Interview: Gene Deitch Pt. 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

In this third part of our interview, the animator describes his transition from syndicated strips to the world of animation. Gene Deitch’s early years in that industry were spent at UPA (United Productions of America), a small, forward thinking studio launched by radical animators looking for a change from the strict graphic policies of Disney.

[Part One][Part Two]

How did you make that transition from a fascination with daily strips to working in animation?

Well, as I said, I did finally get my own comic strip. There was a lifelong bug in me to put out illustrations. I had a quite success boy’s publication, when I was 16 or 17 years old, called The Hollywood Star News. At that time, it was printed on a mimeograph. There was the wax stencil. It was a whole different way of drawing—you had to use the stylus and cut the wax so the ink would go through. We printed four-color covers and everything on the mimeograph—myself and this other boy.

I just always loved to do this sort of thing. And then I became a jazz record collector, when I was in my mid-teens, and I started to do these cat cartoons for The Record Changer Magazine.

So, the answer to your question is that a group of Disney veterans set up a little studio in Hollywood, which they at that time called the Industrial Film and Poster Service, and they were all jazz fans. They all saw my cartoons in this magazine.

The magazine was called The Record Changer—that was a machine that changed records. But this magazine was a record exchanger. It had wanted, for sale, and lists of people who changed their records. Because in those days, you couldn’t just walk into your local record store and pick up a New Orleans jazz record. You either had to go to the black district or very specialized little shops. So the Record Changer was set up to be a market for people to exchange and trade their records by mail. They were very fragile. They were shellac, breakable 78 RPM records.

So I was using that magazine for my own purposes—for records I was looking for. And I thought, this magazine looks pretty dead, because it’s got nothing but classified ads in it. it needs some jazzing up. So I took a chance and sent the editor a couple of cartoons. He loved them, bought them, and that’s how that started. So maybe five or six years, I basically became the main attraction for this magazine. I did the covers and the cartoons and I became the art editor, eventually.

And what happened was, these people who started this little animation studio were all record fans. They saw my cartoons and just by luck, I came in contact with a guy who was writing a script for them. And he said, “look, I know some guys who are looking for you.” It’s one of those little things in life that you can never duplicate.

They were specifically looking for you?

They were specifically looking for me. They had know idea where I was from this magazine. it happened that I lived right there, in Hollywood. So I went there and they gave me a job as an apprentice designer, and I learned the ropes of animation. Animation was always something I loved to watch, as a kid, but in those days it was what was called a “closed shop.”

It was unionized and it was a catch-22—you couldn’t get a job in any animation studio, unless you belonged to the animation union. And you couldn’t get into the animation union, unless you had a job at an animation studio. So it was basically a tight box you couldn’t get in.

Only because these guys wanted me specifically—it just happened that the designer of that animation studio happened to be the president of the union. So I got an exception. He was able to put pressure on them and I was able to get into the union. Basically that happened in 1946 and that was it. I never looked back. I was in animation.

What were you doing in those early days at the studio? Cell drawings?

No, I immediately started as a designer. They liked my cat cartoons. They liked my style. They were doing the same kind of thing. We were all influenced by the same graphic artists: Steinberg and Picasso—we were all modern art buffs, and everybody was stealing from the same sources. If you look at my cartoons, you can see that I tried imitating all kinds of graphic artists. They liked that. UPA was set up to bring a new graphic art style to animation.

The fact that I had no experience at Disney or any other animation studios was a plus for them. Because I wasn’t spoiled by the house style. I wasn’t spoiled by knowing how to draw Bugs Bunny, or whatever. That was the last thing they wanted to do.

So that’s how I got in. They put me in with their designer, as his assistant, and he taught me the ropes. He taught me the nuts and bolts of animation. Finally I became the designer, finally I became director, and eventually they sent me to New York and I became the director of the New York UPA studio. That’s the way it works.

Did you consider yourselves artists in the vein of Picasso?

Oh yeah. We were really full of ourselves. We were going to make a revolution in the animation industry. Because, the way it worked was, every studio had what was called a “house style.” The joke was, if you got hired by Disney, you had to at least have a quarter and two dimes, and that way you could draw Mickey Mouse. If you went to Warners, you had to draw Bugs Bunny and if you went to MGM, you had to draw Tom and Jerry, and so on.

UPA was against the house style. That’s what they were all about. They said, “every story should have a design that’s suited for that particular story.” And that sounds simple and obvious, but it was totally revolutionary then, because Disney had the opposite effect. Disney would take Winnie the Pooh or Ferdinand the Bull—any children’s book that he adapted—and he turned it into the Disney style. If he did Alice in Wonderland, he didn’t bother looking at the original illustrations, he made it Disney style.

So UPA said, this is not what we’re going to do. We’re going to be true to the origin of the books. If they adapted Madeline, they did it exactly as the book. That is what got me onto the road of what I’m doing now. And if they were doing any of Steinberg’s cartoons, they did it exactly in his style. This was the challenge then, to do an original graphic rendering of a film, according to its graphic needs. And that is the basis of the UPA approach.

And that was absolutely revolutionary in those days. There were no other studios that did that. Every other studio, when you went to work there, you had to draw in their style. They’d give you model sheets and they’d train you how to draw as they drew, so you’d become anonymous.

That was the challenge. That was the way that set me up. I have more respect for Disney’s work now than I did then. Disney was the enemy. Disney was the graphic enemy, when I started. We didn’t do that kind of crap.

Was it hard to be anonymous in those days, with so many egos to contend with?

Yeah, I think it was. I think that’s why these particular people were so frustrated working for Disney. I’m talking about people like John Hubley and Robert Cannon and so many great animators who were forced to play down their abilities.

UPA didn’t have any money, but they gave you way to blossom and develop your own way of doing things. It was great. It was a poor boy’s studio, we suffering week to week to get our salaries and to keep the studio alive, but it was thrilling and exciting.

We were in a tiny building in Hollywood called the Otto K. Olesen building. Otto K. Oleson was the man who rented the klieg lights for Hollywood premiers. The whole building was just full of these lights. And he had one space on the roof with a bunch of offices. But the hallways were open to the sky. And there was very cheap rent. And that’s where the UPA studios started.

When it rained, we had to shove the drawings under our coats and run from one room to another. But it was exciting. We really felt we were pioneers, no question about it. These people were very intelligent and were very cultured in art. This was not just an animation studio. It was a political action group. Everyone was left-wing in those days. We were all hot for the new types of architecture and graphic design and things like that.

It was a cultural center and a study group. We knew that we were going to start a revolution in animation. We knew we were bringing a thought process on a whole other level and we thought, ‘why should we play down to audiences?’ We were very naïve, but we had some successful years, and the UPA did change the course of animation.

[Conlcuded in Part Four]

–Brian Heater