What Inspired UPA

Finding a piece of animation that resonates with you can be an exciting time, just because it means you have something new to draw inspiration from, but because that film, too, took influence from another artist’s work, and taking the effort to uncover that influence allows you a broader and more educated understanding of art. When I was in middle/high school, Steven Universe became the show that got me interested in animation as an artform (a fact that probably explains a lot). I remember watching the show and thinking that there was nothing like it. That was until I researched the crew behind the show and the interviews they had given where they talked about the art that inspired them. Suddenly, I had accumulated a list of shows, movies, and comics that not only shared similarities with the show I loved but expanded my understanding of that show and the medium of animation. Since then, I have tried to do the same for artists and studios whose work strikes a chord with me; and recently, my research into the filmography of the United Productions of America (UPA) has reminded me of that same exciting feeling of learning from the artists who taught the people I already love learning from. So today, I want to share the artists and films that acted as key influences for one of the most influential studios in animation.

Concept art by Lew Keller for the animation in The Four Poster (1952), provided by Animation Obsessive

To begin, we must first revisit the context within which UPA had formed. Film critics often describe UPA as a more unabashedly pretentious and abstract cousin of Disney’s fanciful realism— cartoons that wouldn’t look out of place between a Picasso and a Matisse— but more so reflects UPA’s connection to modernism, considering that both Picasso and Matisse were contemporaries of the animation studio. Indeed, UPA’s minimalist approach to the art/ illustration in their films parallels the work of other modernist artists, particularly those working movements like Precisionism, which emphasized the implementation of “geometric shapes, hard-edged lines, and solid color fields.” Much of UPA’s future staff attended various art colleges, so they most certainly studied the artists working in these modernist fields and worked in their fine arts fields themselves before entering animation. 

Moreover, Language of Vision, a modernist manifesto by Hungarian painter György Kepes in 1944, acted as an outline for many artists who would go on to UPA in their early careers. Kepes proposed that the titular language of art— how artists metaphorically ‘word’ what it was they are attempting to say/ express in a piece— must be more precise and deliberate. Artists should not fret over the opulence of detail because the audience of the modern day has no time to dwell on their piece, so they must instead prioritize the immediacy with which they convey their ideas, even if how they convey those ideas is plastic/ not representative of actual life. This mentality permeates a considerable amount of UPA’s artistic ethos— UPA strayed away from the realism of their competitors (specifically, Disney) through their implementation of non-literal, symbolic character designs and environments that broke their subjects down to only the lines and colors necessary to convey what it was you were seeing. Through this effort to apply an economical emphasis to the essential and remove extraneousness, UPA connects themselves to their fellow modernist artists who, too, strove to push their art forms into a new and exciting direction.

Cover of Language of Vision by György Kepes, provided by Book Worship

However, the artists at UPA were not the only, nor the first, in animation to pursue anti-realism, and the blueprint set by these earlier animators in the 1934 film The Tale of Czar Durondai (Царь Дурандай). As mentioned, the artists who would later form UPA first worked for other, larger studios before pursuing independence; yet, they quickly found their ideas either quashed or diluted by the need to fit their work into Disney’s realistically paced and brand-oriented style. John Hubley, a layout artist at Disney would become a vital talent for UPA (eventually directing Rooty Toot Toot), described his frictious time at Disney by stating that “in the early days it was Picasso, Duffy, Matisse that influenced the drive to a direct, childlike, flat, simplified design rather than a Disney eighteenth-century watercolor” (Denning, Michael). Nonetheless, while working at Disney, Hubley met with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had arrived at the studio to meet with Walt and had brought an animated film from the Soviet Union to show him. 

Although The Tale of Czar Durondai may seem primitive and bizarre, especially by modern-day standards, it cannot be unstated how much of a watershed moment this would be for the American animators at Disney. The film’s highly stylized characters and backgrounds punctuated by their choppy yet deliberate movement created an otherworldly, almost hypnotic feeling; as John Hubley put it, “It was very modern, with flat backgrounds, highly stylized characters, modern music. It was very exciting and had a big influence on me.” Despite being a fairy tale, much like Disney had been, Czar Durondai allows its subject matter to remain fictitious looking; that is to say, even when telling a story with larger-than-life characters, Disney increasingly became more attentive that adding elements of realism to ground the animation (eg. higher fidelity physics and character designs), whereas Czar Durondai welcomes the plastic and that which contradict real life— in turn, accomplishing anti-realism. Moreover, the rougher approach to motion creates a precursor to the limited-animation style UPA would later bring to prominence. 

Moreover, the limited-animation style found in Czar Durondai and much of UPA’s catalog would first gain traction in American animation with the 1942 short, The Dover Boys. An early entry into Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” catalog and parody of the then-popular “Rover Boys” book series, The Dover Boys acted as a deliberate attempt to set Warner apart from Disney. As such, director Chuck Jones, who himself would later assist on UPA’s (then IFPS) short Hell-Bent for Election, experimented with animation techniques that would soon become commonplace in limited-animation. Particularly, the quick-wit of Dover Boys becomes punctuated by snappy, pose-to-pose animation and tied together with excellent animation smears, a then-new technique of amalgamating several poses into one frame, similar to motion blur in live-action. What Dover Boys lacked in high fidelity inbetweening, it more than made up for with its clever, inventive, and lively approach to animated storytelling that brought a freshness to the medium in a fraction of the number of drawings; and, although the perceived ‘cheapness’ of the animation nearly cost Jones his job, the film still holds up incredibly well today! 

In many ways, Dover Boys acts as a precursor to the filmography UPA would establish for itself afterward, not just in how it utilized the limited-animation style UPA became synonymous with but also in how it would reflect the studio’s ethos as a shock to the system of animation. Artists like Hubley and Jones had wanted to push the medium of animation forward for decades, yet whenever they tried at their respective studios either diluted their ideas or threatened their position. The rise of UPA represents not just the effort of artists coming together under the same mission of innovating their industry but also the culmination of all their efforts prior. The innovations UPA accomplished in the 1950s were unspokenly paved by countless other animators and artists before them, and understanding that background and context, I think, allows for a deeper appreciation of both the work UPA created but also all the work that went into making them. 

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