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John Hubley


By Kathie Amatniek

Harvard's first course in motion picture animation, has been as novel an experiment for its instructor, John Hubley, as it has been for the University. Hubley, who created Mr. McGoo and directed Moonbird, has been commuting to Cambridge every Monday from a busy studio in New York to give Visual Studies 146, his first experience at teaching. For the University his presence has opened up the professional world of the visual media that Harvard until recently has virtually ignored.

In the years since he left Iron Mountain, Michigan, at the age of eighteen for art school in Los Angeles, Hubley has created an American folk hero (Mr. Mcgoo), supervised the development of another (Gerald McBoing-boing) and won two Academy Awards for cartoon shorts (Moonbird, 1957, and The Hole, 1962). In 1963 he completed a full length animated feature, Of Stars and Men, based on a book by the University astronomer, Professor Harlow Shapley. The recent opening of this feature in New York was also the occasion for a film festival in Hubley's honor.

Hubley has been involved in many of the major developments of motion picture animation since the Thirties. At the Disney studio during its most creative period, Hubley drew the "Rites of Spring" sequence for Fantasia. After the war he supervised production of the UPA greats, including Tell-tale Heart and In Henry's Backyard, as well as McGoo and McBoing-boing. And he has pioneered the development of cell "animage" techniques for graphically rendering human motion and spatial depth.

Yet Hubley worries now more than ever, about the films he still wants to make. He approaches his work with an urgency that springs from his sense of artistic commitment and social responsibility. He feels that the world is changing too fast to keep up with ("and I'm not getting any younger"). And he believes that motion picture animation is a medium particularly well suited for interpreting scientific developments in human terms--a function, he feels, that becomes ever more vital in an age of automation and nuclear power.

Hubley regards commercial success with a suspicion born of the knowledge of its dangers for his art. He saw mass production turn the Disney studio into a factory. He watched success transform his McGoo from a Babbitt into a sadist-joke. And worst of all, as supervisor of animation at UPA and then director of Storyboard Productions, his own company, he has felt the expansionist pressures of a commercial world forcing him into administrative positions, removing him from the creative work he loves.

Storyboard Inc. was making a fortune on television commericals when Hubley pulled out of Hollywood, moved to New York, and decided to try some of the animated features he'd always dreamed about. Since then he has been able to achieve something of a financial balance between profit-making commercials and money-losing features. Film shorts seem inevitably to be financial failures, for the only people who come out ahead on them are the distributors. Even Moonbird, for instance, grossed at least as much as its production costs (about $25,000), but only a third of the gross wound up at Storyboard, Inc. As a full length feature, Of Stars and Men, will receive independent distribution, so that a greater share of the proceeds will wind up at Storyboard. Hubley is hoping that Of Stars and Men will be profitable enough to allow him to make other full length features. (Back in the mid Fifties he almost did an animated version of the musical Finian's Rainbow, but financial backing fell through at the last minute.) Otherwise Hubley's film budgets will have to keep coming from profits of commercials.

Recent contracts from non-profit foundations, however, have opened up new possibilities for sponsors for films Hubley wants to make. In this sense, his two Academy Award winners were not total financial losses. The success of Moonbird led to a UNICEF contract for a film called Children of the Sun. And the man-hole discussion of nuclear war in The Hole earned Hubley the sponsorship of the Institute for International Order for two films on peace and disarmament.

But such opportunities are still too few, by themselves, to keep Storyboard going. And Hubley is finding commercials even more debilitating than usual. There is no time, he feels, in such a complicated and precarious world to make films without content. Yet making commercials seems to be the only way he can finance his artistic freedom.

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