Inside the art of animation — thanks to George Nicholas


A model sheet of Fred “Gladstone,” who was later re´named Fred Flintstone, was created for animators as a guide as they worked on the cartoon show. The image is one of 159 animation pieces that are part of a nationwide touring exhibit. (HANNA-BARBERA PRODUCTIONS )

Disney, Hanna-Barbera animator
George H. Nicholas exhibit looks
inside the art of cartooning

While working at early studios, he thought ahead and saved his — and others’ — work

You’ve probably never heard of George H. Nicholas. Even as an animation fan, I had never heard of him.

He isn’t as famous as Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, William Hanna, Joesph Barbera or even Walter Lantz.

However, Nicholas worked with every single one of those animation greats. He was an “in-betweener,” the artist who creates the drawings that fit between the conceptual art done by the head animator. He did that kind of work for 52 years, from the rise of animation’s golden age in the 1930s to its decline and ultimate revitalization in the mid-1970s.

The reason I know of Nicholas now is that he preserved a lot of his original work. It’s a feat of surprising forethought, because most cartoon studios threw out their artwork or recycled it once they shot it to film.

“I think he had an inkling from the very beginning that he was involved in something that was going to be pretty important, and he knew he was in on the early days of it,” said his daughter, Donna Nicholas, a retired art professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, who inherited the 600-piece collection when her father died in 1996.

“I think he thought it might be worth something,” she said. “It turns out he was right, but it1s also a really nice record of animation over the years.”

“It was just sitting in boxes and folders, and roughly sorted,” Nicholas1 daughter said. “When he came to live with me in 1991, I got acid-free paper and all of that archival stuff and sat down with him. I got information on what was there and got it stored properly.”

Now, five years after Nicholas’ death, 159 images from his collection are on a nationwide tour called FROM MICKEY TO THE GRINCH: ART OF THE ANIMATED FILM. This reviewer saw the exhibit at the Lancaster Museum of Art in Pennsylvania in August 2001.

Along with his own original cartoon art, there’s also a lot of stuff he didn’t do. The animator saved a tremendous number of “model sheets” — illustrations of a character from a variety of poses and angles — that he and his coworkers used while working on movies and TV cartoons such as CINDERELLA, SONG OF THE SOUTH, and others.

George Nicholas shows off one of his paintings. The animator loved all forms of art and especially loved to draw circus scenes.

There’s even a model sheet or two from “The Gladstones,” a TV cartoon from the 1960s. Now it’s unlikely you1ve ever heard of the “The Gladstones” because it was renamed “The Flintstones” early in its production. The model sheets show a happy Fred “Gladstone”, a mad Fred, a surprised Fred and so on. (Why the name change? It turned out that the would-be last name of everyone1s favorite prehistoric quarry worker was already used by the cartoon strip, “Hi & Lois.”)

Also framed for viewing are a variety of animation work sheets, items that show the production end of the business. You can read the dialogue sheets from the famous “mirror-mirror on the wall” sequence in SNOW WHITE, You can see the scrawl of Chuck Jones, best known for toons such as WHAT’S OPERA DOC, as he filled out assignment sheets for his in-betweeners. Museum-goers can even view the production book of BAMBI.

One of the exhibits most popular areas is the Animation Station, where kids of all ages can draw or mold their own animated masterpieces and have it recorded on to a video.

George Nicholas: From nail-bender to artist

Donna Nicholas said her father showed his artistic nature early in his life, even in his school books, where “every empty space was filled with drawings.”

Despite his love for doodling, he bowed to the conventional wisdom that says being an artist means being poor, and started a short-lived career as a Depression-era construction worker, where, according to his daughter, he straightened used nails and pushed a wheelbarrow day in and day out.

Then, just at the dawn of the Golden Age of animation, he got wind of some guy named Walt Disney who was looking for people who could draw. Nicholas applied and got a job.

It was there at Disney’s animation studio, nicknamed “Pneumonia Alley,” that Nicholas learned his craft.

And that learning didn’t stop after the whistle blew.

“With every extra penny he had, he took drawing lessons and painting lessons,” Donna Nicholas said.

He worked on a variety of animated shorts for many years, drawing the likes of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Goofy. In all, he1s credited with 63 projects, but probably contributed to many more.

As an animator, he didn1t take his job lightly, his daughter said, explaining that if his work didn’t measure up, he would find out in the dreaded “Sweatbox,” a screening room where an animator’s work was put to the test.

“If the director thought this or that was wrong, they’d have to literally go back to the drawing board,” Donna Nicholas said, but added there was still time for fun. “They constantly cartooned one another and tried to lighten things up a bit because it was a very high pressured job,” she said.

Animal man: After years of working on animated films, Nicholas soon found he really excelled at drawing animals.

“I always liked animal characters,” the animator said in an interview filmed a few years before his death. “I liked to study and draw them.”

The interview, part of a film in the works by Edinboro University of Pennsylvania animation teacher David Weinkauf about Chuck Jones shows the aged Nicholas as he worked on a chainsaw sculpture at his home in Edinboro.

Donna Nicholas said that his years of animation showed in his animal sculptures with their feeling for movement and posture.

In fact, Chuck Jones, for whom Nicholas would work with on films including HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVI, almost exclusively had Nicholas working on animal features thanks to his expertise in the form.

On RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVI an animated adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story about a cobra-killing mongoose, Nicholas worked as the chief character animator.

“He thought his work on RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVI was some of the best quality of work he did,” Donna Nicholas said.

His love for drawing animals went beyond the workplace. Donna Nicholas said her father often took her to the circus, where he would sketch the animals in the show.

“He loved the circus and I used to go with him. In those days in the late 30s and early 40s, he’d take along a sketchbook and sketch.”

This bear is featured in a sequence that appears in “Pogo’s Birthday Special.” The roughs for the entire sequence appear in the museum display. (CHUCK JONES ENTERPRISES)

Boss Chu
ck: George Nicholas on Chuck Jones

About Jones, Nicholas said he was proud to work with the animation great. “His goal was to beat Disney. That was his thing,” Nicholas said of his former boss in the videotaped interview. “He really loved Chuck as a boss,” Donna Nicholas said. “(Chuck Jones) came up through the animation ranks and Chuck understood the art process. Even though they worked under a lot of deadline pressure, Chuck was an exceedingly good man to work under. Dad’s best years as a creative artist were with Chuck Jones.”

Bearing up: George Nicholas on Pogo

One of the most awe-inspiring pieces at the Lancaster Museum of Art exhibit is a series of drawings Nicholas did for the POGO’S BIRTHDAY SPECIAL, a project he worked on for Jones.

In total, the 63-foot-long display features 49 images of a bear as he walks out, spins his cane and bounces around. When it’s viewed as an animated sequence, it takes just two or three seconds.

“It really gives an idea of the real physical nature of animation,” his daughter said. “People can really get an idea of what the animator does. What I have of the dancing bear is actually many more images than that.”

Another example of that “physical nature” is the parade sequence in the 1959 Disney Masterpiece SLEEPING BEAUTY. Nicholas spent an entire year working on the 2-minute shot, and his hard work and attention to detail shows as the parade of revelers streams along in one of animation’s greatest films.

“Disney was a place that would allow somebody that kind of time for the fine animation. This was a time before a lot of shortcuts were available,” Donna Nicholas said.

The FROM MICKEY TO THE GRINCH: ART OF THE ANIMATED FILM exhibit will be featured at a variety of locations through 2004.

George Nicholas Scholarship

After the FROM MICKEY TO THE GRINCH: ART OF THE ANIMATED FILM tour’s final stop in 2004, the collection will be sold at auction and the proceeds will be used to fund the George H. Nicholas Memorial Scholarship, a program for animation students at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

“What my dad wanted, and indeed what I want as an ex-college professor, was for that collection to benefit the kids who are coming up. The ones who are working all kinds of part-time jobs and struggling to pay for their education, because, unlike my father1s day, it isn1t enough to be able to draw well,” his daughter said.

Scholarship: To contribute to the George H. Nicholas Memorial Scholarship for animation students, send your tax-deductible donation to:

George H. Nicholas Memorial Scholarship

Development Department, Alumni House

Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

Edinboro, PA 16444

Extended show schedule:FROM MICKEY TO THE GRINCH: ART OF THE ANIMATED FILM will be on tour through 2004. Some dates are still open, which means you might be able to convince your local art museum to schedule it.

  • Nov. 23, 2002 (tenative) – Jan. 19, 2003 (tenative) — South Bend Regional Art Museum of Art, South Bend, Ind.
  • Feb. 7 – May 3, 2003 — Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, Science, and History, Fresno, Calif.
  • May 18 – July 27, 2003 — R.W. Norton Gallery, Shreveport, La.
  • Aug. 30 – Nov. 8, 2003 — The Parthenon, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Nov. 15, 2003 – Jan. 11, 2004 — Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, Ind.
  • February – September 2004 — Collection available
  • October – December 2004 — Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

To take a look at other animation projects Nicholas has worked on, visit,+George+(III)”



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