Animation legend Willie Ito receives industry’s lifetime achievement award

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A LIFETIME OF ACHIEVEMENT ­— Willie Ito, a former animator at Hanna-Barbera and Disney, received the Winsor McCay Award April 16, at the 48th annual Annie Awards. screenshot

In 1939, 5-year-old Willie Ito sat in a movie theater absolutely mesmerized by Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He knew right then and there that animation was the life for him.

So he started drawing cartoons, and when he wasn’t drawing he dreamed of drawing even as he delivered the Nichi Bei Times in San Francisco’s Japantown, where his father ran a sweets shop before the war and a barbershop upon returning after World War II.

“When I used to pump my Schwinn bicycle up and down the hills around Japantown my thoughts were always about cartoons and the possibility that someday I will have my own comic strip published in the Nichi Bei Times,” said Ito, now 86 and living in Southern California’s Monterey Park.

But in 1942, 8-year-old Ito found himself at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp, where his future was uncertain and his detention was indefinite. But even in camp, he held on to his dream.

“In the back of my mind, my wish was always to be a part of the Walt Disney organization,” said Ito. So while his friends were getting into mischief outside, Ito stayed inside, fantasized about cartooning, created characters and kept on drawing despite his bleak surroundings.

“Cartooning was my outlet,” he said.

Flash forward 79 years, and who knew that Ito’s outlet would lead to a storied career in animation where he would not only work for Disney (more than once,) but would go on to work for Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera and have amassed a body of work that includes such classic characters as Lady and the Tramp, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, The Jetsons and Scooby Doo.

And on April 16, Ito’s life would come full circle when the International Animated Film Society bestowed upon him the Winsor McCay Award at the 48th annual Annie Awards (aka the “Oscars of Animation”).

First presented in 1972, the award recognizes animators for career contributions to the art of animation. Ito joins a long list of legends who have received this award including, among many others, Walt Disney, Iwao Takamoto, Hayao Miyazaki, Tyrus Wong and Steven Spielberg.

“Back in February I received the call about this awesome award,” said Ito. “Seeing I was in the company of some of the animation greats, I was extremely humbled by the award.”

Willie Ito worked on such classic characters as Lady and the Tramp. screenshot

During the virtual ceremony, Ito thanked the many mentors who have helped him throughout his career. One such mentor was Takamoto, a fellow Nisei who Disney hired after his time at the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp, and just happened to be on the portfolio review panel when Ito showed up at Disney for an interview.

“Iwao was instrumental in recommending me to be hired,” said Ito. “And at age 19, I was assigned to be Iwao’s assistant on the iconic spaghetti kissing scene for ‘Lady and The Tramp.’”

After Disney, he moved on to Warner Brothers and then had a 14-year-stint at Hanna-Barbera, where he was reunited with Takamoto.

Working under mentors such as Takamoto and other accomplished animation veterans was extremely important, Ito said.

“You look at their accomplishments and strive to reach their pinnacles,” said Ito. “This gave me a goal. You also benefit from learning from their mistakes and experiences. Today I still refer back to some of Iwao’s teachings and techniques.”

Unlike many Nisei, who were not hired after the war due to discrimination, Ito and Takamoto found work at Disney because the animation industry is color blind.

“You were hired on the basis of your portfolio and talent,” said Ito. Because of this, his life-long career became quite diverse.

“Not only did I work in animation as an animator, layout artist, writer and director, I even had my own studio. I also did freelance work with Marvel Comics and publishing companies illustrating comic books and spot cartoons.”

Later, he would return to Disney where he worked in its consumer products division designing Disney merchandise.

Willie Ito and Shig Yabu’s “Hello Maggie” is currently in production to become an animated cartoon short.

“Within a couple years, Disney opened over 800 retail stores worldwide,” Ito said. “As director of Character Art International, I was sent to all the International Disney offices to mentor local talents.”

In retirement, Ito illustrated and co-wrote a children’s book with Shig Yabu entitled “Hello Maggie,” which is currently in production to become an animated cartoon short. From his home in Southern California, he remains active at his drawing board doing commission work.

For those thinking of a career in animation, Ito offered this advice:

“Work hard, make your craft well and make yourself very important to whatever project you are assigned to,” said Ito. “Versatility is important in what you do.”

As for his own lifetime in animation, it wasn’t until he saw his vast body of work edited together and aired during the Annie Awards did he realize what he has done.

“I had an emotional tug,” he said. “My accomplishments were such that I never realized.”

Until his dream came true.

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