Howard Beckerman New York animator interview

Howard Beckerman is a New York animator who worked at Terrytoons and the now legendary Famous Studios. Graham Webb met him at an animation festival and has documented some of his experiences.

Howard Beckerman.

The one thing that clinched the deal for young Howard Beckerman and put him on the rocky road to becoming an animator for the rest of his life, was simply to look up through the second-storey window of Ted Eshbaugh’s New York studio and just see the corner of an animator’s light-box, coupled with an anglepoise (or “Gooseneck”) lamp.

The sealing of his fate was as simple as that, convincing him so thoroughly that he has remained a stalwart of the industry for over thirty years.

This revelation happened in 1949 when Howard, fresh from high-school, was hired by none other than Paul Terry himself to join the famed Terrytoons, starting as office boy, then progressing to inker, painter and inbetweener.

Situated in the suburb of New York known as New Rochelle, Terrytoons was, at that time, the longest surviving animation studio, having started Life in 1921 as Fables Studios where Terry turned out an “Aesop’s Fable” every three weeks. However, when the live-action producer, Amedee J. Van Beuren stepped in to take over as Production Head, Terry opted out, taking with him his best artists and most popular character, Farmer Al Falfa, soon to create his own studio with partner, Frank Moser.

During his brief stay at Terrytoons, Howard began practicing inbetweening for Jim Tyer. One of the first things he recalls animating was Mighty Mouse escaping from the clutches of a giant cat.

Jim Tyer, on the other hand, was an animator of some notoriety who revelled in saving drawings by stretching his characters in certain ways. Tyer could stretch, squash and abuse his characters in a bizarre fashion and normally get away with it, but when Beckman tried to emulate this style elsewhere, management responded with a definite “NO”.

The atmosphere at Terrytoons was that of one big happy family with Terry as the benevolent father figure to his juniors in hopes they would remain there until their dying days… which was much the case with most of Terry’s artists.

Although a great training ground for the young turks, Terrytoons was a veritable reincarnation of Miss Haversham’s house in Great Expectations inasmuch as time seemed to stand still there.

Enhancing this Dickens ian atmosphere was home-made equipment, still in use from when the studio first opened in 1930, and Terry’s cousin, Charley Perrin, a permanent fixture seated at a desk on a platform overlooking the artists’ “Bull-Pen”.

Perrin’s eagle-eye didn’t miss too much from his perch and, when artists wasted valuable time chatting at the water-cooler or too long in the toilets, etc., he would deal with the matter accordingly.

The female workers were segregated and treated in similar fashion by the production manager, Frank Schudde, known as “Sparky”.

Charley Perrin was also the notorious instigator of a system of awarding a gold star to whichever animator turned out the most footage, in the hope that it would encourage the others to increase output… the idea probably worked when he was at school, but it was quickly discontinued at Terrytoons. Perrin also kept the key to the stores, carrying the Dickensianisms beyond all boundaries by requiring anyone needing a new pencil to present the used one, to show it was as far down as it was going to get, before reluctantly handing over a replacement. The same procedure was followed for light bulbs, etc.

These reminiscences bear out stories of Terry’s frugality although, being his own business, it’s understandable… nevertheless, he often helped people out by giving them loans, so he wasn’t without a heart.

Many of Terry’s corner-cuttings were doozies; no push-pens, Bulldog clips on the storyboards to save wasting tacks and the ingenious idea of keeping the paint in pancake syrup dispensers so that (a) the paint wouldn’t harden with a spring lid on it, and (b) the painters could tip out just the right amount needed without wasting any.

Production at Terrytoons was always “two weeks”: Story development was two weeks, two weeks on animation, two in ink and paint, and so on… unfortunately the end product always looked like it, but by today’s standards, Terrytoons stand up surprisingly well.

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