Sunday, January 20, 2008

The merits of Hanna-Babera

(Back-Up copy,with all respect to author)

H-B's Pencils

"The publication of Jerry Beck's The Hanna-Barbera Treasury has touched off some debates over whether Hanna and Barbera helped or hurt TV animation. (Artistically, I mean; everybody agrees that they helped TV animation in the sense that they made it commercially viable and kept a lot of artists employed.) Mark Mayerson makes a pretty good case that they were all too willing to settle for the lowest possible quality. He points out that whereas the pioneers in theatrical animation, like Disney, kept working to improve the quality of animation and the amount of money available to animated films, H-B did the opposite: whereas production companies would traditionally increase their budgets after they had a success, H-B seemed to use each success as an excuse to make the cartoons cheaper or at least cheaper-looking. Most prime-time shows start to spend more money and look better after they have a successful season (at least until their ratings start to tank and the budget gets cut); The Flintstones looked a little worse every year. Or as Mark puts it:

Rather than attempt to reform or beat a system that was clearly stacked against the production of good work, Hanna-Barbera embraced that system and milked it for their own personal gain. They expanded the number of shows they produced and with each expansion, the quality of the product suffered. They opened studios overseas in order to take advantage of cheaper labour. The savings went into their pockets, not onto the screen. After their initial decade, when they had the opportunity to work in prime time or in features where budgets were better, the projects were only marginally better than the low-budget work they turned out for Saturday mornings. The thinking and procedures behind their Saturday morning shows infected the entire company. In their hands, the art of animation (and here I'm talking about the entire process from writing to post-production), was degraded and debased without apology.

Hanna himself gave an interview in the '70s -- reprinted in Danny Peary's American Animated Cartoons -- where he admitted openly that Hanna-Barbera's product had gotten steadily worse since they set up their studio: "Our new shows," he said simply, "are not as good." He explained that this was because of rising costs and shrinking budgets, and that's true as far as it goes. But, again, he and Barbera didn't really try to fight that. Maybe they were right, from a financial point of view: as a commenter on Mark's blog points out, Disney brought his studio to the point of near-bankruptcy every time he increased budgets or took chances, and with that kind of precedent, it's not surprising that H-B would not want to take financial or artistic risks.

The other thing I think we need to remember about Hanna-Barbera is that, as people who came late to television (the medium was long-established by the time they were kicked out of theatrical films and emigrated to TV), they always saw it as important to do whatever was popular in television at the time. They were in a much riskier position than they'd ever been in when they did theatrical shorts; not just because they owned the product, but because their shows actually had to carry a half-hour and sell commercial time on their own, whereas for twenty years they'd been used to making cartoons that played second fiddle to the feature film. (That creates less recognition but also creates a sort of cushion: a theatrical cartoon doesn't need to succeed on its own.) Nobody had ever been able to make cartoons for their own sake, as the main attraction, consistently successful, on TV or in theatres; Disney had had some monster hits, but an equal or greater number of movies that didn't make back their cost.

So H-B not only had to invent TV animation, they had to invent a way to make cartoons that could succeed on a regular basis; they couldn't just make shorts and put them out there like they'd done for years, and they couldn't afford to do things the Disney way (be satisfied with one hit followed by one expensive flop). The solution they arrived at was to leech off non-animated television and pop culture, making a cartoon series based on whatever trend was popular in TV that year. I found an interview with Hanna and Barbera from United Press International (November 15, 1959), where they explained to reporter Ron Burton that they were looking to make animated shows that would parody the live-action shows people were watching:

Barbera said using parody and imposing human-like situations on animal groups are two of the main devices used in their TV cartoons. Viewers can see without too much trouble who or what is being kidded gently in H-B cartoons -- and this season it's TV westerns [Quick Draw McGraw] and private eyes [Snooper and Blabber].

And so they made the decision to base every show on prime-time TV trends (something they would continue for decades thereafter, finally culminating in those '80s cartoons that were actually based on prime-time shows) and give every character a voice/personality based on a famous movie or TV person. Maybe that wasn't a great decision, but they were making that decision in a vacuum: Disney may have shown how a cartoon feature could be a big hit, but nobody, not even Disney, had figured out how to make cartoons that would consistently make more than they cost.

And I'll say one thing for H-B: at least they did actually care, at least initially, about making TV cartoons that would appeal to more than just children. In that same interview, Barbera was very proud that the pop-culture references had given their shows an adult following:

"This makes it possible for our stuff to be enjoyed by adults as well as children," Barbera said. "And we know adults are in our audience, because a friend told us there's a bar in Seattle with a sign over the TV set. It's brought out during our shows. The sign reads: 'No loud talking. No tinkling of glasses. We are watching Huckleberry Hound.'"

It was by no means universally believed at the time that television cartoons should aspire to an adult audience; some cartoonists believed that TV cartoons should ignore the adults, tone down the references to live-action prime-time shows, and be more like live-action kiddie shows. One of the people who believed that was the sainted Bob Clampett. In an interview to promote the Beany and Cecil cartoon (I found this in the Mansfield, OH News-Journal, March 4, 1962), he proclaimed that the show would be successful because he was aiming it exclusively at kids, and criticized other cartoon-makers -- including H-B -- for trying too hard to appeal to adults:

In other words, the chit-chat for grownups has disappeared. This cartoon series is strictly for kids. And that's why Clampett, a man who looks like he'd just gotten out of bed, isn't worried about the series' success. "Top Cat, Calvin and the Colonel" (Bob has other names for them) "were aimed too high," he says.

Bob is going to ignore the adult class and concentrate on the population explosion of unending youngsters. "We'll have a whole new audience every year," he says, meaning an audience range of from six to 11. It can go lower. Clampett's year-and-a-half-old daughter, Baby Ruthie, can sit through five cartoons without wandering, and his five year-old boy Bobbie can say all the names of the Clampett characters.

At least H-B established the idea that cartoons could and should be plugged into the larger world of television as a whole, which would pay off in the better prime-time cartoons (mostly not H-B's own) and some of the better '80s and '90s Saturday morning cartoons.


Incidentally, that 1962 interview with Clampett only mentions his Warner Brothers experience in one paragraph. In view of how much time he later spent taking credit for everything that happened at the studio, it's interesting that in 1962 -- when the studio was still open, and when having worked there was a much less prestigious credit for him -- he's more modest (the article only gives him credit for sole creation of Tweety, which is a character he actually did create) and more dismissive:

During this time Clampett dreamed up "Tweetie" and thought about Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd during working hours. "I tried every gag that came into my head," said Bob. "Most of them were terrible, but it was the only way to learn."

Update: Thanks to Michael Barrier for the link and, yes, I should have remembered to mention that the newspaper quotes above were found via Newspaper Archive (whose slogan is: "Our search engine will drive you insane")."

Well Done.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien

When I was younger there was no greater point of fascination than dinosaurs. I drew them, read books, and watched movies about them. One of my favorite parts was from the film The Animal World. It was only years later I found out it was by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien , who made two of my favorite films, Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Mighty Joe Young (respectively). This segment, originally planned as a series of static toys, is among of the best of both stop motions gods. Let's see if they inspire the same enthusiasm in you.

Oh, and

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Frank Zappa on the end of fine entertainment

I agree 100% with all of his arguments. I also find it amusing that program called the cutting edge censors common, medium profanity words. Finally, I miss Frank Zappa not only as a musician, but as public defender of free speech and common sense.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dancing, anyone?

Now this is what should dancing should be about; drama, spontaneity, and unbelievable action. Hell, its more cartoon-y than most cartoons. This kind of art can't be written or even necessarily described, just felt and experience(by both the dancers and the audience).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

From Russia, with Pooh

Pooh has become such a corporate icon over the last few years (thanks primarily to Disney) that its hard to remember what an imagination encouraging creature he was in his original books (the great director Werner Herzog mentioned a Marshall Plan copy of Winnie is among his favorite possessions). However, this film does much to recall that kernel of wit the original story had, as well as allowing famous Russian animator Fyodor Khitruk to show his imagination as well. It's also strangely similar to a NES game, reminding me of a certain post.


Part I (09:20)

Part II ( 10:41)

Part III ( 10:24)

Part IV (09:15)

Monday, January 14, 2008

NES-A lost art form?

In one of his recent articles for Asifa Archive, Worth encourages its viewers to think like artists, less they waste their time playing video games. I agree with thinking artistically, but I take great umbrage with the idea that games have no artistic merit. However, most games don't, and there are fewer harsher critics of modern gaming and its attempts for respectability than myself.

But whenever I think about and play --great--NES games, I realize that once, seemingly a lifetime ago,the medium was ripe with potential and was destined for better and bigger achivements. Much like cartoons before UPA. In fact, much of the aesthetics of the games remind me of the early New York Cartoons of the late twenties to mid thirties. They are so appealing, well designed, and--most important of all--fun(especially compared to the so called 'toons from 1985 to 1995 they competed with). They had to be, what with only 5 bites or so. No 40 hour quests, no inane-cliche story lines, or wasting you life collecting a hundred pies in the snow. Sit down, play for 15 minutes, leave. That's it, just a small part of your day, then you can go back to playing sports, watch the leafs fall, draw, enjoying life. So much the opposite of today's life sucking melodrama nonsense of Final Fantasy 5000 or so. They had limits but they didn't complain, they just used it for everything it was worth. A sure sign of artistry.

A great guide (with videos to almost every one of them) to the aesthetics that were the NES games.


A great introduction in a mere 10 minutes. Contains almost all the great games(and some of the
Sleepers ).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Alice by Jan Svankmajer

From Disney to the polar opposite, Czech surrealist stop motion animator Jan Svankmajer. I've heard people who say they hate stop motion, but, along with Trnka, Svankmajer is usually the exception, moving the process of moving objects to an art. I also recommend Faust.

Part I

Part II

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Walt Disney- "Secret Lives"

This is part of a UK documentary series(Secret Lives) about the darker side of Walt Disney (or at least the un-PC side, to show he wasn't as boring as depicted in most history books). It everything said true? Probably not.But then nobody every said a documentary is completely accurate and one sided. However, I do find it funny Schultz is adamant about showing the potentially embarrassing side of Disney after his death, only to have the same fate happen to him with the recent book.

"Includes interviews with artists Bill Melendez, David Hilberman, Mary Eastman, Bill Hurtz, Marie Beardsley, and Bill Littlejohn, screenwriter Joan Scott, and biographers Marc Eliot, Richard Schickel, and Bob Thomas."

Part I (09:17)

Part II (08:11)

Part III (09:35)

Part IV (08:11)

Part V (06:53)

Part VI (08:28)

Friday, January 11, 2008

The joys of research

Found while looking for material for my long overdue analysis of Essential Man-Thing. Just a few posts away.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Huh?" by Mike Judge

I never understood why Office Space was the most popular of the early Judge shorts, because every other one was way better, including this one. It may not be that great graphically(hence not a cartoon) but it does deserve to be animated. I'm not sure why, maybe its the color or the way he's so sincere. Anyway, enjoy this oldie.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Bill Peet on writing for animation

This is probably one of the best interviews I have ever read about not only Disney and its mad environment (including all the cutthroats) but also writing and drawing for animation. A must read.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gross Cartoons

Milt Gross' comics work is no stranger to anyone who frequents the Internet over the last year or so,but how many know or have seen his cartoons for MGM? Taking his character,Count Screwloose and reworking it for all the medium can handle, here are the two(just not enough) cartoons Milt was involved with.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Who is the real stooge?

Sadly, that southern producer has brought me more laughs than all of Zemeckis projects beyond(and including) Forest Gump. The ones before, however, are a different story.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Claymation Mac Commercial by Laika

Yes, I know I'm a little late on this, and that it is a commercial, but damn it, it's just so fun(that, and the mac's stubble cracks me up every time I see it). I love the style of Rankin-Bass and this just captures it perfectly. I suddenly feel a lot better about Laika in the future. Anyone who can make good capitalism is someone to keep an eye on.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Dad, Can I Borrow the Car?

I've often admired Ward Kimball for his fun animation at Disney, a company not exactly synonymous with that title. But in the below short, he gets downright Svankmeyer, combining mixed medium like minimal animation, pixelation/stop-motion, and the voice over of young Kurt Russell(who, even at this stage of his career, is definitely a man's actor). Why can't this side of Disney ever come back?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Marvin Digs

In honor of the impending book on the man, Ralph Bakshi( I've got my copy pre-ordered) I present a rather humble beginning for someone that revolutionized the art form. But even in this short, which far from pleased him(he is said to throw up over reseeing it once) it still shows an inventiveness and collage of techniques that work. Groovy indeed!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

In the Shadows of the City

It's been too long since Marvel has been spotlighted here, and doubly so for Steve Gerber. So, why not kill two birds with this story from the very first Haunt of Horror, yet another short lived black and white Marvel magazine. I tell you, they can do no wrong with this format; it just attracts talent.

Once again courtesy of our friends at scans_daily,

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Woman, thou art divine

I hate and love Frazetta at the same time. How does he make it look so awesome, something seemingly beyond mere mortals? That hair, those crab like hands, those unbelievable hips; something that shows what the beauty of hand drawn work can do. Some may call him old fashioned. They're right, it is out of style for paintings to have balls and actually connect to the people.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Let the year begin

I'll be having this show soon enough, and just wanted to share in the joy(these designs really are beautiful). If you can't get the season I recommend following the link to a zip of the album associated with the picture above. It includes the original voice talent, so this will the perfect chance to make your own cartoons. Might as well work with the best.