Posted by David Kalat on February 2, 2013
There are certain names that have gone in history as legends of animation: Walt Disney, of course, Max Fleischer, Winsor McKay, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, John Hubley… but amongst their ranks there is an artist whose visionary talents graced some of the most important, influential, and beloved classics of animation but whose name did not pass on to posterity. A man who personally crafted some of the most memorable and beautiful moments of some of the most critically acclaimed animated features, while also being responsible foe some of the nuttiest moments of cartoon comedy. His creations are thrilling, hilarious, sexy, and beautiful–sometimes all at once.
This, then, is a tribute to the secret genius of Preston Blair.
Whozzat? you say? Well, gather round, and hear my tale.
From my perspective, it starts in the mid-1970s. This is an absurd place to start the story—Blair did his most significant work in the 1940s—but this is the story of an unsung hero, and it was in the 1970s that I discovered his work and learned his name.
I was just a snot-nosed kid at the time, but I was a cartoon fan and an aspiring animator myself. I had a Super-8 camera with a cable-release trigger to shoot single frames, and I had been experimenting with stop-motion using various action figures as my characters. My mother had taken me to the craft store to shop for supplies for my handmade film projects, and it was at one of these stores that I discovered these books:
I had no way of knowing that these were reprints of essential textbooks on the art of animation, first published in 1948 and sought out by cartoonists to this very day. But they were cheap, and chock full of useful tips and tidbits, so I was sold.
At first, my attention gravitated to the technical instructions—the secrets of how the camera is oriented to the art, how the art is lit, how everything fits together logistically. I couldn’t actually act on any of these instructions—they presupposed an infrastructure of resources and equipment that 8 year-olds couldn’t just conjure up with allowance money.
But being a kid, I didn’t actually grasp this essential fact, and continued to study the book as if by sheer force of will I could transform myself into a cartoon mogul.
It itched at me that the book contained such detailed drawings of scenes from Fantasia. It felt wrong. I figured the author was just ripping off famous scenes from huge movies just for illustrative purposes—I was a stupid little kid but one thing I understood was that the Disney company was a heavily controlled brand-aware corporation that wasn’t going to let its art leak out the back door in books that you could buy for $2 at a craft store.
But then I was watching cartoons on TBS after school one day and saw the Tex Avery short Red Hot Riding Hood. And things snapped into razor-sharp focus. Because, I’m not ashamed to admit, that cartoon lady is one sexy babe, and watching her undulate in the movie I had a sense of déjà vu—but unlike déjà vu, this wasn’t some vague intangible sensation. I knew exactly where I’d seen this woman before.
I raced over to the bookshelf and pulled these books out—where sure enough, there was Red Hot, her dance dissected across several pages. This was no rip-off. This was undeniably the same artwork—one moved on the TV, the other was in a book in my hands, but they were the same thing.
The guy who wrote this book made that movie.
Except, the movie said it was made by Tex Avery. I was enough of a cartoon fan to have registered that name, and knew what it signaled.
If I had the imdb back then, I could have just looked Preston Blair’s bio up and seen that he had started with Disney in his youth, briefly worked with Walter Lantz, then returned to Disney in 1940 in time to animate the Sorceror’s Apprentice and Dance of the Hours sequences for Fantasia. He worked on Pinnochio and Bambi as well, before joining Tex Avery at MGM where he animated Red Hot’s various appearances, as well as most of Tex’s most outré, over-the-top works of absurdism: Lucky Ducky, Screwball Squirrel, Shooting of Dan McGoo, Who Killed Who? In the 1960s, he was animating The Flintstones.
I didn’t have a way to look any of that history up, but I could suss it out in general terms by studying his books. He had written them in 1948, like some animation Prometheus, sharing the secret of fire with us lowly mortals.
So why is he still such a buried treasure? He lived until 1995—well into the renaissance of animation that blossomed as new generations of fans like me grew up and starting taking their passions seriously as worthy academic pursuits. We’re talking about a guy whose artwork was essential to the success of some of Disney’s most iconic and beautiful classics and some of Tex Avery’s most insane works of lunacy, and one of the most enduring mainstays of Hanna-Barbera’s television legacy. Let me say that again: he was a key player in Disney, Tex Avery, and Hanna-Barbera’s landmark works, and he literally wrote the book on cartoons, and yet he never really found any meaningful fame.
He went to work, did his job, and went home. And for that, I revere him.
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