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John Hubley

John Hubley

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Also Known As: Died: February 21, 1977
Born: May 21, 1914 Cause of Death: complications from heart surgery
Birth Place: Marinette, Wisconsin, USA Profession: Director ... animator
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BIOGRAPHY

One of the most iconoclastic figures in animation history, John Hubley deserves as much credit as fellow rebels like John Cassavetes in creating an independent film industry outside of the Hollywood studio system. A former Disney art director blacklisted during the 1950s red scare, Hubley and his wife and creative partner Faith Hubley remade animation in their own idiosyncratic image, winning several Oscars in the process.

John Hubley was born May 21, 1914, in the small northern Wisconsin town of Marinette. A devoted drawer of figures even as a child, he attended the Los Angeles Art Center; upon graduation, he was considered talented enough to be hired at the most prestigious animation company, Walt Disney Studios, at the age of 22. Although his earliest years working with Disney were in relatively low-level positions, painting backgrounds on animated classics like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) and "Pinocchio" (1940), Hubley's obvious talent meant a quick rise to the position of art director on Disney's experimental masterpiece "Fantasia"(1940). He was in charge of the overall look of the legendary "The Rite of Spring" segment, which spanned the era from the creation of Earth to the extinction of the dinosaurs, Hubley later claimed that the segment was meant to go forward and show the evolution of humanity, but that Disney feared protests from creationists and had the segment shortened.

That kind of interference did not sit well with the strong-willed Hubley, whose personal animation aesthetic was beginning to evolve away from Disney's lush backgrounds and personality-driven stories into something more minimalist. When an animator strike temporarily closed the Disney studio in 1941, Hubley took it as an opportunity to strike out on his own. He cut his teeth as a director overseeing shorts for Screen Gems, directing seven cartoons there before leaving in 1943 to join the more forward-looking United Productions of America (UPA). Created by former Disney animators who, like Hubley, chafed at the idea that animation should aspire to photographic realism, UPA pioneered a hip, stylized look that was revolutionary at the time. In retrospect lost some of its luster when its limited-animation techniques were dumbed down by generations of cost-cutting studios that pursued limited animation for economic rather than aesthetic reasons. Although Hubley was not one of the studio's original partners, his work for UPA defined the studio's earliest years. In particular, Hubley created the popular character Mr. Magoo, a nearly-blind elderly man whose cantankerous refusal to wear glasses led him into a series of surreal misunderstandings. Hubley also produced "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1950), an Oscar-winning short penned by Dr. Seuss about a toddler who speaks only in cartoon sound effects. The following year, Hubley directed another Oscar-nominated short, "Rooty Toot Toot," a cool-cat reworking of the blues standard "Frankie and Johnny" with vocals by the legendary bass singer Thurl Ravenscroft.

Hubley would likely have continued that winning streak with UPA, but the Red Scare of the early 1950s came along; Hubley's left-wing political activism, which included ties to the Communist Party, made him persona non grata at UPA, and led to his Hollywood blacklisting for several years. In 1956, Hubley moved to New York and opened his own animation company, Storyboard Studios, which at first specialized in animated TV commercials, since the advertising industry was much less affected by the blacklist. During this time, Hubley was newly married to a rising young sound and music editor named Faith Elliott; their four children quickly became an integral part of their work together. Not only did eldest son Mark Hubley star in a legendary series of animated commercials for a hot breakfast cereal (making "I want my Maypo!" one of the most memorable slogans of the baby boomer era), Mark and his brother Ray starred in the 1959 short "Moonbird." The short was created after John and Faith secretly recorded the boys telling each other a fantastical story, which their parents then animated in a stylized, childlike style; it won the 1959 Short Subjects (Cartoons) Oscar. The boys then provided the voices for the feature-length animated documentary "Of Stars and Men" (1964), based on the book by astronomer Harlow Shapley. Later films used the voices of the Hubleys' two daughters Emily (who later became a noted animator herself) and Georgia (who fronted the long-running indie rock band Yo La Tengo with her husband Ira Kaplan).

The Hubleys won two more Oscars during the 1960s, both for films with musical connections. "The Hole" (1962) starred jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie alongside actor George Mathews, who improvised dialogue as a pair of construction workers who fear a nuclear blast has occurred outside of the hole they're digging. The lighter "A Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature" creates a pair of animated sequences for a pair of songs from the best-selling easy listening instrumental band, "Spanish Flea" and "Tijuana Taxi."

The game-changing children's television show "Sesame Street" (PBS 1969- ) was a perfect fit for the Hubleys' whimsical style, and the couple created 10 animated pieces for the series in its early years. The Hubleys continued working together until John's death on the operating table during open heart surgery on February 21, 1977. Their final released work together was "A Doonesbury Special" (NBC 1977), a low-key TV adaptation of the controversial comic strip written by the Hubleys with its creator, Garry Trudeau. At the time of his death, Hubley was directing the film version of the popular children's novel "Watership Down" (1978); producer and screenwriter Martin Rosen completed the film from Hubley's plans.

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