One of favorite designer ‘discoveries’ while working on CARTOON MODERN was the work of Lew Keller (1912-1996). It’s hard to believe that an artist of his caliber has been so thoroughly neglected over the years. Here’s the few things that I know about him: Keller started at Disney around ‘39-40. He most likely left during the strike though it’s unclear what he did for most of the ’40s. In the late-1940s, he ended up designing TV commercials in New York for Shamus Culhane and Tempo Productions. There’s a few examples of his commercial designs in Culhane’s autobiography TALKING ANIMALS AND OTHER PEOPLE. Based on these images, one might assume that Keller was a pretty poor artist, but in fact, he was a superb draftsman.
Ca. 1951-1952, he began to work at UPA, where he was the primary designer of the animated segments in the live-action feature THE FOUR POSTER (1952). As best as I can make out, he left UPA after this project and worked elsewhere for the next few years. He has credit as co-art director on the classic John Sutherland educational film A IS FOR ATOM (1952) and he also designed numerous commercials for Ray Patin Productions in the mid-1950s. By 1954 however he was back on staff at UPA, where he worked until the end of the 1950s, followed by a short stint at Disney, and ultimately joining Jay Ward’s in the early-1960s.
Keller worked on a wide variety of projects while at UPA. He directed and designed a number of shorts for the BOING BOING SHOW, including the classic “Miserable Pack of Wolves,” and he also designed the theatrical short GERALD MCBOING BOING ON THE PLANET MOO. He was the co-director of UPA’s last theatrical series “Ham and Hattie.”
Below are some of Keller’s concept pieces for THE FOUR POSTER (1952). The animation for these segments was directed by John Hubley, and while the final film doesn’t exactly look like this, Keller’s design presence is felt strongly in the animation. There’s a couple more of Keller’s pieces in the book.
I can’t stop looking at these drawings. What really stands out to me is how beautifully every element is designed and how elegantly the scenes are composed. One could spend days breaking down the design in these drawings. For example, look at the man being dragged into the room by his wife. You can’t fake a drawing like that.
The finished film takes Keller’s designs and goes even further, with incredible backgrounds by Paul Julian, great animation by Art Babbitt and stellar direction by Hubley. From a design standpoint, it is one of UPA’s great achievements; it’s too bad that the film has never been released onto home video or dvd.
(Click on pics for larger versions. The Keller photo in this post is from the collection of Keith Scott. The drawings are from the collection of Mike Glad. If anybody out there has more info about Lew Keller, please do share.)