Walt and the Professor
Historian Tom Sito uncovers the influence of Boris V. Morkovin on the origins of animation education at USC and the Disney studio’s early cartoons.
Last spring, Amelia Giller, one of my students at the University of Southern California, was scanning documents in the cinema school’s archives, when she made me aware of some lectures given in 1935 about Walt Disney’s cartoons. They were by a Boris V. Morkovin. I knew Disney artist Les Novros had taught animation at USC as early as 1942, but this was a decade before him. I made some enquiries and the Walt Disney Archives confirmed that, indeed, such a lecture series took place. I also saw online that Morkovin was credited with writing the classic Disney short The Three Little Pigs. I resolved to learn more about this mysterious person.
A Wide Open Field
In the early 1930s, the art of animation was still so new no one had seriously thought of teaching it. Most of the professional animators of the time were print cartoonists who fell into making animated cartoons for lack of anything better to do. They learned on the job, and as soon as you knew enough of the common tricks, your education was considered complete. Walt Disney had a rudimentary education, dropping out of high school to join the army to fight in World War I. Like his fellow autodidacts Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, he had a hunger for self-improvement.
Morkovin, born in Russia and an emigrant to the United States, began teaching at USC in 1926. USC had begun the first filmmaking classes ever in a university in 1929. Intrigued by the communicative power of movies, he transformed his sociology course into one of the university’s earliest classes on filmmaking. Morkovin soon became the chair of cinematography. He began lecturing about Disney animation to USC students in May 1933.
Walt Disney met Morkovin around this time. They may have met because of Disney’s short Flowers and Trees, which won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The Academy was sponsoring the film courses at USC, and it was reaching out to the film community to come lecture the students. Disney may have been flattered to be the subject of attention of such an important university professor.
Morkovin brought Disney to the campus to talk to students, and set up regular monthly luncheons with USC President Rufus von Kleinsmid. The campus newspaper, The Daily Trojan, in its May 16, 1933, edition, announced Morkovin presiding over the first ever Trojan Cinema Banquet for students and Hollywood celebrities: “Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies has accepted the invitation to be Guest of Honor.” Under Morkovin’s supervision, the national cinema arts fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha, was set up in 1935. Ub Iwerks and Chuck Jones, were once members. He organized a competition. “A prize of $100 will be awarded to the student in the department of cinematography submitting the best story for a Silly Symphony or Mickey Mouse, announced Dr. Morkovin, speaking for the Walt Disney Studio” ( Daily Trojan, Nov. 17, 1933). Interestingly, the winner was a UCLA student, Ed Nofziger, who went on to a long career as a cartoonist
Into the Studio
Walt Disney brought “Dr. M.” to his studio and placed Morkovin on the payroll at $125 a week. Like Chouinard drawing teacher Don Graham was to improve the draftsmanship of his artists, Walt hoped Dr. M would improve their cartoon stories. “Dr. Morkovin is working at the Disney Studio in the capacity of lecturer on the psychology of screen drama and is under contract to reorganize the story department, as soon as the present school semester is completed” ( Daily Trojan, May 16, 1933).
One mystery is how much Morkovin contributed to Walt Disney’s classic short The Three Little Pigs. His name does not appear on any production notes or memos for that production. Yet many databases today credit Morkovin for the story. In his own time, Morkovin did little to dispel that notion: “Dr. Boris V. Morkovin, commander-in-chief of campus movie operations, is under contract to the Walt Disney Studios (Mickey Mouse to you), and in more ways than one responsible for that miniature masterpiece The Three Little Pigs” ( Daily Trojan, Sept. 28, 1933). The final record is unclear.
However, Morkovin’s efforts did not go over well with the animators of the Walt Disney Studios. Many found his academic style of lecturing ponderous. His analysis of their cartoons seemed at best condescending, explaining techniques they felt they already knew. Story artist Shamus Culhane recalled: “Several times a month, we neophytes were ushered into a large room furnished with chairs, a blackboard and the smiling, confident professor. (In his thick Russian accent) he would beam ‘Have some chair, have some chair. I’m so good to see you.’ He would start by discussing one of our newly completed films, and pretty soon the blackboard would be covered by a bewildering crisscross of quasi-scientific equations and diagrams” (Culhane: Talking Animals and Other Funny People, Page 142).
Once, when reviewing the script for Moving Day, Morkovin read that Donald Duck gets stuck with a plumber’s helper. He asked if Plumber’s Helper
was a new character he was not told about! Dr. M gave the Disney artists homework, which on top of their six-day weekly workload was an unwelcome burden. Animators complained that Morkovin’s lectures were a waste of time.
Finally, Walt Disney had to concede that Dr. M was not working out. Walt told a reporter, “I brought in this professor to lecture the boys on the psychology of humor … none of us knew what he was talking about” (Barrier, The Animated Man, Page 105). Morkovin and Disney agreed to go their separate ways. Walt Disney remained a patron of the USC film school. At the commencement ceremony of June 4, 1938, USC bestowed on Disney an honorary Master of Science degree. Later when he invited Harvard professor Robert D. Field to visit his studio, Walt made reference to Morkovin as an example of what not to do. Field’s visit resulted in his 1941 book, The Art of Walt Disney.
Around this time, Morkovin had his own personal epiphany. During one of his film lectures, he noticed two pretty students would stare at him intensely, and not even get up to leave when the bell rang. At first he thought they were attracted to him, when to his surprise he found out they were clinically deaf. They could not hear the bell, and were trying to follow the lecture by reading his lips. This realization affected him deeply. Perhaps it reawakened in him his wartime experiences helping wounded soldiers.
Whatever the reason, Morkovin stepped down from his cinematography courses to focus on teaching techniques to rehabilitate the hearing impaired. He wrote two books on the subject. Morkovin retired with the title professor emeritus and died in 1968. To this day Delta Kappa Alpha gives a Dr. Boris V. Morkovin Award to honor outstanding faculty supervisors.
So was Morkovin just a self-promoting opportunist? If so, he was in the world capital of the self-made. He saw a need and broke ground in a number of new fields, leaving USC’s School of Cinema on a solid footing. He used his academic credentials to inject a strong tradition of scholastic excellence into the study of this then-young medium. His lectures in May 1933 amount to the earliest animation instruction ever given in a university.
One other result of Morkovin’s time at the Disney Studio was his system of audience feedback. The practice then was to screen a rough cut of a cartoon, and then argue about what worked and what didn’t. On any given Saturday morning at the Alex Theater in Glendale, children attending a matinee would notice after the Mickey Mouse cartoon ended a group of cigarette smoking men would stand up and go out to the lobby to argue over what got a laugh. Based on his background in psychology, Morkovin created detailed questionnaires, which he distributed after each screening and analyzed the data. Walt Disney kept his idea. It’s a practice still common on most large Hollywood projects.
One of the few animators to appreciate Dr. M’s talks was Art Babbitt, who had a more analytical approach to his work than his more intuitive colleagues. In later years, Art broke down the basics of animation fundamentals into a concise lesson plan, which made him one of the greatest teachers of the medium. Babbitt taught at USC in 1958, and in London in 1973. And he taught a lot to me, and I now teach at USC. I taught Amelia Giller, who re-discovered Dr. Morkovin in the archives. So we come full circle. Thank you to Dino Everett of the USC SCA Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive; Steven Vagnini, Michael Buckhoff of the Walt Disney Archives; Don Hahn; Joe Campanal Greg Zarchary; and my assistant, Amelia Giller (MFA, Animation 2016). Tom Sito is an animator, historian and Visiting Professor of Animation at USC. His books include Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson (University of Kentucky Press, 2006), and Moving Innovation, A History of Computer Animation (MIT Press 2013).
ists who worked their way up. … (It’s about) having a visual perspective of how to tell a good story and I think that’s very similar to what my background in theater provided for me.”
Powers hooked up with KRU as a result of his local reputation for helping animation studios match the advancing quality of animation technology in the story department. Under his advice, KRU sought out a co-production partnership with a more experienced Indian studio,