Don Duga, industry artist who worked at Rankin / Bass and UPA, dies at 87
Graduating in 1959, Duga joined United Productions of America (UPA) in Burbank. His first job was the storyboard on the television series Mr. Magoo (1960-1962), which featured the studio’s best-known character. He got his big chance when asked to replace the editor and ended up working on the storyboards, layouts, and design for the series.
Duga moved to New York and ended up as artistic director at Pelican Films, specializing in commercials. He remained active in advertising throughout the 1960s and 1970s, most notably for the food company Hostess, for which he designed iconic characters such as Twinkie the Kid, Captain Cupcake, King Ding Dong and Fruit Pie the Magician.
It was in New York City that Duga met Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, founders of the eponymous studio, which produced popular seasonal hand-drawn and stop-motion specials (with animation typically outsourced to Japan). Duga joined the studio while he was working on Rudolph the red nosed reindeer (1964).
He went on to get credits for the continuity design on specials such as Santa Claus is coming to town (1970), Emmy nominee The little drummer boy, eternal vacation favorite Frosty the snowman, cult comedy Crazy monster party? (1967), and functionality The last unicorn (1982). He also scripted. Describing his work on Glacial, Duga said MyLITV: “This comes in large part from the actors: what is their importance? Where’s the direction? And then my job is to take it and really push that: what is it? [Frosty] gonna look like if it floats, you know?
After a period spent working in Italy, Duga returned to Manhattan and founded Polestar in 1976 with Irra Verbitsky, his wife and fellow artist. The studio has produced a number of short films for young audiences that Duga and Verbitsky have co-directed, such as Owen (1995), Little chicken (1998), and Skog Island (2000). They have won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video for Owen. Polestar was also behind educational commercials for clients like Sesame Street and Nickelodeon.
During this time, Duga taught animation at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan: he joined the school in 1962 and stayed there for half a century. Upon learning of his death, several former students took to Twitter to pay tribute to him:
Sad to hear that one of my animation teachers from SVA has just passed away. Don Duga worked on Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer & Frosty! I remember one day the life drawing model didn’t show up, so Don went on stage and pretended to be animals so we could keep drawing. RIP Don Duga. 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/q1aEmGwa5P
– Giancarlo Volpe (@Giancarlo_Volpe) June 7, 2021
Really saddened to learn that Don Duga, host and teacher, recently passed away at the age of 87. Don was my first year SVA drawing teacher. She was a gentle soul with such a calm demeanor and an encouraging spirit, that was exactly what I needed this 1st year [THREAD] pic.twitter.com/Mce2LDGE1M
– Michael Ruocco (@AGuyWhoDraws) June 6, 2021
In his later years, Duga continued to pursue his art, putting on shows, exhibiting paintings, illustrating magazine covers, and generally remaining active in the community of Riverhead Town on Long Island, where he had a home.
He is survived by Verbitsky, his daughter Amanita Duga-Carroll and his son Brady Duga, as well as four grandchildren (Jacob, Kyle, Lily and Cameron), his son-in-law Bruce Carroll and his daughter-in-law Gina Pisello.