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…

Amid Amidi

Amid Amidi is Cartoon Brew's Publisher and Editor-at-large.

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