Blackout Joe (co); The Dumbconscious Mind (co); King Midas, Junior (co)
The Vitamin G-Man (co); Prof. Small and Mr. Tall (co); He Can't Make It Stick (co)
Position Firing (co); Operation of the K-13 Gunsight (co)
Tuesday in November (Berry) (animation sequences)
Human Growth (Lerner) (animation sequences)
Robin Hoodlum; The Magic Fluke
Mr. Magoo; The Ragtime Bear; Punchy De Leon
Spellbound Hound; Trouble Indemnity; Barefaced Flatfoot
Fuddy Duddy Buddy; Rooty Toot Toot
The Four Poster (Reis) (animation sequences)
The Adventures of *; Date with Dizzy
The Tender Game; Harlem Wednesday
Children of the Sun
Of Stars and Men
The Hole; Horses and Their Ancestors; Man and His Tools
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature; Urbanissimo; The Year of the Horse (Sunasky) (animation sequences)
Zuckerkandl!; Windy Day
Of Men and Demons
Voyage to Next
People, People, People
"The Rite of Spring" sequence of Fantasia (Grant and Sharpsteen) (co); Pinocchio (Sharpsteen and Luske) (co-art-d)
Bambi (Hand) (co-art-d)
Hell-Bent for Election (Jones) (co-sc, uncredited)
Brotherhood of Man (Cannon) (co-sc + des)
M (Losey) (co-des); Georgie and the Dragon (Cannon) (co-sc + des); Grizzly Golfer (Burness) (pr); Sloppy Jalopy (Burness) (pr)
Heritage (Moore) (sc)
Uptight (Dassin) (title des)
By HUBLEY: articles—
With Zachary Schwartz, "Animation Learns a New Language," in Hollywood Quarterly, July 1946.
With others, "Brotherhood of Man; a Script," in Hollywood Quarterly, July 1946.
On HUBLEY: articles—
Korty, J., "Of Stars and Men," in Film Quarterly, (Berkeley, California), vol. 15, no. 4, 1962.
Martin, A., in Cinéma (Paris), no. 98, 1965.
Image et Son (Paris), July 1967.
Archibald, Lewis, in Film Library Quarterly (New York), Spring 1970.
Cinéma (Paris), January 1975.
National Film Theatre booklet (London), November 1976.
Millimeter (New York), February 1977.
Ecran (Paris), May 1977.
Lenburg, Jeff, in The Great Cartoon Directors, London, 1983.
Roudevitch, Michel, in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), April 1989.
Lane, B.K., "Animation That Reaches Realms Beyond Disney," in New York Times, 4 April 1993.
Kim, D.D., "The Hubley Film Festival," in Village Voice (New York), 13 April 1993.
Dauphin, G., "'The Hubley Studio: A Home for Animation'," in Village Voice (New York), 23 December 1997.
* * *
John Hubley, a remarkable animator by any standards, is noted not only for creating a new and important image in the animated film, but also for being the basic influence on a whole new genre in world animation. Having studied at the Los Angeles Art Center, Hubley joined the Disney studio as assistant director, tracing and painting the backgrounds, and soon progressing to layouts on Disney's first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was then promoted to full art director (or layout man) and worked on the "Earth Settling" segment from "The Rite of Spring" sequence and painting backgrounds for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence in Fantasia.
In 1942 Hubley left Disney to work under the legendary Dave Fleischer at Columbia's Screen Gems, where he co-directed a number of short cartoons with the animator Paul Sommer. These show the early roots of the Hubley influence through the use of crisp, sharp lines with bold, bright colors in the background as well as in the characters.
During the Second World War years, while Hubley was making training films in the Air Corps, a group of Disney drop-outs and refugees were forming their own company, United Productions of America, and had started producing sponsored cartoons. Hell-Bent for Election was the big turning point in many ways. This 16-minute short was made for the 1944 Roosevelt presidential campaign mostly by moonlighting animators, so dedicated to the cause that they made it for free. The graphic design and bright coloring were light years away from what cinema audiences were used to, and the film was to set the standard which other studios would try to match. Hubley was hired as UPA's creative head, and when the producer Stephen Bosustow bought UPA outright from his original partners, Hubley joined him as studio boss. When a contract was signed with Columbia to make a series of theatrical entertainment cartoons, Hubley came into his element, and created his most popular character, a near-sighted old grouch who saw only what he wanted to see, Mister Magoo.
Hubley left UPA in 1952 and formed Storyboard Productions. It specialized in television commercials, though Hubley (and his wife Faith, now his partner) intended to make at least one serious film a year. The first was The Adventures of *, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum. Since the film concerns the need by the old for the vision of the young, the style is that of the crayon drawings of a child, double-exposed over rendered backgrounds. The success of The Adventures of * was phenomenal, and was followed by experiments with water color on wax, spraying cells, and many other techniques exploring the Hubley's own artistry. The Hubley cartoons are not only intended to entertain, but often to make a serious point, be it about pollution, over-population, world peace, or the atomic bomb. They are always refreshing.
The final years of Hubley's creative life were taken up with initiating the feature Watership Down. Although he was fired by the producer and all his work scrapped, the prologue looks decidedly Hubley-esque and more than a cut above the rest of the film. He was storyboarding a 26-minute TV special of Garry Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury when he died while undergoing heart surgery. His wife Faith completed it, and has been carrying on the good work ever since.