Saturday, 10 August 2013

An Assistant Animator

People under 25 may find it inconceivable that were was a time when cartoon fans didn’t even know who directed some of Golden Age cartoons that had been on TV screens for years. The credits had been taken off them. The information had to be ferreted out by people like Leonard Maltin (“Of Mice and Magic”), Jerry Beck (“The Warner Brothers Cartoons,” with Will Friedwald) and those many knowledgeable people who wrote for animation magazines (Mark Kausler, Harry McCracken, Paul Etcheverry, Mike Barrier and a host of others). Pretty soon, there was information about animators, background artists, writers, voice actors and others as experts dug and dug; there’s plenty of information that may never be uncovered at this late date.

Little has been said about assistant animators, especially those who were never elevated to the rank of animator (or at least got credit as one). You can even see pictures of some of them on animation web sites but have no idea about their work. Dan Bessie wrote a book and included some tales of his time as an assistant at MGM at the time its cartoon studio closed (he was laid off in late 1956).

However, I’ve run across a couple of news stories about one assistant, Dan Karpan, who worked at the Disney studio and then retired back home to Iowa. He was interviewed by the local paper a couple of times, once just after Walt Disney died. And he talks a bit about his assistant work.

Some biographical stuff: Daniel Robert Karpan was born July 1, 1911 in Eddyville, Iowa, the son of John and Katherine U. Karpan. He worked for the Columbia and MGM cartoon studios; the 1940 census doesn’t reveal which studio, but he made $650 in 1939 over a 32-week period. He went to work for Disney in 1944 after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War Two. He assisted on “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmations.” He was laid off (with “about 450” other Disney employees, he said), then went to work for an ad agency before retiring. Karpan died in Albia, Iowa on June 20, 1986.

Karpan was interviewed by a journalism student, whose resultant story appeared in two Iowa newspapers. This is from the Carroll Daily Times Herald, June 8, 1976.

Cartoonists Put a Little of Themselves into Character
By Kathy Kusa

Drake Journalism Student
ALBIA (IDPA) — Dan Karpan's scrapbook is filled with painstaking pencil sketches from his 23 years as a Hollywood cartoonist, including 16 years with Walt Disney Studios.
"It's a funny thing about cartoonists," said Karpan, 64. "When they draw a character, they put a little of themselves in it. Now you take a tall, skinny fellow, he'll draw a tall, skinny duck."
Karpan still has the first set of drawings, he made commercially and, by riffling the pages, he can make a pair of penguins waddle jerkily across the paper.
But Karpan now discourages requests for his talent. He suffered a stroke in 1960 and he never fully regained his drawing ability. "For three months I couldn't even write my name," he said. After therapy he regained use of his right leg and arm, but he walks slowly and he said the tips of his fingers tingle all the time.
Lifelong Goal
Karpan, born near Eddyville, said he wanted to be a cartoonist even in high school. "I started drawing on the pages of my books and the teachers used to give me heck for it," he said.
After high school, Karpan worked in a coal mine. "But I hated that work," he said. "I wish I hadn't wasted those five years, because I got a late start in animation. I used to take slate and draw cartoons all over the side of the (coal) car if I had time" — the coal car checkers "knew it came from me — it was the only one coming out that way."
Karpan went to Hollywood "at the height of the depression" and discovered he didn't have enough art training to become a cartoonist, so for three years he attended the Chounaird School of Art in Los Angeles and did odd jobs.
He caddied, bused dishes, sold soft drinks and sharpened razor blades until he was hired by the Charles Mintz Studio (now called Screen Gems — the animation department of Columbia Pictures).
Joined Navy
Karpan worked as an animator for the Mintz Studio for several years and then moved to the animation department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
During World War II, he joined the U.S. navy, where he spent two years working on training films and booklets for a torpedo school. After a medical discharge in 1944 because of an ulcer, he went to work for Walt Disney Studios.
"I had to kinda start over," he said, "to learn the characters. See, you had to know the characters . . . For about ten years I was what they called a key man — seeing that the ducks remained consistent ... if the duck was tall and skinny, (I'd) have to shorten him." Karpan stayed with Disney 16 years. He worked on short cartoons as well as feature-length films such as "Peter Pan", "Cindrella" and Alice in Wonderland".
"If you did 32 drawings (about 1 1/2 seconds of actual footage) that was a day's work," he said. The animation for a feature-length film takes a studio three years to complete.
Assistant Animator
Karpan was never a full-fledged animator; he was an assistant animator. "The animator was just concerned with the action and his first assistant was just concerned with drawings out of the roughs and little changes if the animator was busy.
"An animator works on a board on a glass that the light shines through (so) you can see four or five drawings at one time. We'd flip with our left hand and draw with our right," Karpan said. He compared it to "looking through a lampshade for eight hours."
Karpan retired in 1960. He now lives with his dogs Buddy Boy and Rusty Dusty just outside of Albia.
In 1969 Karpan finished a cartoon mural in the children's room of the Albia public library. The mural includes characters from the comic strip Peanuts as well as many characters Karpan is familiar with from his years in Hollywood.
Karpan said he tries to encourage young artists whenever he can.
His activities are restricted by poor health but Karpan said he still draws "once in a while. If I get in the mood I make little pencil sketches."


  1. I grew up in Albia and my mom was the librarian. I remember Dan Karpan was a regular at the library and I watched him paint some of the mural in the basement. I think it is still there, but mold and neglect has all but ruined them. He was Croatian and and he called the mural a "Croatian Creation". I do have a couple of pencil sketches he gave me years ago.

  2. He was my fathers cousin. My dad went to California & stayed w/ Dan while my father boxed under the name Tony Vino. Stories were told of them staying up at night playing cards w/ Ronald Reagan & actress Penny Singleton.

  3. My father stayed at his apartment in Hollywood while my dad boxed under the name Tony Vino

  4. They use to stay up and play cards with Ronald Reagan and actress Penny Singleton