Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Words of Willie Ito

Willie Ito is one of a handful of people still around who not only worked on the original Bugs Bunny cartoons at Warner Bros., but on the original Flintstones series. Willie’s career began and ended with Disney and included a stop at Bob Clampett’s short-lived Snowball, Inc.

There aren’t too many people left who received screen credit in the first half-dozen years of the Hanna-Barbera studio’s life, but Ito is one of them. I’ve never had the pleasure of chatting with him, but others have done it on the record. Most recently, webcaster Stu Shostak gathered Ito, fellow layout man Jerry Eisenberg (next to Willie in the 1964-ish photo to the right) and writer Tony Benedict on his show to reminisce and explain how the cartoons were made. The interview was excellent. Stu has given me permission to transcribe some of what Willie Ito had to say. The transcription is missing some repeat words and I have paraphrased Stu’s questions. (Some of the screen shots come from either Jerry’s or Tony’s home movies).

‘Snow White’ was the first movie you saw?
When the seven dwarfs marched on the big screen in Technicolor saying “Heigh ho, heigh ho,” I says “That’s what I wanna be.”

Talk about the internment during the war.
Then that infamous day happened. 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, we were all sent to the middle of a desert. It was totally miserable. And because of the fact that it was too hot to go outside during the summer, and too cold to go outside, I stayed in and just drew and drew. And, of course, one of the things that I did was, we were given Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues to buy our dry goods from and so every three months they would send us new catalogues. So with the old one, I would draw on the margins. You know, walks and bouncing balls and all that.
Yeah [my parents noticed my artistic ability], because when I was in grammar school before being interned, my teacher on the report cards says “Willie likes to daydream and draw a lot.” That was the American school. After the American school, I would have to go to Japanese school and so it was very strict, so at 4 o’clock I would report to Japanese school and we would sit there with our hands folded and the teacher would come in and we would bow and very disciplined. But once in a while I’d get a little bored and start drawing and the teacher would come up from behind me with a ruler and whap me across the [hand]. But I survived that at American school.

What was your first animation job?
I started my career at Walt Disney studio and I was hired by Iwao Takamoto. Of course, we were working on ‘Lady and the Tramp’ at that time. I was an apprentice in-betweener, struggling to maintain the kind of work that Iwao was doing because I was following him.
The first scene I was assigned to was the iconic spaghetti kissing scene. Iwao was such a strickler [sic] for perfection that after about three weeks, I kept thinking “my father says ‘you know, you should get a barber’s license’—like, he was a barber—‘so you’ll have something to fall back on.’” I started seriously thinking about that.

You went from Disney to Warners.
Then I was in Chuck’s unit [at Warner Bros.] doing various, well, basically I was Ken Harris’ assistant but Chuck knew I wanted to eventually do character design or storyboards or whatever. So he would occasionally throw me a bone and say “Hey, have Willie design these incidental characters from one of the Bugs Bunny shows and all that,” which I did. Hawley Pratt, who was a layout man in Friz Freleng’s unit, Friz was going to move him up to directorship, so he needed to train a layout man, so Friz asked Chuck if I could be borrowed for one picture to see how I do. So I went over to Friz’s unit, laid out “Prince Violent,” which later was changed to “Prince Varmint” for television’s sake, they kind of softened it.
I finish my very first layout assignment and my very first Warner Bros. screen credit. And I was really ready for the next picture. Then I get a call from Bob Clampett’s studio saying “Hey, I understand you like to do character designs.” “Well, yeah, I sure do.” They said “Would you like to come over because ‘The Beany and Cecil Show,’ which were puppets, was now going to be done in animation.” And I thought ‘Wow, what an opportunity’ and while I was thinking about it, he said “And we’re going to double your salary.” Goodbye, Friz. Goodbye, Chuck.
Then Chuck calls me aside and said “You know, this is television that you’re going to be working in, it’s all fly-by-night. We’re a major studio and we’re going to be making short subjects forever.” Well, six months later, Warner Bros. started [closing the studio].

You were at Snowball for a year, Beany and Cecil wasn’t renewed, and Clampett tried other concepts but none of them were picked up.
In fact, the big show we worked on was the Edgar Bergan/Charlie McCarthy show. And so we did this beautiful presentation and I borrowed a lot of the artwork from Jerry’s father Harvey Eisenberg, a beautiful Charlie McCarthy comic book from Dell. And so I lifted a lot of the great shots and blew it up and we had a board, just a beautiful presentation. And Edgar Bergen, Frances Bergen, who’s Edgar’s wife and Candice Bergen, who was still like a little eight-year-old girl, they all came up to the studio and reviewed it. Edgar was very happy with what he saw. So we thought, “Wow, we got it locked in. ABC’s going to buy that show.” But, meanwhile, Hanna-Barbera also had an open time slot. And at that point, the studio was starting to vie for whatever time slot was open. Hanna-Barbera has already established a track record. Finally, when it was apparent that Bob wasn’t going to have another show, Alex Lovy called and said “Hey, kid, I hear you’re wrapping it up at Clampett’s. We’re looking for layout guys.” So I says, “Maybe I’d better take this.” So I went over and then that Monday morning I walk into the Hanna-Barbera layout department and there, sitting there, was Jerry, Iwao Takamoto and a few of my other acquaintances, and I says “Oh, my gosh, this is like home week.” I’m going to stay here.
Then after that one of my layout guys I was working with, Homer Jonas, came over and Tony Sgroi came over.
So suddenly Hanna-Barbera was really getting a lot of the [people from other places]. And, of course, Disney’s shorts department closed up. So all of a sudden—guys like Nick Nichols, and all that, they were from Disney’s shorts department.
Before I actually went over to Clampett, I just thought, “You know, I think I’ll kind of make the rounds of the studios. So I went to visit Joe at the old Charlie Chaplin studio on La Brea. I had an appointment to see Joe, I had never met Joe before, but walking into the Charlie Chaplin studio was rather intimidating. God, this was the master of comedy. And the studio had that nice, old-fashioned flair, but then you could see sound stages and all that, and I thought “Well this is a real movie studio.”
I go into see Joe and Joe says “Hi, how are you, kid? Sit down.” then I show him my portfolio, and he looks at my portfolio said “Oh, yeah, it’s nice but we don’t draw this way.” “Oh, okay, thank you, Joe,” and then in retrospect, years later, we’re all drawing that style.

What did a layout artist do at Hanna-Barbera in those days?
Basically, layout, we make the blueprint of the film, so taking the storyboards or whatever, then we plan the film. We indicate trucks and all of the camera things. We suggest it. Occasionally, there’ll be, like, on the storyboard, a character, and then you’ll see in red pencil, “See me, Joe.”
We would turn our stack of work in to the production coordinator, then they take out the background layouts, send them to the background department and then the timing director or, like, Nick Nichols will go over the storyboard and get the scenes and assign it to his respective animators. So now it was being divvied up throughout the studio.

Did layout artists design any characters?
We in layout, especially during presentation time, we would get assigned a bunch of characters, we make roughs, we do our own interpretation of it and whatever. But then you start to hone in and then maybe Jerry will make a rough of a character idea, myself, and all that. Then it gets run by Iwao Takamoto and then he would kind of put his touch to it and then Joe would look at us and, “Yeah, we like that character.” So even though it’s a compilation of a number of the layout men’s interpretation, at the end, Iwao does the final touch on there and it has that Iwao Takamoto look.

What about creating characters?
A lot of these storyboard guys like Lew Marshall and [Tony Benedict], they were veterans of the animation business so they are able to design characters that will work. So we would sometimes say “Hey, I like the way this character is designed on this story and we just kind of expand on the actual design that the story guys conceived of. Sometimes we would just start from scratch.

What about sitcom writers brought in to work on the half-hour shows?
With the original cartoon writers, like Tony and Mike Maltese and Warren Foster, they did stories and made little sketches and pinned them on the board, so they were writers. But then when scripts came in from live action writers they had to start a whole new department of story board artists, storyboard editors and all that. So they would read the script and then story-direct and all that. That later became a whole department throughout the industry.

Was there a runaway production back then?
This is where sourcing the work out of the country came up. No, not quite that far back [as the early ‘60s] but later as the studio grew they took on more shows and more shows. You know, Joe would go back to New York and then call Bill Sunday night and say “Hey Bill, you gotta staff up because I sold another show. And Bill will say (growling) “How the hell am I going to find all these people?” He had to get old animators from Fleischer and Terrytoons to freelance. And now these guys were what you call “rubber hose animators.” Like the old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons, no elbows, it was all just rubber hose. And now, so, Joe is selling shows like ‘Space Ghost’ and ‘Jonny Quest’ and all of this [adventure stuff]. And I was working on a show called ‘Mighty Mightors’ [sic] and that was kind of a lesser show so a lot of, you might say, B or C animators [were assigned]. Oh, it was embarrassing to watch. And then, of course, at that point, they say “Hey, you know, we got to get strong comic book people like Doug Wildey and Alex Toth.”
That’s where it required very strong poses, from one pose to the other, and it’s these comic book-trained artists that could get the superhero, that strong pose. So the rubber hose animators put in-between drawings to this pose, and then from that pose to the next.

What about practical jokes at the studio?
Willie: Well, herein lies that joke where someone asks Joe “Hey, how many people work at the studio?” He said “Half.” We always thought that Joe would roam around and see all these gag cartoons in the cubbyholes that we were working in and it’s like, well, that all takes time. That one drawing could have been one scene, you know, one layout.
Stu: Did Hanna say stuff that like?
Willie: Why, I’m sure Hanna thought it.
Stu: Did they do a lot of Asian humor at you and Iwao?
Willie: We never took offence. Well, you know, Jerry had a sword and we would take the sword and we around like samurai warriors.
One thing we never had back then was H.R. That’s like the death of all big companies.

You got mixed up with Iwao Takamoto.
If I did anything wrong, Joe always thought I was evil. I would take credit if it was good, and if he was criticizing “Iwao did it.” Joe would confuse it. He would be calling me “Iwao.” But I won’t correct him. (Mixing up pay cheques) That was always correct.
That’s like being mistaken for Iwao by Ralph Bakshi. I get a phone call at Hanna-Barbera. And it says, uh, “Willie Ito, this is Ralph Bakshi’s secretary. Ralph would like to meet with you.” I says “Oh, gee whiz, okay.” So we set a time and date and then I’m driving down Melrose Studios, it’s almost 12 o’clock, and I see Ralph and a couple of animators walking up Melrose and I said “That’s Ralph and we have an appointment.” But I continue, I get to the studio, I park, I go in and the secretary says “Well, Ralph’s out for lunch but he’ll be back around one. So if you’d like to wait...” So I sit there patiently waiting and then Ralph comes in and then he calls me into his office and sit down and then he proceeds to interview me, so I’m talking and then they realise this and Ralph says “You’re not Iwao! I don’t want you.”

Incidentally, the ‘B’ and ‘C’ animators on the credits of Mighty Mightor include MGM vets Ken Muse, Jerry Hathcock, Irv Spence, Ed Barge, Dick Lundy and Don Patterson, as well as ex-Disney-ites George Goepper, George Rowley and George Kreisl. That’s not bad for a “B” crew; Spence even supervised animation on Jonny Quest (a far cry from his work with Tex Avery in the ‘30s). Willie, Jerry and Iwao provided layouts along with Steve Nakagawa, Phil Lewis and future union business agent Lou Appet.

Mr. Ito said much more in the interview and Jerry Eisenberg provided a little more elaboration on some of the things he mentioned in an interview on this blog some time ago. You can click on this link to go to Stu’s site to see or hear it for a paltry sum. Scroll through the menu and see what else interests you. (I get no kickback for this).

By the way, Jerry mentioned in 2011 he wanted to do a second interview. Here is it more than seven years later and we still haven’t done it (my fault). We shall endeavour to rectify that. Jerry mentioned on Stu’s Show he had a story about Frank Paiker, the head of the Hanna-Barbera camera department whose career went back to the early 1920s. He never did tell it. Perhaps I can roust that out of him.


  1. Thanks for posting the interview. Great reading about Ito's experiences and perspective.

  2. He is still with us.

    1. He sure is>:) I remember his name from Beany and Cecil.

  3. Willie Ito's comments on "rubber hose" technique prompted me to ask, in email, "could you possibly describe to a blind man just what rubber hose technique is?" I asked, because I thought that, in some cases, "rubber hose" animation was another word for "stretch and squash", like rubber or, as I like to also call it "Silly Putty-ing" the image (which I thought is what they did in FELIX THE CAT television cartoons, but I digress...) and, thankfully, Willie and the guys neatly outlined it for me, as Willie apparently did here in the excerpts that you've chosen here and I somehow missed. It was a terrific evening of cartoon talk on "STU'S SHOW". I only wish that I knew which characters that Willie designed for Bob Clampett's "BEANY AND CECIL SHOW" cartoons. There were lots of colorful ones, and those supporting players were the reasons why I like the show, today, despite so much criticism from some about the actual quality of the animation. It never effected my enjoyment of the series or my eagerness to see the next week's episode. There were so many pop cultural references throughout the cartoons. Just as theatrical cartoons sometimes poked fun at the live action movies that the toons were shown alongside, so television shows and their sponsors were regular targets of parody when animation went to television, and Bob Clampett's "BEANY AND CECIL" and the Jay Ward cartoons did this so well! I guess that aspect dates these beloved cartoons, but I find the stuff enjoyable, even today, while the cartoons that tried so hard to remain timeless just don't resonate quite as loudly.

    1. The Hanna-Barbera cartoons spoofed 60s pop culture,too.

    2. Hi, Kevin. I only transcribed part of Willie's comments and none from the question-and-answer session. It's not fair for me to give everyone for free what Stu is selling for a small fee on his site. That's what I only transcribed part of Willie's portion of the show.
      The early Van Beuren cartoons came to mind when Willie gave his explanation. Tom and Jerry (the human ones) don't have any joints; their bodies move like spaghetti, or rubber hose. There's no squash and stretch because there is no feeling of weight.