UPA (animation studio)
Robert "Bobe" Cannon
Henry G. Saperstein
United Productions of America, better known as UPA, was an American animation studio active from the 1940s through the 1970s. Beginning with industrial and World War II training films, UPA eventually produced theatrical shorts for Columbia Pictures, notably the Mr. Magoo series. In 1956, UPA produced a television series for CBS, The Boing-Boing Show, hosted by Gerald McBoing Boing. In the 1960s, UPA produced syndicated Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy television series and other series and specials, including the popular Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol. UPA also produced two animated features, 1001 Arabian Nights and Gay Purr-ee, and distributed Japanese films from Toho Studios in the 1970s and 1980s. Gerald McBoing Boing (2005-2007) is a more recent television series based on UPA's memorable character and licensed and co-produced by Cookie Jar Entertainment and Classic Media, for Cartoon Network.
UPA Pictures' legacy in the history of animation has largely been overshadowed by the commercial success and availability of the cartoon libraries of Warner Bros. and Disney. Nonetheless, UPA had a significant impact on animation style, content, and technique, and its innovations were recognized and adopted by the other major animation studios and independent filmmakers all over the world. UPA pioneered the technique of limited animation. Although this style of animation came to be widely abused in the 1960s and 1970s as a cost-cutting measure, it was originally intended as a stylistic alternative to the growing trend (particularly at Disney) of recreating cinematic realism in animated films.
UPA was founded in the wake of the Disney animators' strike of 1941, which resulted in the exodus of a number of long-time Walt Disney staff members. Among them was John Hubley, a layout artist who was unhappy with the ultra-realistic style of animation that Disney had been advocating. Along with a number of his colleagues, Hubley believed that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of real life; they felt that the medium of animation had been constrained by efforts to depict cinematic reality. Chuck Jones' 1942 cartoon The Dover Boys had demonstrated that animation could freely experiment with character design, depth, and perspective to create a stylized artistic vision appropriate to the subject matter. Hubley, Bobe Cannon, and others at UPA, sought to produce animated films with sufficient freedom to express design ideas considered radical by other established studios.
In 1943, Zack Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow formed a studio called first Industrial Film and Poster Service (later known as United Productions of America), where they were free to apply their new techniques in film animation. Finding work (and income) in the then-booming field of wartime work for the government, the small studio produced a cartoon sponsored by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1944. Hell-Bent for Election was directed by Chuck Jones and was produced for the reelection campaign of FDR. The film was a success, and it led to another assignment from the UAW, Brotherhood of Man (1945). The film, directed by Bobe Cannon, advocated tolerance of all people. The short was groundbreaking not only in its message but in its very flat, stylized design, in complete defiance of the Disney approach. With its new-found fame, the studio renamed itself UPA Pictures (UPA).
Initially, UPA contracted with the United States government to produce its animation output, but the government contracts began to evaporate as the FBI began investigating Communist activities in Hollywood in the late 1940s. No formal charges were filed against anyone at UPA in the beginnings of the so-called "Red Scare", but the government contracts were lost as Washington severed its ties with Hollywood.
Columbia Pictures and success
UPA entered the crowded field of theatrical cartoons to sustain itself and won a contract with Columbia Pictures. Columbia had historically been an also-ran in the field of animated shorts, and it was not satisfied with the output of its Screen Gems cartoon studio. The UPA animators applied their stylistic concepts and storytelling to Columbia's characters The Fox and the Crow with the shorts Robin Hoodlum (1948) and The Magic Fluke (1949), both directed by Hubley. Both were nominated for Academy Awards, and Columbia granted the studio permission to create its own new characters. UPA responded, not with another "funny animal," but a star that was a human character, a crotchety, nearsighted old man. The Ragtime Bear (1949), the first appearance of Mr. Magoo, was a box-office hit, and UPA's star quickly rose as the 1950s dawned.
With a unique, sparse drawing style that contrasted greatly with other cartoons of the day, not to mention the novelty of a human character in a field crowded with talking cats, mice, and rabbits, the Mr. Magoo series won accolades for UPA. Two Magoo cartoons won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons): When Magoo Flew (1954) and Magoo's Puddle Jumper (1956).
UPA scored another hit with Gerald McBoing Boing (1950), based on a record by Dr. Seuss. Gerald McBoing Boing won UPA the Academy Award in 1951; UPA cartoons would receive a total of fifteen Oscar nominations between 1949 and 1959. In December 1950, UPA announced plans for a feature-length film based on the work of cartoonist and humorist James Thurber. The film was to combine live action and animation and was tentatively titled Men, Women and Dogs, but it was never completed. (Just one of the Thurber pieces intended for this feature, The Unicorn in the Garden, was eventually released as a short subject.) Shorts such as The Tell-Tale Heart and Rooty Toot Toot featured striking, sophisticated designs unlike anything offered by competing studios. The "UPA style" began to influence significant changes at the other major animation studios, including Warner Bros., MGM, and even Disney, ushering in a new era of experimentation in animation.
Turning to television
In 1955, Steve Bosustow secured a CBS contract for UPA to produce a television series (The Boing-Boing Show aka The Gerald McBoing Boing Show), which premiered in December 1956. Supervised by Bobe Cannon, this production offered an array of styles and brought new talent to the studio, such as Ernest Pintoff, Fred Crippen, Jimmy Murakami, George Dunning, Mel Leven, Aurelius Battaglia, John Whitney, and many more. However, audiences did not embrace UPA's experiment in television entertainment; the show vanished from the airwaves in 1958. Further, as the major Hollywood studios began cutting back and shutting down their shorts divisions in the 1950s and 1960s, UPA was in financial straits, and Steve Bosustow sold the studio to a producer named Henry G. Saperstein. Saperstein turned UPA's focus to television to sustain itself. UPA adapted 'Mr. Magoo for television and produced another series based on the comic strip Dick Tracy. UPA was forced to churn out cartoons at a far greater quantity than the studio had done for theatrical releases or even the CBS television series. Quality languished, and UPA's reputation as an artistic innovator faded.
The UPA style of limited animation was adopted by other animation studios, especially by TV cartoon studios such as Hanna-Barbera Productions. However, this procedure was implemented as a cost-cutting measure rather than an artistic choice. A plethora of low-budget, cheaply made cartoons over the next twenty years effectively reduced television animation to a commodity, despite UPA's original goal to expand the boundaries of animation and create a new form of art.
One bright moment in the UPA television era came with Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), which inspired the format of Magoo's next television endeavor, the 1964 series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. Christmas Carol captures the spirit of Charles Dickens's 1843 book and is considered a holiday classic, ranking alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.
Abandoning animation and Toho Studios
Saperstein kept UPA afloat in the 1960s and beyond by abandoning animation production completely after the animation studio closed permanently in 1970 and sold off UPA's library of cartoons, although the studio retained the licenses and copyrights on Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing and the other UPA characters. This led to UPA contracting with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises studio to produce a new animated series called What's New Mr. Magoo? in September 1977.
Columbia Pictures retained ownership of UPA's theatrical cartoons. The studio's TV cartoon library was licensed by Classic Media in New York (although 77 other cartoons were sold to Studio-100 Media), and then in 2007 merged into Entertainment Rights in London.
In 1970, Saperstein led UPA into a contract with Toho Studios of Japan to distribute its "giant monster" (see kaiju and tokusatsu) movies in America. Theatrical releases, and especially TV syndication, of the Toho monster movies created a new cult movie market for Japanese monster movies, and long-running television movie syndication packages such as Creature Double Feature exposed the Toho movie monsters to young American audiences, who embraced them and helped them maintain their popularity throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
When Toho began producing a new generation of monster movies in the late 1980s, beginning with Godzilla 1985, UPA capitalized on its Toho contract and helped introduce the new kaiju features to the Western world.
Because of its long association with Toho, UPA is better known to cult-movie fans today as Toho's American distributor rather than a pioneer of animated cartoons, but the legacy of UPA is an important chapter in the history of American animation. UPA continues to license the American library of Godzilla movies, even today. UPA's contract with Toho also resulted in Saperstein producing Woody Allen's first feature film, What's Up Tiger Lily?.
In the early 2000s, UPA was acquired by Classic Media. On July 23, 2012, DreamWorks Animation purchased Classic Media for $155 million and as a result UPA is now owned by DreamWorks Animation. Although DreamWorks Animation now owns the ancillary rights to most of the UPA library, UPA itself continues to hold the licensing rights to Mr. Magoo, and Saperstein was executive producer to Disney's unsuccessful live-action feature Mr. Magoo in 1997 (DreamWorks Animation does own some rights, however).
Classic Media/Sony Wonder began issuing the Mr. Magoo TV cartoon series on DVD in 2001, beginning with Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (the latter which received a Collector's Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack in 2010). In 2011, Shout! Factory (with Classic Media) released the Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection set which contained all Mr. Magoo television productions (except for Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol in which also the DVD copy from the 2010 Blu-ray release was issued by itself). In 2013, Shout! (with Sony) will release the Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection containing all the Mr. Magoo theatrical shorts and the full-length feature 1001 Arabian Nights (which was also released through Sony's MOD program in December 2011). The set was originally set for release on February 14, 2012 but then delayed to June 19, then December 4, then delayed to sometime in 2013. The reason is because it was decided that the shorts will be restored from high quality sources (plus newly discovered elements).
- Maltin, Leonard (1987). Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New American Library. p. 341-342. ISBN 0-452-25993-2.
- Archer Winsten, "UPA, Media and James Thurber," New York Post, 6 December 1950.
- "Priceless Gift of Laughter". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. Time Inc. 1951-07-09. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
- "The Unicorn In The Garden". The Big Cartoon Database. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
- Adam Abraham, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 178.
- Hill, Jim (November 28, 2006). "Scrooge U: Part VI -- Magoo's a musical miser". JimHillMedia.com. Retrieved 2006-12-25.
- Conan, Neil (host) (2006-12-25). "Choose Your Favorite Scrooge" (audio). Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio. Retrieved 2007-01-03.
- Abraham, Adam (2012): When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. Wesleyan University Press.
- Amidi, Amid (2006): Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation. Chronicle Books.
- Barrier, Michael (1999): Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Oxford University Press.
- Maltin, Leonard (1980): Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. McGraw Hill.
- Solomon, Charles (1989): Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. Alfred A. Knopf.
- UPA Cartoons at BCDB.com
- UPA: Mavericks, Magic, and Magoo
- A Brief History of UPA Pictures by Adam Abraham
- The Columbia Crow's Nest
- Bill Paolucci's Gerald McBoing Boing Page
- Don Markstein's Toonopedia: Mr. Magoo
- Interview with Henry G. Saperstein
- A series of posts criticising UPA's artistic style by John Kricfalusi
- When Magoo Flew: A Web Site Dedicated to the Artistry and Achievement of UPA