"If only I had my life to live over, I would do what you want, John."
"Did I say "hippopotamus"? I meant a bear!"
Probably a lot of you full animation fans wonder how I can like Bob Clampett and Hanna Barbera at the same time. Clampett made the fullest of the fully animated golden age shorts and Hanna Barbera ushered in a whole era of cartoons with hardly any animation at all! Many think they destroyed animation for all time and I don't have a strong argument against that.
So I'm gonna attempt to explain why I still like and am inspired by their early stuff.
First, there is more to the appeal of animation than animation (the motion) itself.
When Hanna Barbera first started its TV Studio it had some creative elements that even many fully animated cartoons didn't (including their own).
Appealing and Striking Character Design
This is the first thing you notice about a character. Whether he or she has a distinct design. Throughout even the classic period of cartoons, many characters had a generic design. My favorite character of all time is Daffy Duck and he is a pretty generic 40s style duck. He gets his personality from the animators, once he starts moving.
Hanna Barbera characters from 1957 to the mid 60s had not only an overall striking house style, but each character had a somewhat distinct design - an instant visual signature.
In real life some people are very distinct looking, but everyone is distinct enough that you can recognize them and you can instantly make assumptions about their personality just by how they look. (Do you make fun of everyone on the street when you drive around town? And act out their personalities and voices?) You might be wrong about your stereotypes but visual distinction is a powerful conveyer of character and Hanna Barbera had that more than almost any other studio.
Here is another cartoon tradition that has vanished.
Many of the best cartoon characters from the 30s to the 60s had extremely distinct sounding voices and then distinct speech patterns.
The great cartoon voices came mostly from radio. Radio by its very nature cultivates strong and distinct voices. The voice is all you know about the character. You have no visual clues and so the more clear and unique the character of a voice you hear, the stronger the character in your mind.
DOES ANYONE LIKE MOVIE STAR VOICES?
The really good cartoon talents of today complain that animated features won't use them because they are not big movie and television stars and I sympathize with them. Features want "star voices" and i have no idea why.
What makes most stars today is not their voices at all. What does Brad Pitt sound like? He may be an excellent actor with lots of charisma, but most of that is conveyed by his appearance and his expressions and mannerisms.
When I watch an animate feature, I couldn't tell you who was doing the voices. They all sound the same to me. They aren't distinct. They sound like your neighbors.
We watched Larry King interview Seinfeld the other day about Bee Movie and they kept running clips of bland characters with non-descript voices. Then they started talking about how great the voices were. They revealed, for example that Rene Zelwegger did the voice for the cross eyed human girl who makes it with bees. Not in a million years would I ever have guessed who was doing the voice. These hugely expensive movies seem to lack all the raw materials that make up likeable characters. No design, no voice, no dynamic. If Hanna Barbera can afford at least that much, why can't features? What a mystery...
TV voices these days attempt being distinct by having bland actors hold their noses and talk squeaky. This has been going on since the 70s. There are some exceptional talents in the business, like Billy West, Corey Burton, Cheryl Chase, Eric Bauza and others but they are not always taken advantage of by voice directors.
Anyway, the point I am making is that the voices in Hanna Barbera cartoons, as in Warner Bros. classic cartoons are first rate.
If you take a really distinct character design and add a really distinct colorful voice, you instantly have a big head start for your characters.
Good Character DynamicsThe Flinstones dynamics were stolen wholesale from the the Honeymooners, but the combination of Ed Benedict's character design and the great voice talents makes them seem different enough from their inspiration that they really seem like real and distinct characters.
Hanna Barbera continued a longtime trend from classic cartoons. When they needed a voice for a character they sometimes imitated a actor from radio or TV. They would usually change it or exagerrate it enough to distinguish it as Daws Butler did with Art Carney's voice for Yogi Bear.
Ironically the cartoon characters have outlived the fame of many of the live actors who inspired them.
Yogi, Boo Boo and Ranger Smith have a great natural dynamic between them, and unlike the Honeymooners seem to have been created from scratch. (Unless someone knows some earlier show that inspired it)
The Jetsons has good design, great voices but not so much of a character dynamic and that show didn't do as well as The Flintstones, probably for that reason.
Distinct voice and design combined with strong character dynamics are fantastic raw materials for a cartoon series.
Well if you have those other primary ingredients then good animators can really take advantage of them. But will they? Sometimes, depending on the era and circumstances.
In the late 50s when HB was new, the animators were basically undirected and left free to animate the characters according to the voice tracks. Sometimes the animation would be distinct even though limited, and those are the HB cartoons I like. The ones where the animators added to the raw materials of the good characters. The cartoons that each look different from each other, are cartoony and the characters seem alive, unique and motivated.
There are a lot of fully animated cartoons from the 30s and 40s that have no personality or design or unique character dynamics at all, including Hanna Barbera's Tom and Jerry. The animation is beautiful, flowing and full of strong accents. That (along with the extreme painful violence) carries the cartoons.
To this day I can't figure out how after 15 years or so of making the same personalityless cartoons over and over again, all of a sudden Bill and Joe created a whole slew of characters with distinct personalities, voices and designs. Anybody have an answer for that?
It's too bad the 2 approaches didn't coincide. Full animation combined with distinct characters.
Fun Situations and Environments
These ingredients added a lot to the appeal of the early Hanna Barbera cartoons.
Great BG StylingArt Lozzi, Ed Benedict, Montealegre and others created really happy colorful and distinct worlds for the Hanna Barbera characters. They pulled you into the stories.
NO DIRECTION IS THE PROBLEM
Kali and I were watching the Jetsons the other day. I loved the Jetsons when I was a kid, but I was really disappointed with the first 2 or 3 episodes we just watched.
The show has a great concept: a 50s situation comedy family lives in the 60s vision of the future. Man's basic primal instincts haven't changed even though technology is advanced.
I don't know how you can go wrong with the raw materials that went into the Jetsons. I would kill to do a series of them. Voices, designs, great concept, genius background design, funny situation...If you are a talented eager cartoon director, this is a killer foundation for you to work with. The possibilities for humor and invention are limitless.
The animation in the Jetsons is so bland that it shocks me. The same animators who were having fun on Yogi Bear and the Flintstones seem to be animating in their sleep.
The characters merely walk back and forth, say their lines and make the minimum required expressions of happy, sad, mad or dumbfounded. The characters merely do what the script tells them to do, like automatons. (like today's expensive primetime cartoons) There is no life. It's depressing to imagine the animators coming to work and parking their brains and just sitting down to mechanically churn out lifeless things that lift their arm, gesture, nod their head, open and close their lips.
What happened between 1958 and 1962?
ENTERTAINMENT IS LEFT TO THE ARTISTS
I have mentioned before that I think there is a value in having some cartoons be basically undirected. Like Walter Lantz cartoons and Terrytoons. And the earliest Hanna Barbera cartoons.
HOW MANY GOOD CARTOON DIRECTORS ARE THERE ANYWAY?
Undirected cartoons with lively animators doesn't usually produce cartoons as satisfying and complete as cartoons that are precisely directed by visionaries like Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett or Tex Avery - but then, there weren't a lot of great directors in history anyway, so it's better to have some cartoons that don't at least completely squelch the individual artists' contributions to the films.
Clampett is so amazing that he was able to have both these qualities at the same time in his films. His cartoons are uniquely Bob Clampett, but he didn't chain his animators and artists by demanding to OK every single creative atom in the cartoons. He had a way of inspiring his animators to do the best work they ever did. He encouraged them to bring their own unique ideas to the screen and that's why Clampett's cartoons can be watched over and over again, even after you know all the jokes. There are just so many layers of creativity happening all at once.
HANNA BARBERA HAD ALL THE INGREDIENTS AND DIDN'T TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM
The early HB cartoons had a unique set of circumstances- great raw ingredients for cartoon series, and top artists and animators, who were allowed (if not encouraged) to have some fun and create in their own styles.
By the 60s this aspect of the cartoons vanished and I don't exactly know why.
It seems that the more successful Bill and Joe became, the more sedate and undirected the cartoons became-and the less interested the animators were in their work.
To me this is an immense tragedy. Someone at HB should have seen the great potential the studio had and taken advantage of it as soon as they were able to afford to.
If they had a couple of creative directors and let them run with the raw material of characters and situations they could have made truly classic films full of fun and most importantly - life.
"What kind of crap is John feeding us?!!"