John D. Wilson, born August 7, 1919, was an English artist, animator, and producer. Educated at Watford Grammar School, Harrow Art School, and the Royal College of Art, he had a unique start to his career. 

After being severely wounded during the African Campaign of World War II, he started drawing cartoons while recuperating. This led to a job offer from a printer in Durban, prompting his early discharge. After working for the South African printer, Wilson decided to venture out. He later founded his own studio, Fine Arts Films, which significantly impacted the animation industry.

John Wilson with Igor Stravinsky, 1956

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA, 1950 — recollections. I don't have a directory of animation studios of that time, but as a newly arrived animator from the UK, ready to work, I was aware that things were happening. Basically, the union strike against Disney in 1942, with its result in wholesale firings of great animators, had produced small groups of artists who decided they would go it alone.

David Hand, animator

The only market was in theatre shorts, which was not a very lucrative one, but it was an outlet for new ideas in animation. I headed for Disney, since I had worked in England for four years with David Hand, who had been brought over by Rank to start GBA, an "English Disney" operation. Although he had directed Snow White and Bambi, and worked successfully with the Union to set pay scales right, Walt had fired him, as he had fired Art Babbitt, John Hubley and many others. Long story, but when I got there, the talk of the industry was the UPA studio, run by Steve Bosustow. So I headed for UPA instead of Disney.

UPA Logo Title
Since I was married with a one-year-old son, it seemed a crazy idea, but Herb Klynn and Bobe Cannon liked my work and I was hired to assist Bill Melendez. I was in an animator's dream world, and being paid ten times what I had been paid in England ($200 a week!). Working with Bobe Cannon, Pete Burness, Jules Engel, Paul Julian, Bill Scott, (all of them brilliant), was a wonderful experience, but there was no future for me.

After a year, I went over to Disney and was hired immediately to work on Peter Pan, in Les Clark’s 'Tinkerbell' unit. I stayed at Disney for the next five years. I had made friends with the UPA crowd and had seen the Oscars pile up for them, and none for Disney. That was the future - with Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing, Christopher Crumpet, Telltale Heart, and all very original shows. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was put with Ward Kimball back on shorts, designing ‘Toot Whistle Plunk & Boom’ and ‘Pigs is Pigs’,  both of which were nominated for Oscars (‘Toot’ won the Oscar).

Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom’, Walt Disney, 1956
I developed a short animated film and presented it to Disney. It was 'Tara the Stonecutter', but it was turned down. I found this old Japanese legend in a Tokyo bookstore in 1953 while on a Far East tour with Bob Hope, entertaining the GIs in Korea (two cartoonists from, Don DaGradi and myself, and two from Warner's). I was sure that 'Tara' could be included in the new cartoon world started by UPA that I opted to make it myself.

Wilson in Korea, 1950

A headline in the L.A. Times soon thereafter read ”EX-DISNEY ARTIST STARTS OWN STUDIO”, and Fine Arts Films was born. “Tara” was a box office success as it played for a solid year around the world with “Gate of Hell” (Jigokumon), the great Japanese film from Teinosuke Kinugasa, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Fine Arts Films was set up as a cartoon film company, and it attracted some great animators.

In 1955 we set out to make "Petroushka", the great Russian story of the "living" puppet. Igor Stravinsky provided us with a special score, which he conducted with the L.A. Philharmonic. Bill Littlejohn, Artie Davis, Phil Monroe, were among the animators. Chris Jenkyns, Dean Spille and Ed DeMattia designed the 16 minute show from my storyboard, and NBC picked up the tab, as it was broadcast Prime Time, on the Sunday night Sol Hurok Music Hour, to rave reviews.

Wilson with composer Igor Stravinsky
Fine Arts Films was now off and running, making memorable TV commercials with Stan Freberg. Meanwhile, John Hubley was in New York doing wonderfully unique films, as "The Hole" and "Moonbird" with Storyboard/Hubley Studios. This broke further ground again for animation, and in the next few years we saw these early creative innovations expand into new concepts for TV entertainment. A few new animated shows appeared on television, mainly slotted to appear on Saturday mornings.

All this time the IATSE Cartoonist’s Union and the rival Screen Cartoonists Guild were encouraging us to act, as the industry needed a future. Shorts were a dying business in movie theatres. Melendez sold Schultz' Charlie Brown to CBS, both as half hour specials and Saturdays. Warners, Disney, UPA and Hanna-Barbera followed suit.
In 1960, I was asked by Bart Lytton to assemble a Cartoonist's Film Festival at the new Lytton Art Centre on Sunset Boulevard. We were able, for the very first time, to bring together twenty wildly different Cartoon Studios to present their different styles on screen, from Walt Disney, Bob Clampett and Hanna Barbera to UPA, Format and Fine Arts Films. It was a great success with the public and the press.

We were beginning to discover there were no limits to the myriad uses of graphic animation. It was an astonishing display of the versatility of the cartoon medium. Fine Arts Films had diversified, and produced 'Journey to the Stars', an enormous project for the 1961 World's Fair, an animated voyage through space for NASA, which was seen in 70 mm. Cinerama by ten million visitors to Seattle.

Bosley Crowther wrote of it, in the New York Times
, “A truly spectacular comprehension of a trip into outer space, even beyond the distant margins of our own minor galaxy, which is aimed to arouse an awareness of the immensity of the universe... leaves one stunned and subdued." We felt we had made a contribution to the US space race to the moon.

New York Times, May 13, 1962

Now scores of new cartoon studios were opening up to catch the lucrative TV market, each with their own style and character. Jay Ward had 'Rocky and Bullwinkle', and there were many attempts to continue the freshness and originality of those great innovative days of the late '50's and early '60's, but the 'wallpaper syndrome' had begun. Overseas production was cheaper and more efficient on delivery, even if it all looked the same. The billion dollar worldwide gamble for TV space had started, and there was no reversing it. But there were some studios that stayed on their creative courses.

ASIFA-Hollywood, Hall of Fame

In 1965, in an effort to refocus on animated film as an art form, and show the unlimited potential of animation, a group of animators met for lunch at Frascati's on the Strip. Ward Kimball, Bill Littlejohn, Les Goldman, June Foray, myself, and others agreed to form a West Coast branch of ASIFA, the newly formed international animation society, based in Annecy, France. We moved quickly, and in the fall of 1965 staged the First International Animated Film Festival in the new Bing Auditorium, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Miraculously, everything fell into place. Henry Hopkins the director of the L.A. Museum arranged the showing for November, European studios and animators were invited, and the most creative work from the U.S. was included.

It was an amazing and immediate success. It was as if the public (and the critics), suddenly realised that animation was a new art form, - great art on film. Nothing seemed to be impossible. Norman McLaren’s hand drawn negative frame animation was seen for the first time, as was Dunning’s Flying Man and Hubley’s The Hole, Luzzatti’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ and Peter Foldes ‘Appetit d’un Oiseau’, "was a nerve-jangling, eye-opening experience", according to Art Seidenbaum, in his glowing review in the L.A. Times, "If you are curious as to what can be shaped out of an old mouse by men beset with visions, then you will have an adult excitement to attend this show. It can be like wild mushrooms". It was truly a feast of animated visual delight, truly a great Eighth Art show.

This was a world showcase of what was happening, in real time, to animation, as a film art form, with no holds barred. It was probably a turning point that separated the dedicated film artists from the pictographic storytellers. R. Crumb's 'Fritz the Cat' was to be a Ralph Bakshi feature, to set a unique genre of its own, as an exception.

The computer was to become an animation tool, and we were among the first to use it as an aid. The technocrats saw the future quickly, and it did not take long to arrive at 3-D with texture, color, shading and lighting, -all with full animation, --and no paper or pencil. Outrageously expensive at the start, it did not take long for the computer to be involved in every step of animated film (and it always ends up shot on film.)

’Irma La Douce’ animated trailer storyboard frame
Miraculously, there was room for everyone in this new animated world of the late '60s. It caused no great stir when Billy Wilder, the director of Irma La Douce asked us at Fine Arts Films to make a six-minute trailer for this Jack Lemmon, Shirley McLaine feature. It was all about Parisian prostitutes romping about in Montmartre, and animation could apparently make it acceptable. Artists Ron Maidenberg, Sam Weiss, Sam Cornell and Bob Curtis at Fine Arts Films gave Toulouse Lautrec a run for his money in catching the vivid nightlife of Paris, and Billy Wilder's wish came true. This sensually charged animated short was a huge success in promoting the feature. Another first.

This led to our interest in Broadway musicals, and in 1970 I flew to Chicago to see Carol Channing and Eddie Bracken appearing in “archy and mehitabel in Shinbone Alley”. It was a musical based on the stories and poems of the New York news reporter, Don Marquis. Marquis, a reporter for the New York Daily News, worked late, and wrote of these love poems 'archy' the office cockroach, who, (he imagined), jumped up and down on the keys of his type-writer to compose them. They were to 'mehitabel', the office cat, who was always out on the tiles. Great stuff for animation, so we bought the movie rights, and we started working.

The cartoonist, George Herriman, had cartooned some of these "epics" for the paper, so we were able to have a lot of fun with an adult musical. Released by Allied Artists, it won the "Best of Fest" at the 1971 Atlanta Film Festival. This was the beginning.

John David Wilson, 2002

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