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The Avant-Garde Origins of 'Gumby'
Plus: animation news.
Happy Sunday! We’re back with more from the Animation Obsessive newsletter. This is the plan for today:
1️⃣ How Gumby took inspiration from avant-garde filmmaking.
2️⃣ Animation newsbits from around the world.
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With that, we’re off!
1: Gumby and the avant-garde
Last year, a reader from Serbia sent us a message. He had something odd for us.
It was a group of sketches and storyboard fragments drawn by Slavko Vorkapich (1894–1976), an experimental film artist. We’d never heard of him, and even our contact described Vorkapich as a “mostly forgotten innovator.”
But it all piqued our interest. As we learned, Vorkapich’s avant-garde ideas changed live-action Hollywood movies between the ‘20s and ‘40s. And, weirdly enough, they were tied to Gumby. What did a goofy, retro TV series for children have to do with experimental filmmaking? A lot, as it turned out.
The creator of Gumby, Art Clokey, started as a film student. He learned his craft under Vorkapich, then turned his teacher’s theories into hit TV. The story is even unlikelier than it sounds.
Vorkapich was quite a character. Born in a small Serbian village, trained as a painter in Hungary and France, buffeted by World War I, he gradually fixated on the idea of cinema as an art form. So, he gathered a little money from his friends and boarded a ship to New York City. Over the course of a year, he hustled his way to Hollywood.1
In 1921, Vorkapich arrived in Los Angeles almost penniless, and his adventures continued. That included hawking paintings, acting for director Rex Ingram and decorating a millionaire’s house (and overcharging for it). Along the way, he was publishing radical essays in a film magazine. In 1926, he wrote:
… the motion picture camera should represent not the physical, optical eye, but the inward, THE MIND’S EYE, the eye with which we watch our dreams, our visions, the pictures on the screen of our imagination. […]
You do not impress us when you give us a still and flat picture […] but when in some inspired moment, you put your camera on wheels, you carry us through those surroundings; when you approach or follow some actor, when you swing and move around and give us a new and moving view of things, you begin to take us off our seats and carry us into the drama itself.
Soon after that, Vorkapich was credited as the co-director of The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928), an avant-garde short made outside the studio system. Watching it today, you’re struck by how far ahead of its time it was. (Gregg Toland, who later shot Citizen Kane, was involved in the cinematography.) It put Vorkapich on the map.2
By the time Art Clokey met him, Vorkapich was one of Hollywood’s most influential film artists. His specialty was montage: collapsing time, overlaying images, cutting in unreal ways. These techniques came from the avant-garde, but Vorkapich had used them in films as mainstream as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where Frank Capra had him oversee the tour sequence.
In the end, avant-garde does mean vanguard. The middle guard and rearguard get to the same place — it just takes a bit more time.
In the late ‘40s, Vorkapich became a teacher at the University of Southern California. He was as eloquent, persuasive and passionate about film as ever — he’d developed a whole philosophy about it, which had a big influence on the school. Clokey, a seminary dropout who’d moved into film studies, became one of his key disciples.
Clokey was especially taken by Vorkapich’s theory of kinesthetic filmmaking — the idea that moving images have simple, visceral impacts on the body. That we internalize the motion we see happening on screen. Vorkapich wrote:
We react bodily, kinesthetically, to any visual change. As a rule the bigger the change the stronger the reaction. For example, in a sudden cut from a long view of an object to a very close view of it there is, always, an inevitable optical and kinesthetic impact, an explosive magnification, a sudden leap forward.3
That was one of the many “kinesthetic” effects Vorkapich outlined. Clokey tested the theory in Gumbasia (1953), a piece of abstract claymation set to jazz. It’s a student’s attempt at a totally kinesthetic film — where “the distraction of recognizable forms” is removed, and only the sensations of motion remain. Gumbasia was, Clokey wrote, “an experiment in pure movement.”4
In the ‘80s, Clokey described his views on kinesthetic filmmaking:
It’s similar to music. You build to a climax through use of timing and intensity of the stimuli — the duration, syncopation and so on. All deal with the same thing. Slavko Vorkapich, my film teacher at USC, taught that it’s more like poetry and music. He would refer to the shots and the definite cuts as notes. Visual notes to combine and use in various ways, to get across your feelings. […] It’s the balance of repetition, variety, tempo. And just a split second of rest. It’s all a mysterious combination.5
Clokey continued to follow these theories across his career. Like Vorkapich, he was eloquent about it. “As a poet organizes his words, a musician organizes his tones, so will the film artist meaningfully organize his movements into what may be called ‘kinesthetic melodies and orchestrations,’ ” Clokey once explained.
Early on, he took that philosophy into TV advertising. Clokey’s stop-motion spots for Coca-Cola (here) and Budweiser (here), from the early-to-mid-1950s, had something obviously but indefinably odd about them. The abrupt cut in the middle of the Budweiser ad, for example, almost gives you whiplash.
In other words, Clokey was an experimental filmmaker in a commercial space. Just as John Hubley and UPA brought modern art to TV ads, Clokey was bringing avant-garde cinema. Only, you couldn’t quite call it avant-garde or experimental anymore. It was the new normal — the way that jump cuts, once a French New Wave tool, are now a given in any popular YouTube video.
Weird things becoming the new normal was, really, the norm in the ‘50s. So, it’s not too shocking that Clokey soon found himself in charge of a popular show for kids.
Gumbasia had impressed the right people — giving Clokey the chance to make a claymation series based on the same principles, but with characters this time. Gumby was the result. Around June 1956, it began as a segment on Howdy Doody (which had hired UPA in the past).
The unaired Gumby pilot, produced in 1955, was already bizarre. Its clay animation is rudimentary, but its filmmaking has more in common with Vorkapich than with Howdy Doody. See the early moment when Gumby wrecks his vehicle and gets stuck in a pipe, interspersed with quick cuts to his parents’ horrified faces. See the disorienting cut to a wind-up toy in motion around 1:57.
Or see the part where Gumby, driven berserk by a phonograph record, cuts himself in half with a sword and divides into a series of geometric shapes that stretch infinitely into the horizon.
Gumby’s actual TV premiere, a three-part episode about going to the moon, was even weirder. There’s something deeply alien about it — a quality that modern audiences might write off as the cold, arid filmmaking of an amateur. But that’s not what it is.
Looking closer at the Gumby premiere, you see Vorkapich’s ideas at work. When Gumby’s spacecraft almost wrecks into an “asteroid” (monster), the thing’s slow approach feels more disturbing than it has any right to be. There’s a kinesthetic impact as this shape grows nearer to the screen, intercut with shots of warning lights and Gumby’s widening eyes.
Take Gumby’s flight over the moon’s surface, looking down over abstract geometry. Take his first encounter with the moon creatures, which move in uncomfortable unison. Wide shots emphasize their pointed shapes and shadows — threatening by nature. Or take the match cut at 8:27, which contrasts motion in two directions. And so on.
The most accomplished sequence runs from 12:05 to 12:35. Its building blocks are crude cardboard sets and what appears to be a doll’s head — nothing impressive. But the filmmaking tells another story.
As Gumby and his dad leave on a space ladder, planets hanging uneasily in the background, the combination of their descent with the camera zoom hits you. Then Clokey pairs the straight-on motion of an elevator with a tilted shot that scrolls up the side of a hospital. The dolly shot down the hospital corridor, where shadow and light play over Gumby’s mom, feels like animated Kubrick.
Stuff like this helps to explain why that first Gumby episode was so popular. People at home didn’t register these as avant-garde techniques — they just found themselves unable to look away from the screen, because Clokey wouldn’t let them. As he once said:
Vorkapich got down to basics. His theory was that motion picture dealt only with motion and the illusion of three-dimensional objects created by the director’s use of shapes, shadows, colors and motion. He said if you understand how to organize those things through camera angles, camera movement, pace and so forth, you could make any film more interesting. And it happened to me [...] people were fascinated with how I could make the screen come alive in ways that other people couldn’t.
It shows how much of a difference thoughtful, intentional filmmaking can make. Taken for their animation alone, the early Gumby episodes don’t stand out — the action is stiff and unrefined, and everything looks cheap. Yet, using ideas from live-action cinema, Clokey elevated his work. Gumby demanded people’s attention.
In the process, it proved again that “avant-garde” ideas are only ahead of their time until they aren’t. Everyone in the ‘50s knew that Gumby was weird, but something about it was compelling. Vorkapich went from the underground to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Clokey took experimental film and made it pop. He turned it into a TV program exciting to kids who’d never heard of Eisenstein.
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on June 23, 2022. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — over a year later, we’ve made it free to all.
2: Animation news worldwide
A look at Cartoon Forum 2023
Animation needs money and infrastructure to happen. Without backing, it starves. An animation director in the Soviet Union once decried the state of his talented peers in capitalist countries, where funding for the arts was fickle. “The emergence of their work is by chance,” he wrote, “since financing for this art form is also by chance.”6
In the 21st century, at least one part of the world has built a middle road. That’s Europe — where a network of state and company backing makes animation possible.
An essential part of this network is Cartoon Forum in Toulouse, France. The event is annual — its 2023 edition took place from September 18–21. Animation studios across Europe pitched their TV projects to hundreds of potential buyers and partners.
According to Animation Magazine, the best-attended pitch this year was Luce in the Lovely Land, a show co-produced in France and Belgium. It adapts one of 2022’s best films: Luce and the Rock. The original director, Britt Raes, is thankfully still in charge. She says she’s preparing for the “big adventure” of overseeing a whole series.
Pig & Andersen from Denmark looks impressive, too. Like Luce, it’s based on a film: The Swineherd, now on the festival circuit. Pig & Andersen is billed as Hans Christian Andersen “in a way you have never seen before,” and buyers showed up — it tied for fourth place in buyer attendance at Cartoon Forum 2023.
Luce and Pig & Andersen are for kids and families. Elsewhere, we find The Forgotten Women of the Père Lachaise, a French series for older viewers. Director Alix Fizet has worked in animation for years — she got a Cartoon Brew feature way back in 2014. This week, Cartoon Brew hyped up Père Lachaise and described its premise like so:
Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is the resting place for some of the most recognizable figures in human history. Often missing from the stories of its inhabitants is the role that many of the women entombed there played in shaping the modern world. The Forgotten Women of the Père Lachaise sees a bored cemetery gardener engage in conversations with the ghosts of these women, hearing their stories and putting them within the context of modern France.
One more show getting attention was Mavka. It’s another series spun off from a film — this time, from the feature-length Mavka: The Forest Song, completed and released in Ukraine amid the war. Cineuropa reports that the film earned nearly $19 million worldwide. That makes it a success, and the series tied for sixth place in buyer attendance at Cartoon Forum. It’d already landed a French co-production partner before the event.
Italian animator and illustrator Giulia Martinelli has started a podcast called Under the Onion Skin, where she interviews current animators from the festival circuit. Check out her latest with Estonia’s Sander Joon, on his great Sierra.
In Japan, Studio Ghibli is being bought by Nippon Television. It seems to be unrelated to the box-office returns of Hayao Miyazaki’s Boy and the Heron, which producer Toshio Suzuki says has made a profit despite its seven-year production. Miyazaki himself is reportedly still eager to work on new projects.
Speaking of Miyazaki, he made a rare, clean-shaven public appearance at the San Sebastián Film Festival in Spain, via a prerecorded video.
The French animation school Gobelins revealed the six new winners of its African scholarship program — from Egypt, Kenya, Cameroon and South Africa.
In Japan, Trigger producer Kazuya Matsumoto says that “approximately 90% of doga and shiage work [for TV anime] is done by people from overseas,” many of them in China. Doga is cleanup and in-betweening; shiage is color, checking and more. He notes that Trigger is exploring AI animation as a possible answer to Japan’s worker shortage.
In Nigeria, the co-founder of Kugali Media (of the Disney+ series Iwájú) argues that a lack of local funding is holding animation back. “Most of the support we get from art and cultural industries is from the UK, France and others,” he says.
Lastly, we wrote about how Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki (and Yasuo Otsuka) took huge inspiration from Paul Grimault’s magnum opus.
See you again soon!
Vorkapich did a lot in Hollywood — he was usually hired to direct or edit sections in other people’s films. Luckily, he kept personal copies of his work. Vorkapich’s mind-boggling shot in The Wolf of Wall Street (1929) is believed to be the only surviving piece of that film.
From Gumby: The Authorized Biography of the World’s Favorite Clayboy, a frequent source. We also rely on Gumby Imagined: The Story of Art Clokey and His Creations. For further reading, see Animation: Art & Industry.
To learn more about Vorkapich’s theories, we recommend the USC’s Slavko Vorkapich Collection. It even has tapings of some of his lectures, so you can see for yourself why artists like Clokey, Saul Bass and Julie Dash were so inspired when they heard him.