Few people can say they’ve worked for Sesame Street and Playboy over the course of their career (let’s hope anyway), but the tireless Fred Crippen can claim this and more! While he’s most well known for his Roger Ramjet, Crippen has worked as an animator (and a largely independent one at that) for over fifty years. Anyone who works in a creative industry for half a century is going to have a prolific career, but Crippen’s is especially wide-ranging. From animations for UPA and Playboy and even a commercial for JFK’s presidential campaign, Crippen’s independence and flexibility as an animator is as impressive as the distinct modern animation style he helped reach popularity.
How Crippen has not just survived but thrived working as an independent animator in Hollywood for so many decades is a mystery, but he began within the studio system, working for the Shamus Culhane and UPA (United Productions of America) studios in New York. UPA then moved him out to Hollywood, where he directed over a dozen shorts along with specials for the “Gerald McBoing Boing” show. When he entered Hollywood under UPA, Crippen had joined a studio with a radical vision of change for the animation industry. Artistic liberty and experimentation were the ideological building blocks of UPA, which was founded by a handful of former Disney employees who rebelled in the 1941 animators strike.
The Disney animators strike came after decades of broiling tension and changes within film industry labor, which were, for many artists, as much about artistic expression as they were about wages and overtime. There was a growing camp of animators who felt animation did not have to be chained to a realistic aesthetic. As Disney was strongly advocating for a style of ultra-realism in his films, many artists felt the genre of animation was being constrained by an unnecessary obsession with achieving photographic realism. Labor unions like the Screen Actors Guild and Screen Cartoonists’ Guilt had also formed in the decade leading up to the strike and had been trying to lobby for adequate salary agreements. Though Disney did eventually sign a contract that made Walt Disney studios a union shop ever since 41’, there was still a mass exodus as swarms of artists and animators left to form their own studios. And in the next ten years, theatrical cartoons would continue to decline as the Hollywood blacklist, sending even more artists to join commercial work and the golden age of television.
Enter Crippen. UPA’s legacy has been somewhat eclipsed by the unceasing commercial success of studios like Disney and Warner Brothers, but it’s still in production today and was highly influential at the time Crippen joined the scene. Crippen entered and greatly contributed to UPA’s vision of more experimental animations that combined modern art, contemporary writing, and new music. He directed over a dozen shorts at UPA and developed a style with sparse but shapely, exaggerated lines. His animations were clean and minimal but all had an appealing sense of character and design. UPA’s work – and Crippen’s especially - stood far apart from many of the animation stylistic norms of the time and they were quickly imitated by others captivated by their simplified, modern aesthetic.
Perhaps it’s significant that Crippen entered into UPA during a culture of intense artistic initiative. If the studio you were a part of didn’t offer the opportunities you were looking for, you simply made your own studio. In the wake of the Disney strike and the mass migration from film to television, tons of studios were created and flourished, from UPA to Cambria, Format, Gantray-Lawrence, Playhouse, Pelican, Ovation, and Quartet. In 1958, Fred Crippen left UPA for create his own company, Pantomime Pictures. It’s there he produced, directed, and animated the iconic Roger Ramjet series and won an Oscar for “Why Man Creates.” Crippen continues to work out of his own Pantomime Pictures and has created hundreds of films, TV series, and commercials on top of the independent personal projects he continues to devote his time to.
Crippen’s work proves that great design can be applied to any number of audiences and programs. His cheeky animated limericks for Playboy, his political campaign commercials for JFK, Coors beer commercials, his own art film “Metropolis Per Diem,” his hundreds upon hundreds of shorts for children on shows like Sesame Street, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s made PSAs about hygiene, clever shorts like “The Sale of Manhattan,” and even a film about the great 48 ways to use the “f” word. Because his design work was so highly influential, seen today Crippen’s work looks beautifully retro and at the same time modern and new.
“The Fred Crippen Retrospective” by Amid Amidi (2004) at Cartoon Brew
Fred Crippen Retrospective at Ottawa International Film Festival (2004)
Fred Crippen Retrospective at the Melbourne International Animation Festival (2007)
“Fred Crippen” in the Michigan State Alumni Association State News
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.