June 6, 2016 posted by

Chatting with Lars Calonius and Ken O’Brien

Lars Erik Calonius and Kenneth John O’Brien both started out at Disney’s around the same time, though their career paths diverged in significant ways. While O’Brien basically stayed at the Mouse House to become a master animator, Calonius went off to New York and helped create one of the most iconic Cold War films ever made. However, like many animation veterans of their generation, they both ended up becoming journeymen animators working on TV shows and commercials.


Calonius was, as he noted in his 1986 Golden Awards Banquet interview with Dan McLaughlin, “born in Finland and [moved to] San Francisco…. I had a friend who had contact with Norman Smith, who was the dean of the political cartoonists for the San Francisco Examiner. I got to show him some of my drawings, which he thought were rather amateurish, but had some promise. And he wrote to [Disney director] Ben Sharpsteen, who then got in touch with me and they hired me for $15.00 a week as an animation trainee” in October 1935. He eventually became an assistant to Frank Thomas on such films as Pinocchio.

He was drafted into the Army during the war and ended up, he recalled, at “the Signal Corps Photographic Center in New York, which gave me the opportunity to know New York in a geographic sense, as well as in other respects.” He returned there after the war determined to open up his own studio, which he did after two-and-a-half to three years. Lars Calonius Productions, Inc. became a top commercial house, whose clients included Kent cigarettes, General Foods, Gulf Oil Corp., T.J. Lipton, Inc., and Stephen F. Whitman Candy. The company specialized in spots using cartoon, cutout and stop-motion animation, and also did some live action work.

Early on, he was involved with Archer Productions, Inc., whose vice president, Leo M. Langlois, was his brother-in-law. It is said Archer was initially a sales front for Lars Calonius Productions, but on its own also wanted to get into training films. This led it to make Duck and Cover, the famed nine-minute live-action/animated instructional film for the Federal Civil Defense Administration; Calonius was its art director and helped create the character of Bert the Turtle. The film was part of the government’s larger “Duck and Cover” campaign, but it remains its most memorable manifestation; as such, it was put on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

In 1966, Calonius sold his company to Jack Zander’s Pelican Films, Inc. and became its director of animation. By 1971, he was back on the West Coast, and went “into semi-retirement,” working as an animator for several studios, including Hanna-Barbera (The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Charlotte’s Web and The New Tom & Jerry Show) and Ralph Bakshi (Coonskin). He also headed the L.A. unit for Zander’s TV movie, Gnomes, for which he got co-director credit. He officially retired in 1980, though he apparently came back in 1989 to work on Bill Melendez’s mini-series This Is America, Charlie Brown.

When asked about his fondest memories of working in animation, Calonius said, “Well, working at Disney’s was really a privilege and a tremendous break for me, and for many others as well, because the insistence on quality, and the character of the people too. It was probably the best grouping of skilled and dedicated and intelligent people I’ve ever met. So, in that respect, I learned a great deal and I feel that I was very privileged to have the opportunity to work there.”


O’Brien’s road to animation began in Seattle, when he read a story in Popular Mechanics magazine “about the Disney Studio and it showed students, or whatever, employees drawing from a model. And I had been sitting home after trips into Idaho with a mining engineer and doing drawings. So, I thought, Well, I’ll send these down to Disney’s and they were accepted. I came down and started to work at the Disney Studios [in January 1937 as an inbetweener]. And that was it.”

His first assignments were on Snow White and The Old Mill, where he remembered “inbetweening some falling timbers.” He eventually became an animator and was greatly influenced by his mentor Fred Moore. Thus, when Moore left Disney for Lantz in the late 40s, O’Brien followed him; and when Moore came back, O’Brien did as well.


At Disney he worked on such films as Bambi, Song of the South, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp. After Disney, he animated for a number of studios, including John Sutherland (Destination Earth), UPA (Mr. Magoo TV series), Quartet Films (commercials), Bill Melendez (Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown) Hanna-Barbera (A Flintstone Christmas) and Filmation (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe). He also came back to Disney from time to time, working on animatronics for WED and animated on Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. He also taught at CalArts.

There doesn’t seem to be much out there on either. Several spots Calonius produced have been highlighted on this blog by Mike Kazaleh here and here. He gets mentioned in a number of pieces about Duck and Cover. The most accessible being at Conelrad, which contains some useful biographical information on him. As to O’Brien, there is a brief, but informative piece on him on The Disney Wiki.

Next week: Lavelle Haines Howard and Celine Miles Marcus.


  • This continues to be fascinating stuff, but today’s film inclusion, “DUCK AND COVER” freezes halfway through; I don’t know whether it is my computer or the link, because the interview segments play fine, but I’d never seen this film at all. It is interesting for what I was able to get through. Thanks, as always, for these terrific interviews.

  • UPDATE: I tried a different browser and it worked just fine! This film is an interesting historical artifact. Thanks for sharing.

  • Too bad Lars didn’t bring up “Duck and Cover”, though I suppose during that time, people weren’t yet looking at it cynically as we do today.

    I see both guys were stuck on Sanrio’s Metamorphoses as well, that one just keeps coming back for more abuse!

    • The first I heard of Duck & Cover was in the mid-80s on a news story about a film fest in Toronto, at a club I think, showing oddball things like D&C and Fred & Barney’s Winston commercial; things we have 24/7 thanks to youtube. Yeah, by the 80s it was looked at cynically.

    • The first I heard of Duck & Cover was in the mid-80s on a news story about a film fest in Toronto, at a club I think, showing oddball things like D&C and Fred & Barney’s Winston commercial; things we have 24/7 thanks to youtube. Yeah, by the 80s it was looked at cynically.

      Sounds like similar midnight screenings I know of like “Anime Hell” or “Everything is Terrible”. Those always draw in an alternative crowd.

  • Lars Calonius is my grandfather. Although I never met him, he will always be an inspiration to me 🙂

    • Hello cousin!
      I am granddaughter to Elsa his sister! My name is Gail Mello. Please contact me at:

      Thank you!

  • I was fortunate to live on the same street in Burbank as Ken O’Brien and his wonderful family in the mid-1940s and early 50s. I believe his wife was an animator, too. She would make lunch for me and their son, Jamie, and we would play for hours. I loved it when she would show me the flash books(?) of drawings she and Ken had made. Perhaps that’s why I became an artist.

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