David Hand – A Guiding Hand

April Spencer looks at the career of David Hand, an American who influenced a generation of British animators.

David Hand’s animation career may be divided into two main phases. He held animator and directorial posts at the Walt Disney Studio in Los Angeles from 1930 to 1944. Then he came to England to set up GB Animation for J. Arthur Rank, and worked here until 1950.

Sketches from Scotland.

Hand learnt ‘cartooning’ at Art School in Chicago and started his life in animation at a local studio at the end of the First World War. He moved on to the Bray Studio in New York where he met Max Fleischer, producer of the Out Of The Inkwell series. It was here Hand learnt about ‘rotoscoping’, a process invented by Fleischer in 1916, and one which came into its own in the making of Snow White at the Disney studio twenty years later.

The advent of sound movies in 1927 was a major influence on Hand’s career. He recalled those days with an anecdote about his barber. When asked for an opinion of The Jazz Singer the barber replied that he had enjoyed it, but he didn’t like the orchestra sitting behind the screen.

When Disney produced Steamboat Willie in 1928, the first animated cartoon to have synchronised sound, David Hand and a fellow animator began working nights on their own sound cartoon. However, they could not achieve synchronisation between sound and picture, the sound was always in anticipation of the action.

The lure of synchronised sound encouraged Hand to visit California, purely on spec, to try for a job at the Disney studio. He joined Disney in January 1930 and progressed quickly. By 1932 he was directing short cartoons and his credits include Pluto’s Judgement Day, Alpine Climbers and Little Hiawatha.

The first Disney feature film, Snow White, began production in 1934, with David Hand as supervising director. It was completed just before Christmas 1937.

Work began on Bambi in 1937 but it was not released until 1942. During the preparation for the film a great deal of analysis work was done on how animals move. This enabled the animators to produce very naturalistic movement. It was also good grounding for the Animaland series Hand would eventually produce when he came to England.

One of Hand’s last tasks at the Disney studio was supervising the animation for Victory Through Airpower.

In November 1944 Hand was invited to Britain to look at the possibility of setting up an animation studio on the Disney lines. He submitted his report to J. Arthur Rank and was subsequently given a five year contract with complete authority under the Board of Directors. GB Animation was set up at the Moor Hall studio in Cookham, a village on the river Thames about 20 miles outside London.

According to Hand, he wanted to establish a British studio that could develop and then be left to continue under its own steam. He did not intend to control it indefinitely, or keep it tightly within the Disney style.

He brought over three American colleagues to help achieve this ideal, John Reed, Ralph Wright and Ray Patterson. They began to train the newly recruited British artists – a team which developed into about 120 employees.

“David Hand and his crew brought a new dimension to animation in Britain,” recalls Stan Pearsall who was one of the team. “He was like a ‘Genial Giant’ – a big man, good looking, smiling, but very tough. But he was dedicated. He gave us weekly lectures on all aspects of the business. It was impressed upon us that animation must be sophisticated and not just a dreary wooden movement from one ‘extreme’, ‘inbetweened’, to the next. For every action there must be reaction: Anticipation – Action – Reaction. He even went into depth on colour vibration and audience reaction to it. He stressed that a good ‘character’ animator must be an actor. The training was intense but often hilarious. Among the tests were: animate a bouncing ball – or two – one heavy, like a football, one light, like a ping pong ball; animate dripping water; animate a boy opening a door – the door is heavy, in fact, stuck tight.”

The films produced at Moor Hall can be divided into three categories: the Animaland cartoon series; the Musical Paintbox series; and cinema commercials.

Gingernut in Bea Bother.

The Animaland films can be seen today on Super 8. The eight minute adventure stories feature Ginger Nutt the Squirrel and his friends Hazel, Dusty Mole, the Cuckoo, the Ostrich, the Platypus, the Lion and the Housecat.

The Musical Paintbox series traced the journey of the River Thames in beautifully painted background scenes to a musical accompaniment. Other films in the series covered Wales, Yorkshire, Somerset, Ireland and Scotland.

Universal Oil advert.

The cinema commercials included Esso petrol; Oxydol washing powder; Rowntrees cocoa; and the Standard Oil Company.

Perhaps because Hand and his colleagues had been working in the Disney way for so long they could not really shed his influence. Even though it was David Hand’s intention that the British artists should eventually establish their own style, it was obviously not established quickly enough to satisfy the British Press, which was harsh with its criticism of the Animaland series.

It seemed Moor Hall was doomed. A crippling entertainment tax introduced in 1944 contributed to set-backs within the Rank Organisation. They could not expand distribution in the American market due to a British Government foul- up of relations between Rank and Hollywood. The Rank Organisation’s overdraft grew to £16 million and this was the final blow which lead to the necessary cutbacks of such experimental units as Moor Hall.

By 1949 contracts were not being renewed. One by one the artists were laid off. Hand kept his best artists as long as he could, in the hope that the final collapse would not come. In April 1950 the animation and film equipment was put up for auction.

A main core of the artists are still based in or around Cookham today – preferring the country atmosphere to the hurly burly of Soho. The main feeling is one of pity that Moor Hall could not have kept going long enough to have made an in-road into commercial television.

Hand eventually returned to America where he pursued a career in industrial film making.

Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)