David Hilberman David Hilberman

RIP, David Hilberman

David Hilberman

ASIFA-San Francisco president Karl Cohen forwarded a note to let us know that UPA co-founder and one of the last of the truly great animation legends, David Hilberman, passed away on July 5. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1911, Hilberman began his animation career at Disney in 1936. In a little over a year, he had advanced to the layout department where he worked on shorts such as Farmyard Symphony, The Ugly Duckling and Beach Picnic. In 1939, he became the first production layout artist to begin working on the feature Bambi but it wouldn’t last long.

Unhappy with the precarious job situation of some of his friends at the studio, like Zach Schwartz, Hilberman became involved in union organizing efforts and eventually became one of the artist leaders of the 1941 Disney strike, along with Art Babbitt. Six years later, in a HUAC hearing, Disney singled out Hilberman for instigating the strike and claimed that he was “the real brains of this and I believe he is a Communist…I looked into his record and I found that, number one, that he had no religion, and number two, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre studying art direction, or something.”

Hilberman told John Canemaker in a 1980 magazine interview that “up to the war, for about three years, I was a Communist. Once the war came along everybody plunged into the war effort, everybody’s on the same side, and I of course went into the Service. The strike itself was not Communist-led. I was floored when some obviously Communist-inspired material was put up on the bulletin board.” Disney was also correct that when Hilberman was 21, he had spent time traveling through Russia, and worked backstage at the Leningrad State People’s Theatre and attended classes at the Leningrad Academy of Fine Art.

After the strike, Hilberman cemented his place in animation history by founding United Productions of America along with Zach Schwartz and Steve Bosustow. Hilberman told the origins of UPA to Canemaker as follows:

After the strike I went to the Art Center and studied art for a while. The war came along and I was working on a puppet venture that John Sutherland was putting together. I went to Warners for a year, then went into war work. While working at Graphic Films, Les Novros’ outfit, on war training films, Steve Bosustow came in one day. He had promoted the idea of making a film strip to the Hughes safety director, which they then felt they could sell all over the country because there was such a need for it. Les Novros turned it down. They weren’t interested in getting involved in any speculative field. I told Steve to come over to where Zach Schwartz and I had rented space in the Otto K. Olesen Building in Hollywood as a studio—some place we could paint and study, have a studio of our own to work in away from the animation shops. Steve came up and we decided we would go ahead and make the film. That’s how UPA got started.

By 1946, Hilberman had served a brief stint in the Army, and he and Schwartz had sold their shares in UPA and moved to New York to set up a TV commercial animation studio called Tempo Productions. Schwartz and Hilberman soon split up, and Hilberman partnered with Bill Pomerance to continue Tempo. By the early-1950s, Tempo had become one of the largest TV commercial studios in the US, but was shut down by the blacklist around 1952, at which point Hilberman moved to England. One of Hilberman’s more prominent animation projects during the 1950s was directing the Ronald Searle-designed industrial film Energetically Yours (1957). Eventually Hilberman returned to the United States, where he helped start the animation program at San Francisco State College in the 1960s. He finished his animation career working at Hanna-Barbera on shows like The Smurfs and The Kwicky Koala Show, and the feature Once Upon a Forest.

* The 1980 John Canemaker interview with David Hilberman is posted online at Michael Sporn’s Splog. Read the entire thing HERE.

* UPA director and designer Gene Deitch wrote us the following about Dave Hilberman:

All who survive those stirring times will be saddened at the death of Dave Hilberman, the co-founder of my natal animation studio, UPA, and truly of the whole idea of UPA, and the profound effect it had and still has on the art and craft of animation. As a fresh recruit, coming in just as Dave was leaving the studio, I never worked with him, only absorbing his ideas second-hand. For me he was already a legend. I learned in due time something of what Dave went through – how dangerous it was to be different from the mainstream – when I too was investigated, grilled and hounded by the McCarthyites.

Now, with Dave, Zack and Steve all gone, how many of us early UPAers are left to remember and pass on how difficult it was to be different in the 1950s? I’m sorry that I didn’t have a chance to know Dave better, and to learn from him personally. All who continue to push the animation envelope today owe very much to Dave Hilberman’s vision and fortitude.

Another great one is gone…

  • Geraldine Clarke

    This is such sad news. Dave was my faculty advisor at grad school at S.F. State. He ALWAYS tried to get me to take an animation course but I always refused so it’s totally ironic that I spent 30 years in the animation biz. Even though I never took a class from him, he was very instrumental in turning me into the filmmaker and person I became. I’d call him every so often over the years to report in and he’d chuckle that he’d been right and I should have taken those animation courses.

    I have so many wonderful memories of Dave and Libby at their home that was so full of life and art. I remember Dave telling stories about going to art school in Russia in his youth (which, of course, was enough to brand him as a “Commie” in later years.) This was back during the Viet-Nam war years and Dave let us all know, from first-hand experience, what it takes to take on a government bent on a disastrous and evil course. (And I’m passing those lessons on to yet another generation now.)

    One story stands out that occurred sometime during the 70’s. He, as a respected University Professor, was invited to some seminar for film educators in Los Angeles. One of the events was a trip to the Disney studios. He walked in with the other teachers and they were welcomed with open arms until some of the old guard recognized him and slammed their doors in his face. Over 30 years later, the old Disney strike animosities had not died. Hate does die hard. Dave, however, recounted the story with bemusement. There was not a hateful bone in his body.

    I miss him. My profound condolences to his family

    Geraldine Clarke

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Shame to read this. Also noticed he served as story consultant on Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s Western-style effort, “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland” (oddly, imdb.com seems to list two different David Hilberman’s though their film listings are pretty few and far between).

  • Paul

    I recently attended the San Francisco State animation finals screening. What Mr. Hilberman helped create there is still going strong, and the student’s work gets better every year. It’s a terrific legacy.

  • David

    Hey, I got a crazy idea. Let’s actually start talking and writing articles about these animation greats from the golden age while they are still alive!! Maybe we could even learn something new about animation history from them! I really wanted to meet an artist that worked at Iwerks Cartoon Studio and I didn’t know Berny Wolf was alive until he died. A lot of these guys that remember “the good old days” of animation love to reminisce and they deserve a little praise in their last years on earth. The ungrateful animation community owes it to them. I bet there are only 5 people per major studio that even knows who Flip the Frog is or how to correctly pronounce Ub’s name.

  • Pat Ryan

    I lived with David and Libby during the early 70’s in San Francisco. I built a studio for him. I formed an incredible bond with both of them. A few years later we met up again in Palo Alto. I remember installing a skylight in their house. Refusing to take payment, David gave me a oil painting he had just completed. It still hangs on my wall today. I miss him and always will.

  • Floyd Norman

    When I was a young tad, I took the opportunity to hang out with guys like the late Berny Wolf, and Dave Hilberman. Boy, they had a lot to tell, and I had a lot to learn.

    You’re right, these old guys won’t be around forever. We should all take every opportunity to have a cup of coffee with these industry vets, and learn a thing or two. I sure did.

  • Paul

    David, if you haven’t already read them, I’d strongly recommend the “Walt’s People” series of books. There are 4 volumes thus far, with volume 5 due shortly (I believe). It’s a great series of interviews with artists who worked with or for Disney. The early volumes hit “the usual suspects”, but in volume 3 and 4 are interviews with artists who aren’t the nine old men :0). True, it only covers Disney history, but it’s a start, and you get the individual’s perspective on events, not the studio’s version.

    It’s true that knowledge of the history of the industry is sorely lacking, but that’s for a different post.

  • I met Dave when I was a teenager in Santa Cruz. There was an animation screening at one of the community centers and Hilberman was there sitting with Lee Blair (Mary’s husband). Lee introduced me to him as “one of the guys who led the stike and started the animation union”. I was in awe because I thought he must be a cross between a communist and a mafia thug – impressions one tends to get from reading histories of the strike from Walt Disney’s point of view! I’m glad I had the chance to meet him (briefly).

  • My passion for animation stemmed from childhood when I had started making stop frame films with the family’s 8mm movie camera. I had been showing a range of animation in school and in a theater created in our barn, called the Above-the-Ground Theatre. My journalism teacher often took a couple of his interested students to sit in on film classes at San Francisco State. They were taught by John Fell, James Goldner and David Hilberman. These guys opened a new world to us. They also agreed to help with our little makeshift cinema and film production so it was only natural that I would decide to enter the Film Department at SFSU when I graduated from high school in 1966.

    To learn there was an actual animation program was like going to heaven. Dave Hilberman was an inspiration. He didn’t dwell on his own past unless we showed a real interest and could coax him to tell stories. And, as has been reported above, they were fascinating.

    But what I most remember was Dave (“Mr. Hilberman” soon became “Dave” to his students) taking considerable time to work with each of us on our projects from concept to storyboard, at the animation stand to editing and sound. He encouraged experimentation in style and technique but what has stayed with me and I quote him to young filmmakers regularly was, “It’s about the story.” He explained that non-linear works were fine and could be revelations. But if we wanted to convey a message we needed to work hard to develop a solid narrative. He emphasized that the story must be in place before we ever started filming. This frustrated some students. They wanted to get their drawings or clay figures in front of the camera thinking that was the most important element. But, he insisted, if you can’t hold your audience, they won’t be around long enough to see your visual accomplishments.

    It is advice that holds today.

    Last week I was telling some young people this very story and wondered how Dave was doing. A few days later Karl Cohen’s sad email arrived with answer.

    David Hilberman will be missed.

  • Micah Baker

    I’m sorry I’m so late to post anything. I hope someone will catch this.

    It’s funny that your impression from the point of view of Disney was that he was communist or a mafia thug. It was Walt Disney who hired the Mob to try and break up the strike.

    Mr. Hilberman (perhaps he’d like to be called Dave.) Dave was part of a documentary called Walt Disney: Secret Lives. He was engrossing. He is joined by several folks who worked for Disney from the ink and paint department to animators.

    I made a playlist to easy things up.

    I’m all for getting these elder statesmen on file and recognized before they pass on.

  • Sarah Birns

    Dave was my grandfather’s cousin and he was beloved by many.

    I was trolling around Walt Disney’s Wikipedia page this past week when I read the “Walt Testifies before Congress” section below with a particularly troubling last sentence. Troubling because I don’t know why there isn’t any wikipedia-clad “evidence” to support Walt’s anti-semitism; Dave was pretty clear about Walt’s egregious comments and behavior even before the whole union flap.

    Anyhow, read below:

    After the 1941 strike of Disney Studio employees, Walt Disney deeply distrusted organized labor. In 1947, during the early years of the Cold War,[5] he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators. (All three men denied the allegations.) Disney implicated the Screen Actors Guild as a Communist front, and charged that the 1941 strike was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood. However, no evidence has been discovered to support this.[citation needed]

    Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that from 1941 until his death, he spied for the FBI on union activity in Hollywood, and illegally intimidated union activists.[6] Since Jews were prominent in the labor movement, some employees felt that Disney’s actions were motivated by anti-semitism. However, there is no evidence of this.[7][8]