Obituary: John Wilson, animator

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Born: 7 August, 1919, in London. Died: 20 June, 2013, in Blackpool, aged 93

John Wilson worked with Mickey Mouse and Nasa, Stravinsky and the Muppets. After getting a leg blown off in the desert during the Second World War, he had a long and distinguished career in animation, starting in his native England, before heading to Hollywood.

Wilson had about as diverse a career as it was possible to have as an animator, spending five years with Disney, working on the Tinkerbell character in Peter Pan and the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp in the 1950s, before making an animated film about space for the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962.

But his specialism was marrying animation and music. And it has even been claimed that he invented the music video years before MTV got going.

He produced animated versions of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John for the opening credit sequence of the 1978 hit film Grease. He had already made a series of animated shorts, illustrating classic songs such as Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Jim Croce’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, for Sonny and Cher’s American TV show. They were later released on video and some are now on YouTube.

The son of a civil servant, John David Wilson was born in Wimbledon, London, in 1919. He studied at Harrow Art School and the Royal College of Art and worked briefly as a commercial artist. During the Second World War he served in North Africa and lost a leg when a jeep he was driving was bombed by a German plane.

He had a brief spell in South Africa and worked in the art department at Pinewood Studios, before training as an animator at the new Gaumont British Animation studio. J Arthur Rank set it up with David Hand, who had been supervising director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature film, but who subsequently fell out with Disney.

Rank hoped the studio’s cartoon shorts would help him break into the American market, but the studio was not the money-spinner for which he had been hoping and did not last long.

Wilson headed for the United States, with his wife and infant son, and was soon earning ten times as much as he had been in England. He spent a year with UPA, which made the Mister Magoo shorts, and then moved across to Disney.

As well as the feature films Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, he worked on Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons and the Oscar-winning 1953 short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. “I had developed a short I wanted to do and presented it to Disney,” he said. “It was Tara the Stonecutter, but it was turned down. I had found this old Japanese legend in a Tokyo bookstore in 1953 while on a Far East tour with Bob Hope, entertaining the GIs in Korea.”

After five years with Disney, Wilson decided to set up his own company, Fine Arts Films, and make Tara himself. It screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival and was shown in US cinemas alongside the Oscar-winning Japanese film Gate of Hell.

Subsequently he worked with the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky on an animated film of his ballet Petroushka. Wilson was writer, director and storyboard artist. The 13-minute film was financed by NBC and broadcast on prime time on American television.

Fine Arts Films also tapped into the growing market for television commercials. During the 1960s his animated space film Journey to the Stars was seen by around five million people on a giant curving screen at the Nasa Pavilion at the World’s Fair; he made an animated trailer for Billy Wilder’s comedy Irma la Douce; and he worked on Hanna-Barbera’s hit television show The Flintstones.

He also helped set up an animation studio in Melbourne and then returned to the US to work on a passion project Shinbone Alley, a full-length animated feature film, which he wrote, produced and directed. It was based on a Broadway musical, which in turn had been inspired by Don Marquis’s stories about Archy, a poet reincarnated as a cockroach, and his feline muse Mehitabel. The film came out in the US in 1971, but performed indifferently and did not get a cinema release in the UK. It was Wilson’s only feature film as director and producer.

Wilson’s later work includes the television shows Muppet Babies (1984-91), Fraggle Rock (1987-88), Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars! (1991) and Madeline (1993-94), the eco-friendly feature film FernGully: The Last Rain Forest (1992) and the French film A Monkey’s Tale (1999).

Wilson won numerous awards, was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and served on the animated shorts committee.

He retired to England and is survived by his third wife Fabian Craig-Wilson and six children.