A sketch by Willie Ito of the iconic spaghetti kissing scene from “Lady and the Tramp,” which he worked on.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Pioneering Nisei cartoon artist Willie Ito has been chosen to receive the Winsor McCay Award during the 48th annual Annies, the animation industry’s version of the Oscars, on April 16, it was announced by ASIFA-Hollywood, a nonprofit devoted to cultivating and promoting the art, craft, and profession of animation.

Named in honor of animator Winsor McCay, best known as a prolific artist and pioneer in the art of comic strips and animation, the award stands as one of the highest honors given to an individual in the animation industry in recognition for career contributions to the art of animation.

Willie Ito

“To receive an individual recognition of this caliber, it really blew me away when I first heard about it. I was dumbfounded but very humbled,” said Ito when reached by The Rafu Shimpo.

Ito remembers developing an interest in drawing at age five. When he was around seven, World War II erupted and he and his family were forced to leave their home in San Francisco for the concentration camp at Topaz, Utah. Later, he was confined at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

He remembers practicing to draw in camp by using Sears catalog pages.

After graduating from high school, Ito attended the Chouinard Art Institute and was excited to land his first job as an in-betweener for Iwao Takamoto, who oversaw production and character design for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Takamoto, who passed away in 2007, was best known for his work on “Cinderella” (1950) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959).

Takamoto assigned Ito to work on the iconic spaghetti kissing scene in “Lady and the Tramp.” Ito established himself as a skillful animation artist.

He subsequently joined Warner Bros., where he worked with the legendary animator Chuck Jones on such classics as “One Froggy Evening” (hailed by Steven Spielberg as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of animated shorts”) and “What’s Opera, Doc?” (starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd).

“Hello Maggie!,” a children’s book written by Shig Yabu and illustrated by Willie Ito, will be adapted into a short animated film.

Ito also worked with Fritz Freleng and received his first screen credits for layouts on “Prince Violent,” later retitled “Prince Varmint,” featuring Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam.

Ito joined Hanna-Barbera Productions during the development of “The Jetsons” and remained there for 14 years, working on such shows as “The Flintstones,” “The Yogi Bear Show,” and other cartoon series.

Ito eventually returned to Disney to develop collectibles and mentor younger artists worldwide before retiring after a 45-year career.

At 87, Ito admits he’s busier than ever. He and partner Shig Yabu are collaborating on an animated short based the children’s book “Hello Maggie,” a project written by Yabu, who had a pet magpie in camp, and illustrated by Ito for Yabitoon Books. The two met as youngsters at Heart Mountain and have been friends ever since.

“One Froggy Evening”

The award is timely, Ito feels, because of rising anti-Asian attitudes, yet he emphasizes that the animation industry has a history of being “color-blind.”

Ito believes that he and Takamoto, who was honored in 1996, may be the only Japanese American recipients of the Winsor McKay Award in the Annies’ 48-year history. Takamoto, who did the original design of such characters as Scooby Doo, the Jetsons’ dog Astro, and Penelope Pitstop, passed away in 2007.

Animators from Japan have also received the award: Kihachiro Kawamoto (1988), Osamu Tezuka (1989-90), Hayao Miyazaki (1998), Katsuhiro Otomo (2013), Isao Takahata (2015) and Mamoru Oshii (2016).

Also honored this year will be Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, a filmmaker, painter and philanthropist who will receive the June Foray Award for his work initiating the Totoro Forest Project as well as “Sketchtravel,” a sketchbook passed from one artist to another through 12 countries over more than four years, benefitting charities that the participating artists determine.

Dice Tsutsumi

Tsutsumi worked as a visual development/color key artist at Blue Sky Studios on “Ice Age,” “Robots” and “Horton Hears a Who!” He is best known for his color and lighting art direction of Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters University.”

Tsutsumi and his directing partner Robert Kondo wrote and directed an animated short film, “The Dam Keeper,” which earned them their first Oscar nomination. In 2014, the two left Pixar to start a new animation studio, Tonko House.

The June Foray Award, named for a noted voice actress and one of the founders of ASIFA-Hollywood, is given to individuals who have made a significant and benevolent or charitable impact on the art and industry of animation.

The Annie Awards will be virtual this year, streaming live courtesy of Variety on Friday, April 16, at 7 p.m. They will honor overall excellence as well as individual achievement in a total of 36 categories. Here’s the link: http://annieawards.org/watch-it-live/

— Additional reporting by J.K. Yamamoto

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