Wardell Gaynor, Cameraman
Plus: an insider's look at Russian animation, and more.
Happy Sunday! The Animation Obsessive newsletter returns with another issue. Our slate:
1️⃣ Remembering cameraman and union leader Wardell Gaynor (1919–2004).
2️⃣ An inside report from Russia’s Suzdalfest (and the news of the world).
For those just joining us — it’s free to sign up for our Sunday issues. Get them right in your email inbox, every week:
With that out of the way, let’s go!
1: History in hazy memory
Wardell Gaynor may not be a well-known name, but he’s an important one. During the ‘50s, he was among the most prominent figures in New York animation. He was a union leader and an ace cameraman, working with many of the best in the business.
Learning about him isn’t easy, though. Information on Gaynor is scattered and incomplete — to the degree that we’ve considered writing about him for more than two years, but haven’t done it until now. Even so, what little of his story we’ve pieced together tells us that he’s someone to be remembered.
In the ‘60s, after the peak of his animation career, Gaynor worked as a TV producer on live-action programs that pushed forward the Civil Rights movement — like Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed (1968). He told a journalist that he hoped the work would:
… motivate people — both Black and white — to find out more about the contributions Negroes have made to America.
Many history books written by whites have ignored or distorted the Negro American’s contribution to this country. Many Black school children don’t even know they have this heritage. […] When I became a parent, I always had books available for my children so they could read about their heritage, a heritage they couldn’t learn about in school.1
As a member of the animation community, Gaynor’s own contributions were clear during his lifetime. In the early ‘50s, he was a founding member of UPA New York.
UPA was the mid-century animation studio to beat, taking cartoons in a modernist direction that’s still influential today. Its California division made famous theatrical films like Gerald McBoing-Boing, but the East Coast team ruled the airwaves, earning a large part of UPA’s money in the process. It was one of the decade’s hottest and best producers of TV ads. They were funny, high-style gems of animation.
Gaynor spent years as the head cameraman of the New York branch. Gene Deitch, the creative director there, recalled him in glowing terms. “He was my most helpful, skillful and dependable colleague in the UPA New York animation studio,” Deitch wrote in 2017, describing Gaynor as “a great person.”2
Born in 1919, in New Jersey, Gaynor was well into adulthood when he began to get a name at UPA. He wasn’t an animator, a designer or any of the other roles that traditionally get highlighted in the industry. But he was pivotal: Gaynor was good with cameras at a time when anything animated had to be shot on film.
As UPA New York pumped out brilliant commercials like the Bert and Harry series, Gaynor was there. He was known in the business, if not in the press. “Very seldom do magazine articles credit the large group of artists and craftsmen who make these films good enough to rate such publicity,” Deitch wrote in 1956, citing Gaynor as one of the crucial people behind the scenes. There’s no telling how many ads he filmed.
When UPA worked with the magazine Popular Photography in 1956 to show amateurs how to animate, Gaynor was tapped to explain the filming process. He broke down the method for testing shutter speed, and wrote:
Close-up work, which is the heart of animation, requires supplementary lenses. I suggest the amateur check his local photo dealer for the close-up lens he needs. There are many such attachments on the market.
For 8-mm work I suggest the amateur work at a light level that permits him to use an f/8 opening. This will ensure sharpness in your pictures.
He knew well the process of shooting animation — so well that he could do unusual things with it. Deitch remembered leaning on Gaynor’s experience to film experimental effects for the famous NBC peacock. Even more experimental was Gaynor’s work with Faith and John Hubley: he shot The Tender Game (1958), a film rich with dreamlike exposure tricks almost unknown to animation at that time.
Which brings up a point worth noting: Gaynor eventually left UPA New York. Like most Americans in the ‘50s animation scene, he bounced around — for a few years, he became a camera staffer at New York’s Robert Lawrence Productions. Gaynor was wistful later in life about his time with Deitch: “I remember having many a long lunch on every Friday (with the martinis continuing to flow) at the Fleur de Lys on 9th Ave.”
Meanwhile, as Gaynor worked as a cameraman, he was rising in the world of organized labor.
As was typical for UPA people, Gaynor’s politics leaned left and pro-union. Even by the late ‘40s, he was a voter enrolled with the American Labor Party.3 In 1956, he joined the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers while still at UPA New York. The same year, Gaynor was elected vice president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, Local 841. He climbed higher in 1960, when he became the guild’s president.
As a union leader and respected cameraman, Gaynor found himself in an exceptional spot. “Animation studios often reflected the past moods and trends of the nation at large,” noted historian Howard Beckerman in 1975. “Those Black artists that did manage to get into the field rarely moved up to key positions.” He named Gaynor and the great Tee Collins, another UPA worker, as two who broke that trend.
Deitch wrote that Gaynor confronted “systematic racism” to get where he got. The same was true of Florence Small Gaynor, Wardell’s then-wife, who was making history in her climb through the ranks of New York’s hospital system. (In 1971, she became the first Black woman appointed as director of one of the city’s municipal hospitals.)
As for Wardell Gaynor, he was in the group of Black film talents who gained access to the screen guilds in the ‘50s and rose through them, according to The Minneapolis Star.4 Over time, new opportunities opened up for him.
In the ‘60s, Gaynor found production roles beyond the camera — and his animation credits got sparser. His major work became those live-action projects tied to Black liberation. He’d long had a relationship with the movement, as he said in ‘68:
When I was a child in Newark, N. J., I was lucky because the city had strong Urban League and NAACP chapters, and they got the local Y to offer a course in Black history, which I attended.
Gaynor became an associate producer on Of Black Voices, a groundbreaking TV documentary — one episode alone was seen by 22 million people. Another he produced in the late ‘60s was Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant. And so his career went.
He didn’t completely drop the camera when the ‘60s arrived.5 In 1964, one outlet praised the “velvety dissolves” that Gaynor brought to the short Eugene Atget (see it here), for which he filmed still photos in motion. His credit on the mid-1960s piece Dance: Four Pioneers was similar. This work drew from his experience with cartoons, but he was on a new trajectory. His credits shifted more and more into live-action.
Gaynor lived a long life — until his mid-80s, in 2004. He had three sons and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A few years before Gaynor died, Gene Deitch reached out to him by mail, after years out of touch. Gaynor wrote in his reply:
What a most pleasant and welcome surprise it was to receive your letter. It opened many doors behind which reposed many long dormant memories of a time long, long ago.
2: Animation news worldwide
The state of Russian animation at Suzdalfest
The Open Russian Festival of Animated Films in Suzdal, better known as Suzdalfest, is a major annual event. This year, it took place from March 15–20. Ethan Bien, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who went there, contacted us about publishing his on-the-ground account. We include it today as the first commissioned writing ever to appear in our newsletter.
Even well before the “special military operation,” those of us outside Russia have been primed to expect the worst of life there, to the point that the very idea of a Russian animation festival in this day and age might seem somewhat ludicrous. And yet, there we were, at Suzdalfest 2023. Creative people continue to live their lives, to vote on and win and lose awards, and to play in the snow.
I did not see all of the films at Suzdal this year. The festival began on Wednesday, and I arrived on Thursday, in a whiteout. By Friday, spring seemed to have sprung, and I spent Sunday in the company of friends, floating paper boats in snowmelt and pulling each other along the frozen river on a wooden runner sled, rented from a kindly man selling jars of preserves in the town’s center. Scenes of Russian provincial idyll, like from three hundred years ago, life-affirming and vertiginously disillusioning in the positive sense of that word.
One cannot say that this year’s Suzdalfest was unaffected by current events. Most noticeably, many, many films were represented on stage by producers, as their directors and sometimes entire creative teams have left the country, part of the well-documented out-migration of the creative class that has hit Russian animation particularly hard.
Most of this year’s films were in post-production by February 2022, so it’s difficult to argue that the Suzdalfest jury engaged in censorship, but they did stick to the classics — the folkloric, bucolic, melodramatic and gag-driven — and passed over more artistically or thematically daring work.
In a lovingly scathing post on his Telegram channel, Russian animation historian Pavel Shvedov called out the Suzdal festival’s jury for its conservatism, and on the whole I am inclined to agree with him. As Shvedov pointed out, film festival juries around the world are prone to symbolic gestures, and it is tempting to speculate that the jury’s choices this year came from a desire to keep the festival’s collective head down in troubled times. Shvedov recommended that we pay more attention to the festival’s poll of animation professionals for a better summary of what this year’s Suzdalfest had to offer.
In any event, Grand Prize-winner Anastasiya Jakulina’s Bright Souls (Fireball LLC) was a quiet, sweetly illustrated story of timeworn love on hot summer nights in the countryside. Special Prize-winner Summer Night Music (School-Studio Shar), by ambulance-driver and animation-director Alexander Vasiliev, was captivating, stylish and mysterious.
Soyuzmultfilm, the former flagship studio of the Soviet Union, had an impressive and diverse lineup, showing that it remains an important hub for avtorskaya animation,6 perhaps second in Russia only to Soyuzmultfilm alum Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s School-Studio Shar. Omichka by Liza Skvortsova was a standout, an adaptation of stranger-than-fiction news items from Russian wire services, turned into a brilliant string of animated vignettes.
Dear Passengers (Soyuzmultfilm) by Maxim Kulikov topped the festival’s professional poll and is a solid but unadventurous crowd-pleaser. Millions of Scarlet Roses (Soyuzmultfilm) by Galina Golubeva is much more daring — an inventive, densely-crafted, lyrical piece of stop-motion. Golubeva’s film rated in the festival’s professional poll but did not win a jury award. It’s been nominated for an Ikar prize, which will be decided at a ceremony this coming Friday.
Other films of note included Volk Dumayuschij (Soyuzmultfilm) by Yulia Evdokimova, which had a wonderful script and rated highly on the professional poll, and Sunflower (Pchela Studio) Natalia Chernysheva, which is also up for an Ikar. Valentin Olshvang’s lovely Pushkin adaptation Your Queen (Sverdlovsk Animation Studio) suffered from poor program placement and was completely ignored by the jury, but is another Ikar nominee.7
Last year’s Suzdalfest took place just weeks after Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border. Anton Dyakov’s Boxballet was then freshly Oscar-nominated, and all the promise of international recognition that had come with that honor seemed irrevocably lost. A year later, the picture is a bit more nuanced.
The brain drain has slowed, and sometimes seems to have slightly reversed. Russian productions are still turned away at times from festivals abroad, but increasingly they are competing under neutral flags. Western companies have abandoned the Russian streaming, TV and theatrical markets, and Russian commercial animation is pivoting domestic and looking East. Interestingly, the creative exodus is feeding emergent, diasporic Russian animation collectives in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and elsewhere.
It goes without saying that 2022 was a turning point for Russian animation, but, a year later, it’s still hard to say where things are headed. EB
News of two huge losses came this week: Leo Sullivan (82), who co-founded “the first Black-owned animation production company,” and the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (71), whose work influenced music in animation worldwide.
American indie animator Victoria Vincent (vewn) dropped the short Nothing to Hide on YouTube, and it’s very good.
Which leads into America’s big indie-animation headline this week: the long-awaited Lackadaisy pilot. It has over 3.3 million views on YouTube in four days.
Yet Japan’s Suzume remains the top animation story overall. Launched in China on March 24, it’s now broken 559 million yuan (over $81 million) — just below the Chinese gross of Your Name ($83.7 million). It’s massive in Korea, too, where Kobis places its earnings above $29 million since March 8. So far, Suzume is Korea’s number-two film of the year, and it’s growing fast.
After Pinocchio’s Oscar, Mexico’s animation community isn’t resting on its laurels. Industry insiders, like festival director José Iñesta, argue that Mexico must go beyond assisting with foreign projects and focus on local animation.
Shaun the Sheep is back home in England, following his trip to outer space in NASA’s Orion capsule last year.
Despite limited marketing for its stateside release, the Spanish film Mummies has become a global success. It’s reportedly the ninth-highest-grossing film ever made in Spain (live-action or animated) with a take of $43.5 million so far.
Continuing the trend of stats-based stories this week, the government of Turkey allocated a total of 595,000 liras (around $31,000) to six animated shorts for 2023. This almost triples last year, when four films split 215,000 liras. It’s a sign of increased support for local animators.
Until next time!
Deitch’s praise for Gaynor comes from his blog (also the source for Gaynor’s letter). He revealed that Gaynor was one of UPA New York’s founding members in his book How to Succeed in Animation. Meanwhile, the description of Gaynor as the studio’s “head cameraman” comes from Business Screen Magazine (1961, issue 8).
From The Minneapolis Star (February 9, 1970). The 22-million viewership figure comes from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (July 7, 1968), and Gaynor’s involvement in Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant was mentioned in Afterimage (summer 1991). The line about “velvety dissolves” is from The Booklist (July 1, 1964).
In fact, Gaynor continued to pick up camera credits on live-action projects like B.B. King: Live in Africa (1974), and even one on the ‘70s animated production Noah’s Animals by Shamus Culhane.
Avtorskaya animation means, roughly, “author’s animation.” It’s a common term in Russia — referring to animation with a more personal and artistic bent. We normally translate avtorskaya as “auteur” in the newsletter, but we stuck with Ethan’s word choice here.