The art of animation: Rockwell Museum celebrates the Hanna-Barbera years

  • Joe Barbera, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel and Bill Hanna are seen below in 1965. Barbera was gregarious, splashy, a ladies’ man who lived in luxury. Hanna was modest, strait-laced and the exact opposite of his partner. They rarely socialized together, yet as animator, Tony Benedict said, “When it came to making cartoons, they were in perfect sync.” Contributed photo

  • Above, Joe Barbera and Tony Benedict look over a story board for “Yogi Bear,” circa 1961. Benedict had previously worked on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” before joining Hanna-Barbera. At their studio, he created stories, added visual gags and contributed artwork. Photo collection of Tony Benedict

  • A presentation board for the “Scooby-Doo” series, christened in 1969. Parents’ groups protesting excessive violence in Saturday morning fare led to the cancellation of several Hanna-Barbera products. The new series, featuring a comical dog, was launched as a countermeasure and continues in production today. Warner Bros. Archives

  • After six years, “The Flintstones” series ended and a 90-minute movie musical, below, was created as a swan song, capitalizing on the new rage for spy movies. Connoisseurs of the Stone Age comedians, however, were critical of the low quality of the artwork for the 1966 film. COURTESY COLUMBIA PICTURES

  • A presentation board used to sell advertisers the concept for the short-lived 1964 series “Jonny Quest.” The action-adventure series was Hanna-Barbera’s first attempt at realistically depicting human figures. This created panic attacks for studio animators used to drawing relatively simple animal characters. Warner Bros. Archives

  • While at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera created “Tom and Jerry” and produced 114 full-animation cartoons featuring the duo. The cat and mouse also swam with Esther Williams and danced with hoofer Gene Kelly in full length movies. Hanna and Barbera won seven Oscars for their efforts. Alamy stock photo

For The Recorder
Published: 1/4/2017 2:11:12 PM

In a culture known for its short attention span, you may think that the cartoon characters created by the Hanna-Barbera studios were long forgotten, culturally entombed in the mists of a long-ago television era.
Think again.

On opening night at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum, close to 300 children, and people once known as children, overflowed the galleries. The comprehensive exhibit, continuing through May 29, highlights the best of a cartoon empire that produced TV programming for almost five decades. The driving force of creations such as “The Flintstones,” “Huckleberry Hound” and “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” was “planned animation.” Character movement was limited, cutting production time in half.

“It was cheap, fast, clever and funny,” veteran Hanna- Barbera animator Tony Benedict said on opening night. “Mostly cheap. That’s what sold it.”

Cartoon economics

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera met at the MGM Studios in the late 1930s, when the megalith was producing 10 or more animated shorts each year. The two created 114 full animation “Tom and Jerry” cartoons based upon cat and mouse mayhem — heavy on the meat cleavers, baseball bats and shotguns. They won seven Academy Awards for the feline and rodent melees, and by 1955, Hanna and Barbera were in charge of the animation department.

Movie studios, however, were in a graveyard spiral financially, stemming from a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding them in violation of anti-trust laws. They could no longer own movie theaters or monopolize the market. Added to this, television was dramatically slashing theater attendance.

Twentieth Century Fox stopped making cartoons in 1954. Disney followed in 1956, and one year later, MGM mothballed its animation department.

Full animation cartoons for those studios could cost as much as $35,000 and require months to create. Hanna and Barbera understood that in the new medium of TV, sponsors couldn’t carry that economic weight. Planned animation reduced movement from 24 celluloid (cel) paintings to eight to 12 per second.

“(Hanna-Barbera characters) had only a few colors and very little detail,” Benedict said. “Characters like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam were complicated.”

The “walk cycle” for a figure in this cut-rate animation would require just eight drawings. Characters invariably wore neckties or collars to mask the joinery between a moving head and a frozen body.

“The animation still worked, yet not as smooth,” Benedict said. “Yet, with excellent writing and voice acting, and some snappy dialogue, nobody cared.”

In its early days, the studios could now produce a five-minute cartoon with 2,000 drawings, rather than 20,000 required for a full animation product. It would take just weeks and ring in at $2,700.

The gold in Bedrock

Working out of the former Charlie Chaplin studios, in 1957 Hanna–Barbera found success with Saturday morning TV fare, such as “Ruff and Ready” and “Huckleberry Hound.”

Surprised that 40 percent of their audience was composed of adults, they then attempted a breakthrough — to create a prime-time Friday night cartoon series.

“It was considered revolutionary as heck,” Jerry Beck told opening night attendees. Beck, an instructor at Woodbury University, is the author of several books on animation and researched Leonard Maltin’s definitive history, “Of Mice and Magic.”

Barbera had shopped the idea of a series inclusive of adults and children for months before ABC, at rock bottom at the time, agreed to the experiment.

“The Flintstones,” pivoting entirely on comedian Jackie Gleason’s TV hit, “The Honeymooners,” took off like a prairie fire. Pitched to an adult audience, for the first two years its main character Fred Flintstone would gleefully puff on Winstons during commercial breaks. Later, sponsors were far more health conscious.

When excited, Fred would yell “Yabba Dabba Doo!” The phrase was derived from a popular hair cream slogan, “A little dab will do ya!”

It could be argued that Stone-Age Fred and Barney were actually living in a post-Apocalyptic world (they celebrated Christmas, bowled and played golf). It was also suggested that Gleason could have legally cancelled the series for mimicking his show.

Apparently, cooler heads prevailed when an aide asked the comedian, “Do you want to be known as the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air?”

Beck revealed that at just 5 years of age, he saved 15 cents and became a bona fide member of the Huckleberry Hound Club. He was surprised one evening to find that his parents were laughing loudly at Bedrock residents Fred and Barney.

“It built into my brain that cartoons aren’t just for kids,” he said. “They could be for anybody … animation is more than that.”

Beck explained that we’re drawn to animation because it’s an art form with a rich history. As examples, Winsor McCay’s 1914 short “Gertie the Dinosaur” allowed the perky behemoth to interact with the artist on stage.

From the 1920s onward, the brilliant German Lotte Reiniger pioneered cartoon techniques years ahead of the Disney studios.

From the Puppetoons of George Pal to the frequent surrealism of the Max Fleischer Studios (“Popeye”) and the excellent Disney artwork, you find amazing energy and perfection in this unusual business. (Many of these works are available on YouTube.)

“From my perspective, one could poo-poo some of the Hanna-Barbera things,” Beck said. “I talk about what I love. It’s really good art. It’s really good stuff.”

The Flintstones struck a responsive chord in the pop culture. Two amusement parks, based upon Bedrock, were built in this country and two more in Canada. There was a short-lived musical on the New York stage and two live-action movies. Academics argued over the “Flintstone Fallacy” as to whether the minds of cavemen had the same architecture and dynamics as their modern-age counterparts.

In 1963, Hanna–Barbera employees, now numbering some 600 people, moved into space-age studios and began turning out product after product, eventually dominating Saturday morning TV.

Collectibles

Among the features of the exhibit are vitrines filled with some 200 Hanna–Barbera miniature figures, from “Top Cat” to “The Jetsons,” and all made from genuine plastic. It’s a fraction of animator David Nimitz’s collection, which he estimates at somewhere far north of 3,000 items. The Californian grew up a 10-minute bicycle ride from the Hanna-Barbera building and as a tween, he’d rummage through their trash, taking home “giant amounts of cels and drawings from the studio.”

Speaking from his West Coast home, Nimitz said that there’s a vast subculture of people trading and collecting these cartoon figures.

“There’s guys who are 40 and up who are really into this stuff,” he said.

Nimitz has an encyclopedic knowledge of these pop artifacts, and is able to tell in what year and from what country these figures originate — one clue is based upon a character’s hair color.

The collectible market also has a fringe of insanity. Aged figures can cost up to $400 and beyond. Nimitz was asked why he was drawn to this semi-obsession.

“Why?” he laughed. “Why not? People collect antique furniture. It’s something that takes me back to childhood, when the world was better and television was better. I’m nostalgic for that.”

As a teen, Nimitz assisted in animating Scooby-Doo and later contributed to “The Lion King,” “The Iron Giant” and “Lilo and Stitch.”

For years, he’s made pilgrimages to Bedrock City, an amusement park 30 miles from The Grand Canyon. Now, in the eye of real estate developers, he’s campaigning for its preservation.

The decline

Hanna and Barbera continued to work in the studios virtually until their last days. However, they sold the business for $6 million in 1966. It was thought that they’d sold too soon. (Turner Broadcasting bought what eventually became 3,000 hours of cartoons years later for $320 million).

The studios became coldly corporate, with focus groups and screening committees.

“The suits came marching in,” Benedict said in a 2011 interview. “The advertisers realized that there was this incredible profit center they could exploit.”

The animation became outsourced to Asia and South America, and the artwork suffered severely.

“When you have to satisfy the advertisers, it’s not your product anymore,” Benedict said.

The animator, who’d thought that the good times at Hanna-Barbera would never end, left for more satisfying artistic projects.

“That’s pretty much my story, and I’ve stuck with it,” Benedict told the Rockwell audience. “If there’s anything I’ve said that isn’t true, it should be.”

“Hanna–Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 29. The eponymous, full-color companion catalogue is $18. Open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $18 adults, $10 college students with identification, $6 ages 6 to 18, and ages 5 and under are free. The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. For more information, visit: www.nrm.org


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