ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part one.

Here’s a reprint of an article I wrote for ASIFA Magazine Vol 15 – No. 2 Autumn 2002. Chris Robinson, editor.

I’ve done a few rewrites, since nearly every sentence makes me cringe.

It’s long so we’ll post it in a few parts

While standing at the Smith and 9th Street train platform, the Statue of Liberty waving in the distance, a radio impatiently switching every 30 seconds, a Brooklyn bound train pulled in across the tracks.  In homage to the underground bombers of the 70s, the train was covered stem to stern with graffiti -a cartoon Superman duking it out with Batman, a six foot bottle of Coke, an apple pie and an American flag.  As the train pulled through, the painting came to life: a parade on wheels at 24 frames per second.  Like the films of Fred Mogubgub.

Jeff Cox, who worked with Mogubgub for several years, pitched on article of Fred to The New Yorker.  Their response, “Fred who?”.  Discussing influences with young animators -a resounding “Fred who?”.  Mention him to New York animators from the 60s -the accolades ring with hyperbole.  Animation is a field of unheralded geniuses, even here, Fred Mogubgub is an unheard of genius.

Mogubgub’s best known film, Enter Hamlet, was commissioned by The School of Visual Arts.  Maurice Evans’ elegaic reading of Hamlet’s Soliloquey is poised against pop graphics.  Each word is represented by a drawing, each scene cut to the word.  A hypnotist gestures a woman to “sleep”, a cartoon of Whistler’s Mother says “respect”, an electric chair signifies “dread”.  Each cut is a story in itself.  Enter Hamlet works beyond the strength of its iconography.  The film seems so obvious -how could it be any other way?  Enter Hamlet can be ranked with the most successful cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare.  It echoes the same eternal question, and resounds with the same basic truths.  “To be or not to be?”.  The answer is everywhere, simple and exhuberant -the lawyer in court, the man drinking a cola.

In the 1950s, Mogubgub first worked at Lee Blair’s Film Graphics then moved to Electra Films, Screen Gems in the Brill Building and Gifford Animation.  While working at Film Graphics he studied at The Art Students League on the GI Bill.  He had lied about his age to serve as a paratrooper on the Pacific Front during the Second World War.  Later he boasted of going to Japanese barbers during the occupation (in the days before safety razors) to show how fearless he was.

At Film Graphics Mogubgub met Pablo Ferro, Ed Smith, and Vincent Cafferelli.  These artists would play crucial roles throughout his career.  Film Graphics was one of the few commercial studios in New York in the mid-50s.  His work wasn’t out of the ordinary but Mogubgub’s artistic inclinations began to show.  Despite frequent visits from Lee Blair’s kin Preston to show the staff how “Golden Age” animators did things, Mogubgub took his own tack.  If an arc for an inbetween went one way, he’d go the other.  If something needed squash, he’d give it stretch.  This wasn’t obtuseness, but a manifestation of a profoundly different way of seeing the world.

As a young animator Mogubgub dropped the final “gub” from the family name and went as Fred Mogub.  Pablo Ferro met Fred’s family while working together at Electra and was surprised to see the extra syllable on the mailbox.  He asked Fred, “Why don’t you use your full name?” “It sounds funny,” he was told, “People will laugh.”  “They’ll laugh.  But they’ll remember you and they’ll hire you.”

To put this advice to the test, Mogubgub started FMS with Pablo Ferro and Lew Schwartz in 1961.  Each partner put up an initial $5000 investment.  In no time, the studio was billing $1 million a year.  Ferro and Schwartz attribute their initial success to the novelty of a Cuban, an Arab and a Jew working under one roof.  In truth, FMS was creating animation in a novel style.

FMS’ first project was for Ford Motor Company.  This 90-second television commercial introduced the quick cut to advertising.  This editing style would (for better or worse) alter filmmaking more than any  other aesthetic revolution in the last five decades.  Advertising had always been edited like any other film.  Shots rang long enough to let the scene play.  A single cut would often run 50 seconds out of a standard 60 second spot until the product was shown in close for the final 10.  FMS accelerated the action.  Scenes could be one second, less than one second, always long enough to convey the shot’s meaning without overstaying it’s welcome.

(continued tomorrow)