UPA was formed in 1943 by a group of artists and animators who left Walt Disney during the 1941 animators strike. Hoping to break away from the ultra-realistic animation style Disney had been advocating, the UPA artists sought freedom to experiment with animation techniques, non-realistic colors, contemporary designs and sometimes provocative storytelling. They began applying their concepts in wartime work for the government, later scoring their first major success with Hell-Bent for Election, a Chuck Jones-directed short produced for Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1944 re-election campaign and sponsored by the United Auto Workers (UAW).
After government contracts dried up in the late '40s, UPA forged a contract with Columbia Pictures to produce theatrical animated shorts, achieving great success casting Columbia's Fox and Crow characters in Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke. When those projects both garnered Oscar®-nominations, Columbia gave UPA free reign to create its own characters. That led to the emergence of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing, the latter earning the studio's first Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The studio went on to win two more Academy Awards for When Magoo Flew (1954) and Magoo's Puddle Jumper (1956). UPA would continue to enjoy unprecedented critical acclaim and awards recognition in the 1950s, including collecting all three of the nominations in 1957, a feat not even achieved by Walt Disney.
Throughout the 1950s, UPA scored several successes, despite losing several of its most talented staff members to the communist purge of the film industry in the 1950s. After earning 15 Oscar nominations and three Academy Awards over 12 years, the studio stopped producing theatrical shorts in 1959. Two theatrical features followed: 1001 Arabian Nights (1959) and Gay Purr-ee (1962).
UPA artists revolutionized animation, not only through their striking design aesthetic but also through the use of limited animation, which incorporated more static backgrounds and less fluid movement. Beginning in the mid-'50s, UPA found great success on television, where lower budgets and tighter deadlines allowed limited animation to thrive. The studio produced such series as The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, Mister Magoo and The Dick Tracy Show, as well as the enormously popular 1962 holiday special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.