United Productions of America (UPA)

Although foundational to the medium, the inherent unrealism of animation can often become overlooked, even by the animators themselves. In other words: a storyboard artist, for example, may default to framing a scene using the same cinematographic techniques as a live-action cinematographer, in turn neglecting to utilize the benefits brought on by animation’s illusion of movement as compared to the reality of movement— needlessly restricting itself to how motion literally exists rather than how, through art, it could convey it conceptually and imaginatively/ emotively. However, the persistence to pursue something beyond industry and audience expectations served as inspiration for the artists at UPA in the early 1950s as they removed the fanciful but logistical realism of their contemporary cartoonists and instead pursued the outer limits of what they believed the medium could contain and, in the process, removing everything that didn’t serve their vision. Their resulting breakout films, 1950’s Gerald McBoingBoing and Rooty Toot Toot, convey the indelibly inspiring ethos of the studio as you watch artists fully embrace the antireal and create infectiously creative films only possible through animation.

Still from Gerald McBoingBoing (1951, dir. John Hubley and Robert Cannon), provided by Animation Obsessive

Side note: writing about animation is always really funny because I’ll spend days reading about hours researching and then five semicolons describing why I love a piece of cinema, and said piece of cinema will be named “McBoingBoing.”

Nonetheless, in order to properly understand the films themselves, we must first discuss the context that led to the formation of the United Productions of America (UPA); because, although the ideas that the artists at UPA would provide displayed a radical contrast to then-contemporary larger studios, most of UPA’s founding members had begun their careers as Disney animators. Particularly, once Disney’s first feature, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, proved itself a surprise success, Walt began expanding the scope of the studio and hiring a younger crop of artists to assist in future productions. Yet, that role, as the assistants, laid much of the friction between Walt and several of these younger artists; whom, many of which had just graduated with degrees in fine arts prior to entering animation, had their own stories they sought to express/ tell, which they felt were inhibited by their function in the studio and as if they were, in essence, tools Walt could produce his vision through. Now, that last bit may seem harsh or unsympathetic to Disney, but it more so reflects how Walt Disney, especially into the later decades of his career, increasingly focused not just on the films but also the brand they collectively cultivated— if the studio has something that audiences find interesting (Mickey Mouse shorts, fairy tale adaptations, etc.), then it stands to reason to produce more of what audiences expect of them. The business optics of this methodology made sense, but the artistic perspective among those younger artists hired by Disney became growingly frustrated— seemingly working in a cartoon assembly line to produce what they felt were aesthetically identical films interchangeable with last. 

Moreover, Disney’s growingly business-centric mindset compounded by his newer artists’ discontent with their output would ultimately come to a head when animators began to push for unionization in their industry. After several attempts in the 1920s and 30s to form an animator-centric union, the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild (SCG) officially formed in 1938 to protect the rights of animators. Over the next few years, more and more animation studios joined the SCG, including MGM, Warner Bros, and Screen Gems/ Sony, but, most notably, not Disney. Disney’s refusal to comply with SCG and firing artists like Art Babbitt for pro-union sentiments spurred the five-week Disney Strike of 1941, which would ultimately end in favor of SCG, with Disney reluctantly signing to the union after governmental mediation. 

Photo of the 1941 Disney Strike, provided by the UCLA Digital Library

This context is all to set the stage for a particular thesis; that being, although cartoons of the early Golden Age of Animation (the 1930s and 1940s) had begun to unravel animation’s artistic potential, the medium must first advance in creative and industrial sophistication to holistically improve. John Hubley, one of the animators (a layout artist, specially) who participated in the Disney Strike, put it as such in March 1942 interview with The Animator: “a progressive, intelligent approach to animation, and realization that it is an expressive medium, is imperative if we want to keep animated cartoons from stagnating.”

“The World of UPA” essay series does a wonderful job of providing more about UPA’s history, if you’re interested!

Hubley, and many other artists like-minded to him, declined to rejoin Disney following the 1941 strike, instead forming a new company where they could experiment and create animated films that furthered the medium beyond the expected. Indeed, the Industrial Film and Poster Service (IFPS) began its life as that very studio, albeit with the asterisk of economic restrictions. As a new studio forming at the cusp of WWII, IFPS primarily took on work commissioned by the United States government— so, propaganda, basically, including Hell-Bent For Election and A Few Quick Facts: About Inflation, the former of which they made to help boost support for FDR’s presidential campaign by portraying him as a fast train. Although artists at IFPS may not have left their previous positions at Disney, Warner, Screen Gems, etc. specifically to make FDR into a train, these films did help to give the studio footing in its early days, both in terms of experimenting (both in their visual style and workflow) and financially securing the studio during the wartime. Moreover, it garnered the studio the attention of Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s, who signed IFPS, who had since changed their name to “United Productions of America,” to produce films in the The Fox and the Crow. Once the studio had proven itself to Columbia Pictures and, in the process, earned an Oscar nomination, Columbia Pictures gave UPA the green light to create their own original short films. 

Although the studio would produce several titles for Columbia Pictures between 1948-1950, each enjoyable and fasinating in their own right, the release of their 1951 Oscar-winning short film, Gerald McBoingBoing, marked the beginning of UPA’s earning of commercial success and uncompromised creativity. Directed by John Hubley and Robert Cannon, Gerald McBoingBoing is an adaptation of a Dr. Seuss story of the same name, following its titular character, a boy only capable of speaking in sound effects. By this time in their filmography, UPA had experimented with various new animation techniques and, at that, had been experimenting under stricter budgets than their competitors; but Gerald McBoingBoing stands as the first time the innovations the UPA staff had fought to portray since before the Disney Strike finally come to fruition— what would later define the studio as their signature UPA style. Gerald McBoingBoing feels understated but thoroughly characterful and confident. Whereas their contemporaries formulaically applied a realistic approach to the fantastical, UPA stylized the human— films starring regular people abstracted into simple shapes and lines put into worlds that implied their space through muted colors and a few simplistic key features. UPA’s ethos stood as minimalistic but, in doing so, becomes more deliberate— more intently focused on putting as much character as possible into each design, so, while a setting may only contain no more than a few colors or lines, you immediately understand not just the space but, through the more focused colors and expressive character, the emotionality of the scene. In this way, UPA’s style exists as impressionistic— focused not just on entertaining but on expressing themselves so the audience “gets it,” both intellectually and emotionally.

This ethos of breaking animation down and accentuating its most essential components can best be seen in UPA’s next Oscar-nominated short, Rooty Toot Toot. Directed by John Hubley and adapted from the song “Frankie and Johnny,” Rooty Toot Toot follows a woman named Frankie on trial for murdering her lover. The aforementioned sophistication that UPA strove for receives a full spotlight with this film; the studio fully leans into minimalism and modernist aesthetics to playfully convey a relatively mature subject for animation of its time. The film carries an electrifying sense of energy; its musicality is brought forth by its characters’ synchronicity with the score, with each member of its varied cast strikingly and elegantly gliding from one moment to another. The directness of UPA’s brilliant visual style gets put on full display; backgrounds of solid color and loose line art, characters without outer line art, muted and boldly contrasting colors, snappy and lively character acting— it’s the most themselves UPA could possibly be, and it’s delightful. UPA utilized animation to express their narrative in a way only capable through this medium and in a way that only these artists could. 

Indeed, what remains the most inspiring about UPA’s rise to prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s is their determination to fight for and stand by themselves as artists. Despite the hardships and industry pressure, they persisted in creating films they enjoyed and felt pushed the boundaries of their artform— and, in doing so, have served as an inspiration to countless artists, from Hanna-Barbera to Pixar to Genndy Tartakovsky to Craig McCracken. Gerald McBoingBoing and Rooty Toot Toot serve not just as excellent reminders of what animation is capable of but of what people committed to their visions can accomplish. 

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