Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Saturday Mornings and The Decline Of Imagination in Cartoons

Wait a minute. When Joe Barbera died at the end of last year, you had a great post about him and how you met him when you were first starting out. You said he agreed with you that Hannah-Barbera's early stuff was way better than Scooby Doo and it's clones, and he agreed with you. He couldn't understand what people saw in it. Now you're saying he deliberately pushed HB in that direction? Whats the story?

I read Ardy's comment and thought it deserved a good response. The answer is not simple though, and I doubt I can give a complete one in a single post, but I'll start...


Joe Barbera was very talented, but he was also a very conservative guy. He wasn't someone to "push the envelope" or experiment. He liked to stick to the tried and true.

How else could he and Bill have made the same cartoon over and over again for 15 years straight at MGM?Once they had found their hit characters, Tom and Jerry, they never created any more. They just kept polishing their jewels. Why mess with a formula that works?

When Bill and Joe opened their TV studio in 1957, they had no choice but to break all the rules of how they had previously made their cartoons.


They had been used to making high-quality fully-animated Tom and Jerry cartoons for budgets around $35,000 per 6 minute short.
With that kind of lush budget, you can take your time and do smooth, flowing animation. You can do a new angle for every scene in the cartoon. You can have shadows on the characters. You can have a small crew of top animators that know what you will approve and what you won't. You can watch over every detail of production and have it come out exactly the way you want.

To Joe, the more rounded the characters and the more lush the cartoons, the more quality they were. Joe was a very proud guy and he liked to be known as one of the top creators in the field of animation. He was a real Hollywood kind of guy.

Theatrical cartoons in the 50s began being dropped from many theaters and most cartoon companies closed shop.

Now Joe and Bill - and all their animators were out of work. They were forced to innovate. It was that or starve.

They started their TV studio and had to adapt their methods to a much lower budget and faster schedule.

The TV cartoons were $3,000 now per short - less than 10% of the budgets they were used to.
Bill and Mike Lah (and maybe others) created a "limited animation" system that would allow them to do new cartoons every week at the terribly poor budgets.


Here are what you might think are the worst handicaps to quality that a low budget would cause:

Less Animation

They had to cut down the number of drawings in a cartoon from about 15,000 in a Tom and Jerry cartoon to a few hundred in a Huckleberry Hound cartoon.

To anyone who loves full animation they will not like animation that barely moves at all. Some people hate limited animation on the sheer grounds that there is not much animation in it. I'm not one of those. Joe Barbera was.

Less Camera Angles

Hanna Barbera Cartoons were made so that almost every shot was left to right with a low horizon. This way, the same animation drawings can be used in multiple scenes.
If you think tricky camera angles are important to your storytelling, like Brad Bird and many others do, you aren't going to be happy with your new restriction.

This type of simple layout forces you to live or die on your characters, because that's what the audience is going to be looking at all the time - mainly their faces.

A Simpler Design Style

Joe didn't like Ed's designs when he was working for Tex Avery and he told him so. "Why are you drawing this Mr. Magoo stuff? No one wants that! People want round, cute, lovable characters."

Bill must have convinced him to use Ed's style because they had a theory that on small 50s black and white TV screens you would need simple looking easy to read characters that had bold thick lines around them. They didn't think Tom and Jerry designs would read as easily on TV then.

A Simpler Background Style

Tom and Jerry (top), Yogi Bear (below)

Tom and Jerry VS Huckleberry Hound

Simple backgrounds can be painted faster and again will probably read clearer on small tv screens. Too much detail will be lost with poor picture quality.Bill and Joe adopted the style that Tex and Ed Benedict had been using in the theatrical shorts at MGM.

Art Lozzi and Montealegre worked out a fast but appealing Background painting style.

Less Hands-On Direction

The cartoons now had to be churned out at a greater rate than theatrical cartoons. There was no time to polish anything or even talk directly to every creative member of the team.

In fact, Bill and Joe split their directorial duties severely.

Joe would be involved up front in the creations of the characters. the general show concepts and the designs, while Bill would handle the actual production.

Joe worked with the voice actors- Daws Butler and Don Messick.
...with the writer-storyboard artists- Mike Maltese, Warren Foster, Dan Gordon, etc.
...with the designers -Ed Benedict, Dick Bickenbach

Bill handed out some of the production work to in-hose crew and freelanced the rest - the layouts, animation, ink and paint, backgrounds, camera etc.

He didn't personally supervise much of it. He used industry professionals whom he trusted and accepted whatever they handed him. It was the only way to meet the schedules and budgets.

Music Library Instead Of Custom Scores and Recordings

Whereas at MGM Bill worked directly with Scott Bradley to custom score every cartoon to each and every animated action, now he could only afford to use stock library music. (Like we did on Ren and Stimpy)

Bigger Crew and less Person to Person Communication

They had to hire a lot more artists and staff than they had ever supervised at MGM, so now many artists who had never worked with Bill and Joe directly were speedily doing HB work in their own styles with no time to get everyone to standardize.
2 key members of Tex Avery's crew helped forge the Hanna Barbera style.

All this lack of control probably horrified Joe. But it made him and Bill rich and more famous than ever. But less respected by their peers.

NEXT- The surprising creative advantages of the new cheaper assembly line system.

There are lots of articles about Hanna Barbera at Kevin's site. TV and theatrical era. Check 'em out!


Jim said...

How fascinating to learn how the HB TV cartoons were made. It's kind of like when I used to edit books -- do it assembly line, freelance out as much as you can, and nobody is truly in charge of quality. Anyway, seems to me that these cartoons were at least reasonably consistent in quality, to my untrained eye. That's not too bad given how they were made.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I'm afraid I'm not a fan of Joe. If he kept skilled people working then he deserves credit for that, but the jokes could have been funnier without adding a cent to the cost.

I keep thinking of the funny cartoons you would have done for the same money.

Kevin Langley said...

I'm glad you pointed out the connection between what Avery was doing near the end of his time at MGM and the earliest of H-B TV cartoons. I think Bill was very influenced by Tex in a lot of different ways. Tex started to simplify his backgrounds, except maybe on the westerns when Johnny Johnson would make those beautiful paintings of his. Ed and Michael Lah really were already making Hanna Barbera shorts at MGM just with better animation. Those last Droopy shorts they did were so similar in style to what would come out of H-B. Those early shorts are so much fun, it's a shame they made such crap later.

As for the music, I love Bradley's scores but I think those cues were perfect for the stripped down cartoons. I mean who doesn't love those Phil Green, Jack Shaindlin, and George Hormel cues? I listen to that shit everyday. (yes, that makes me a nerd)

El Bergo said...

hey, i made this video for my college:
kowalsky was a great inspiration for my character, and ren & stimpy it was one of the cartoons that made me want to be an animator someday, so it would be great if you could comment on it.

Mr. Semaj said...

Well, it seems this assembly line production only worked for a short time. While they came up with Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, and Top Cat, it later gave way to Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo. The problem wasn't so much a lack of imagination in Hanna-Barbera's case, but their biting off more than they could chew.

On a slightly different note, I think Brad Bird's involvement on King of the Hill was part of what made the show fun to watch in its earlier days.

Rodrigo said...

Wow. This explains a lot.

I personally pick full animation over limited in most cases. Ren & Stimpy is one of those. Maybe it was the interesting acting poses they stopped on, or the subtle small animation that kept it alive. Also, whenever they did move, it was so fun to watch.

But I can't stomach Hannah Barbera stuff. They animation doesn't draw me in, and even if I do give it the time of day, it's just boring and gay.

Anthony said...

"Theatrical cartoons in the 50s began being dropped from many theaters"

Did something specific happen that caused theaters to do this?

Anonymous said...

Did something specific happen that caused theaters to do this?

It was probably due to the rise of television and how movie sales were declining in the 50s.

About this post: I'm glad you're doing a post on this. I think I'm gettinga better idea of why H-B went from making Huck Hound to uncartoony Saturday morning cartoons.

Craig D said...

I was amazed, while watching the last few Lah-directed DROOPYs,to discover that Carlo Vinci had animated on them!

Then it clicked for me that the MGM cartoon unit was winding down and this was probably how he came to work at HB on their TV product.

I wonder what the story is on Carlo's leaving the East coast to land at the moribound MGM cartoon studio.

Anyone know?

Kevin Langley said...

Did something specific happen that caused theaters to do this?

I believe it was because block booking was no longer a legal practice. Theaters no longer had to take the short subjects in order to show the feature. Also, they were re-releasing the older shorts. That's a lot cheaper than making new ones.

Paul said...

Fascinating to read. I loved the early Hannah Barbera stuff as a kid; Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinx, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, they were all fun. Despite the fact that every crash, fight, and explosion happened offscreen.

It seems to me that they went back to more of a comic strip style format of the 1920's, like the Felix the Cat shorts, and The Katzenjammer Kids. Except, of course, Felix the Cat had more surreal and cartoony gags.

I know you're probably going to cover this in the next post, but any reason HB never tried any Felix style visual tricks, like characters scooping clouds into ice cream cones, or removing their tails to make things like flashlights? I know Barbera was a conservative guy, but considering the influence from Tex Avery, I would expect more of the animation specific sight gags. Maybe such jokes were considered passe at that point?

Marty said...

The other half of this is how the audience responds to these cartoons. I think the studios realised that people didn't need good cartoons, or even acceptable cartoons, they were simply happy to see any cartoon on the screen because they had already learned how to treat television content as disposable. Then there is a kind of feedback loop as the common denominator becomes lower and lower. And when it's classified as children's television, things just get worse because adults just assume kids like it, and I think most kids these days just like what they are told to like. HB cartoons discovered that limited animation could still be fun and creative, but they also discovered an efficient model for shovelling shit that has inspired whole generations of studio execs and advertisers that use childrens television as their personal toilets.

JohnK said...

>>Did something specific happen that caused theaters to do this?

It was probably due to the rise of television and how movie sales were declining in the 50s.

It didn't help that the theatrical cartoons were getting less funny, imaginative and animated.

UPA had a big role in making cartoons less entertaining and therefore less valuable to movie theaters.

Rob said...

"I believe it was because block booking was no longer a legal practice. Theaters no longer had to take the short subjects in order to show the feature. Also, they were re-releasing the older shorts. That's a lot cheaper than making new ones."

That's too bad they almost had to force theaters to take the cartoons, but then again, you'd have to pay me to sit through some of that drab UPA stuff.

Colter said...

As a kid, I remember dreading the Hanna Barbera stuff when it came on tv, but I still watched it.

I was always drawn more towards Looney Tunes.

This post explains why.

pappy d said...

It's worth noting that the end of theatrical shorts was a result of a federal anti-trust suit by exhibitors. Cartoon shorts were bundled with newsreels & feature films & rented as a package in what was called block booking. Market research showed that the audience only really cared about the feature & the exhibitors could make more money screening an extra show if they didn't have that other stuff.

"Bill and Mike Lah (and maybe others) created a "limited animation" system that would allow them to do new cartoons every week at the terribly poor budgets."

According to what Mike told me, Bill had nothing to do with it. It was just Mike.

My face is set to surprised waiting for your next post on "the creative advantages of the new cheaper assembly line system". Maybe we can all get rich fucking over this artform. Do you think there's still room for impoverishment?

JohnK said...

Hi Pappy,

how did you know Mike Lah? Did you ever interview him?

What else did he say?


pappy d said...


I used to freelance for him at Quartet animating Tony & the Honey-Nut Cheerios bee in the early 80's.

I remember that he looked like a shorter Walt Disney. He had a small mustache & wore his hair slicked back. He almost always wore a black turtleneck like a NY art director

I certainly never interviewed him. He was the boss. I was shy & embarrassed to come off as a fan-boy & he was a quiet guy, himself.

My cartoon scholarship was even poorer than today. I knew he'd worked on Tom & Jerry, but I knew I couldn't talk long on that subject without my opinions leaking out.

Sorry, but if I'd known better or had ever imagined he was going to die, I'd have made better advantage of him.

Thanks again for this truly unique cartoon art salon.