Saturday, May 26, 2007



The animators who founded UPA tried a different tact than Disney. Most of them were highly accomplished animators who could do the rounded fully constructed flowing Disney style animation.

Bobe Cannon was a fantastically gifted full animator who did animation for Clampett, Jones and Avery before he went to UPA.

bobe cannon

For some unknown reason, he decided to totally abandon what he was a genius at.

He and John Hubley (a layout man and BG painter)

and the other UPA guys decided to abandon animation, fun and lush movement and instead focus on "design".

And not always good design either. They just wanted to do something that rebelled against the look and more important, the attitudes of both Disney and Warners.


It's funny when we talk about UPA and flat styles, that we refer to it as "design" at all. No one did before UPA. It was just called "cartooning".

The "design" that UPA did was nothing new to cartoons in general, just sort of new to animation. Chuck Jones had experimented with it in animation (with Bobe Cannon) in 1942 with The Dover Boys.

Magazine cartoons though and comic strips, had been done in similar flat styles and many other non-animation styles for decades.

To me,

Gerald McBoingBoing and Milt Gross' comics are very similar graphically.

Milt Gross had been doing highly stylized comics and strips for a long time-only his stuff wasn't meant to be high-class, it was meant to be fun.

So what's the difference between "design" and "cartoon"? I guess if it's fun, it's a cartoon. If it's bland and sterile, it's design.
That was UPA's revolution. They took the life out of animation.


If you don't know cartoon history and you just grew up watching Cartoon Network, you might think that this flat stuff is something new and "hip". It's not. It's much older than UPA and the more graphic styles in cartoons before UPA didn't come with the wimpy trappings.

Because of our association with UPA's beginnings, we assume that when we do something in a graphic style, we have to also carry over all the other attributes that came with UPA's particular cartoon vision-the blandness, the wimpy world view, the snootiness.

People usually don't analyze or break apart the elements that make up something they like. If we like it we assume that every ingredient in it is equally good.

Then when we develop our own styles, we copy the bad with the good.

That's what we need ANALYSIS for!

Like many artists, I have tons of influences. There are lots of things that inspire me. I try to figure out why they do and I break them down into their separate ingredients.

I then decide which ingredients are the ones that are useful and discard the others that might have just come along with it, but don't actually add anything. There are good things about UPA and Disney-Tex Avery combined them and added his own worldview to them and made cartoons more entertaining than either style.Avery was the exception. Most artists copied the bad part of UPA, the lack of animation, simplistic drawings' slow even timing and lifelessness.

What I dislike about trends and imitators is that usually when people copy existing styles, new or classic, they copy the faults, rather than the positive attributes of the styles they love. They copy surface elements and decoration and don't copy the underlying principles.

People do it with Disney all the time.

Animators who love Disney, copy all the worst elements of Disney, his faults-the sappy stories, the simplistic personalities, the terrible "animation-acting". The formulaic character design.

They can't draw and animate the difficult anatomy, perspective and construction, nor control elaborately composed crowd scenes-no one was better at that than Disney. But anyone can do fake pathos and memorize the arm flailing that we've seen in a hundred features.

This happens with everything that makes a splash. Everyone imitates the superficial aspects of the trend, without adding any personal observations or humanity to it.

There are Simpsons imitations, Ren and Stimpy imitations, Warner Bros. imitations and on an on...all without personal points of view, just shallow imitations.

In the 50s, that happened with UPA. And it happened again in the 90s. (My fault that time)

Why do young artists say they like UPA? Because it makes 'em cool. Hipster Emo time. (It's also easy to fake) It's like when teenagers discover communism. They think it's real cool to go against common sense and experience. But then when they meet the real world head on later, they realize it was youthful folly. You're supposed to grow out of it.

I too fell under the UPA spell for the 3 weeks I wanted to be cool. Then I realized I kept falling asleep during the cartoons. Don't wait till you're 30, still drawing flat and it's too late to learn anything else.

Personally I think it's way cooler to have an open mind and lots of drawing skill, so that you can actually make cartoons with your own point of view.

But I still like a lot of the UPA style commercials!

By the way, it's possible to have construction and design at the same time.

to be continued...


peldma3 said...

Fascinating post, there was also
a few theories here that I just hadn't thought of before,Great post.

peldma3 said...

Man , I read this again and it's really sinking in Why people can't understand whats weak with a don bluth or modern tv cartoon,.. It's just way of seeing things... and a lot of people miss it, they have no way to see things in a different way that will make them notice other possibilities, this is great I feel lucky to read this blog.

Roberto González said...

I'm loving these posts about Disney and UPA. This one came out more humble than usual, I like that.

You used a great picture to explain what they do with Disney too. And it's totally true.

And yeah, sure, we have a lot of this designy mentality now. It's a little like the technological mentality. Some people is obsessed with cool designs, other people is obsessed with realistic CGI, even some of the artists think those things are more important than having a funny story or interesting characters.

It seems that Genndy Tartakovsky's career mirrors this a little, cause his stuff is becoming more and more designy and more serious. I was more interested in the way he developed a funny relationship betweent the characters in Dexter's Lab. I also love Powerpuff Girls because of the humour, but eventually it seems that people liked the hip drawing style and the action sequences more than the other qualities.

I'm a little more optimistic about Disney's imitators, though. Since I don't find the majority of the stories or characters in classic Disney movies to be extremely exciting, I think some of the new ones are almost as good or eventually better in that department. The story, character and even the pathos manage to seem more sincere in some films. But yeah, for each one of those there are others that are really bad.

And of course they almost never imitate the funniest stuff. Funniest or wackiest Disney shorts are normally not imitated, not even when they reuse characters like Mickey or Donald.

Just out of curiosity, I will really like to know if there are some recent animated movies you think they are "acceptable" or mildly "sincere" in therms of the story, though I know it's not the point of these posts.

Kali Fontecchio said...


Great post! I especially like the comparison to teens who like communism- I knew a guy like that! And I love Polly and Her Pals! And Bobe Cannon is great! Too bad they ruined that one Droopy cartoon you have a pic up of on the new dvd...for shame!

Mr. Semaj said...

Even with the better examples, there's no denying that most of their flat designs are quite ugly. UPA sorta made it okay to do ugly animation.

I don't think you can do that much about the fads. People copy the biggest thing all the time, regardless of what the long-term consequences are, and not just in animation.

JohnK said...

There are no stories in modern features. Just cliches.

Dooley said...

Sadly when I was in school, the weaker students would use the name UPA as an excuse for poor drawing skills. Any time they'd do a flat crappy drawing with no underlying construction, they'd argue: "It's supposed to look that way! It's like UPA!" It wasn't even a matter of influence, it was just a cop-out.

:: smo :: said...

i know hubley was a big reactionary to the stylistic aspects of animation, but i feel like cannon was more about the sense of humor and the whole animal cartoon trend. jones definitely influenced upa, but then he did work there too! and if you watch his later cartoons he definitely was experimenting of his own right, and trynig to get away from the animal cartoons too.

UPA seems almost like animators who got sick of making the same thing over and over, making a company where they could experiment...where they ended up making te same thing over and over!

the first couple of years though i think are great, honestly. and gerald mcboing boing itself, i really do think is a great cartoon. story by dr suess, and some great animation.

but later the rubbery arms and the like of mcboingboing didn't carry over, and upa slipped back into formula.

right now NY animation is going through a rough stint. i big studio just let everyone go. i'm hoping it'll act as a catalyst to get people united and make a new studio.

even if the work is only great for a couple of years before it hits corporate formula again, it'd stillb e great to be involved in.

i'm not disagreeing with you i'm just trying to add a bit more!

Ardy said...

Virgil Partch! Or should I say Vip? That guy was one of the funniest cartoonists ever, I believe. Another great reason to visit the ASIFA Animation Archive.

The flatness in his drawings served a purpose: to keep it simple and straight forward.

PCUnfunny said...

John, Balto was from Universal Studios,not Disney. I still see your point though.

Josh Lieberman said...

>>Animators who love Disney, copy all the worst elements of Disney<<

I know exactly what you mean John. There are plenty of my fellow students here who do that (well not "fellow" students anymore)

Pseudonym said...

I have a theory about modern animation stories. (And I know what you mean, John, about "just cliches", but I disagree. They're Syd Field stories, but they're stories nonetheless.)

Animators were the outcasts in high school. This should not come as a shock. So every modern animated feature can be summarised as: "Outcast saves the day."

Some Pixar films don't quite follow this formula. They tend to go for the flip-side instead ("popular person learns humility").

Now don't get me wrong. I'm a geek, too. But really, how many times do we have to be told this?

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
I really enjoy your posts lately. Could you tell me what is the name of this Milt Gross comic with the funny yellow dog?

pinkboi said...

UPA's ideas remind me of serialism in music. You can come up with an artsy idea, but if it doesn't look (or sound) good, the idea should just die. Serialism failed to make good music, yet people still try to do it to be hip.

Jacob said...

PCUnfunny said...

John, Balto was from Universal Studios,not Disney. I still see your point though.

He was saying that Balto was an example of people copying the superficial elements of Disney, not that it was Disney.

stiff said...


When I was a teenager, I discovered Objectivism instead of Communism...but it was still just an ism.

Excellent points.

PCUnfunny said...

Jacob: Okay my fault.Sorry about that John.

Sean Worsham said...

As a kid I loved Mr. Magoo. I thought it was extremely funny. Would that be a cartoon or is it all design to you John?

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Some Pixar films don't quite follow this formula. They tend to go for the flip-side instead ("popular person learns humility")."

təˈmeɪtoʊ təˈmɑːtəʊ

smackmonkey said...

Well, I must admit that I sometimes favor the THEORY of design over construction but that's probably because of all the badly constucted characters that have been shoved down our throats for decades (the posted weird image of the three legged dog-like creature dragging it's ass across something blue and fuzzy is a perfect example). The bad "designy" shows aren't any improvement either and make me want to gouge out my eyes with a rusty shoe tree. I'll always applaud the attempt but most times I'm disappointed in the outcome. Very few artists, and fewer studios, can muster the tremendous effort required to pull off high design throughout 7, 11, or 22 minutes, let alone a feature. Oddly enough, desgn need not exclude the most important aspect of the animation medium - Fun! Avery is a great example.

Artists do follow trends and often, while still young and callow, get caught up in replicating new found thrills. I'm willing to cut us all some slack, thouigh. WIthout a little innocence most of wouldn't have the followed this muse.

Roberto González said...

>There are no stories in modern features. Just cliches.<

It's true that almost any animated movie has some moment of fake pathos. On the other hand, if something like, I don't know, Jeff Smith's Bone was animated, would you say it's nothing but cliches cause it uses some Disney formulas and pathos?

From what I know features like Wallace and Gromit, Iron Giant, Lilo and Stitch or Nightmare Before Christmas are pretty much like their directors wanted them to be, so even if there are some cliches, it's not really a executive/corporation problem. Maybe they are lying at us, and it's the whole idea of the corporation to sell us those films as "author" films, but I think the content of the movies themselves seem sort of sincere. It's just that they have watched a lot of Disney movies and they subconsciouly assume some of their formulas.

Jennifer said...

Good luck with your Chicago show tonight and tomorrow!

Jetliner said...

Hello John,
I think, the design of the UPA cartoons (like "The Rise of Duton Lang" or"Gerald Mac Boing Boing")is inspired by the drawings of Saul Steinberg.

Anonymous said...

Your right about Tex Avery - His UPAish stuff way more entertaining as was the Gene Deitch Terrytoons with the helps of Jim Tyer etal.

To me it isn't design that's the problem. As you pointed out the similarities between Gross and McBoing Boing and the obvious influence VIP had on the UPA "movement". The issue is what you do with it. The designs that UPA generally went for would've lend themselves for some far out animation. Unfortunately, they didn't always do that.

I like the flat simplistic look - but I like it better when it is fun and exciting to watch - I never get tired of watching Deputy Droopy and that is the style I hope to achieve some day

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I agree 1,000 percent!

You see this kind of thing in fine art where painters imitate what Duchamps was doing 90 years ago and still believe what they're doing is edgey.

Flat isn't new, it sucks at conveying personality, and it continues to chase away funny full animation at a time when we need it to compete with anime.

Charlie J. said...

Is Wally supposed to be an example of design and construction?

I always thought his head was an interesting shape.

Kyle Baker said...

I love Virgil Partch! More VIP!

Anonymous said...

>təˈmeɪtoʊ təˈmɑːtəʊ

Let's call the whole thing off.

Kevin Langley said...

Thanks for the link, I was wondering where all those hits were coming from. Bobe did some really great animation on the first UPA Fox and Crow shorts. Too bad they didn't stick to funny animal pictures. While his animation isn't as loose as the example in the link it's still very lively. Especially compared to some of UPA later stuff. Ugh.

His animation in Tex's "Wags to Riches" and "Out-foxed" is some of his best,(or at least I really enjoy it) right up there with his work with Jones.

Marius de Moraes said...

I think they only wanted to draw things just the way they liked. Today the coolest thing is to deny the UPA style just because everyone likes it.

We all love all kind of crap, thanks for all John K!

paul etcheverry said...

Thanks, John, for the post and the incredible artwork.

Many many many moons ago, I interviewed Bill Scott, who wrote many UPA stories in collaboration with Phil Eastman. Among his valuable insights about the studio:

Bobe Cannon the director LOATHED conflict and anything that hinted of violence

John Hubley, brilliant as he was, could not verbalize to collaborators what he wanted in a story. He only knew it if you did it.

Conflict is the essence of comedy or drama and the lack of such conflict is, at least to me, at the heart of what is unsatisfying about various UPA cartoons. When Cannon operates in a benign children's book universe (not the brutal world of the Brothers Grimm, but something tantamount to the books that Phil Eastman would write a few years later) he pulls this vision off. But the lack of interchange between the characters means that stories often never pay off. Because of the cool graphic design, these films essentially got a free pass from critics and historians

If you watch a whole bunch of John Hubley's cartoons (including the Screen Gems, very early UPA and Storyboard stuff), as fabulous as they look, it seems that stories and ideas do not quite follow through - although his films are a lot more vibrant than Cannon's cartoons. I think this may be why Hubley's commercials and very short films, in contrast, really hit the ball out of the park.

NateBear said...

UPA yo ass!

Tibby said...

Laser Light Show animation is the epitome of flat and simplistic. BUT - It was my job to make an amazing lightshow, that can go with Pyro or become wallpaper in a dance club. Some shows where themed and more animated. It may be a flat medium projecting on a 50 ft wall, but my co-worker Carl explained that even if it is 2D, it still needs perspective, life, and depth.

I have come to notice that technology might have a very large part with the boring flatness of modern cartoons. Flash likes straight lines and perfect shapes. The technical differences between vector and raster become very apparent. It is easier to make a paper puppet show than a real cartoon in Flash style animating. The same with CG and fancy-shmancy high end 3D graphics. I see most CGI movies these days as glorified, and trite puppet-claymation shows than how well one can render a penguin feather realistically. Honestly, how many stupid animated dancing penguin movies do kids and we need?!

With Flash style toons - it lends itself to flatness, and solid shapes. You cannot tween hand drawn, frame to frame images. I'm getting techy here but stay with me ... Flash works on vectors and points. All the points in the image you are trying to tween animate MUST be the same in the 2 keyframes. It must have the same number of vector points as frame 1. Or Flash won't tween properly. Some Flash style programs have what they call a "Bones System". Where basically, you make a paper cut-out (of Sorts), divide all the hands, legs, torso, head and put them on different layers. And then use the Bones System to "animate" your toon. The result is smoothly "perfect" animation, smoothly perfect walking cycles (and such) - but it makes it very sterile and leaves no room for creative, elaborate poses or sequences. Because Flash programs are the way they are - cartooning and animation adopted the sterile, flat toon design we see today. very rarely does anyone take the initiative to make a cartoon traditionally these days. Even the overseas production houses. 3D CGI is not really any different - they rely on a heavily bones chains and motion capturing. Most of the 3D stuff you see in theaters was not "animated" - it was acted by some guy with a spandex suit on with little ping pong balls stuck all over him. The actions of the actor are captured into the computer and then rendered out as the toon character.

In essence - the flat, dull UPA cartoon style lends itself perfectly to Flash animation because it is so stiff and rigid.

Technology is now dictating a lot of style and design in modern cartoons. Where traditionally design started with the human. And many modern animators and cartoonists are picking up habits based around the restrictions of the tools they use. I still have yet to see a brilliant, and fun Flash cartoon. Mucha Lucha was sort of OK - at least it is bright and funny. Don't let your tools dictate your style! The computer isn't a magical animating box of design. It is merely a tool, like the pencil. So put down the mouse and pick up that "Old skool" pencil - I say!. Drawing with a mouse is like trying to draw with a brick - and most garage based animators don't have access to fancy gear like $1500 cintique tablets. The fancy gear still doesn't make the cartoon - I think that fact has been lost on many these days.

Tyler said...

One basic problem I've witnessed is how artists will get caught up with what other artists are doing and lose sight of the point of the work itself.

I like looking at the UPA style, but you're absolutely right; the cartoons are snores-ville in comparison to the Warners, etc. that preceded them. I think what's fascinates artists about them is a sort of "wow, I hadn't thought of doing that." I assume it would be the same if you were a chef, you might want something a little more adventurous that may, to the average person, taste like crap, but you think it's an interesting direction.

The problem is, as I mentioned previously, when the work itself is lost. If great art (and entertainment) is a conversation between artist and viewer, the best Warner shorts are hugely successful. You can sit and not think about them at all, and they are hilariously entertaining. Yet, if you dig deeper, there's still a ton of gems you wouldn't find through passive enjoyment. It works on different layers, and is thusly a successful piece of art/entertainment.

The UPA cartoons seem to be working when the viewer is doing most of the talking, but they themselves don't seem to have much to say. Or maybe it's vice-versa; you're the big shot animator, you tell me. :-)

Tibby said...

A lot of animators and western studios are competing with Japanese Animation. And the result is Powerpuffs, Samuri Jack, Teen Titans ect. You guys need to stop trying to compete with the Japanese and start working with them instead. The result of trying to parody Anime and use it's cliche's as a basis for a cartoon is making these horrible "Fake Anime'" cartoons. Fake anime like Teen Titans(example) are horrible, and stupid! Stop trying to copy and cliche' it because it is "popular".

Stop trying to Fake Anime' cartoons! Anime' is it's own form. And the imitators don't understand anything that goes behind Anime' catoons. You all think that if you put big glittery eyes on it, and make it stiff and use the cliche'd expressions (like the sweat drop) you are making anime. THAT IS NOT ANIME!!! Japan animation is a completely different cycle than American. And Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, Dragon Ball, are NOT good examples of true Anime'. Any Animator who simply states "I hate Anime'" does not truely understand Anime' at all! And when you try to carbon copy it, without understanding it - the result is Teen Titans or Ninja Turtles or some absolute crap like that.

I invite everyone to watch Akira at least 1nce in their lifetime, and Pani Poni-Dash, Ghost in the Shell, Animatrix. Study it, look at it objectively like Mr. K is doing with these UPA cartoons. Read your Wikipedia and investigate Japanese Culture and what and why and how they incorporate their culture into their cartoons. Just slapping on big glitter eyes and carbon copying the cuts and actions only produces a Fake Anime. And kids can recognize fake anime from real anime instantly. And most of them prefer real anime over the campy fake stuff and imitations on CN. Stop competing with them!! It is not a matter of big glossy eyes - the eyes in Anime are like that because of root cultural references - not because they think "it looks good". "The eyes are the windows of the soul". Try thinking about that line next time you watch an Anime'. They also have fairly strict levels of content - kiddy stuff like Hello Kitty are for the little ones, Pokemon is for Y7-Teen, and Akira is for older teens and adults and it is clearly defined that way. In Japan they do not adopt the same "just for kids" mentality that Westerners do.

Fake Anime' blows - and you all know it. So stop trying to simply fake it and start trying to understand it. Then maybe - you'll make a better cartoon.

I use the term "you" in relation to the whole class. Not to single out anyone in particular.

Stephen Worth said...

In essence - the flat, dull UPA cartoon style lends itself perfectly to Flash animation because it is so stiff and rigid.

There's nothing flat, stiff or rigid about John K's Flash cartoons. As usual, John pioneered the style and everyone else ignored what made his cartoons great and focused on the surface. The flat, lifeless Flash cartoons you see everywhere today have less to do with the capabilities of Flash than they do the abilities of the people making the cartoons.

See ya

Thomas said...

"Good cartoons are about brains and talent, not money."

John K.'s statement of over a decade ago always remains in style.

JoeyCee said...

you are the best! keep em coming!

Anonymous said...

>>There are good things about UPA and Disney-Tex Avery combined them and added his own worldview to them and made cartoons more entertaining than either style.<<

Hi John, where is the Disney element in Tex Avery cartoons?

peldma3 said...

I like some of the UPA stuff and alot of other things too, What irks me is that theres a whole way of doing things and potential for new innovation in in a way of doing cartoons that it seems John is holding the torch for... I Am anxoius for a return these qualities, qualities that just aren't around in most of the stuff getting made recently.

cemenTIMental said...

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Flat isn't new, it sucks at conveying personality, and it continues to chase away funny full animation at a time when we need it to compete with anime.

I'm not sure about this idea that "we" need to "compete with anime," like it's some kind of great enemy of western animation... that strikes me as a profoundly unhelpful way to think! Watched too many WWII propaganda cartoons? :)

Anonymous said...

>Hi John, where is the Disney element in Tex Avery cartoons?

Tex Avery took advantage of the advances Disney made in animation construction, weight, balance, etc... (the technical aspects of animation) The influecen in his early MGM films are clear, especially in scenes animated by Preston Blair.

Scott said...

My take on it is that UPA wasn't saying they were superior, but that there was space in animation for more than just one style (Disney). They looked at what was going on in comics, illustration and design (Saul Steinberg, Stuart Davis), and wondered why animation looked so conservative in comparison.

Are you showing that sample from "McBoing-Boing" because you think it's inferior? I think that's an amazing film, and beautifully drawn.

I also don't think that UPA was taking all the credit for this style. Everything I've read gives credit to the influence of "The Dover Boys." It didn't stop with UPA either - Disney made "Toot Whistle Plunk Boom" in '53, so the style's spread was quick and industry-wide.

Sure UPA made some flat and boring films, but so did every studio. But they did some ambitious work trying to push the medium. Would there have been an "Ersatz" without UPA?

Anonymous said...

>>>Tex Avery took advantage of the advances Disney made in animation construction, weight, balance, etc... (the technical aspects of animation) The influecen in his early MGM films are clear, especially in scenes animated by Preston Blair.<<<

Hey Jorge, Warner Bros has construction,and weight wouldnt you say? Do you mean in Tex Avery cartoons how they have alot of follow thru with when the characters move move like Disney? Like Blitz Wolf.They seem mostly pretty cartoony to me.

Anonymous said...

>Hey Jorge, Warner Bros has construction,and weight wouldnt you say? Do you mean in Tex Avery cartoons how they have alot of follow thru with when the characters move move like Disney? Like Blitz Wolf.They seem mostly pretty cartoony to me.

Tex's WB caroons are more primitive than his MGM cartoons but they have Disney influence, too.

Kip W said...

The Milt Gross cartoon looks sort of like Count Screwloose. I keep thinking I see Gross's style in some of the Iwerks cartoons.

I watched that crummy horse movie... Spirit of the Plains or something like that... and it had three expressions, none of them remotely horselike. There was "I AM HAPPY!!!" and "I AM SAD!!!" and there was the All-Purpose "Sincere" Face where the eyebrows are elegantly s-shaped, the corners of the mouth are pulled back, and there's some visible stress, as if the character is having a tough bowel movement. It's bad enough that Disney puts it in everything they do, but they were putting it on a horse. They had to give the horse eyebrows to even try to make it work.

But that was a couple of cycles ago. Now all the features are CG stuff about farting animals. Good thing I have so many videotapes.

dintoons said...

brilliant analyis, wonderfully enlightening!! feels so good to know about the other side of cartoons... it's so liberating!!
thanx john k!!

Martin Juneau said...

UPA or the Flat hybrid style is standard in animation and comics these days. You don't have to surprised yourself.

That's remember me the first time i see a Lou's comic-book in a book store. I wanted to reading the two firsts books and found out pretty and appealing, but very conservative and flat because those characters don't have dimensions.

I seen also the TV cartoon crap they made and dislike it and i reading the last album they made in the early of this year and this is more terrible, conservative, flat and fake Anime-Ish than the two firsts books i read. But the problem is this series receiving the prices believing that the artist do a good job because he wanted to draw differently and it's there he miss the most. Besides, the main character is now a generic female lead who changes clothes in each panel! Did you found out odd?