Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Legend of Bill Moore

Bill Moore, 1981.                 Photo by Chris Wahl

Thursdays at CalArts were brutal.  Getting to class early to pin our assignments on the long crit wall, we'd wait to be slaughtered by the old man.   Upon his arrival, the room would go silent.  He would casually stroll along the wall, surveying our assignments in his sport shirt and slacks  (or Jordache jeans!), cigarette propped in a bent back wrist, like Tim Gunn and Humphrey Bogart's love child.   Welcome to Bill Moore's design class.  

You could hear a pin drop as we held our breaths, each hoping the Angel of Death would pass over their assignment.  At last he'd pause at someone's piece and say, "Who belongs to this?"  The owner of said piece would then have to stand and "qualify" their work - that is,  explain what they did and why it works while he challenged everything they said.  This went on for three excruciating hours until each of us had our turn hemming and hawing in defense of our work.    

I came to CalArts right out of high school - a Catholic, art-hating prep school at that.  I had ZERO knowledge of color and design theory.  So on a weekly basis, in front of the class, Bill murdered me.  Gleefully.   He gleefully murdered me so much so, he took to calling me "Zombie".

But 40 years on, Zombie lives, as does Bill's voice when I work on any creative endeavor.  I hear him reciting his design mantras, "Repetition with variation....contour continuity....".  And I hear his cold, judgmental prodding, "Is that the best you can do?"  Of all my CalArts teachers - men who had worked with Walt Disney personally -  I would have never bet the most influential would be a guy who never worked a day in animation, and in fact, held a general contempt for it.   
Bill's profound influence is almost universally shared among my industry peers, as is their fear and love of him.  Anecdotes have been shared and re-shared to great laughter over the years from those fortunate enough to have been there.  But his life outside of school has been a mystery, beyond stories he'd share for shock value or laughs.  So I did some research and interviewed many former students then cobbled together this piece.  It's not so much a biography as it is the story of a legend.  

Bill would hate it. 

                                                                                                                       photo by Chris Wahl

William M. Moore was born in New York on March 15, 1894, the year motion picture film was patented, Coca Cola was first sold in bottles, and Grover Cleveland was President of the 44 United States. His mother was from France and his father England, though he claimed to be Black Irish.

He grew up on a farm, sharing with the class his adolescent love of one of their horses. His mother warned him of the danger of getting too close to it, pointing out the vast collection of horse hair on the crotch of Bill's pants.   As our class erupted in a din of laughter and disgust, Bill took a long drag from his cigarette.  "It's not like sheep, y'know."  He said,  "You need a couple of guys to help."   

That was Bill's humor - sharp, sick, and crass - usually with some sexual theme or innuendo.  He once boasted, "When I was your age, I could jerk off in bed and hit a twelve foot ceiling."  Adding, "I woke up every morning looking like Omar the tent maker."   With a naughty glance he'd survey the room for reaction,  relishing the mix of uproarious laughter and prudish scowls from his students.  

In 1921, Bill married a woman from Kentucky named Mabel, 2 years his junior.  She had no schooling, and her occupation on a 1930 Census was listed as "housewife".  A gay man, Bill never mentioned having been married. I can only speculate that it may have been in his best interest to be closeted in those days.

1930 Census records

By 1930, Bill was living in San Francisco, where he attended the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design located in the Chinatown district.  He studied color theory that Shaeffer learned under Ralph Johonnot in Germany during the Arts and Crafts movement (and World War I!).  Bill worked as a commercial artist at H. Liebes & Co, a furrier on Post St. while living at the Bone Ray Apartments on 500 Leavenworth St with good ol' Mabel.  

During the 1930's, the German artists of the Bauhaus movement fled the Nazis, settling in Chicago and establishing a school there.  The influence on Bill was evident to anyone who would take his classes.  It was rumored that Bill studied there, at New Bauhaus.  But it was during this time he met the woman who would change the course of his life,  artist Nelbert Chouinard.  She talked a reluctant Bill into teaching at her Chouinard Art Institute, which she founded in 1921.  In 1936, he moved to Los Angeles, sans Mabel it seems, and started his legendary design classes.  

At first he was terrified of teaching, but he put on "a big act" as he called it.  Basing his teaching on Schaeffer's color theory, the new guy ruffled the feathers of fellow faculty member George Townsend, who insisted Bill teach more traditionally.  Bill refused, and went on to do his teaching "act" for the next 47 years, interrupted only by World War II.   

During the war, he served in the Army Air Force, analyzing before and after aerial photographs of bomb sites.  He was stationed in London, where he first discovered African sculpture, buying up all he could in shops around the city.  It was also in London that he claimed to discover glory holes, though the quantity is unknown.

After the war, he began bringing his African sculpture pieces to class for the study of the stylization of form.  Student Bob Winquist found this quite interesting, as he too had started collecting African sculpture in London during the war.  There was one particular ivory piece he never forgot, one that had been out of his price range until a game of craps changed his fortune.  He rushed back to buy it, but the piece was gone.  Two years later he sat in Bill's class, looking at that very piece - Bill had beaten him to it.  Coincidentally, after Bill's death in 1983, Bob would take over as design teacher in the CalArts Character Animation program.  

'Primitive Mask' was the theme of the annual Chouinard Ball costume party in 1949.  Bill won first prize dressed as a Ubangi tribeswoman, creating a pretty true and ridiculous costume replica of an African sculpture. There's a photo in Robert Perine's book "Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed", if you're curious.

The same sculptures were brought to my class 36 years later.  We were encouraged  to handle them, to feel the forms.  We would draw them, dissecting and interpreting the shapes. That week's assignment was to create our own 2d design based on the sculptures.   It was the only time Bill ever gave us something to work with.  Consequently, many of our designs looked alike.  Surveying the crit wall, Bill stopped at one very unique piece created by Steve Wahl.  When asked to explain it, Steve said, "Well, everyone else was aping Picasso, I thought I'd rip-off Matisse."

Bill choked on his coffee laughing.  

A new wave of artists came along to challenge Bill's teachings in the late 1950's, breaking his class into two camps: the commercial side and the fine arts side.  At a 1959 design exhibit, the two camps collided.   

Mocking the commercial aesthetic, artist Ed Ruscha created a collage from cigarette butts.  Surveying the piece in the gallery, and understanding it was meant as a 'fuck you',  Bill decided to improve upon it by setting its corner on fire with his lighter.  Point made, he promptly put it out and had his laugh, but the fine art crowd called for his head on a stick.  There was much drama, mainly because the piece was hung in a gallery and not in class - creating a semantical distinction between burning a work of art versus a student assignment .   Ultimately, nothing came of it, and Ruscha went on to be hugely successful making art with a Bill Moore influence.

Bill's did some hell raising at home as well in those days.  It was not uncommon for him to come to class with two black eyes - a repetition with variation, no doubt.

In 1961, the Chouinard Art Institute merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to form California Institute of the Arts, aka CalArts.  Her health failing, Mrs Chouinard turned the reigns over to Walt Disney.  Plans were made to create a new, unified campus, eventually settling on its current site in Valencia, California.  

In 1970, with Mrs Chouinard's death and a new campus under construction, the new board of directors gave Chouinard's longtime faculty the boot.  Bill headed a faculty lawsuit for breach of contract - and lost.  When the campus opened in 1971, Bill was still teaching - only at Art Center in Pasadena.   

Among his Art Center students was Becky Lodolo, later known as animator/story artist Rebecca Rees.  Her class take-away, besides abject terror, was Bill's constant instruction to observe nature, then go play god.  

Bill would often refer to nature in the study of color.  If you were to take a flower and break down its colors and percentage of their presence in that flower, you would get the most perfect color scheme.  BUT he found the use of flowers and fruit as decoration to be quite tacky.

"They're sex organs!"  he'd scoff, taking a drag from a cigarette.  "You see these ladies in their flower print dresses - they're covered in cocks and vaginas."  He believed we should take our fashion cues from nature. "You always see fat people wearing those big colorful muumuus.  Birds wear bright colors, not elephants!"   

He particularly despised the Pasadena Rose Parade, its floats made completely from flowers.  He described the ultimate float being a giant penis of flowers that would spew white petals out onto the  ladies watching the parade, giggling in their flower print dresses.   

After Roy Disney's death in 1971, the Disney Animation Studio was at a crossroads as their veteran team of artists was aging into retirement.  Should they shut it all down, or train a new generation of artists to fill the void?   In  the fall of 1975,  Character Animation became part of the CalArts School of Film and Video curriculum.  The department's head, Ed Emshwiller, tried to lure Bill back to teach design to the animators.

"I told him to shove it." Bill said.  

That would have been the end of it had his friends Marc and Alice Davis not stepped in.  They arranged to have Bill teach at CalArts as an employee of Disney Studios, and not CalArts.  This would explain why, in the CalArts library archives, records of Bill's work agreements end in Chouinard's final year, 1969, when he was paid $7040.00.  As a Disney employee, he had complete autonomy to teach as he pleased.   Bill once said, "If I were in charge of this school, I'd run it with an iron fist - and a limp wrist."

Bill with T.Hee, 1981.         Photo by Chris Wahl

Jerry Rees was in the first character animation class, and recalled how Bill became so enraged by the constant interruptions over the PA speaker, he tore it from the wall and stomped on it.  Of his critiques, Jerry said,  "He was the only teacher that ever made me cry."

Crit wall, 1981.     Photo by Chris Wahl

Chris Wahl recalled his first Bill Moore class in 1980: "Our first animation class with Jack Hannah and Bob McCrea was just us sitting around listening to their stories.  Next day was Bill's class. Everyone thought it would be more of the same.  

Bill took a look at the class and said,  'Where are your supplies?'

We just told him we didn’t think we needed them on our first day.  Bill got red-faced and blew his stack. "GO GET YOUR GODDAMN SUPPLIES YOU LITTLE BASTARDS!!!"  The whole class went running to the student store."

Chris Bailey was there too.  He added, "He scared the crap out of us. We didn't know what to do because the campus store hadn't open yet, so we milled around for an hour afraid to go back into class until we had our supplies."

For their next class with Bill, classmate Kelly Asbury had them wear name tags that said,“Hello my name is…Little Bastard”.  Bill called the class The Little Bastards from then on.

On day one Bill would ask, "Why are you here?"

To which the reply was, "To learn character animation."

"Wrong!" he'd say.  "You are here to learn how to communicate."

Frans Vischer: "The assignments themselves, what we posted on the wall, meant little to him. What mattered was the thought process, and he pushed us to explain the decisions we made for specific shapes, placement and use of color.  Bill never treated our pieces as something precious - we weren't making art, we were coming up with creative solutions to his design challenges.  Most of our assignments were color paper cut-outs held together with rubber cement.  He could easily pull them apart on the crit wall and often did."

Design project by Ann Telnaes, 1983. 

Bruce Smith: "I once placed a main element of a design piece in the corner of the frame.  Bill said, 'The only thing you want to put in a corner is pussy.'"

Mike Cedeno did a piece Bill was quite happy with.  When pressed to explain his choice of color, Mike said, "It was the only one I had left."  totally discrediting himself.  But one could argue financial considerations are a legitimate part of the design process!

T. Dan Hofstedt:  "That paper wasn’t cheap! I had bought some colored Canson paper and only had 4-5 colors to choose from - a budgetary decision. One of the final assignments was a 6 or 7 panel sequence of images that were meant to show some kind of graphic progression. While the panels stood alone as a storyboard sequence, the shapes between panels flowed together with some rhythm and connectivity.  As I was pinning it up on the wall,  I noticed Bill looking over my shoulder and my heart sank.

He said, 'Everything you’ve done this year has been crap, but this is outstanding. I love the colors. I love the flow of the shapes. You have the shapes relating exquisitely and it ties together really well. Maybe you’re finally getting somewhere.' It was the only time he liked anything I did." 

The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff said, "One assignment I remember fondly involved creating a series evolving shapes within a circle that resolved into an animal. Mine was a bull. I actually referenced this when I designed the image of Simba that Rafiki draws in his tree."

Bill Moore inspired design in "The Lion King"

And then there were the pranks.

On the night of Bill's birthday, Jerry Rees and five or six other classmates went up to his house at 6888 Alto Loma Terrace, near the Hollywood Bowl.  They hid in the bushes while one guy knocked on the door.  

Bill answered, surprised and confused.  "Oh, oh...hello...what are you doing here?'

The guys said, "I was just in the neighborhood's your birthday, right?"

"Yes....well....come in!"  Bill said.  They went inside and closed the door.  

A few minutes later, the next guy goes to the door and knocks. Bill answered.  The next guy said, "I was just in the neighborhood's your birthday, right?"

Bill looked around and called out, "Alright, I know you guys are out there!  Come on in!" 

"He and his partner Jim treated us to a wonderful evening."  Jerry said.  "He seemed truly touched we had bothered to come by and pull a friendly prank."  They got to see a the vast collection of African masks on display in his house.  There were also some amazing drawings by Rico LeBrun.  

Back in class, he groused about how they weren't afraid of him anymore.  "Well," he said, "at least I have the freshmen."`

Bob Seeley's prank a few years later may not have aged as well.  One of his classmates had studied at Art Center and liked everyone to know just how superior his knowledge of design was to theirs. He would ramble on and on in class, arguing design philosophy with Bill while boring everyone else to tears.  After months of this, Bob could take no more.  At the next class, as the guy started pontificating,  Bob jumped from his chair, pulled a gun and yelled, "Shut up, or I'll blow your fucking head off!"

There was silence, followed by a explosion of laughter from the class - they were all in on the gag.  The gun was not real.  Bob was never so much as reprimanded.  The student never returned. 

Jeff DeGrandis once wore a tux to class in a ploy to influence Bill's critique.   Photo by Chris Wahl

Not everyone was a Bill Moore fan.  After months of trying to find our way in the dark while being humiliated for being blind, some of us stopped caring.  I fell in that camp many times, and would have stayed there had my classmates not inspired me to try again. But like Charlie Brown going for the football, I always landed flat on my back.

Peter Chung expressed his disenchantment by animating a short with Bill as the ass of a horse.  Bill was not amused.

Matt O'Callaghan "He would come over and sit on my desk and stare down at me while I was aimlessly moving color paper around.  He would let his cigarette ash fall on it and he would say loudly for all to hear, 'You don't understand the assignment, do you?' 

And I would say, 'Nope.' 

Then he'd say, 'You don't know what you're doing, do you?' 

And I would say, 'Not a clue.'  I think he enjoyed it, because he would be laughing. 

Sophomore year, I kind of gave up on him and just worked on my student film.  During design class (that I wasn't attending), he came into the animation room where I was alone and again sat on my desk.  As a comical threat he said, 'You know I'm failing people this year.' 

I replied, 'Go ahead, I'm not planning on coming back next year.'  He didn't fail me and I didn't go back."

Dave Pruiksma was similarly broken: "I figured, with all the other students he would not really miss me.  As I sat there at my desk animating, I felt someone watching me silently, from behind. I turned to see Bill standing there, arms crossed, elbow bent upward, cigarette clench between his fingers with a stern look on his face.

He said,  'I noticed you have not been coming to my class lately.'  There was no scolding or angry words. He simply said, 'I think you you should come back to my class.'

I thought for a second or two and then said that I would. He seemed satisfied with my answer, turned and left without another word. It was at that moment I realized beneath that stern exterior demeanor, Bill actually cared very much about each of us and our education.

Ann Telnaes: "At the end of particularly stressful design class my classmates and I retreated to our animation desks to resume work on our pencil tests and lick our wounds.  My friend and cubicle mate, Lynette Nuding, was especially irritated with Moore that day and decided to challenge him. 

'Do you have to be so rude?' she said. 

I expected him to reply with his usual one-liners but instead his expression softened and he said 'Because when you get out there it’ll be much worse.'"

Pages from Ann Telnaes' notebook from Bill's class

While Bill would bring in work from former students like Jim Beihold and Nancy Beiman as success stories,  he never shared anything of his own.  His professional work seemed to be largely interior design, which would explain the lack of physical pieces of work.  But no photos?  

Brian McEntee said,  "I remember him saying he did a lot of high-end interior designing, and it seems to me I saw a picture once of a swanky indoor pool and surrounding room that he designed.  He made a habit of not talking about or showing us his work--it felt very deliberate and I have to assume he didn't want us to ape him but rather find our own design answers. A really nice thing about Bill is he didn't want fans or acolytes and tended to discourage suck-ups by abusing them when they did." 

He once consulted Jim Henson on some tribal art for a Muppet bit. It didn't need to be 100% authentic, but close enough to show they had done their homework.  

In class he talked about designing a coffee table. Fred Cline laughed, "I bet it looks like an African head rest!"

To which Bill replied, "How did you know?"

At the start of the second semester in January of '83, he uncharacteristically started missing class.  On the weeks he would show, he would be covered in band-aids.  "Shingles."  he'd say was the cause.  He was quite self-conscious about it. 

Already a thin man, Bill grew skinnier and frail over the next few months. There was a look in his eyes I'd never seen before - vulnerability and fear.  Rumors swirled, as the school at large was abuzz about a new venereal disease that, if you were to catch it, you'd die.  Did Bill have this new AIDS bug? By early April he stopped coming to class altogether.  No one told us what was going on.   We were all shocked to learn on May 28, 1983, that Bill Moore had died.  The official cause: Hepatitis B.

His African art collection supposedly went to the LA County Museum of Art - good luck getting someone there to verify it.  It was also rumored to have been donated to the Benedictine monks, which is laughable given he once said, "There's a special place in Hell for missionaries." 

Besides his art collection, he left behind his longtime partner James Normile, former Board Director at  Chouinard, and a boxer named Samantha "He loved to pieces." as Tanya Wilson put it.  He also left a wake of students who went on to leave indelible marks on our popular culture through art, design and animation. 

Kevin Lima: "He would take you through these thresholds of learning.  You could see the progress in your own work. He made such a lasting impression - here we are, still talking about him." 

Bill lives on in animated form as The Great Gazoo character in The Flintstones, which was supposedly created by a couple of his former students.   Willie Ito, a student of Bill's who worked on the show, has no recollection of that being true, and Bill himself dismissed it completely.  So was it true?  For that matter, were any of the stories Bill told us about his life true?

Like any legend, the stories are as true as you want them to be.


PS: Here is what may be the only existing footage of Bill teaching class.  We were all 18 and 19 years old then.  What a treasure to have.  Thanks Gary Conrad!

Bill Moore's Class 1982 from Steve Moore on Vimeo.

reference sources:                                                                                                                            "Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed" by Robert Perine
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs
U.S. Census
CalArts Library Archives

A special thanks to Al Holter, Chris Wahl, Ann Telnaes, and Gary Conrad

students sources:
Chris Bailey, Jim Beihold, Nancy Beiman, Dave Bossert, Fred Cline, Gary Conrad, Tim Hauser, Al Holter, Willie Ito, Dan Jeup, Kevin Lima,Wendell Luebbe, Joe McDonough, Brian McEntee, Matt O'Callaghan, Dave Pruiksma, Jerry Rees, Rebecca Rees, Kevin Richardson, Chris Sanders, Bob Seeley, Bruce Smith, Ann Telnaes, Darrell Van Citters, Frans Vischer, Chris Wahl, Tanya Wilson, Kirk Wise


  1. Fantastic article, Steve. Now if only Ann would scan all her notes and post them online. Seriously! Wish I still had mine.

  2. Wow! What a magical transported me back in time! Just a note about my was "African head rest rather than head dress". Head rests are carved out of wood and they look like they would make good coffee tables:

    1. Ah, I transcribed you wrong. Will fix, though head dress is a funnier image!

  3. Thanks for putting together an excellent, thoughtful treatment of a complex teacher with strong opinions. I never met Moore but I'm certainly familiar with his type. It seems that few students today have the vertebrae or the patience necessary to learn from such teachers.

    The great Walt Whitman asked, "Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?"

    1. Thanks David! I agree with you and good ol' Walt Dubya - sometimes you just need a good kick in the pants.

  4. Thanks, Steve! I'd heard Bob Winquist mention "The Great Bill Moore" several times and always been curious. So I pictured him as more of a General Patton character. Now I know better! Is it possible to step out of the 'great unwashed' now? MC:^)>