Legendary Animator Carries On Tradition

Faith Hubley stays true to the painterly niche she and her husband created

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Hollywood supplies the cartoons familiar to most Americans - from Disney megafilms to the Wham! Bang! Pow! shorts on the Saturday morning small screen.

But beyond the big studios, independent animators persist in a quirkier, more lyrical vein of cartooning. The most revered mom-and-pop shop in this cottage industry is the Hubley Studio, founded in 1955 by John and Faith Hubley. They bucked the Hollywood system and made films that won scores of prestigious awards, including three Oscars.

The Hubleys wielded total control over their self-financed films, which rendered the complexity of human relationships with feather-light humor and surreal accuracy. Their cartoons also explored nature and science, and warned of world hunger, overpopulation, and the arms race.

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Their pioneering techniques expanded the expressive power of animation as well as its subject matter. They recorded the free-flowing improvisations of jazz musicians and children, and illustrated their soundtracks with fluid, painterly visuals. They favored oil and watercolor on animation paper over the smooth look of conventional cel animation.

Trading the hard clarity of acetate sheets for the soft texture of rice paper, they were in the vanguard of animators who liberated the craft from the Disney orthodoxy. The Hubleys took visual cues from Cubism, cave paintings, and children's drawings.

Since John Hubley's death in 1977, Mrs. Hubley has continued to make a self-financed film each year. Her animations have received honors at film festivals throughout the world, and won 14 CINE Golden Eagles. The 1995 public-television series ''Animated Women'' devoted its first program to Faith Hubley, whose four decades as an independent animator make her one of this small industry's most admired members.

''Faith Hubley is the quintessential independent filmmaker,'' observes Sybil DelGuadio, director of ''Animated Women.'' Ms. DelGuadio, associate professor of film at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and a film historian, is making an hour-long documentary on the Hubleys. ''Faith is totally committed to a medium that has unique financial constraints. You need a lot of money to make a film. And yet, she keeps going. She's like the Energizer bunny of animation.

Hubley lives and works in a Bronx, N.Y., apartment that overlooks the Hudson River. A small woman with immense energy, she has gray hair and intense dark eyes. She shows no fatigue from the transpacific flight that just 12 hours ago brought her back from a festival in Brisbane, Australia, that featured her films based on Aborigine legends.

Hubley pursues a multifaceted life. She visits often with her four children and five grandchildren, plays the cello, paints, and teaches film animation at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She is about to leave for the Biennale of Animation in Bratislava, in the Czech Republic, to receive the Priz Kingslor for her contribution to children's animation, and she will soon release her 20th film, ''Rainbows of Hawai'i.''

She sits behind a big desk in the large, sunny room that is her studio. Behind her is a wall of books, and a photo of a young Dizzy Gillespie, who has lent his improvised trumpet solos and narratives to several of Hubley's cartoons, including ''The Hole'' (1963), an Oscar-winning antiwar parable.

Another wall is covered with miniature watercolors. The tiny paintings are scenes for Hubley's next animation, an autobiography.

''I spent my adolescence in a state of complete rebellion,'' she says. ''I knew I could draw, and I loved music.'' These inclinations led her from New York to Hollywood, where she apprenticed her way into the male-dominated studio system and quickly become a music editor and script supervisor.

While in Hollywood, she met John Hubley, a brilliant animator and illustrator. At Disney, he had worked on ''Fantasia,'' ''Pinocchio,'' ''Bambi,'' and ''Dumbo,'' but he left in 1941 after a wrenching labor dispute. He then founded United Productions of America, where he helped create ''Mr. Magoo'' and ''Gerald McBoing-Boing'' and directed ''Rooty-Toot-Toot'' (1952), a big hit.

In the mid-1950s, John was blacklisted for his union activism. He and Faith moved to New York City in 1955, married, and founded their own studio, vowing to make one fine-art film a year. Faith often conceived the ideas, and John would design, direct, and illustrate the animation. Over the years, they came to share all aspects of production.

The couple also intertwined work and family life. ''Our children walked into the studio, day and night,'' Hubley says. ''They were very familiar with what Mommy and Daddy did.'' The conversations and play of the Hubleys' four children inspired some of their most memorable films.

Commercial projects helped to fund these labors of love. Their first child, Mark, supplied the voice for ''Marky,'' the tot in a huge cowboy hat in John Hubley's famous Maypo cereal television commercial. The project financed half of the Hubleys' first Oscar-winning film, ''Moonbird'' (1959). Mark, then 7, and his four-year-old brother, Ray, narrated this slapstick adventure. ''We heard the boys plotting to go to the park and find a bird,'' Hubley recalls. ''We all went to the studio with a bird cage, a bag of candy, and a shovel, and taped the soundtrack in three hours. Three months later, it won an Oscar.''

When the Hubleys' daughter Emily was 8, she challenged her mother to give the girls a turn. Oscar nominee ''Windy Day'' (1967) is a quicksilver excursion through the imaginary landscape of the Hubley sisters at play. Their banter and make-believe conjure the mysteries of growing up and aging. Georgia, an alternately solemn and giggly four-year-old, morphs into a princess, a toothless old lady, and a Chagall-like floating bride.

Emily, now grown, has become another award-winning Hubley animator. She is also one of her mother's frequent collaborators.

Since her husband's death, Faith Hubley has made films inspired by philosophy, nature, and the myths and art of ancient cultures.

Hubley continues to face funding and distribution hurdles. Although home video opens a new channel for her work, she laments the loss of the big screen to Hollywood. ''Commercial films have their place,'' she says, ''but they are like a diet of one type of food. We're not getting the inspiration we need.''

* Hubley Studio films are available from Pyramid Film & Video 800-421-2304.

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