A Chat With Johnnie Vita and Ed Aardal

Today’s postings of Dan McLaughlin’s video interviews from the The Animation Guild’s 1986 Golden Awards Banquet focuses on two industry veterans who made their name in areas too often ignored by animation buffs: background art (John Vita) and special effects animation (Edwin S. Aardal).

Johnnie-Vita

Vita was a defiantly New York artist who, towards the latter part of his career, turned down an opportunity to continue working in Los Angeles to live full-time in Port Chester, New York, a suburban village he tried to chronicle in a series of paintings. He began his career in 1935, right out of high school, at Terrytoons. “I liked to paint,” he recalled, “so [Paul Terry] put me in the Background Department. He tried to get me to do some inbetweens, but the light used to bother my eyes. I’m a painter, so I stayed with backgrounds.”

From "Fritz The Cat" - click to enlarge

From “Fritz The Cat” – click to enlarge

In 1940, his number came up in the government’s first peacetime draft lottery. When he left the service five years later, he plied his trade at various New York commercial houses until 1950, when an injury kept him out of work for two years. He subsequently became a partner in Bill Sturm’s studio, again doing mostly commercials, for 14 years. He also worked Joe Oriolo’s The Mighty Hercules TV series before Ralph Bakshi glommed onto him as a background artist for some of his theatrical shorts, his reboot of the Spider-Man TV series, and most of his movies, including Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Wizards, Lord of the Rings and Hey Good Lookin’.

As Michael Sporn noted, Bakshi’s decision to use Vita for Fritz the Cat “was arguably the best decision Bakshi made on the film. Vita went out with the storyboard and photographed locations that actually existed. His camera was all over Greenwich Village and Harlem. Then he took these photos and did a linear tracing of the settings. Then he colored the images with Luma dyes under the lines that he had traced. These brilliant colors gave the gritty images a luminescent appearance. He manipulated the images and purposed them as the film’s backgrounds. This gave the film a reality that it otherwise didn’t have, and it made the bigger job easier for Bakshi to realize.”

Vita said he decided not to work on Bakshi’s Fire and Ice for personal reasons. “I was getting tired of painting backgrounds for someone else, so I decided to go back to Port Chester, New York, because I was commuting from New York to California—a couple of months here, three weeks back in New York.” , “every once in a while,” in order to pay the rent, he took on short assignments from producers like Jack Zander.



Ed-Aardal

Aardal also started in animation in 1935 at age 25, which was somewhat older than many other beginners at the time. He was born and raised in the State of Washington, where he attended a Skokomish reservation school until he was 15. He then worked in the sawmills “and that sort of” thing until he was 19, when he decided, “What the hell, I better get some schooling.” He eventually graduated from high school in Seattle and got a job at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the suggestion of his high school art teacher, he applied to Disney’s and hired as a trainee for $10.00 a week. He quickly got promoted from inbetweening to animation, and ended up doing special effects animation on such films as Snow White, Fantasia and The Lady and the Tramp, as well as animating on number of Goofy and Donald Duck shorts. In his chat with McLaughlin, he recounts his early experiences watching whales on a trip to Alaska with his father as being very helpful in his later work on Monstro in Pinocchio.

He left Disney after 20 years and initially worked for Kling Studios as an animator, followed by five years at ERA Productions, a commercial house he was part-owner of. His later credits included animating for Hanna-Barbera on such shows as Top Cat and Jonny Quest, as well as Charlotte’s Web. He also worked for Chuck Jones (The Phantom Tollbooth) and Sanrio (Metamorphoses).

Although Aardal speaks fondly about his years at Disney, he apparently did not take his layoff from the Mouse House too well. Thus, according to an interview cited by Steve Hulett, “Walt Disney called Ed and asked him to come back to the studio, as he had some work that was right up Ed’s alley. But Ed replied: ‘Gee Walt, I’ve got another job.’ And Ed never did go back to WDP.”

Much of the writings about Vita relates to his close relationship to Bakshi, including many references found in Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell’s book, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, items like Michael Barrier’s Funnyworld article on Fritz the Cat, as well as Sporn’s heavily-illustrated post noted above. There seems to be much less, alas, available on Aardal.

This pair of chats will be my last posting of individual video interviews from the Golden Awards Banquets. I have not included half the video chats I did for the first banquet in 1984, as they were not found in The Animation Guild’s archives. (It’s quite possible they still exist elsewhere and we hope to eventually find them – and bring them to you.) However, fragments of my talks with the likes of Lou Appet, Friz Freleng, Dave Tendlar, Jack Zander and Chuck Jones are in the official video of the 1984 banquet, which I will be posting in three segments starting next week.

Next week: The First Golden Awards Banquet, hosted Gary Owens, Part I.

6 Comments

  • I am always amazed at how far some of these golden age animators had to travel to get jobs–from New York to California to Japan? Wow!

    In a slightly related note, it is a shame that most of the Ralph Bakshi films have not been released in a set with commentaries and such. It would be interesting to hear anecdotes of working with Bakshi and how difficult it might have been proposing animated features of this kind (HEAVY TRAFFIC, COONSKIN) which, I’m assuming at the time, animation was still seen through the “Walt Disney” lense. I guess such a set is impossible since the distributors differed for every film. I don’t say that as fact; I just don’t see a set of Bakshi films as the titles on DVD presently come from different sources. And, as far as I know, none have been digitally remastered. All sound like they were recorded from film stock directly. Please correct me if I’m so obviously mistaken.

    • I believe WIZARDS was remastered for DVD and released in deluxe form with an audio commentary by Ralph. LORD OF THE RINGS has also been celebrated on DVD with deluxe treatment and a documentary with Ralph being interviewed. FRITZ THE CAT, HEAVY TRAFFIC and his other early, socially conscious films are even more timely now – and at the same time, even more politically incorrect – making them harder to market by the media conglomerates who perceive (in this day and age) animated features to be alike with THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE or ICE AGE: COLLISION COURSE.

    • Yep, I recall Ralph talked a bit about Johnnie Vita on that Wizards commentary. MGM had released both Fritz and Heavy Traffic on DVD a decade back.

  • Thank you for linking to the Sporn page on Vita’s techniques. It’s compelling to see how he remade the Spider-Man backgrounds from the first season. A side-by-side comparison would be a worthy project. Such an artist and visionary! I could watch those cartoons and the Bakshi movies for the backgrounds alone.

    Has anyone had any luck reproducing his technique using Corel and Photoshop? The layer order and opacities are tricky, but I’ve had some luck with a combination of digital watercolor (in place of Luma dye) & Corel “stylized” high-conned B&W PS photos. The catch seems to be the choice of canvas, which if left as an Alpha channel can screw everything up if further adjustments are needed after flattening. Although Alpha’s give you some wiggle room if you want to add any BG elements later.

    Anybody into this? I wouldn’t even know where to ask these types of questions. Now, if there was a dedicated animation background blog run with the professional zeal of Animation Scoop & Cartoon Research…..

    • It may not be as scholarly as you’d like, but Rob Richards ANIMATION BACKGROUNDS BLOG is well worth a look.

    • His blog has a lot of potential. Both you and Art Binninger recommend it, and I see why.
      I’m going to do a Spider-Man background before/after Vita comparison and see if he wants it.
      Vivat Vita!

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