12. Bill Hurtz

“I’ve just had a dynamic space experience!”

Bill Hurtz immediately reminded me of Mickey Rooney; that kind of face.  Though Bill was not a song & dance man, he did have the Rooney showy, effervescent personality.  He had no reluctance about telling me everything he knew, and he knew a lot.  He was one of the Disney studio veterans that were the core members of the original UPA staff.  When I was tucked under his wing in 1946, as his assistant, Bill was already the UPA historian, and with his Disney roots, working among the giants of that studio, he had become a living animation encyclopedia.  His theoretical and practical knowledge of the craft, together with his natural story-teller verbosity, made him the ideal teacher, and how lucky I was that he became mine!

I was 22 when I was first hired at UPA, and was plunked at an animation desk right beside Bill Hurtz’s.  Who could ask for a better start in animation design than that?   Bill’s title was “Production Designer,” the UPA-speak term for “Layout Man.”  It was apt, because over-all production design was a distinct upgrade from doing mere scene layouts. All creative functions were so integrated at UPA that under the guidance and suggestions of the director, the production designer set the over-all look of the film.  It took a great deal of skill; the hand of a designer plus the mind of dramatist.  Bill embodied those skills, combined with the technical knowledge to make them work to tell the story in the most brilliant way.

I remember specifically when Bill was explaining to me how he constructed the design for GERALD MCBOING-BOING, which became UPA’s first Oscar winner. What made this film visually unique was that it came from the only “Dr. Suess” (Ted Geisel) story I know of that was not illustrated by himself.  So Bill Hurtz got the story “raw,” and faced the challenge of designing it in a completely original way; no attempt whatever to reflect Geisel’s drawing style.  Bill didn’t design the scene layouts one-by-one, but first created a long strip of thumbnails, with each scene developed one from the other, with a graduating color flow and shifting of angles to reflect and enhance the dramatic flow and changes of mood in the story.  Just that long strip of color and angle patterns was a work of art in itself, and a demonstration of a master’s approach to scene construction.  I wish I could show this scenic color study to you.  It vividly exists in my memory, but I have no idea if it actually exists in his family or studio archives.

From Bill Hurtz, I learned about field guides, pan bars, pegs, exposure sheets, bar sheets, camera moves, scene planning, montage, transitions… as Bill would say, the “nuts & bolts” of animation production – but actually much more: the esthetic application of those devices to tell stories in the most visually effective way. Bill’s technical skills were but an enhancement of his artistic genius. He was a brilliant graphic designer, always on the cutting edge. He was one of the inner-circle creators of the “UPA style.”  Hub inspired me ideologically, and Bill showed me how to do it.  How lucky I was to have those two stars guiding me!

A non-stop raconteur, Bill kept me spellbound with his tales of the great early days of the Walt Disney studio; everything that I was too young to have experienced personally. Some thought Bill a pedant.  He was in fact a natural-born teacher.  If I have ever put together a well-constructed film, it was with the knowledge and insight I learned on the right flank of Bill Hurtz.

He was an unquenchable enthusiast, with inspiration coming to him from all directions.  I fondly recall, when we first walked together into the architectural wonder of the newly finished UPA building in Burbank.  Bill froze dramatically as we came into the sharply-angled entry foyer. “Hold it!” he shouted, “I’m having a Dynamic Space Experience!”

Bill Hurtz with his wife, Mary at the Annecy festival, mid 1960s
Bill and Gene “together again.” Our last meeting, 1991

5 thoughts on “12. Bill Hurtz

  1. I’ve admired Hurtz for a long time, not just through his UPA work but also through his years at Jay Ward (he was one of the key directors on the “Bullwinkle” show)

    Thanks for the write-up. I love this blog!

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