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Don Duga Brings Frosty And Rudolph To Life

Originally Posted: December 09, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

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Animation artist Don Duga with his original drawings on display and for sale at the East End Arts Council. Photos by Douglas Harrington

Riverhead - The man who brought such holiday classics as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to life for generations of children around the world will be sharing his gift with the children of the East End this year. Animation artist Don Duga will be creating special Holiday cards for kids at the East End Arts Council (EEAC) gallery in Riverhead on Saturday, December 12 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Duga sat down with Hamptons.com this week for an interview at the EEAC.

"I was born at Hollywood Receiving Hospital and I grew up in the heart of Hollywood surrounded by the radio shows. I would go as a kid and watch the shows; the guys that did sound effects really got to me the most." Duga came from what he describes as a "Semi-artistic family, my mother was a housewife but she would draw and encouraged me. My father was a shoe manufacturer and I originally thought I would become a shoe designer."

Duga is the one that essentially gives the characters life. Image courtesy of EEAC

Duga's artistic training came at what he described as, "The best school around at the time." He attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angles. "Disney tried to buy Madame Chouinard out for years, but she wouldn't do it. A lot of the great animators came through there like Chuck Jones and Seamus Culhane who created that famous walk in Disney's 'Snow White.' These guys learned their craft there and that is why they hired us. They hired us because we could draw. Right out of school I could draw and I went to work for UPA [United Productions of America]."

Although he had an ability to draw, Duga knew little about animation until UPA, "Unlike today where you have to pay the studios to train you, they paid us to learn the craft. I happened to start with the rebels, they wanted to be something different than what Disney was doing."

Duga explained that "Disney's heroes were the Renaissance, deep space, a lot of weight and depth to their animation. That was what 'Snow White' was, it was a big breakthrough. The rebels were drawn to the modern painters like Picasso and Matisse, they wanted to go more abstract. They defied perspective. They found ways of doing animation very simplistically, they called it limited animation."

Duga described his big break into the industry working on "Mr. Magoo" which was the creation of the legendary John Humbley, who was blacklisted by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. When the "alcoholic writer" on the project never showed Duga took on all the aspects of creating the animation. "I was doing storyboards, writing the stories, the layouts and design." Duga never liked life in Los Angeles and when he got the opportunity to leave he did, "I actually won a prize from the LA Museum for a watercolor I had done and I took the money and I went to San Francisco." Too close to LA, there was little work for animators in San Francisco except in small basement studios of independent film makers. It was there that Duga learned how to work with cameras and began doing his own films.

"Frosty the Snowman" is celebrating his 40th anniversary this month.

After a return to LA, Duga did another stint with UPA before heading east in his VW bus in 1961. When I finally got to New York I ran across an old pal, Morty Gerstein, who was the art director at a studio called Pelican Films on Madison Avenue. They were doing high-end commercials, but Morty wanted to get out of the business, he wanted to do children's books. He asked me if I wanted the job, so I took it."

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Duga decided to become an ex-patriot and shipped his VW bus to Europe. After working in Italy on "commercials for the big screen" he returned to New York. "As an American I was actually losing money working there." Upon his return he decided that he would go freelance rather work for a studio. "I was the first freelancer in New York. That is when I met Arthur Rankin of Rankin/Bass. I was never on staff with them; I would just come in and work on projects. I started by working on 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.' It was a big hit for them." Among the other work Duga has done for Rankin/Bass was "Frosty the Snowman" celebrating it 40th anniversary this month, "The Year Without Santa Claus" and full-length features "The Last Unicorn" which starred Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges.

"Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" animation artist Don Duga.

To my surprise it was not Duga that actually created the characters that have become so familiar to us, "Most of the characters are created by artists that are outside of animation. I created some, but Jack Davis created most of the characters for Rankin. He would send me the character and I would create the storyboards, I would draw the characters just the way Jack had drawn them. I gave them the emotional aspects they needed for the scene."

Duga is the one that essentially gives the characters life. "I work out the whole sequence, the continuity, the shot plot, I bring the emotion to it. The board is the key that makes the whole film work." He went on to explain that then everything is sent to Tokyo for animation.

In 1978 Duga and his partner, animator Irra Verbitsky, founded their own production company, Polestar. "The reason we started the company was because all of a sudden the bottom fell out of the industry in the early 1970s. Animated commercials were no longer in vogue. All the studios in New York were folding. The industry was going to educational programming and that is when we started doing work for 'Sesame Street.'"

Polestar moved on to producing films, "Which is the best place to be because you have complete control." Polestar has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for Best Children's film of the year and the ASIFA East Award for their work on "Owen," which was narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Duga's passion for life on the water drew him to Riverhead many years ago, after finding the coast of Maine too cold and inclement. Beyond producing films at his Polestar Manhattan studio, he teaches at the School of Visual Arts. He is an active participant in the artistic life of the East End lending his support and talents to numerous projects and organizations.

Once again this year his gift back to the children of the community and in support of the EEAC will be his rendering of children's portraits on special holiday cards he has designed. The event is free and a joyous way for a gentle and generous artist, who has literally had his hand in Christmas for generations, to touch the hearts of children yet again.

For more information, call 631-727-0900, or visit www.eastendarts.org.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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Guest (Amanda) from Putnam Valley says::
hey I know you remember me! :)
Dec 8, 2011 5:42 pm


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