Filed under: People, Animation Supervisor, Animator, Director, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Rainbow Parade, Silly Symphonies, Technicolor, Ub Iwerks, Van Beuren Corporation, Walt Disney, Walt Disney Studios, Walter Lantz Productions,
Burt GillettOccupation / Title:
15/10/1891Date of death:
Elmira, New York, U.S.
Burt Gillett was one of the first novice animators to come to Walt Disney Studios and work alongside Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. He took a number of important directorial positions at the studio, directing a few of Disney’s most important early animated shorts. He went on to hold an explosive position running Van Beuren Studios, working in the business until labour trouble in 1940.
Burt Gillett began his career with the International Film Service, joining them in 1916. The International Film Service was an early animation studio owned by William Randolph Hearst, created in order to use the popular comic strips that he owned, such as Little Nemo and Mutt and Jeff, as the foundation for animated cartoons.
In April 1929, Gillett joined the Walt Disney Studio, and began primarily working on the Mickey Mouse cartoons. He was one of the first wave of animators to come to Disney and work alongside the co-creator of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks. This new incoming wave of animators also led to Walt Disney’s freeing up of directorial control, with Gillett soon moving into certain new directorial positions and soon becoming the primary director alongside Ub Iwerks. While Iwerks continued to direct the Silly Symphonies short films, Gillett began taking control over the Mickey Mouse series.
However, Gillett directed a few of the most important Silly Symphonies cartoons: Cannibal Capers (1930), Flowers and Trees (1932) and The Three Little Pigs (1933). Flowers and Trees and The Three Little Pigs each won Academy Awards, with the former short also being the first animated short to be produced in full-color three-strip Technicolor. The Three Little Pigs has been lauded as one of the most important animated shorts ever made, and the first animation in which characters were truly brought to life. Specifically, audiences and fellow animators were amazed at the ability to form three characters who looked the same into very distinct characters.
In 1934, after his work directing these popular animated shorts, Gillett was asked to run Van Beuren Studios, where he directed the Technicolour Rainbow Parade shorts. These shorts featured several previously known animation characters, such as Felix the Cat. Gillett also permanently changed the direction of the studio to producing colour film, an expensive but important direction as the technology for colour film continued to develop.
At Van Beuren Studios, Gillett tried to duplicate the creative and artistically demanding environment of Disney, even bringing young Disney artists in to teach the Van Beuren animators. These demands, however, proved unrealistic at Van Beuren due to low wages, constant overworking and regular rounds of firing. The emerging disagreements over Gillett’s methods of running the studio would soon explode, as working conditions became increasingly tenuous and as movements to unionize began. Gillett intimidated the artists and told them not to join the Animated Motion Picture Workers Union (AMPWU).
One inker, Sadie Bodin, was fired when Gillett found out that she had been encouraging fellow women animators to refuse to take on extra work. In 1937, Bodin and her husband started picketing in front of the studio and eventually gained the support of the National Labour Relations Board via a complaint filed by AMPWU. Eventually, Gillett gained the support of the Board by claiming to have had a system in place to compensate for extra work. Upon gaining support and clearance, Gillett fired any other members of the staff who had helped organize unionization.
In 1936, Gillett tried to revive earlier cartoon series, with little success. He aimed for them to bring back Toonerville Trolley and Felix the Cat, but could not merge the styles of the various studios involved in their original design or their rejuvenation. Particularly after such unrest in the studio, these new projects went steadily downhill.
Van Beuren Studios sold its films to RKO Pictures, who in 1936 subsequently dropped the Van Beuren Studio after a deal with Disney Studios. After the Van Beuren Studio closed, Gillett went to work for Disney, then for Walter Lantz Productions. At Walter Lantz he directed and wrote cartoons, eventually leaving the business in 1940.
Barrier, Michael. Building a Better Mouse, 1928-1933: The Animated Man, A Life of Walt Disney. California: University of California Press, 2007.
Koszarski, Richard. Cartoons in the City: Hollywood on the Hudson, Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008.