Saturday 10 December 2022

A Tour of UPA

Movie critics got sick of fairy tales and lippy animals beating up someone. And they got tired of seeing the same characters they watched a decade earlier. So when UPA came along with its different (and human) designs and cinematic effects, they embraced the studio. Even as late as The McBoing-Boing Show on CBS in 1956, the same critics were praising the UPA’s non-“slapstick cartoon violence.”

They kind of overlooked the fact the show was boring. Kids don’t go for boring, and the show was taken off the air after a few months.

The shine seems to have come off UPA after that. Staff who were unhappy with company president Steve Bosustow walked away; some started their own studio called Format Films. Columbia Pictures decided not to release UPA’s shorts in theatres and went with shoddy-looking Loopy De Loop cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera. Hank Saperstein, eyeing huge potential marketing money from Mr. Magoo, swooped in and took over the company. Pretention and artistry were out; churning out Dick Tracy TV cartoons with ethnic stereotypes was in. It almost made you wish for a sequel to UPA’s Baby Boogie (1955). Notice I said “almost.”

Let’s go back to May 1952, when the love affair with UPA was still a-blossoming, when Production Design profiled the studio. UPA pretty much produced cartoons like any other animation outfit, but it’s cool seeing plenty of photos and film frames (it’s a shame the version on-line you see below is of low resolution)

Upon the evening of May 21st, the Members of the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors were invited to attend a showing of the product of the United Productions of America, and an inspection of the UPA plant, 4440 Lakeside Drive, Burbank.

Members and guests filled the UPA projection room, and were received by Herbert Klynn, UPA Production Manager; UPA Directors Pete Burness and Ted Parmalee, and Louis Korn, SMPAD Program Planning Committee, who arranged the evening.

In order that Production Design readers may also share in some degree, the exciting filmic experience that resulted, we take pleasure in presenting some of the highlights.

The small animated cartoon character "GERALD McBOING-BOING," the little boy who can't talk, but can only make sound effects— has won wide acclaim throughout the nation since Columbia's release of the United Productions of America short.

The Technicolor "GERALD McBOING-BOING" won the 1951 Academy Award in the animated cartoon field and the British Film Academy Award in 1951, and Stephen Bosustow, president of UPA, has become, inevitably, the subject of widespread interest in the film production field.

Bosustow (the name is Welsh) is forty years old, has headed UPA since its inception, seven years ago. To bring his organization within a relatively short period to the forefront in the animated cartoon field, Bosustow has combined an artistic and creative background and fresh story viewpoint with organizing and executive talent, courage and brilliant business acumen.

Born in British Columbia, Stephen Bosustow was educated in California Schools, played the drums with a number of well known Bands, and finally went back to his original schoolboy interest— the field of Art.

His career in the Cartoon field started with Ub Iwerks on MGM's "Flip the Frog" series. Then with Walter Lantz at Universal, and finally a seven year stretch with Walt Disney on such films as "Snow White"— "Bambi," and "Fantasia." Followed in 1941, his employment as a Production Illustrator with Hughes Aircraft, and later with Consolidated Shipyards, producing a slide lantern story for instruction of safety rules for welders.

Fired by the success of the slides, Bosustow formed the Industrial Films and Poster Service, producing animated films for the Armed Services, Government Departments and business firms.

In 1944, this firm made "Hell Bent for Election,' a Technicolor animated film for the late President Roosevelt's last election campaign. It was estimated that at least 10,000,000 persons have viewed this production.

In 1945, Bosustow founded UPA with a staff of six. Now out of its swaddling clothes, the young company has 75 employees, does a $750,000 annual business, and has built up one of the most modern and well equipped animation studios in Hollywood.

The new company continued making animated training films for the armed Services and numerous business organizations, such as Ford, Timken Roller Bearings, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute and others.

In 1948 Bosustow's studio made a deal by which Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute UPA's entertainment products. The first cartoon short made under this contract, "ROBIN HOODLUM," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1949 and the same honor accrued to "THE MAGIC FLUKE" the following year. UPA also began a cartoon series for Columbia featuring Mr. Magoo, a uniquely humorous old man, whose nearsightedness projects him into incredible adventures.

The producing of "GERALD McBOING-BOING" began with a contract made during the war. Ted Geisel, who as "Dr. Seuss," later wrote the verses for "GERALD McBOING-BOING" as a children's record, was working on Army films under the direction of Frank Capra. He was impressed by Bosustow's work and influenced Capra to hire him. In 1950, Seuss, well known in the juvenile book field, and as the creator of such faintly mad advertisements as "Quick Henry, the Flit," went to UPA with "McBOING," and this sensational short, using many new techniques, came into being. At this point, it may interest our readers to consider a brief resume of the many complex phases of production, incident to the placing of an animated film cartoon upon the screen.

First, a story is written in which characters, plot and dialog are developed.

Second, artist and writer work together to make a visual synopsis on a story board. (This is a layout of sketches in story form.)

Third, there are conferences between writers, artists and production men to polish the story until it is ready for production.

Fourth, the production designer and director determine the general mood of the story, design and backgrounds, conceive the animation and give the dialog more polish.

Timing is an all important factor in the synchronizing of all these skills.

Fifth, dialog is recorded on a sound track. The film editor then marks each word on the film adjacent to the track. This "exposure sheet" is used by the editor to time the action with the dialog.

Sixth, the animators, guided by the "exposure sheet" cues, animate the characters by successively advancing the action of each drawing at specified intervals.

Seventh, a "clean-up" reel is photographed and projected to show how smoothly the action has progressed and to provide a guide for possible revisions of both story and art work.

Eighth, colored roughs are now painted to determine the colors best suited to the characters and the backgrounds.

Ninth, these colored drawings are then test-photographed and checked to insure complete color fidelity. Color selections are then approved.

Tenth, the animation sheets now go to the ink and paint department where the individual sheets are traced in ink on celluloid "cels." Painting of the characters then follows and the completed cels— on which only the characters appear— are then ready for the camera.

Eleventh, the cels are laid over the background in several layers and only those which advance the action are changed after each exposure. This minimizes the number of cel changes. The transparent cels make possible the use of only one background for many frames of action and give the characters a third dimensional effect.

Twelfth, music is now composed, synchronized to the action and then recorded on the sound track.

Thirteenth, the last step, is editing, splicing and "dubbing" of the music, sound effects and dialog tracks into a composite to be printed with the picture.

The accompanying photographs illustrated some of these many complicated activities, which only a personal inspection of the Studio in action can fully present.

For these, and the photos relating to the physical aspects of the UPA plant and its novel applied contemporary art product, Production Design is indebted to Mr. Charles Daggett of the UPA Staff.

And to Messrs. Herbert Klynn, Pete Durness, Ted Parmalee, and Louis Korn, SMPAD extends its gratitude for a most informative, interesting and exciting experience.


  1. UPA was one of the worst studios, in my opinion. It's animation style was not made to advance animation, or create believable characters, or anything like that, but a jab at Walt for personal and political reasons. That is not art, despite the design-y"-ness of the cartoons.

    Additionally, they should've gotten there's a reason Walt used "humanized pigs and bunnies" and blend-in backgrounds. It was because they WORKED best.

    I guess that was a rant, but its better than other ones you'll see on the internet.

    1. The irony is the studio's biggest success (in shorts) was with Mr. Magoo, with animation that was pretty conventional. I still like the original McBoing Boing cartoon; the artwork blends in with the Seuss story.

    2. Claiming that UPA's work was "not made to advance animation" or stating that art cannot be created from conflict or sociopolitical reasons are among the most ignorant comments you could make about animation or art in general.

      Do you think that Mariah Carey and Titanic are the gold standards of music and film? Because by your logic, "it works" and therefor we need no alternatives. It's what makes the most money and appeals to the largest target demographics. The "popular = superior product" argument.

      No expressive art form should be placated by one method or style, and animation is no exception. And really, this attitude which still prevails all these years later is why in America, animation is still largely seen as disposable children's entertainment and not as a legitimate art forms. This was at the heart of the thesis of Hubley's "Beyond Pigs and Bunnies" essay.

      None of his has anything to do with the quality of UPA or either studio, but speaking of it with this dismissive rhetoric is incredibly shortsighted.

    3. Thanks for that, ANon.DM Yopw, I enjoy the article!

    4. Yowp: True.

      Anonymous: Of course, conventional stuff is not total crap. But the attitudes that guided UPA-to me-block it from being a legitimate piece of art. Animation is an art, where ANYTHING can happen. UPA did not take up the challenge, but instead tried to do its darndest to be taken seriously, the same problem that infests what so-called "animation" (as degrading as it is to call it that) is on Fox today. If you don't agree, whatever.

  2. Great slice of history, Don — thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks Jim, Enjoyed the history and really enjoyed looking at the behind the scenes work at the UPA Studio. To echo " Anonymous. " A Great slice of History ".

    1. UPA is really hit and miss for me (I'm speaking of pre-Saperstein). Some cartoons are enjoyable, some strike me as ghastly, some strike me good tries. To each his own.
      It's undeniable, I think, to say UPA had a large influence in the '50s on TV commercials, as well as the Jay Ward studio, where many of its alumni ended up (though certainly the Ward artwork was more minimalist due to budgets).