Cooper Hewitt says...

United Productions of America (UPA) was an animation studio based in Hollywood, California from 1943–2000 that produced its most famous and influential works from 1943–60. In 1941, a labor strike at Walt Disney Animation Studios left a group of trained artists seeking other employment—of these Disney-trained animators, Stephen Bosustow, David Hilberman, and Zachary Schwartz soon founded UPA. The United States’ entry into World War II created a need for war-related propaganda and training films, and UPA quickly began producing animated industrial shorts that experimented with contemporary graphics. The studio’s left-leaning politics made them particularly suitable to FDR’s democratic administration, and they received regular government work during the war. In 1948, UPA secured a deal with Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems division and produced a number of very successful and highly influential animated shorts, many of which were nominated for Academy Awards and three of which won Oscars for best animated short. Rapid turnover from the studio and high praise from the press meant that UPA’s style came to define 1950s animation in studios across the country—The Museum of Modern Art even featured the studio’s work in a 1955 exhibition entitled “UPA: Form in the Animated Cartoon.”

The studio’s contemporary aesthetic was distinguished by an embrace of modern graphic design rather than traditional animation. As a result, UPA’s films featured simplified forms with hard edges and minimal detail—traditional perspective was discarded for landscapes composed of bare geometry, regular patterns, or even a single flat color plane. The flat animation style created a sense of infinite depth and opportunity, placing characters in imaginative and surreal environmental surrounds. UPA also pioneered the use of limited animation—rather than creating unique details for every frame, UPA designers reused common parts between frames, creating a style that was more stylized and abstract and that also enabled fast production. In addition to style, the content of UPA films challenged what animation could be, presenting shorts that focused on drama rather than humor. By the late 1950s, the demand for animated shorts to air before feature films in movie houses had fallen off. Columbia shut down the animation house in 1959, selling UPA in 1960 to Henry Saperstein, who turned it into a television studio.