MAHOPAC, N.Y. - William H. Frake III—“Bill” to his friends—has rubbed shoulders with some of Hollywood’s most renowned elite and has walked the red carpet at some of its glitziest events.
But if you ask the award-winning animator what encounter in his storied career stands out the most in his mind, he will tell you it’s no one you’ll find on the silver screen. For him, there are no bigger American heroes than our military veterans—especially those from World War II.
Now, Frake has used his artistic talent to pay tribute to these brave men and women with a new book, “A Moment and a Memory: WWII Stories Through Sketches.”
Frake, a Mahopac resident and member of the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department, said he’s been privileged to know many WWII vets over the years, going to reunions with them, meeting their wives and their families.
“I’ve been honored to walk the battlefields beside them as they revisited the towns, bunkers, dugouts and beach landings…the cemeteries,” he writes on the book’s dust jacket. “They are the ones who taught me what a hero is, true humility, and what ‘America’ was back then.”
Frake gathered memories from the men and women who experienced the moments while they served. His drawings are based on them and express lighthearted, but often poignant, remembrances depicting the vets as they were then and as they are now.
“If I can bring a smile, a chuckle and hopefully a good belly laugh, I have accomplished what I intended this book for,” he wrote.
Frake began his career in animation in 1973 as an assistant artist for TV animation. Since then, he has spent time in nearly every aspect of the process—from character designer and story artist to layout artist and writer. He has worked on more than 30 films and TV series. But what Frake might be best known for is Skrat, the acorn-obsessed saber-toothed squirrel featured in the “Ice Age” movies. He was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production for his work on “Ice Age.”
But a career in animation was not something Frake had set his sights on as a young man. His career path was laid out for him somewhat serendipitously.
On a whim, as a teen, Frake began a correspondence course—the one on the matchbook covers that said, “draw Binky.”
“But I got bored and just became a regular kid,” he laughed. “I didn’t picture it as a career. There wasn’t a lot of animation back then. I didn’t know you could get a job working on the stuff I saw on TV. I thought it just showed up.”
Frake was a lacrosse fan and while attending a state lax camp in Montclair, N.J., he would draw pictures of the coach and the players.
“I would do little cartoons of these guys with stories and gag lines about what they were saying,” he recalled. “The coach thought I was really good and said I should do it as a career.”
Frake wound up attending Virginia Commonwealth University as an art major but was told if he really wanted to submerge himself in the business he needed to live in New York City. So, off he went.
“All the jobs were in New York and I thought, what am I doing down here?” he said. “I ended up meeting the head of the Fashion Institute of Technology and brought him my portfolio. He told me I was good enough to start courses there and so I got my associate’s degree.”
Eventually, Frake landed his first job, working on a Raggedy Ann and Andy animated film.
“They had all these talented young kids and it was an opportunity for all these old-timers to teach them the craft,” he said. “I was trying to get into the union and doing some nonunion films on the side. But I didn’t know if I really had the ability. But I was eventually allowed to join the union. Now, I could work for Disney. I remember thinking, they pay you for drawing? I can do what I like and get paid for it? I found out I had a passion and I could get paid for it. I thought that was weird.”
He was invited out to California to join Disney but was initially reluctant to leave New York.
“I was having a good time, doing things like dancing at Studio 54,” he said with a grin. “But I finally went out and showed them my portfolio and they said I still needed to work on my figure drawing. But I was persistent. I practiced and practiced and I got better.”
Then one day he got a letter from Disney saying they were starting a training program doing the Disney way of animation. So, he headed West once again.
“I was working with these young guys who are now the heads of the company,” he said. “I got better faster and faster. But there was a union strike and I got laid off. I had finally made the union and now I am laid off!”
That brought him to Marvel Studios and a job working on the Muppets TV show, where he won three Emmys for his background sets. He then went to work for Hanna Barbera, which was doing “The Smurfs.”
“I was doing whatever work I could get to pay the bills,” he said.
Then Frake got another big break. His friends from Disney wanted him to come back and work on a groundbreaking new film called “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
“I thought, what is that?” he said. “I talked to the head of the company and he said the guys I’d be working with were fantastic and I should take the job. I ended up designing Toon Town for the movie, which was nominated for something like eight Oscars.”
After a four-year stint in Ireland working on Don Bluth films, Frake came back into the Disney fold once again.
“I started working on ‘Pocahontas,’ which kind of marked the rebirth of the industry,” he recalled. “They had made a lot of money on ‘The Lion King,’ and they thought ‘Pocahontas’ would work, too. It wasn’t as big as ‘The Lion King’ but it was pretty big.”
Next came a job working on the Warner Brothers cult classic, “The Iron Giant,” which was voiced by Jennifer Aniston and produced by The Who’s Pete Townshend.
Soon, Frake found himself back in New York working at Blue Skies Studio, the company responsible for the “Ice Age” movies, as well as such hits as “Robots,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Epic” and “Rio.” And Frake worked on all of them, most famously developing the Skrat character for “Ice Age” and its myriad sequels.
“I based him on a squirrel we had in our backyard in California,” he said. “I was animating more of a personality. I remember, I was so rested I was able to think really clearly and was able to make an exciting trailer for the film [featuring Skrat] that seemed to reach out to everybody.”
This Christmas, “Ferdinand the Bull,” another film featuring Frake’s work, will hit the theaters.
Looking back on his life, Frake points to three films as being the cornerstones of his career.
“ ‘Roger Rabbit’ was the most eye-opening because it was a combination of animation and live action,” he said. “ ‘Iron Giant’ incorporated computer animation and ‘Ice Age’ was 3-D, so it was an evolution.”
Now, Frake can add “author” to his long and impressive resume as “A Moment and a Memory” gets ready to hit bookstores at the beginning of September.
“It’s the words of an 80-year-old, what they all went through [in the war],” he said. “It’s a book that is like having a third person in the room— it’s a bridge between the vet and the child. It’s almost like an educational book. It is character-driven and drawn in the Walt Disney style.”
To get on the list for a copy, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There’s been massive interest in it,” Frake said.
Meanwhile, when he’s not drawing, Frake said he and his wife, Kathe, love their life in Mahopac.
“I’m a volunteer fireman; I volunteer at the library,” he said. “If I see something that’s needed, I will go and help out. There are so many wonderful things going on in town. Every day there seems to be something.”