What the 'UPA Style' Actually Is

Plus: global animation news and a classic by the Hubleys.

Welcome! We’re back with another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Glad you could join us. Here’s what we’re doing this week:

  • One — breaking down the “UPA style” and its influence.

  • Two — animation news from all around the world.

  • Three — a post-UPA classic from the Hubleys.

  • Four — the last word.

If you’re new to our newsletter, we do this every week. You can sign up to receive our free Sunday issues right in your inbox:

Now, let’s go!

1. Mapping the UPA style

People love the look of cartoons from the 1990s and 2000s. This is something we’ve picked up since our earliest days on Twitter. Whenever we share art from retro shows like The Powerpuff Girls or Dexter’s Laboratory, the visual design grabs people around the world. We often get as many comments from Brazil as we do from America.

The problem is what to call it. “Does this style have a name?” is one of our most frequently-asked questions on Twitter.

And it does have a name — at least, depending on who you ask. Fred Seibert, who helped to shepherd Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff and Johnny Bravo onto the airwaves, has dubbed the look “UPA revival.”

Here, Seibert is referring to the studio famous for ‘50s cartoons like Gerald McBoing-Boing. It’s not just his imagination, either. Craig McCracken of Powerpuff says that UPA hit him like a train when he saw its cartoons at CalArts. Hence his show’s clean lines, bright colors and flat shapes.

Meanwhile, Genndy Tartakovsky cites UPA as a core influence on Dexter’s Lab — and on all of his work since then, from Samurai Jack onward. “I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t reference one of their films,” Tartakovksy told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.

Click to enlarge — Magoo Makes News (1955), Madeline (1952), Baby Boogie (1955), Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), Magoo Express (1955) and Gerald McBoing! Boing! on Planet Moo (1956)

Knowing what to call the look of Powerpuff is one thing — but what did this “UPA revival” actually revive? What was the UPA style? To find the answers, you have to go all the way back to the ‘30s. UPA wasn’t born yet. Instead, its star artists like John Hubley and Jules Engel were young upstarts at Disney, chafing against the house style.

They were part of Disney’s new wave. In the ‘30s, many of the young hires were fresh out of art school — and they were well aware of the modern-art revolution. Painters like Matisse had blown up the old rules of color, shape, texture and figure. Dadaism had forced art to respond to an era of automobiles and world war.

“These newcomers knew Modigliani as well as Mickey Mouse, Picasso as well as Pluto,” Adam Abraham wrote in his book When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. (In fact, it was Picasso who most influenced Hubley.)

By contrast, Disney’s aesthetic in films like Bambi drew from older, more realistic art. Hubley often called it “eighteenth-century watercolor.” In retrospect, Jules Engel put it like this:

Let’s say that we had other ideas. We had other concepts of what an animated film should look like [...] because we were already very much involved with contemporary art. You know, we were aware of Matisse. We were aware of Paul Klee and Kandinsky. Dufy was, I think, very important for us. Léger was very important for us.

A breakthrough came in 1939. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrived at Disney with a cartoon from the Soviet Union — The Tale of Czar Durondai. In Russia, animators were already trying to infuse their work with modern art. The film thrilled Hubley and many other new hires at Disney with its “flat backgrounds, highly stylized characters, modern music” and non-realistic motion.

Hubley, Engel and the others eventually left. When the Disney expats started what would become UPA in the mid-1940s, this blend of influences guided their way. They’d borrow as well from modern illustrators like Saul Steinberg. By the time UPA won an Oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing in 1951, it had figured out a new style of cartoon.

UPA characters were flat, graphic shapes — icons rather than realistic figures. Gerald’s backgrounds were even more abstract than its characters, sometimes all but disappearing aside from a few clean lines atop bold, flat colors. And, as Abraham noted, the characters’ motion was just as far removed from real life. Pete Docter of Pixar put it like this:

Their approach to movement was based on feelings, rather than anatomy — the way you’d feel performing a movement, as opposed to what happens anatomically. Characters would bend in ways that wouldn’t be physically possible, because the artist wanted to capture a certain feeling.

It may be impossible to retrieve what audiences felt when they saw this kind of cartoon for the first time. Nothing about it fit the Disney or Looney Tunes mold. It was slick and ultra-contemporary, and it placed UPA squarely in the movement of “mid-century modern” aesthetics. This was art for the modern world, as people in the ‘50s saw it.

It was a time that seemed open and new, like the future had arrived. UPA filled that role in animation. These cartoons were modern art gone pop.

UPA was more than just Gerald, too. “In some ways, it is a mistake to talk about a UPA ‘style,’ ” Abraham once wrote. “Rather, the artists had the flexibility to give each seven-minute film its own look.” Gerald doesn’t look like Baby Boogie, whose backgrounds resemble Matisse’s paper cutouts. Madeline is just as far away — it copies Ludwig Bemelmans’ art with a heavy dose of Dufy influence.

Still, Abraham admits, “A UPA ‘style’ is identifiable in that it influenced other producers of animated cartoons.” A generally flat, graphic, abstract look began to dominate 1950s animation. As one commentator noted at the time, “UPA’s high-style technique exploded a trend.” Disney got on board. It even spread overseas, reaching Yugoslavia to create the Zagreb School — and Japan to spawn the “UPA boom.”

But it all went back to the modern painters. However much of a pop sensibility UPA added to it, these cartoons retained a modern-art edge — especially in the early and mid-1950s.

Modernist masterworks — La Tour Eiffel (Dufy, 1935), Circles in a Circle (Kandinsky, 1923), La Danse (Léger, 1944), Broadway Boogie Woogie (Mondrian, 1943), The Sorrows of the King (Matisse, 1952) and Senecio (Klee, 1922)

So, the same goes for Powerpuff, Dexter’s Lab and the other “UPA revival” cartoons. The truth is that they’re based in modern art, as it developed and changed during the 20th century.

At CalArts, some animators learned the style from Engel himself, who taught there. Last year, Jorge Gutierrez (El Tigre, Maya and the Three) recalled encountering UPA as Engel’s student — “his class was my first ever viewing of many of the classics,” he said. McCracken wrote today that he learned from Engel, too. A UPA artist who took directly from modern painting passed down his own development of that work.

Members of Pixar also drew knowledge from Engel, whose “influence penetrated the thick industrial walls” of CalArts, per the San Francisco Chronicle. Talking to the Los Angeles Times, Pete Docter said that running into UPA’s cartoons at the school “was almost like learning a different language.”

In the concept art for films like The Incredibles, it becomes obvious just how big the UPA revival was. Even the rise of anime’s influence, which McCracken and Tartakovsky cited on shows like Powerpuff and Samurai Jack, often traced back to UPA’s aesthetic. It was almost unavoidable.

Although the “UPA revival” started around 30 years ago, there’s still something magnetic about it. Whenever we share this art on Twitter, we see people three and four generations apart from each other enjoying it. The ideas that UPA pulled from modern art and Soviet cartoons, and that Powerpuff and Dexter’s Lab pulled from UPA, still resonate.

We’re looking forward to the next incarnation.

2. News around the world

A week in the world of animation festivals

It was a big week for festival news. There was so much, in fact, that we’ve decided to round it up in one large segment.

First off, there were the winners at Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The strange Cryptozoo, from the United States, won Best Feature. We were more surprised by the Best Short Film pick — it went to Seen It by Adithi Krishnadas of Kerala, India. She spent a year and a half on it, directing the film at Studio Eeksaurus alongside their usual commercial work, according to The Hindu. See its intriguing trailer here.

Other winners at Fantasia included the documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Phil Tippett’s Mad God. You can find the full list via Animation Magazine.

Meanwhile in Canada, the upcoming Festival Stop Motion Montréal revealed a special focus on indigenous creators this year. One panel will feature Zacharias Kunuk, director of the stop-motion masterpiece The Shaman’s Apprentice — our favorite film at Annecy this past June. For its part, the Ottawa International Film Festival has a talk by indie star Vivienne Medrano. Both festivals will be held online this year.

Elsewhere, Russia is preparing to hold its seventh annual Icarus Animation Awards. The nominees were revealed this week during an event hosted by TASS. Anton Dyakov’s wonderful BoxBallet, another film we loved at Annecy, is up in six categories. Another frontrunner is The Nose or the Conspiracy of Mavericks by the 81-year-old master animator Andrei Khrzhanovsky. It’s swept Russian festivals all year.

Lastly, Mexico’s Pixelatl Festival begins September 6. It’s also online this year, with free passes available for portions of the show. There’s an impressive roster of speakers announced — including Jorge Gutierrez, who’s talking Maya and the Three. Look into getting a free pass here.

Best of the rest

  • In an interview with us, the Indian company Vaibhav Studios (Lamput) revealed this week that it’s wrapping up a Hindi animated feature called Return of the Jungle in 2022.

  • Netflix has purchased the global rights to Summit of the Gods, the French film adapted from Jiro Taniguchi’s manga. Its trailer dropped this week.

  • In China, the government-run Wuxi Daily quoted director Li Wei as saying that his film Jiang Ziya left him exhausted and out of ideas. He says he’s starting a new film, though, based on the wuxia novel Legend of the Condor Heroes.

  • On Thursday, we learned a few early details about the sequel to Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway, the hit film from Japan.

  • There was sad Gundam news from Japan, too. Series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, now 79, soon plans to retire due to declining health.

  • Season 2 of the TV cartoon 23 Hao Niu Nai Tang has rated very high in China, across generational lines. Focused on everyday stories about kids and their parents, it fights against the idea that a child needs to be the best at everything.

  • In Russia, 19 animated projects were selected for state funding — three from Soyuzmultfilm. (And, although we’re late here, Sergey Shnurov of RTVI says that Russia suffers from “content overproduction” and that streamers should pay viewers for their precious time.)

  • The Japanese studio DLE (Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san) is working with Fukui Prefecture to create an anime series meant to spur interest in civil engineering. Fukui has struggled to fill these jobs for years.

  • Lastly, news of a tragic number of losses to the medium broke this week. Among them was Jacques Drouin (78), master of pinscreen animation. We also lost Bob the Builder producer Theresa Plummer-Andrews (77) and Cartoon Saloon affiliate Jamie Kezlarian Bolio. Our condolences to their families and friends.

3. Quick look back — The Adventures of *

It’s interesting. Before its revival in the ‘90s, the UPA aesthetic spent a few decades in the doghouse. In America, the endless copying of the studio’s style “canceled out the novelty and brought about a ‘phoney’ tinge,” per one commentator in 1957. A few years later, the look wasn’t cool anymore.

So, it makes sense that John Hubley wanted to move on. In the mid-1950s, he was newly married to filmmaker Faith Elliott, running the indie studio Storyboard and trying to find a different kind of cartoon. As he put it:

My impulse then, with the help of Faith, was to develop the visual art even further than the UPA films had. […] We wanted to get a graphic look that was totally unique to animation; that had never been seen before.

When the Guggenheim Museum commissioned John and Faith in 1956 to do a cartoon (the first time a museum had funded such a project), the result was The Adventures of *. It’s a story about ways of seeing. Faith once described it as portraying “a child’s vision, the slow erosion of the vision, and how it can only be regained through the eyes of one’s child.”

For Adventures, the Hubleys abandoned clean, slick design. Instead, they painted frames with wax and watercolor, creating a rough and complex texture. It looks organic. Although it’s a story about human characters, some shots even veer into abstract expressionism. Tying it all together is the double-exposure technique, made famous in their later film Moonbird. It lends the work a lightly dreamlike look.

Adventures isn’t some weird experiment, though. This is a beautiful film. Its story and jazz soundtrack pack an emotional punch, especially at the climax — when the pile of junk becomes a horse in the protagonist’s eyes.

John and Faith would build on the foundation they laid here, in their first cartoon together, for decades to come. They weren’t the only ones. As John said, “The film hit European animators like a bombshell, and pow! it set them on fire. For awhile that little * became a symbol in Europe of the breakthrough for animation. From that point on artists started exploring millions of different graphic techniques.”

You can find The Adventures of * in full just below:

4. Last word

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading. Catch us again next Sunday for another batch of animation news, lookbacks and more.

Watch for our Thursday bonus issue, too. If you missed this week’s bonus, we talked to Vaibhav Studios — our favorite animation team in India. Check it out for free here to see their founder explain animating with real food, going global with Lamput and the state of Indian animation.

Next week, our Thursday bonus is a chat with animator Jonni Phillips. She’ll explain the process of crafting feature-length animation almost entirely by herself.

Thursday bonus issues are free for all readers through September 16. They’ll continue on Thursdays after that — but only for paying subscribers (members). If that piques your interest, you’ll find everything you need to join below:

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Hope to see you again soon!