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Faith Hubley

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In the world of animation, few names are more respected than Faith Hubley. Hubley and her husband John (a renegade Disney animator who worked on Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia) began making short independent films in 1955, when they founded The Hubley Studios. Their groundbreaking collaborations were among the first to utilize celebrity voices and jazz music, but they just as often incorporated the improvised dialogue of their children. Since John's death in 1977, Faith, now in her 70s, has continued to work alone, holding to her pledge to create one independent film a year; she's made 23 on her own, and 21 with her husband. Many of her recognizable films—which often utilize beautiful watercolors that heighten the abstract images—explore personal topics in tune with her feminism and dedication to multiculturalism. Hubley's films have been shown everywhere from Sesame Street to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, and her work has won international accolades and awards, including three Academy Awards. A retrospective of the films made by Hubley, her husband, and their daughter Emily is currently running on the Sundance Channel through the end of the month. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Hubley about her career, her background, and the state of culture today.

The Onion: Your Sundance retrospective comes at an interesting time: Animation may be more popular now than ever, at least in terms of Disney movies and TV shows like The Simpsons. But your work is more personal and less accessible.


Faith Hubley: Well, it's not commercial. It's not going to sell hot dogs. [Laughs.]

O: You have done commercial work, like the Markie Maypo ads you and John made.

FH: That was a wild exception. They didn't want it to be successful, which is why they hired us. They were a liquor company; they made mixers for drinks or something like that. Maybe vodka. I don't remember, but whatever it was, they bought the Maypo company to overset their profits. So they asked us to make an anti-commercial, where the child hates the product. I don't think that's ever happened before. It's like Christmas in July, and it's just terribly funny. So we finished it and gave it to them, and we were well-paid. We had a contract you wouldn't believe. We owned everything, we had all the rights, and, because we had used our son [Mark], they couldn't do any advertising without our permission. So the damn thing takes off, and they are fit to be tied! They had to keep making more. They tried to make the product taste better: It was a healthy cereal, and they wanted to add sugar coating. It was unstoppable. So much for advertising. When people try to make things to sell, it ain't necessarily so. But if you make something out of truth…


O: How difficult has it been to maintain your independence for the past 40+ years?

FH: Difficult, but worth the trouble. The thing is, [the commercial] was such a rare opportunity. We did six or seven of them for the original Maypo, and we had creative control, so it was fine. It supported our personal films. But when that ran out, it got hard again.

O: But you've continued to make at least one independent film a year.

FH: Yes, I have.

O: Has there ever been a real challenge to get funding for one of your works?

FH: It's a constant battle. It's very hard. It's hard to begin with, but then it's doubly hard because, as your reputation grows, people foolishly associate fame with money. I've been turned down by the Guggenheim 16 or 17 times. I must hold the world's record. And I've been told quietly, off the record, "Well, you don't need any money; you're taking it away from somebody who needs it." And I say, "No, I do need it!" [Laughs.] No one believes me. But it's okay. You don't get it all. To create art, you've got to be prepared to make sacrifices.


O: For the benefit of those who don't know how much work goes into animation, could you walk me through the process of making one of your films, from conception to execution? Maybe Witch Madness?

FH: Okay. I'll give you the two-minute tour. First comes the inspiration. The inspiration came to me at USC. We were showing films, and I was working with students as a guest visitor for a day. One of the teachers, a Danish woman, told me about the witch madness of Northern Europe. Now, I knew there were trials, and I knew about the inquisition, but I had no idea. I was just stunned, because I had always thought of Scandinavia as being slightly more enlightened than the rest of the world. But it was bad in Denmark and it was bad in Sweden. I don't know about Norway, but they burned their share. So I tried to find reading material for research, and I kept calling. They didn't have any books in the old country; they just knew the dates. But I finally found this book called Witchcraze by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, a very good historian, and I was in shock. I could not, and still do not, understand how it never made the history books, and how this major genocide happened without many people knowing it.


O: I was surprised to learn the figures were as high as they were: up to two million dead.

FH: Well, she's very conservative. It could be up to 10 million. Towns got down to their last woman. In Germany, just recently, one of the places where they had done the burnings was turned into a tourist attraction. Fortunately, some very fine men and women protested, so they had to undo it, but that's the inspiration. Once you get the inspiration, then one has to visualize. There's a period for me of one month of visual research, when I make notes, drawings, and sketches. Then I start work on the storyboard, which generally takes another couple of months. By then, it's a completely visualized scenario. Maybe two or three weeks before I freeze the film, I start working with the composer so I can make minor adjustments. When we start working with the music, I'll often see something that I want to change to a musical beat. Then I record the soundtrack, which takes a couple of months or six weeks. I break it down into scenes while we're working on the score, and then we do layouts for the animators. I'm one of the animators, but you still have to lay out the scene. I do the sketches. Then, after two to three months of animation, I start doing backgrounds and setting the models for each scene. And that's where Emily [Hubley, one of her two daughters and an animator herself] comes in to fill all the backgrounds and all the models, and she does her magic with not more than two or three artists. That way, we're able to maintain a very consistent look. I don't know who animates what, because it's all seamless. Then it goes to camera in California, and then I go to California to work on the color, which is very, very important to me. We get a beautiful acid, and then the film is finished. I give it to Pyramid Media, and they hopefully market it.


O: There aren't many outlets to see short animated films, but you create them for the big screen. I guess you get what you can in terms of screenings.

FH: Yes, but not for long. I think changes are coming.

O: Have you ever considered using the Internet to show any of your films?

FH: Well, I can't stand the size of it. And I can't stand the lack of… I can barely adjust to home video. Most of my films are out on DVD, and I understand that that's better than home video. I trust that the people who are serious about works in that medium will sit still and not get up and wander around eating and making telephone calls. But we need to be back in theaters. We just had a screening last night of several of my films, one of Johnny and mine's and two of Emily's, and it's just magic. It was at the Museum Of Modern Art, a lovely theater with perfect projection, and you could hear the audience breathe, it was so focused and concentrated. I miss it. But I think that, just as there's a channel like Sundance which is serious about showing good work, the next step will be to get the good work into theaters. It's just going to take time.


O: People get fascinated with the notion of interactivity and technology, but the more interactive and polished a work becomes, the less of the filmmaker remains. You work is very personal, where you can see the hand of the artist, as opposed to much of the slick computer animation. Would you ever experiment with computers?

FH: Nope! [Laughs.] I hate it! I think computers are marvelous tools for science and medicine, and it should stay in its own house. Audiences know the difference. They see it once and it's spectacular. They see it twice, and ho hum. All you have to do is look at the number of computer houses that have come into business, gone out of business, come into business, gone out of business. The color is horrible.


O: You've said that you treat all your animation like painting. What can animation bring to painting, besides the illusion of motion?

FH: Well, the temporal quality of art has been with us since the beginning, and I really mean the beginning. Go back and look at those paintings in France or Australia, the aboriginal art. It's all movement. The current quality is to be able to move a piece of image as if it were elastic. Now, we can deal with abstract images. We can deal with abstract ideas. There's no end to what can be done. We can deal with life on other planets in a serious way. We can deal with metaphysics, which I think theater is beginning to do. If we were endowed with enough power, with money and sponsorships, and if the government gave just the tiniest bit… We'll see. I see it in young painters who are really interested in experimenting. But in film schools we're turning out kids who can push buttons. It's interesting: One of the major studios in Hollywood decided to lay off about 40% of their staff, and the people they kept were the people who could draw. There weren't that many of them. Drawing, draftsmanship, takes practice: You can't just put it away for 20 years and pick it up again. There are people coming out poorly prepared. For example, I teach at Yale. I don't teach production—I teach a storyboard class—and I get a number of artists from the art school. But I try to take 50% artists, and I like the other 50% to be people who have never drawn. I have a reputation for taking people who haven't drawn, or haven't drawn since they were little, and bringing out magic. I have to take 15, and at the end everyone does a complete storyboard, their own unique vision. We end up with 15 remarkable pieces, and then we have a party and people come look at them. I know I've changed a bunch of lives, and I've taught those articulate, linear-thinking minds to use another potential part of themselves. I can't tell you how much I enjoy it.


O: You've had experience in Hollywood editing films and working as a script supervisor. Editing, scripts, and storyboards are all narrative tools.

FH: But they don't have to be.

O: Well, your own work often comes across as fairly abstract.

FH: I did an evening fairly recently, and it was interesting to hear the audience and what it had to say about my work. They all said, "You're a fabulous storyteller." They didn't mean a novelist, or a short-story writer. Telling a story in pictures is refreshing to begin with, but it gives a great deal of responsibility to the audience, because the audience has to work hard. So, in effect, we're partners: I provide stimuli and the audience does the work. Musicians know that. Musicians know that the chemistry in the room, in the audience, determines the quality of the performance.


O: Your films often contain autobiographical information, especially My Universe Inside Out [a 20-minute film from 1996 about her life]. Is it hard to lay yourself bare for the audience?

FH: Well, I told my story in that film because I didn't want anyone else to do it. I'm getting older, and I don't want to leave the planet without at least having my version out. I loved making it. I had written an autobiographical novel—well, it wasn't a novel so much as pieces, various essays—when I first became terminal. [In the early '70s, Hubley was diagnosed with cancer and given a short time to live, a prediction she obviously proved wrong. —ed.] It was the best therapy. Wonderful. I had a publisher, and the agent who was referred to me had left the copy in a taxicab. I didn't have a copy.


O: That's terrible.

FH: No, it wasn't terrible. It was just fine, because it served its purpose. I was too young. So, when I was ready, I knew how to do it, and it almost wrote itself. I rewrote the book. There is such a thing as wisdom emanating from experience. It's really true. The kind of simplicity we arrive at after six or seven decades is quite interesting.


O: Some people still associate animation with children and cartoons. A lot of your work has incorporated children or children's themes, but some of it is pretty dark. You've made films like Witch Madness, but you've also had works shown on Sesame Street.

FH: We'll dismiss those for the moment! [Laughs.] We did Sesame Street as a substitute for commercials. It was better than selling stuff to people that they didn't need or couldn't afford. It's not in the same category. I keep using the image of a painter. There are very few painters who spent their lives doing commissions only. The content has to come from within. If we keep depending on others to tell us what to do, then we're not using ourselves properly, I think.


O: For a lot of people, making commercials may be the be-all and end-all.

FH: Well, it's financially successful, but I even question that. You get more money, but the number of changes you have to make… The last commercial I did, I can see the scene as if it were yesterday. We were making The Hat at the same time, with improvised dialogue between Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore about world war, and it was very funny and very interesting. And these advertising people kept coming to the studio and saying, "What, you're working on your own film?" And we said, "Of course. That's our life." Then they said, "You like your film better than ours?" And we said, "Well, of course we do!" [Laughs.] They started to punish us. They just wouldn't approve a goddamn thing. They punished everybody. We used some of our jazz friends to do the score, partly to help them get some big money and partly because they would be good. Shelly Manne, the drummer, did the percussion, and at 4 a.m. we were up to Take 103, and we thought it was just bullshit. Shelly and Johnny and I looked at each other, and I made up my mind that we would never do it again. I can't describe it: degrading, embarrassing, wasteful. So we finally finished, and we made no money: It almost cost us money to be mistreated. Fortunately, Johnny was a very gentle person, and not given to profanity, but at the last screening where they requested another series of changes, Johnny just said, "Go fuck yourself!" I had never heard him say that sentence! I burst out laughing, and the vice-president—I forget which ad agency it was—said, "You'll never work on Madison Avenue again, Mr. Hubley!" We looked at each other and said, "Really? Goody! We're liberated!" [Laughs.] It was such a wonderful feeling.


O: John was actually blacklisted, wasn't he?

FH: Yes, briefly. That's why he went into commercials in the first place. I don't discuss it because I wasn't there. Johnny and I were not partners, not married, but we did know each other. I can only tell you the part that I know about what happened at UPA [United Productions Of America, the influential independent animation company formed by several ex-Disney animators in the '40s, including John Hubley]. I can tell you what others have said. It was Columbia, the parent company, and they did to UPA the same thing they did to others. There are still people you can talk to about this, but some people still deny that there was ever a blacklist. But somebody found a petty-cash voucher—I can't swear this is true, it's heresy—for $30,000 in "miscellaneous tips." [Laughs.] You know somebody was paid off. So Johnny did leave. It was very traumatic.


O: Is there any truth to the rumor that John was ratted out to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee by Walt Disney in retribution for leading a labor strike against him?

FH: A lot of people have that opinion. It's a matter of opinion. There will never be complete proof. I know that Mr. Disney was very paranoid, and after we made The Hat, I mentioned that Johnny had never been back [to Disney]. I suggested we go visit, just to get it out of his system. So he and I and one of our sons were in California once, but I just stayed out in the hallway. Our son kept peeking his head in [to watch the meeting]. But we were in Disneyland once and he sent for all of us, including the four kids, and it was so tense. No one could talk. It was just awful. People would tell us that he followed our career very, very closely. He did not welcome competition: He was a man who thought it was all his, and he certainly didn't welcome young upstarts.


O: You must be impressed that your daughters [Emily and Georgia, who plays drums in Yo La Tengo; son Ray is a film editor, while Mark is now a horse trainer] have both pursued careers in the creative arts.

FH: I think they're both fantastic, and I love their lives. I love the way they live. I love the way they look. I just love 'em! I love Emily's films, I love Georgia's music, I love their husbands. I adore Emily's kids.


O: How early do you think they demonstrated artistic ability? It couldn't have hurt being the children of creative parents.

FH: You have to know that I believe everyone is an artist. Without any doubt. We know that all children draw until five or six, and they make marvelous art, and then the school system starts, and people go on with their lives. It's not right. It's frustrating. A society that doesn't provide artistic expression for each individual is asking for trouble. We're meant to do it. I did a workshop in Malibu with a friend of mine, in the public school system. We had 600 kids in four days. We had 45 minutes, so I'd show a couple of films. I'd show a film and then pass out materials, then they would paint an answer to what they saw. And then we'd show another film and they would discuss what they had seen for six or seven minutes. And they were brilliant! Then we took all their drawings and hung them on burlap for exhibition. I got a local friend of mine to hang the paintings in the theater lobby. They allowed us to show the films in 35mm so the children could learn the difference between looking at a postage stamp and a screen. And I will never forget the energy of that theater. They were just amazed. They had no idea what they were missing. We ran out of space for their drawings, so I said, "Let's hang them in the bathrooms." So they hung them in toilets, and the boys were running into the girls' room and the girls into the boys' room, laughing. The parents were so happy and so proud of their kids, and it was just great. That's how it should be for all of us, you know.


O: There seems to be too much watching in popular culture, and not enough doing.

FH: It's not permitted. I went to a workshop at the public library in Manhattan with my son and daughter-in-law and their two kids. It was on Broadway musicals, and it was a howl. These two people, all they did was have kids march to music, and then they could dance any movement they wanted. And, in 40 minutes, you watched as these kids went from fairly shy and very, very rigid to having a great time. They broke them down into groups of six or eight, and they each got to do one number. They got applause, and they got admired. I asked my family how it made them feel, and my little granddaughter said, "I want to be a movie star!" [Laughs.] But it was out of action, not of wanting to be rich and famous. The little boy who was three kept wandering in and out of the line. Everyone was affectionately laughing. It was just wonderful, but that doesn't happen enough. But it's going to change. I just feel like spring is coming.


O: What will be the catalyst for change? Schools? Younger people changing things for themselves?

FH: I think about this a great deal. I think it's already happening, and it's starting with a rejection of the values that got us to where we are. The fact that you can't breathe the air, and that more kids have asthma now than ever before… You know, everything is connected. I think there's a yearning for something we've lost. I have total faith in young people, and I think people are going to change. They've had enough and they're going to change. We were on NPR the other day, and this African-American woman in the Bronx heard it and found her way… She had never been to the Museum Of Modern Art, and she came to see a film. It was the most beautiful thing. She said, "I had no idea anything like this could happen." She might have been a teacher—I didn't ask her—but she said, "I'm going to do something." Well, this is what we've been waiting for. We need audiences to organize themselves, and we need people to just demand more out of life. I think the money insanity is just about over. I mean, it'd be fine with me if the damn market crashed! [Laughs.] All this obsession with large numbers, whether it's ratings on television or dollars invested or merging… That's just not what life is. There's a lot that's changing. The new physics, I think, has something to do with it. We can be two things at once: We can be waves, we can be particles. We can be farmers, we can be artists. We can love each other and study each other. The possibilities are endless, and we're not going to let them go.