Remembering Tee Collins, Animation Pioneer

Plus: three French-language feature films and the news of the week.

Welcome to another edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter!

This week, our main feature is a longread about Tee Collins, an animation pioneer during the early years of TV. Collins’ life, career and outsize importance to animation make for a fascinating story — one that isn’t talked about as often as it should be.

Alongside our feature on Collins, we’ve got streaming tips and animation news from the week. Everything’s organized and categorized below. We hope you’ll enjoy!

Celebrating the life of Tee Collins, animator

Yesterday, we shared a 1971 short from Sesame Street on Twitter. It’s called Nancy the Nanny Goat, and it was crafted by an animator named Tee Collins.

Collins was known as a gentle soul, but he led a remarkable life with a giant-sized impact on the world. He played professional basketball. He earned multiple college degrees, including one while in his 60s. At a time when Jim Crow laws reigned, he carved out a historic career in animation. And he helped reshape children’s TV forever.

A few months before he passed away in 2000, at the age of 77, Collins headlined a workshop about the overlooked Black history of animation. “Since I've been in the field, the number of Black animators has improved, but we're still a small percentage,” he said. He wanted to help the next generation find the inspiration and knowledge necessary to overcome the industry’s barriers.

“He wants people to know about the role African-Americans have had in the world of animation,” his daughter, Dr. Barbara Collins-Brooks, told the Philadelphia Daily News at the time.

Some of you have seen Collins’ work without realizing it — and most of you have seen its ripple effects. But his role in the world of animation is not well known today. It deserves a deeper look.

An animator’s beginning

Tee Collins got his start in animation around 1953. Born in North Carolina in 1923, he moved to New York at a young age and grew up in Harlem, the only member of his family with an artistic streak. “Growing up in Harlem was like... I wanted to break the mold,” he recalled.

Still, Collins’ path to becoming an animator was a roundabout one. Sports seemed to be his future. He attended Long Island University through a basketball scholarship. Even after getting a bachelor’s degree in accounting and going pro with the all-Black Washington Bears in the 1940s, Collins’ passion for art never faded. He ultimately went to Cooper Union and graduated with a graphic arts degree in 1952.

Before long, Collins made his way into the New York branch of UPA, the most progressive animation firm of its day. It was more diverse than its rivals. Cameraman Wardell Gaynor, who was Black, was a founding member of UPA-NY. Chris Ishii, a Japanese-American interned during World War II, was its artistic supervisor in the late 1950s.

Collins ended up contributing to UPA-NY’s most famous TV ad campaign — the Piels Beer commercials. Spearheaded by creative director Gene Deitch, the spots were wildly popular during the mid-1950s. And with good reason, as you can see below.

The Piels Beer campaign was far from Tee Collins’ last commercial project. In fact, he made his animation career in the 1950s and ‘60s as an ad man, first and foremost. He rose in the ranks as time passed, darting between advertising and design houses — including the groundbreaking Elektra, McCann-Erickson and Ferro, Mogubgub and Schwartz.

Design icon Pablo Ferro, who was instrumental to the NBC peacock and the opening titles of Dr. Strangelove, said in 2000 that “Tee [was] an innovator.”

“He was one of the people responsible for coming up with a new way of drawing,” Ferro continued. “I’m always learning from him.”

Animation stayed an important piece of TV advertising, and so did Tee Collins. It may sound strange today, but TV commercials played host to some of the most boundary-pushing animation of the 1950s and ‘60s. Usually, though, the animators and designers were anonymous to all but industry insiders. Collins won industry recognition for his ads, but never fame.

But Collins’ most important and best-known work was still to come. He would ultimately use his advertising background to pioneer a new kind of animation — on children’s educational television.

‘Selling education to children’

By the mid-1960s, television had an image problem. It had become incredibly popular with children — and they didn’t seem to be learning from it. “The appalling truth,” writer Phylis Feinstein remarked, “is that twelve million preschoolers between three and five years of age are glued to their TV sets for an average of fifty hours a week.”

“While these children are sopping up mindless fluff, their ability to learn is not being developed,” she wrote.

The people behind the Children’s Television Workshop wanted to solve this problem. Their answer, after several years of research and development, was Sesame Street.

Opportunity came knocking for Tee Collins in the late 1960s, when he was in his mid-40s. Sesame Street needed animation. CTW’s tests found that it was among the best-performing programming among young children — particularly animated commercials. Collins’ time in TV advertising made him a perfect fit.

Per the Indianapolis Recorder, Collins was key in “encouraging and developing the idea that the TV commercial technique would best serve Sesame Street's pitch for the letters of the alphabet.” Another animation luminary who crossed over to Sesame Street, Faith Hubley, summarized the setup as “selling education to children.”

And so Collins created Wanda the Witch — a commercial (as they dubbed them internally) that aired on the first episode of Sesame Street in 1969. It quickly became one of the show’s most famous segments, and ran for many years. Research showed that it was working:

The letter W had been featured regularly on the early shows through frequent repetition of the 1-minute cartoon spots animated by Tee Collins. Before the W spot was used, one out of four children in the viewing group could correctly name the letter W. Six weeks later, their number doubled. Yet there was no gain in recognition among the control group of nonviewers.

For his part, Collins found that he liked the switch to “selling” education. He made several more Sesame Street commercials in time, including Nancy the Nanny Goat and The Seal. “Everything you do doesn’t have to come out at precisely 58 seconds as most TV commercials do,” he said. “You have more latitude, much more freedom.”

Around the same time that Collins started out with Sesame Street, he made another historic move. He founded his own animation studio in New York — Tee Collins Inc.

An animator’s legacy

Tee Collins was the first Black animator to establish a firm in New York. To the extent that he’s still discussed, that’s often why. But his achievement was even more impressive than that. In 1970, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Collins’ company was “the only Black owned and operated [animation] studio on the East Coast.”

And it was more than an animation house — it proved to be an important breeding ground for talent.

Animator Jim Simon, who was once billed as “the Black Walt Disney,” spent critical early stages of his career working at Collins’ studio. “It was under Tee Collins’ tutelage,” wrote Howard Beckerman in Filmmakers Newsletter, “that Jim Simon was able to fill in the details he still had to learn about filmmaking.”

Simon founded Wantu Studios in 1972, creating commercials for Sesame Street (including I Can Remember) and The Electric Company. Side by side with Collins’ company, Wantu did prolific work on the children’s series Vegetable Soup. Simon and his team even made the early opening animations for Soul Train.

The pipeline that Collins, together with talents like Floyd Norman, helped to open up for Black animators on Sesame Street never closed. Many more followed. Bill Davis, Dan Haskett, Cilia Sawadogo and others spent time on the series, contributing shorts like Cat’s Can and Dog TV that inspired generations of children.

As for Collins himself, his animation business started to falter in the 1980s. He went back to school, attending the School of Visual Arts at the age of 60 to pursue a third degree — this time in computer animation. He graduated with a master’s in 1988 and began teaching, first at Ohio State University and then at the University of Central Florida.

“He's an excellent teacher who is very conscientious,” said his UCF colleague David Haxton in 1998. His students liked him. And he continued to animate on the side, winning awards for The Songhai Princess and Kirk’s World and Welcome to It.

Collins passed away in November 2000, succumbing to cancer after a lengthy battle. He was fondly remembered by friends and family, colleagues and students. He’d long had a reputation for gentleness. Filmmakers Newsletter called him a “soft-spoken, patient” artist even back in the 1970s. His stepson Ron Bertrand Jr. remembered him as “very serene, very calm” — “a very sweet man,” in the words of his wife Doris E. Collins.

Tee Collins doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Beyond the efforts of his daughter, Dr. Barbara Collins-Brooks, he’s rarely covered in histories of animation. Most of the research for this piece relied on sources at least 20 years old, and in some cases much older. But Collins’ role in the world of animation is well worth remembering — and celebrating.

Headlines of the week

Awards season continues with Anima 2021

On Friday, the Anima festival in Brussels announced its award winners for this year. Best Animated Feature went to Kenji Iwaisawa’s oddball comedy On-Gaku: Our Sound, which has been making waves worldwide since its release.

Empty Places by Geoffroy de Crécy took home the Grand Prix among international shorts, while the Best Short Film for Children prize went to the lovely Tiger Who Came to Tea. The full list of award winners can be seen over at Animation Magazine.

Soul becomes Pixar’s biggest hit in Russia

On Monday, the latest film from Pixar became the studio’s highest-grossing film in Russia. With a box office of 1.06 billion rubles ($14.2 million) so far, it’s already topped the previous record held by Inside Out.

More info on The Crocodile Who Lived for 100 Days

If you aren’t familiar with last year’s Japanese social media phenomenon, The Crocodile Who Dies in 100 Days is a webcomic about exactly what its title implies. Creator Yuuki Kikuchi serialized it one page per day from December 2019 through March 2020. Its popularity set records in Japan — the final page alone reached more than 2 million likes on Twitter.

An animated film was announced when the comic ended, but we haven’t heard much until now. This week, its title was revealed as The Crocodile Who Lived for 100 Days. It’s directed by Shinichiro Ueda, known for unusual live-action films like the acclaimed One Cut of the Dead. Production is underway at TIA, and the film is set to premiere on May 28 in Japan, after 100 days of promotion.

Kids’ cartoon blitz from WarnerMedia

Between the age of streaming and the slump in live-action production amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s an unquenchable demand for new animation. This week, WarnerMedia announced one of the most ambitious cartoon slates yet.

Under its new Cartoonito banner, WarnerMedia plans to launch 20 shows for Cartoon Network and HBO Max this fall. That includes a Craig of the Creek spin-off under the name Jessica’s Big Little World, a fourth season of Infinity Train and more. You can see a longer list over on Deadline.

What’s streaming

Our streaming highlights this week are three French-language feature films, each one full of lush, imaginative visuals. You’ll find them linked in the titles below. (Streaming availability may vary for readers outside the United States and Canada.)

Ernest & Celestine (2012) — Amazon Prime Video

The story of an unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse — brought to life with soft, watercolor-style animation. This Oscar nominee is one of the essential animated films of the last decade, and a must for anyone interested in Franco-Belgian animation.

Calamity, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary (2020) — The Animation Showcase

We wrote last week that we’d keep you updated on the English release of Calamity, a beautiful new film about Calamity Jane from director Rémi Chayé. Well, here’s that update! For a limited time, The Animation Showcase is streaming Calamity for free to people who work in animation. Insiders can fill out a short form and watch one of the year’s most exciting animated films right now.

Long Way North (2015) — Amazon Prime Video (Free)

If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber or a member of the animation industry, you’re still in luck. Long Way North is a visually rich film about a teenage girl, Sasha, on an adventure to find her grandfather. Like Calamity, it comes from director Rémi Chayé — and has a similarly colorful, lineless look. It’s currently free to watch on Amazon with or without a Prime subscription.

Last word

And that’s our newsletter for the week! We hope you liked it.

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Until next week!