A Brief Overview the History Animation Instruction in America

By Tom Sito

The Art of Animation is one century old, yet the art of animation instruction is barely half that age. Over the decades the need for such instruction has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the commercial animation industry. It has come from the passing down of simple tradesman’s tricks to the modern era’s Master’s Degree university programs. They now include serious exploration of cinema aesthetics, drama, natural science, draughtsmanship, and computer sciences. Many young animators do their most creative work in college. Famous TV shows like JOHNNY BRAVO, POWERPUFF GIRLS, SAMURAI JACK and Shayne Acker’s film 9, began as college films. George Lucas first film in school was an animated cut-outs film.

From the invention of the artform by James Stuart Blackton in 1900, up until the late 1930s, animation training was mostly done on the job. Many of the artists attracted to the new medium had originally wanted to be something else. Joe Grant had wanted to be a newspaper caricaturist like Miguel Couvarubbias, Art Babbitt was a medical student, Maurice Noble had a job doing window displays for Bullocks Department Store on Wilshire Blvd. Iwao Takamoto was interned in a Japanese Camp and had been picking strawberries in the Imperial Valley when a friend suggested he try to get work in an animation studio. They fell into this line of work when nothing else seemed to be going their way. Some animators were made to feel ashamed by their parents, that all the money spent on fine art training was being wasted on something as vulgar as the silly flicker business. Even at the high period of Walt Disney Cartoons in the 1930s, some artists didn’t want to be photographed in front of the Hyperion Studio, for fear their parents would find out about their new careers.

When a young cel-washer named Chuck Jones was hired at the Ub Iwerks Studio in 1932, he knew nothing of the actual process of animation, only that he could draw a little. Animator Grim Natwick took pity on the hapless lad. He took him across the street from the studio, bought him an ice cream soda and explained to him the essential theories of squash & stretch, key and inbetweens, cycles and camera moves. As a Great War veteran, Grim Natwick studied life drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When he returned to animate in the U.S., the results were apparent. He was the first animator to turn characters in a 3D manner. Whereas other animators would change direction of a running character by letting it run off screen, then flop the drawings and run him back in the other way. Grim could turn the character around in the frame. He also was the first to master the subtleties of the female form convincingly. Grim went on to become the creator of Betty Boop, and at Walt Disney’s he was the head of the Snow White unit, where he trained future talent like Marc Davis. Chuck said he never forgot Grim Natwick’s act of kindness. In later year Chuck Jones himself would inspire and encourage many future talents like Richard Williams and Eric Goldberg.

In the mid-1930s, Walt Disney animator Art Babbitt began to hold informal life-drawing classes in his home. Artists passed the hat to pay the models. Walt Disney heard about it and decided to move the sessions into the studio and make them official. Walt was worried it might get to the newspapers that his artists had sessions with “nekid ladies” posing in their houses! By 1935, Disney brought art instructor Don Graham from the Chouinard Art Institute up into the studio to teach his artists the finer points of draughtsmanship. The program quickly expanded, and the overall quality of the studio’s work grew by leaps and bounds. It was the secret ingredient to Disney’s studio outdoing every other studio in the world in terms of quality. Walt also set up a drawing program under an imperious foreman named George Drake to create inbetweeners for the cleanup department. Ward Kimball began as one of these inbetween trainees. Walt Disney also brought in famous artists like Frank Lloyd Wright,and Rico LeBrun to lecture, and took his crew once a month to a small theater once a month to take in the latest “art-house” film, like Une Chien Andalou ( “The Andalusian Dog”).

By 1941 The Walt Disney Studio was paying out $100,000 in art instruction alone. The program was interrupted, however, by a bitter labor strike, World War II and the financially tough postwar period.

The Disney instruction courses continued on at the Chouinard Art Institute by Westlake Park, renamed MacArthur Park for the famous World War II general. Chouinard offered classes by Disney legends like Don Graham and Marc Davis, along with radical, iconoclastic young artists like Bob Kurtz.

The first true film school was set up in 1929 at the University of Southern California. The top line silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had funded it. In 1942 former Disney artist Les Novros began teaching a course entitled “ The Principles and Mechanics of Animation”. Herb Kossower taught courses there and Art Babbitt was a frequent lecturer. In 1946, Bill Tytla’s assistant at Disney, William Schull, started an animation course at UCLA that became the UCLA Animation Workshop. In time he was succeeded by Dan McGaughlin. Schull & McGaughlin, like many animation artists of that time, were steeped in what came to be called the UPA Revolution. Many wanted to explore new ways of storytelling and new styles as an alternative to realism– neo-expressionism and abstracts. The UCLA workshop produced many future talents like Sarah Petty, David Silverman, Randy Cartwright and Shayne Acker

In 1969, the Walt Disney Company paid for creation of a new institution that would be a blending the Chouinard Institute with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. They called it the California Institute of the Arts, now known simply as CalArts. CalArts quickly earned a national reputation in the world of advanced musical composition, but it’s character animation program quickly became second to none producing such notable animation greats as John Musker, Ron Clements, Nancy Beiman, Brad Bird, Ron Husband, Michael Cedeno, Phil Nibbelink, Dave Spafford, Linda Miller, Pete Docter and John Lasseter. Beyond the Character Animation Department, old UPA designer Jules Engel branched off into a separate program first called Film Graphics, then Experimental Animation. This program enabled students to explore the aesthetic non-traditional aspects of animation. Jules’ program produced many great non-traditional abstract artists like Christine Panushka, Shelia Sofian and Vibeke Sorenson. Cal Arts acquired it’s first graphic program computer in 1984, and the indefatigable Jules Engel was the first in line demanding instruction. The Experimental Animation program did a lot to change the perception of CalArts as being little more than a vocational training school for Disney cartoons.

The Cartoonists and Illustrators School started by newspaper editorial cartoonist Bill Gallo became the School of Visual Arts in 1960. It received it’s accreditation in 1974. Shamus Culhane started its animation program and was followed by industry professionals like Paramount artist Gil Miret, and UPA vets Howard Beckerman and Don Duga. They produced such talents as Bill Plympton, John Dillworth, Carlos Saldana , Alex Kuperschmidt and me, your author. The Highb School of Industrial Arts, where Ralph Bakshi graduated, became the New York High School of Art & Design in 1949. Although not possessing an official animation program itself, New York’s Pratt College produced notable animation figures like Eric Goldberg and Dan Haskett. Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, was started in 1969 by Jack Porter and the college’s first dean, William Firth. Bill Martsegis, Bill Matthews, Kaij Pindal and UPA’s Zack Schwartz developed the animation program. Sheridan produced excellent animators like Chuck Gamage, Darlie Brewster, Wendy Perdue, Robin Budd, Charlie Bonofacio and John Kricfalusi.

Computer Animation education is a more recent addition to the animators curriculum, since the medium itself is but recently arrived. Most of computer instruction in university up until the 1990s was focused on research engineering to develop the tools necessary for an industry to flourish. The incubators of computer graphics included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, the first program that enabled you to draw a line on a computer in real time; Cal Tech, where computer graphics pioneer John Whitney taught, Ohio State University, where former Battle of the Bulge veteran Charles Csuri made computer abstract paintings and animated Hummingbird (1968). Among his students was Chris Wedge. The NY Institute of Technology, where Dr Alexander Schure attempted to create the first CG feature twenty years before TOY STORY, and The University of Utah – where Prof. David Evans and Ivan Sutherland assembled a program in the 1970s that became a Medici Garden of future CGI talent- Ed Catmull ( PIXAR), Jim Blinn (JPL), Jim Clark ( Silicon Graphics), John Warnock ( Adobe) and Bill Kovacs ( MAYA). Nolan Bushnell, who after graduating, created the first computer games and the company Atari.

These were the main incubators for the animation business until the modern Renaissance of the 1990s sparked a boom in animation courses in universities across the U.S. , Canada, and around the world. Today many universities not only offer courses in 2d and 3D CGI animated filmmaking, but majors in games production, and business of animation. The challenge for all will be to pass on their students the skills developed by the artists of past, while encouraging innovation for the future.

We’ve come a long way since Grim bought that ice cream soda.

Tom Sito is an animator and adjunct professor who teaches animation at USC, UCLA and animation history at Woodbury Univ. His books include Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson ( U. Press of Kentucky, 2006), Jews in American Popular Culture ( edited by Paul Buhle, Praeger/Greenwood, 2007) , Timing for Animation Second Edition ( Focal/Elsevier 2009), and is currently at work on a history of computer animation.