Unknown Freddie

Someone was kind enough to send me this photo of their painting sometime before July 2009.  I have no record of who or why, I just stumbled across it on a hard drive this week.

It’s a Fred Mogubgub painting.  Probably from 1983 or 84.  No title is visible.

The photo isn’t the best quality, but you can make out some interesting things on the canvas.

ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part five. ENCORE! En Français!

The greatest thing about old ASIFA publications is that they were tri-lingual: English, French and Russian.

This, I believe, was the first international magazine to ditch the Russian. The expense far outweighed the Russian readership, and since the organization no longer needed to worry out Cold War era cultural appeasements the third tongue was dropped.

Click image to enlarge and test your language skills.

ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part four. Make A Wish, American Pie

From 1971 to 1976 he worked with Al Brodax as animation producer for the ABC Sunday morning show “Make A Wish”. Songwriter Tom Chapin hosted. Each episode was a montage on a theme like “flying” or “bulls”. Mogubgub hired young animators, many still in school, to create animation.

At the end of the first season of “Make A Wish”, he made his last short film, American Pie. There are at least two versions of this film. The earlier version one shot of man riding a motorcycle. Mogubgub animated directly on the negative around him. The last version is a masterful reading of Don McLean’s song incorporating the man on the motorcycle, some original animation, and bits from “Make A Wish”. This screened as a short in the New York Film Festival.

Still from “American Pie”

Sick of commercial work in the late 1970s, Mogubgub focused on painting. At first glance his painting couldn’t appear more removed from his films. the films are frenetic and seemingly scattered, whereas the paintings are detailed and painstakingly rendered. “Virginia’s Garden” was a 25 x 30 foot canvas covered with fruits and vegetables, portraits and buildings. With all the multilayering and detail the artist can barely fit everything. If each frame of Enter Hamlet were put on a wall, what emerges might look an awful lot like “Virginia’s Garden” -a sprawling interpretation of the world, struggling to fit within the confines of a single piece of art.

His painting jumped from portraiture to abstraction and back. He created a series of “Spirit” paintings. The otherworldly portraits are interpretations of nighttime spectral manifestations. He experienced visitations. Once he met 18th Century Christian mystic Immanuel Swedenborg in a phone booth outside Grand Central Station. This was one of several encounters with the cosmic theorist.

In the 80s he continued painting while freelancing as an animator. He animated several commercials for his old friend Vincent Caffarelli at Buzzco including spots for cigars and “Bit O Honey”.

Still from R. O. Blechman’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”

His last film collaboration was with R. O. Blechman on The Ink Tank’s production of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Mogubgub’s sequences are pure magic. His animation moves from shapes exploding in space to dramatic silhouettes and multiscreen sequences. The contraposition of his raw graphic fantasies with the powerful character animation of Ed Smith, Tony Eastman and Tissa David helped the film win the first ever Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Animation.

Upon completion of his work on L’Histoire du Soldat, Mogubgub again concentrated on painting. His painting began to take the form of the geometric abstractions he created for the Stravinsky film. He spoke of shapes spinning into infinity as though geometry and motion were twin forces keeping the universe whole.

He died in his home in Cliffside Park, NJ on March 9, 1989. He was taken by bone cancer at 61


ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part three.

The Pop Show followed Enter Hamlet. Conceived as a trailer for a television series, The Pop Show is the best introduction to Mogubgub’s work. If this were the last surviving artifact of 1966, that year’s youthful creativity would be well preserved. The soundtrack mixes The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” with Hammond organ renditions of “Eight Days a Week” and “Wooly Bully”. The Pop Show uses animation to show what’s “in” (Automats) and “out” (Sardi’s), what was popular and what the kids were doing. Its defining moments are a series of shots featuring the young Gloria Steinam. She first presents a bottle of Coca Cola, pours herself a glass, drinks it and shoots a winning smile. Several shots later she does the same with a frothy beer. Later the same with a bottle of “Mr Clean” followed by laundry soap, and a shot of Lucky Strike tobacco. It’s comic without being silly, political without being didactic and it presumes visual and intellectual sophistication from the viewer.

What may be his best-known work was made at this time -a three-story mural painted on the outside of his Sixth Avenue studio. The left side was a beautiful woman, design by Irene Trivas, the right hand side was a word bubble saying “Who Will Give Mogubgub Ltd. Two Million Dollars To Make A Feature?”

Without the two million Mogubgub still made a feature. The Day I Met Zet runs 71 minutes and has 72,000 scenes. Zet consumed Mogubgub for three years. In 1967 a distributor offered him three points of advice after screening a work print- the next day the film was in the trash and he started over. When the New York Film Festival refused Zet, the filmmaker mounted a protest. He marched through Lincoln Center with a sign reading “Fuck the New York Film Festival”. When the police came he threw the film into the trash and ignited it. The newspapers had shown up questioning him -“How many hours of work was he destroying?” “Why this protest against the Festival?” Mogubgub stood by silently as he watched an old 16mm print go up in flames. Meanwhile the whole proceeding was being filmed. He planned to make it into a short called The Day I Burned Zet.

The Day I Met Zet had its premiere at a club in Queens. A thunderstorm caused occasional power outages and the owner has a strict “no nude scenes” policy. There were a few blue shots in the film. Forced into self-censorship, the projectionist held his hand over the lens when the offending shots were to come up. WNET in New York broadcast the film once in the late 1960s. The only known print was last thought to be in New Jersey storage facility without climate control.

In the early 60s, television agencies and advertising executives had little understanding of animation. By the end of the decade things had changed. Agencies demanded that artists do things their way. Mogubgub couldn’t bear Madison Avenue telling him how to make films. Touring ad agencies with a lady dressed as Wonder Woman, or suiting up an artist in a gorilla costume and sending him to scale the Empire State Building didn’t drum up new contracts. He dismissed his staff and relocated to more modest quarters at 6 E. 46th Street.

Two somber films come from this period. Adagio and Unknown Reason (both with original soundtracks by David Horowitz) are dark meditative films. In Unknown Reason angels rise from the grave and descend again into the earth. A snow covered picnic table is barren of promise. The smiling Reaper is the resounding final frame. The title cards come towards the end (Mogubgub’s credit coming last and upside down), the final card reading “My second to last short film”.

Animators knew Fred as an endlessly supportive, generous artist. He had deep respect for anyone who painted or made film. When George Griffin was looking for his first animation job, he showed Mogubgub his reel. Upon learning this was the young artist’s only print he handed him $20 to make another.


ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part two.

Other big commissions followed including animated sequences for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway staging of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Following the graphic breakthroughs of UPA, FMS reached beyond the traditional confines of the animation studio for inspiration. Chas. B. Slackman, for instance, was recruited as designer and staff artist Irene Trivas made major stylistic contributions.

Famous Sally, illustrated by Chas. B. Slackman

In business, popularity can breed conflict  Within a year Mogubgub left FMS.  Irene Trivas and Ed Smith joined him in his new office on Sixth Avenue at Mogubgub LTD.  The “M” in FMS was replaced by a fictitious “Mohammed”.  Schwartz and Ferro would go on for another two years producing commercials as well as titles for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Clients followed Mogubgub.  His first major commission was a recruitment film for J. Walter Thompson.  The ad firm wanted to lure young talent,  Mogubgub was hired to attract them.  The result was a romp around Manhattan set to the Beatles first album.

Quick cutting wasn’t Mogubgub’s only approach.  And ad for Ford titled “Ford Has Changed” was reminiscent of Saul Steinberg.  American icons parade across the screen led by a cowboy, Abraham Lincoln, and a strong man.  The visuals support, yet continuously undermine the sales pitch.  “Ford has changed”: A man barks at a dog.  “…until you get inside”: Jonah inside the whale.  “Take the wheel and see”: a cop chasing a robber.  Comic images, but sinister.  After the stream of icons passes, the same gang who started the parade bring up the rear.  As they move to center they remove their heads as though tipping their hats.  Lincoln becomes a priest, the cowboy -an Indian, the body builder -a scrawny ectomorph.  This last transformation is more than a comic twist.  Instead of rejoicing at the new face of Ford, the finale questions the legitimacy and the necessity of “change”.   An early salvo in the upcoming cultural revolution.

The marching band soundtrack, the artwork, and the immediate comedy in the animation disguise the complexity of the Ford commercial.  Music and visuals take issue with one another and offer opposing points of view.  The Great Society is a further example of this technique.  A series of product shots are cut to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, it satirizes advertising and American culture.  The send up is made palatable by the filmmaker’s clear affection for his target.  Commercialism isn’t evil, just ridiculous.

Mogubgub wasn’t educated in cinematic theory (or practice) or literature. His filmmaking skills were largely self-taught. Waiting in an agency lobby he saw, for the first time, The Battleship Potemkin running on a Moviola. Having never heard of Sergei Eisenstein (much like today young animators) he recut “The Odessa Steps” on the spot. His academic credentials began and ended with Godard’s line “Film is the truth 24 times a second”. Mogubgub’s main complaint with traditional film was that it was too slow, that filmmakers underestimated the audience. People can process information much quicker than the movies present it.

The success of artists like John Hubley, Ernie Pintoff, and Norman McLaren encouraged a generation to experiment. Technological innovations offered further possibilities. In 1963, a new film splicer from Italy developed by Leo Catozzo, Fellini’s editor, allowed for cuts to be made in a single frame. Previously, an editor would lose surrounding frames and wasn’t unable to make another cut for around a foot. This opened Mogubgub’s world in much the same way non-linear editing and desktop compositing has influenced animators today.

An image was an image, whether a starlet photo from the silent era, animated drawings, or stock footage from a gangster picture. He practiced a dodecaphonics of film in which each frame is given equal value without regard for traditional consonance.

continues tomorrow

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)

Animator Art

This may be the last of the Fred Mogubgub paintings to post (until another kindly stranger sends more along or unearths another batch -still looking for more from the Spirit series…).

It’s from 1985 and has a lot in common with the earlier “Olga Picasso”. 

The title, “At the Ritz” is written on the lower right hand corner (click the image for larger view).

The collector who brought this painting to me mentioned another in the same lot, a portrait of Farrah Fawcett which was “defaced” in a similar manner. 

Spirit Gallery

These are my favorite paintings from Fred Mogubgub, his “Spirit Series”.

Numbers 1 through 4 live together in my living room.  I’m saving up to get #2 and #3 framed.  These are about 4.5 feet by 2.5 feet so framing runs over $500 a piece.  Numbers 3 and 4 have trompe l’oeil frames -an innovation of the artist to save his friends the expense of an actual frame.

There’s power in framing a painting. These in particular with their mysticism, their otherworldliness, benefit from multiple layers to distance them back into their spirit realm.

These are portraits of spirits who visited the painter.  He was prone to unearthly encounters, including a conversation with Emanuel Swedenborg  in a phone booth outside Grand Central Station.
I imagine this talk influenced the work that followed these paintings (and is evidenced in #4), which strive to combine the physical with the spiritual.

This is the first one.  From 1980.  

This is #2, he followed shortly after.  The palate is narrowed to olive grey shades.
From a distance he looks a little frightening, approach and you can see an inviting look.

#3 from 1982.  Backgrounds are introduced.  The spirits are still emerging through a mist, but now we see deeper.

#4 has a tear which needs repair.  I wonder if he came over after his wife (#3).  Both of these add to the monochrome of #1 and #2 implying the visions coming clearer.
I took snapshots of a few others several years ago and posted them earlier.