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Chas Solomon: 'Pacific Standard Time' omits UPA animation studio

A scene from
A scene from "Gerald McBoing-Boing."

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The six-month art extravaganza known as “Pacific Standard Time" is undoubtedly a strong effort to ensure L.A.'s place in art history. But Off-Ramp animation critic Charles Solomon says there's a glaring omission among the scores of events and exhibits: the groundbreaking work of animation studio United Productions of America (UPA).

UPA, which produced Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo, modernized the look of cartoons by utilizing a trademark contemporary graphic style. Breaking away from the accepted style of Disney and Warner Bros., UPA profoundly altered the course of American and world animation.

UPA was organized in 1945 by three Disney veterans: Steve Bosustow, Zack Schwartz and Dave Hilberman. These young visionaries along with the artists who joined them had extensive art training, a strong interest in contemporary graphic arts, and decidedly liberal politics. They dismissed the dominant strains of American animation as “Disney cute” and “Warner Brothers funny.”

Instead of the 19th century illustrators and Academic draftsmen who inspired the look of Disney films, the UPA artists looked to Matisse, Cezanne, Klee, Modigliani, Miro, Picasso and the sophisticated “New Yorker” cartoonists. They sought to infuse their work with a spontaneity comparable to the jazz they listened to.

But hard-edged two-dimensional figures like Gerald McBoing-Boing couldn't move in three dimensions like a rounded, Disney character. The UPA artists had to re-think their approach to animation, deciding to emphasize strong poses and stylized movement.

Critics of Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons hailed the work of UPA as high art. In 1955, MOMA held an exhibit of UPA’s work, which went on to win all 3 nominess for Animated Short in 1956. This record was never matched, even by Disney.

As a result of UPA’s accolades, Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM began experimenting with more advanced design and stylized movement. Today, Samurai Jack, Phineas and Ferb, and even the Simpsons reflect the influence of UPA. Their impact can be seen in the 2009 Oscar-nominated Irish feature “The Secret of Kells” as well as the “Backson” sequence in Disney’s recent Winnie the Pooh film.

UPA operated on a modest scale, producing short cartoons, industrial films, commercials, a single television program and one feature. The studio rose to unprecedented artistic prominence then fell into shambles within a period of 15 years.

UPA’s Toluca Lake headquarters was torn down decades ago. Animators and animation fans alike lament the fact that UPA films are not available on DVD, leaving a significant gap in the animation history of Los Angeles and the world.