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John David Wilson, a pioneering animation producer and director who worked on everything from Lady & the Tramp and an Igor Stravinsky ballet film to Grease, died June 20 in a nursing home in Blackpool, England. He was 93.
The Englishman, schooled in the art of animation by David Hand, the director of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942), founded Fine Arts Films in the 1950s.
Wilson’s five-minute animated shorts, featuring popular songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Jim Croce‘s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” were seen on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970s, long before the era of MTV.
Wilson’s credits also include Exploring, the 1960s NBC News educational series that won a Peabody Award, and the 1971 feature Shinbone Alley, a tale about a poetic cockroach that was voiced by the likes of Carol Channing, Eddie Bracken and John Carradine.
Wilson was born in Wimbledon on Aug. 7, 1919. At age 20, he joined the London Rifle Brigade and lost his leg in a bombing attack in the African campaign.
Following convalescence in South Africa, he returned to London and landed a job in the art department at Pinewood Studios, where he worked on The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and David Lean‘s Great Expectations (1946). He then honed his animation skills at the new G.B. Animation — a studio bankrolled by J. Arthur Rank in an effort to end Disney’s worldwide animation domination — under the tutelage of Hand.
In 1950, Wilson took his wife and young son to the U.S. for a job at Disney, where he went on to work on Peter Pan (1953), Lady & the Tramp (1955) and the Oscar-winning short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953). He also did stints at UPA and Hanna-Barbera on such projects as Mr. Magoo and The Flintstones, respectively.
In 1955, Wilson formed Fine Arts Films and produced and directed the animated short Tara the Stone Cutter, an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, and an animated version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet. The Russian composer himself conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for the project, which became the first animated film to be accepted by the Venice Film Festival.
Under his guidance, Fine Arts also did the trailer for Billy Wilder’s risque romantic comedy Irma La Douce (1963); the opening sequence for Grease (1978), which featured caricatures of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John; and the 1982 ABC special Stanley the Ugly Duckling, with Wolfman Jack contributing the voice of one character.
For the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Wilson created the groundbreaking Journey to the Stars for the NASA Space Pavilion. Projected on a hemispherical 360-degree, 75-foot screen, the 15-minute color film filled the 6,000-square-foot surface with all the excitement of a trip to the galaxies and was seen by an estimated 4.5 million viewers.
A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and a founding member of ASIFA Hollywood (the home of the Annie Awards), Wilson was a painter in oils, watercolors and pastels whose work has hung in the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
In 1995, he returned to England and retired in St. Annes-on-the-Sea in Lancashire. He suffered from dementia the past four years.
Survivors include his wife, Fabian, children David, Debbie, Michael, Victoria, Peter and Andrew and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
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