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John D Wilson obituary Print-ready version

by Brian Sibley
The Guardian
July 1, 2013

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Innovative animator whose credits include Lady and the Tramp, Petroushka and Grease

The pioneering animator John David Wilson, who has died aged 93, launched his studio, Fine Arts Films, in 1955 and found success with his first short subject, an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, Tara the Stonecutter, which was screened in America with Teinosuke Kinugasa's Oscar-winning samurai drama Jigokumon (Gate of Hell, 1953). Next came Petroushka (1956), for which Igor Stravinsky (despite negative feelings towards animation following Disney's Fantasia) was persuaded by Wilson to prepare a shortened score for the film and conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the soundtrack. Petroushka won several festival awards and was the first animated film to be accepted by the Venice film festival.

Wilson's diverse productions ranged from innovative TV commercials for Instant Butter-Nut Coffee, made with the actor and humorist Stan Freberg, to a groundbreaking 15-minute film, Journey to the Stars, for the United States Science exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. The film was projected on a hemispherical 360-degree, 75ft screen and was shown more than 6,000 times before a total audience of 4.5 million people.

In 1963, while working for Hanna-Barbera on The Flintstones, Wilson was commissioned by Billy Wilder to create an animated trailer for his Jack Lemmon-Shirley MacLaine film, Irma La Douce, hoping the cartoon would help sell the potentially risqué story of the prostitutes of the Rue Casanova. The result was so successful that Wilder commented that he might just as well have dumped the film and simply played the trailer.

Wilson later created the animated title sequence of Grease (1978) featuring witty caricatures of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (the latter as a pastiche of Disney's Snow White and Cinderella). It set the style for the film with a running graphic history of 50s pop culture.

He was born in Wimbledon, south-west London, the second of three children of Frederick Wilson, a civil servant working for the India Office, and his wife, Esther Hunt. John was educated at Watford grammar school, where he was taught art by Sir Robin Darwin, later the rector of the Royal College of Art. Wilson pursued his art studies at Harrow School of Art and for a year at the Royal College, leaving aged 18 to take up a job as a commercial artist for Willings Press Service.

Joining the Territorial Army, he had his first cartoon published in the TA magazine and at the outbreak of the second world war was called up and sent to fight in the African campaign with the London Rifle Brigade. Wilson was driving a jeep that took a direct hit from a German bomber and he lost his left leg. Hospitalised in Cairo he demonstrated a singular determination that marked out his later life, mastering crutches within nine days and drawing caricatures for fellow patients. A Christmas card designed for the hospital found its way to a printer in Durban where, following his discharge from the army, he was offered a job as a designer. After working on some controversial anti-apartheid publications, he was eventually required to leave South Africa and, returning to London, found employment with an art agency before joining the art department at Pinewood Studios, where he worked on The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and David Lean's Great Expectations (1946).

In 1946, while at Pinewood, Wilson saw a recruiting flyer for Gaumont British Animation, an initiative created by J Arthur Rank to provide employment opportunities for ex-servicemen and women by establishing an animation studio in Britain with the aim of challenging the supremacy of Disney. GB Animation was based at Moor Hall, Cookham, Berkshire. The unit was run by David Hand, the animator of dozens of Disney short cartoons and supervising director of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942).

Hand was accompanied by a small team of former Disney animators and writers and, under their tutelage, Wilson honed his talents as an animator on the studio's Musical Paintbox films, devoted to different regions of Britain, and the Animaland series featuring such characters as the squirrels Ginger Nutt and Hazel Nutt. The financial returns on these impeccably crafted short cartoons were meagre and the initiative failed to break the US market or rival the popularity of the Disney characters.

When, in 1950, GB Animation closed, Wilson headed for Los Angeles and, with recommendations from Hand and his colleagues, was soon working at the Disney studio on Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons and the features Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955). For the latter, he assisted the leading animator, Les Clark with the film's famous spaghetti-eating sequence. The pasta, Wilson said, was a challenge: though long and thin, it needed to be given weight to look convincing.

Working with another Disney veteran, Ward Kimball, Wilson contributed to two "specials": the Academy Award-winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) and, the following year, the Oscar-nominated Pigs is Pigs. These films employed the more economic and highly stylised approach to animation established by United Productions of America (UPA), founded by disenchanted Disney animators following the damaging studio strike of 1941. Wilson also worked for UPA on their Mister Magoo series and the acclaimed animated shorts Rooty Toot Toot and The Tell-Tale Heart, and UPA's freer, more contemporary, style informed much of Wilson's later work.

After launching his own productions with Fine Arts Films, Wilson contributed in the mid-60s to Exploring, NBC's award-winning educational TV show for children, and he created animated titles and weekly music videos (a decade before MTV) for the 70s CBS series The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Among the animated songs, later collected as The Fantastic All-Electric Music Movie, was Joni Mitchell's rendition of Both Sides Now, illustrated by the revolutionary use of computer animation.

In 1971 Wilson directed the animated musical feature Shinbone Alley, based on Don Marquis's stories about a poetic cockroach, archy, who writes by jumping on the keys of a typewriter (but always in lower-case because he can't manage the shift key) and mehitabel, his feline muse. The film featured the voices of Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing. Despite stunning designs, acknowledging the art of George Herriman, archy's original illustrator, the film suffered from a mismatch of adult-themed material and the juvenile style of character animation.

Wilson was also responsible for a half-hour Disneyesque film, Stanley, the Ugly Duckling (1982); worked on many animated series including Madeline; and provided concept art for FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1988). A fine artist of note, he exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Watercolour Society.

In 1987 Wilson married the former actor, singer and dancer Fabian Craig; she later ran a gallery showcasing his animated art. He returned to Britain to live in the Cotswolds and, later, Lytham St Annes in Lancashire. His last ambitious project was a planned animated film of Peer Gynt that, due to his failing health, was never realised beyond storyboard sketches and designs.

Wilson's first two marriages, to Annabel and Angele, ended in divorce. He is survived by Fabian; six children, David, Debbie, Michael, Victoria, Peter and Andrew, from his first marriage; and his sister, Ann.

• John David Wilson, animator, born 7 August 1919; died 20 June 2013

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Added to Library on July 3, 2013. (6796)


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