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Titans of UPA: Breaking the Animation Mould

Visual communication ahead of its time.

"Like that of the spawning salmon, the artist’s life is a never-ending upstream battle. To function creatively the artist must have the courage to fight for what he believes. Courage in the face of a danger that has no element of high adventure in it-just the cold, hard possibility of losing his job. Yet the courage of his convictions is, along with his talent, his only source of strength."

Paul Rand.

This quote by Paul Rand, the American art director and graphic designer best known for his services to corporate identity, sums up the plight of the artist (in this case United Productions of America) who is brave enough to swim against the tide in pursuit of his/her dream.

Little 1 by Ann & Raul Rand [1962]

...wouldn’t look out of place hanging in a museum between a Picasso and a Matisse."

A backdrop of unrest - the perfect storm

The setting is 1940s America and a bunch of disenfranchised Disney Studio artists are striking over the lack of union representation. Their ultimate mission is to drastically shake things up and introduce a brand new aesthetic to animation based on ideology, creativity and financial necessity. It is an endeavour that will ultimately send shockwaves through the industry for years to come.

Extremely tired of the ultra-realistic Disney-esque style that is being churned out from the big studios of the time, animators Stephen Bosustow, David Hilberman, and Zachary Schwartz form a small studio with the purpose of creating ‘Limited Animation’ - a style incorporating flat sharp illustrations, simplistic colour palettes and backgrounds stripped of detail and perspective, into a triumph of colour and layout that not only has never been seen before, but wouldn’t look out of place hanging in a museum between a Picasso and a Matisse.

This is cartoons as Art with a capital A, as opposed to the typical ultra-realism of animals masquerading as humans. Animation has 'grown up' and the group are managing to do things exactly the way they want to.

Rooty Toot Toot -1951 A black comedy musical animated short film, directed by John Hubley.

Below: The World of UPA - Trailer by The Royal Ocean Film Society

These so-called titans, artists, rebels and innovators honed their skills on creativity, ideology and financial necessity..."

Mid-Century Modernism

This was the time of mid 20th Century Modernism with the likes of graphic artist Saul Bass revolutionising the film poster with his abstract style, architect Frank Lloyd Wright re-defining the American landscape, French New Wave cinema challenging movie making ideals, and now United Productions of America. These so-called titans, artists, rebels and innovators honed their skills on creativity, ideology and financial necessity; low budgets meant simplistic yet powerful solutions in animated shorts. And in order to maximise visual impact, clarity, precision and economy would prevail in their work.

Saul Bass graphic design posters for film
Saul Bass film posters - Left: Anatomy of a Murder (1959); Right: Vertigo (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse, (French New Wave) Saul Bass (1958) Film Poster

Imitation - the sincerest form of flattery

UPA continued to influence the animation style of the era into the 1970s, bagging 14 Academy Award nominations and 3 victories in 10 years with Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr Magoo. Larger studios started to copy their 'Limited Animation' style, including Disney with Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom in 1953. Ironically, the outsiders had now become the influencers.

Bosustow and co are the reason I fell in love with this era of graphic expression, not least because they were rebels who found their purpose and drive against the 'machine'. This kickstarted my journey into illustration and graphic art, and I dare say a quirky style of animation. I needed to find a way to rise above the noise of everything else and channel my inner artist, rebel and innovator.

I may not be causing the stir brought about by UPA just yet, but at least I have the satisfaction of taking strength from fighting for what I truly believe to be my style to contribute to image making and storytelling in the future.

Yellow and red Barcelona travel poster
Barcelona - Travel In The Mind series poster - ©Luke Walwyn Studio

Below: Travel In The Mind Animation ©Luke Walwyn Studio

Eye Candy - United Productions of America (1950s)

Fudgets Budget - United Productions of America (1950s)


Research: The Royal Ocean Film Society

Thank you for your support.

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Luke x


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