The Men Behind Jay Ward’s Funny World
By Darrell Van Citters
A glimpse at the talent that helped create the studio’s iconic, comedic aesthetic. by Darrell Van Citter
Television animation has always had low budgets, but Jay Ward Productions was handed the lowest budgets in the industry. Because of this, animation at Ward’s was never about the amount of drawings; it was what you did with the few you had. If a drawing couldn’t move much, then it needed to be fun to look at. As a result, the studio became the primary standard bearer for funny—and funnylooking—cartoons during the 1960s.
The progenitors of those funny drawings, the ones that had the most impact on what became the “Jay Ward look,” were two outstanding designers, both well regarded by their immediate peers, but neither of whom made much of a splash in the animation business. Al Shean and Roy Morita were both strong draftsmen and facile designers, yet as unalike as two personalities could possibly be. One was cocky and selfassured, the other quiet and self-contained. Despite their differences, they shared a sensibility in creating flat, linear drawings while still managing to imbue them with appeal, humor and personality. It was a loose, unstructured, almost spontaneous approach to cartoon design; their drawings were deceptively simple and quickly done, almost always delineated in pen, the sign of a confident draftsman.
The first, Al Shean, described himself as “’unsettled’ (and still am to this day).” He was an independent and restless spirit, frequently leaving jobs when he felt they became too restrictive; in fact, he had a dubious reputation for working like a dynamo for about six weeks before losing interest, suddenly feeling the work was beneath him and moving on.
Shean had demonstrated early artistic promise and attended Chouinard Art Institute on a scholarship. He joined the Walt Disney studio in 1954, where in his own words, he was “booted as a rebel” and quickly landed at another rebel’s studio, John Hubley’s Storyboard Films, as Hubley’s chief assistant. When Hubley moved his operation to New York, his former staff formed Quartet Films in LA, with Shean as one of the new employees. After a stint at both Shamus Culhane’s commercial studio and John Sutherland’s for an industrial cartoon, Shean was hired as the first employee of Jay Ward Productions. As the studio’s first designer, he would draw the earliest model sheets of Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris, Natasha and Capt. Peachfuzz, design dozens of new characters including Dudley Do-right and Aesop & Son, help create pilots and do copious storyboards for Fractured Fairy Tales, Dudley Do-right and Aesop & Son. Although he was key to the Ward operation, Shean’s restlessness eventually pushed him to depart the company for good, much to the chagrin of Ward and [partner Bill] Scott who had grown to rely heavily on his significant contributions.
Overall, Al Shean was ambivalent about the animation industry but despite his feelings, he continued to freelance for decades on projects as diverse as A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic. But by the 1980s, the man who had helped to define a new visual approach to TV animation was reduced to working on such projects as the animated version of GI Joe before finally retiring from the business.
Like many of the Ward designers, Roy Morita was also a graduate of Chouinard and found work where many Chouinard grads found it, at UPA. Some of his first projects were for The Boing Boing Show, but most of his career there was spent as the head production designer for their com- mercials unit, which was well known for its innovative spots for TV. When a large group of artists quit en masse in the fall of 1959 to become Format Films, Morita left with them, heading up production design for their new animated commercial department.
Roy Morita was a prolific artist and continually picked up freelance work, the bulk of which consisted of more of what he did during the day, designing commercials. But perhaps the most crucial decision of his career was agreeing to moonlight on a project for Jay Ward while still at UPA. Bill Scott, Ward’s partner, asked him to help out on a pilot featuring the unlikely combination of a moose and a squirrel and a formula for jet fuel based on a cake recipe. Once the pilot sold, it forged a working relationship with Ward that lasted for over a decade, making Morita one of the key personnel and integral to practically every project that moved through the studio.
In personality, Roy Morita was a somber man of few words, but his playful drawings spoke of a funny streak beneath the surface. His myriad character designs and storyboards were integral to the visual vocabulary of the studio and his work was extremely influential on Rocky and His Friends, Fractured Fairy Tales, Aesop & Son and Hoppity Hooper. He continued on the George of the Jungle series but when the show ended its run, he boarded and laid out dozens of Quaker Oats commercials until the mid1970s. Roy Morita spent the final years of his career at Disney, working on The Black Cauldron and developing the proposed feature, Mistress Masham’s Repose.
The Art of Jay Ward Productions (Oxberry Press, $44.96), written by Darrell Van Citters, will be available in stores nationwide and on amazon.com this month.
“Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends” © Ward Productions, Inc. ROCKY & BULLWINKLE and all Ward characters, their logos, names and related indicia are trademarks of and copyrighted by Ward Productions, Inc. Licensed by Bullwinkle Studios, LLC. All rights reserved.
The artists who defined the “Jay Ward look,” Al Shean (left) and Roy Morita. (Photo courtesy of Keith Scott) Left: Model sheet from “Metal Munching Mice” by Morita (courtesy of Tiffany Ward and the Jay Ward archives)