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.

Animation Magazine - - Features -

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.

Mov­ing On

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,

Walt Dis­ney re­ceives an hon­orary de­gree from USC Pres­i­dent Ru­fus von Kleins­mid at the L.A, Coli­seum, June 4, 1938. (Cour­tesy USC Ar­chives)

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