The Sailor and the Seagull: FMPU Veterans Animate Re-Enlistment Efforts

For the last two weeks, we have been sharing films of the First Motion Picture Unit. This week, we’ll take a look at an animated film produced for the Navy by former members of the FMPU. This post was written with Criss Kovac, supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives.

Like others who served, at the end of World War II the members of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) returned to their regular jobs. We all know what happened to the more well-known of them, such as Bill Holden, Alan Ladd, and Ronald Reagan, but what happened to those men who served behind the scenes? In today’s post, we’ll look at The Sailor and the Seagull (1949), an animated film produced for the United States Navy by several former members of the FMPU.

The Sailor and the Seagull (Local Identifier: 428-MN-6677) was released by the U.S. Navy in 1949 with a simple goal: encouraging servicemen to re-enlist. In the film, a disgruntled sailor named McGinty complains about the raw deal he believes he is receiving by serving in the Navy. As luck would have it, a seagull comes to release him from service so that he can experience the freedom of civilian life. McGinty soon learns, however, that civilian life means less freedom and less money than he had imagined and quickly jumps at the chance to re-enlist.

The Sailor and the Seagull was produced by United Productions of America (UPA), an animation studio founded in 1941 in the wake of a strike at Disney. The studio is best known for later series such as Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy cartoons, but gained a foothold in the industry with commercials, industrial shorts, and military films such as Seagull.

Like other military films, there are no credits on this title, so the connection between the FMPU and UPA is not obvious. Thanks to animation aficionado Chris Sobieniak, however, we learned that the film itself includes an enormous hint about the names of the producers in one of the final scenes.

There are six other names in the Seagull’s book. These are UPA animators.

According to Sobieniak, the six names referenced in the seagull’s book are Bobe Cannon, William T. Hurtz, Willis Pyle, Jules Engel, Herbert Klynn, and Jack Schnerk, all of whom worked at UPA. Hurtz, Pyle, and Engel all served in the First Motion Picture Unit.

In 2012, the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab digitally restored The Sailor and the Seagull. We chose the title because of the richness of the images and because of the film’s connection to UPA. In Seagull, the animators created a unique style called “limited animation” which was more modern than anything that had come before. Frames were also reused throughout the story, which was fairly unheard of at the time.

The film preservation team, led by specialist Bryce Lowe, began digitizing The Sailor and the Seagull in January 2012. We started with a scratched projection print and scanned at a 2K resolution in order to achieve the best possible final product.

Lowe spent more than 80 hours painstakingly removing printed-in dust and scratches from the twelve-minute film. On average, a digital workflow will take four times longer than traditional photochemical preservation and restoration.

Because animation has a softer palette, the restoration of Sailor and the Seagull presented unique challenges. When the images lacked hard lines and the colors were more diffuse, the software actually introduced digital artifacts or erased parts of the image entirely. Because of this concern, Lowe avoided some of the automatic clean-up tools and opted for frame-by-frame corrections.

Since most theaters can only show digital copies, the digital restoration of The Sailor and the Seagull was an important first step to keeping our holdings available for public screenings. Digitization is still a questionable long-term tool for preservation, but provides our best avenue to access, allowing for wider dissemination of the motion picture holdings.