Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Joe Barbera Tribute 1

Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna

When I was about 8 years old and started seriously getting obsessed with animated cartoons, I had 2 favorite studios: Walt Disney and Hanna Barbera.

The motion in Disney seemed completely magical to me, but I didn't really get into the characters. The early Hanna Barbera cartoons intrigued me for the drawing style and that the characters seemed real-which was largely due to Ed Benedict's designs and the great voice work of Daws Butler, Don Messick and Mel Blanc and others.

It was very hard to find any written information about how cartoons were made in 1963 or who made them. I had an article in The Books Of Knowledge that talked about Walt Disney, but the only info I had about Hanna Barbera was the back of a record cover that had a paragraph on each of the partners.

I taught myself to draw by watching the cartoons and drawing as fast as I can. I then bought all the comic books and coloring books and used the grid method to get the basic proportions of the characters. I mostly drew HB characters, but I also drew everyone else's-even Tom and Jerry, whose cartoons I had never seen.

Well I memorized how to draw Huck, Yogi, the Flintstones, The Jetsons, Quick Draw McGraw and I used to draw my own comic stories of them.

By the time I was a teenager and trying to be cool and stuff, I STILL drew the characters only now, I drew dirty drawings of them and developed a caricatured style of drawing them. This ability kept me popular with the football team who I would amuse with my "Cave Nudes" and other wacky cartoon stories and filthy flip books. It kept me from being beat up for being a wimpy cartoonist.

By this time though, Hanna Barbera's cartoons had gone to shit. Scooby Doo was the dominant style, a style lifted from Filmation's cheaper uglier Archie cartoons. I couldn't figure out why HB had abandoned their earlier appealing style for something so purposely ugly. Even the voices were terrible by this time. I found out later by working at Hanna Barbera and eventually talking to Joe and Bill themselves.

In 1984, after working on horrible and typically depressing 80s cartoons for 4 years, I heard that Hanna Barbera was going to revive the Jetsons and I desperately wanted to work on something fun. I'm not able to work on ugly bland cartoons without getting severely depressed. I don't know how so many people do it.

I had just finished a stint as a designer for Dic's Heathcliff cartoons. This had been my best job so far, because I didn't have to do storyboards from bad scripts or layouts from bad storyboards. It was my first character design job and they gave me a lot of freedom to draw characters as cute and funny as I was then capable. I did about 7 shows a week then with Bruce Timm, Jim Gomez as my clean up artists and Lynne Naylor designing some of the characters with me.

So as soon as I heard about HB reviving the Jetsons, I raced over there to apply to be the character designer. I got an interview with the head of the incidental character design department - Bob Singer. Bob was a decent guy, a reasonable draftsman, but extremely conservative and with no design ability whatsoever. His natural design style is the cop and mailman characters you see in Scooby Doo and other 70s HB cartoons-REALLY BLAND. Bob was an enemy of style and cartooniness. He hated it!

I drew up a big stack of sample Jetsons style characters to show him and he looked through them with much attention and was mildly impressed. He said, "Well you seem to have a knack for this old UPA-ish style, but you are tending to overdo the flatness and designiness of that period. The Jetsons aren't actually flat. They are 3 dimensional.

Tell you what, Bill and Joe are not happy with the development sketches on the New Jetsons and I have a couple trainee designers who are struggling with the style and don't quite get it.

I'll give you a test. If you work in house on The Smurfs as a designer for awhile, then we'll see how you do and I'll consider showing your stuff to the bosses."



So I had to sit in an office next to the two kids who were "struggling" with Jetsons characters and listen to them complain about how hard it is to draw Ed Benedict's style while I suffered under the cruel blandness of the Smurfs and Gerard Baldwin and his team of moronic evil writers. These two Einsteins would come in and tell me how envious they were of my job on The Smurfs.

A month or two went by as I got more and more depressed, and the whole time I would hear rumors that the show's producer Alex Lovy and Bill and Joe themselves were rejecting everything that the design department was doing.

Finally, I guess Singer must have been taking some heat, so he came to me and said "OK, John I'll give you your chance. Here, take home these character descriptions for an episode of the Jetsons and then design them the best you can." I did them that night and brought them in to Bob the next day and then he looked at them with disapproval and told me that they were still too flat and designy There was no way he could show them to Bill and Joe or Alex. But I could still work on the Smurfs if I wanted to.

That was one black day in my early career. I was just dying to barge into Joe's office to see for myself whether he thought I could do it or not. Instead I made up my mind to quit. I couldn't stand another day of the Smurfs and listening to the toddlers in the next room deciding that Superman was easier to animate than Fred Flintstone, because Superman was more 3 dimensional.

Well, I figured, I'll take a chance. Maybe I'll get blackballed for going over Singer's head, but I was just DYING to work on a real cartoon, so I marched over to the executive building of HB and was walking down the hall hoping to run into Bill or Joe, when I bumped into Alex Lovy. He's the Walter Lantz director and storyboard artist, who was going to produce the new Jetsons.

I was clutching my huge stack of Jetsons samples and was nervous as Hell but I blurted out, "Mr. Lovy! You don't know me, but I'm a big fan of yours! I love Woody Woodpecker and I know you are producing the Jetsons and I'm dying to work for you!"

Alex was real nice and invited me into his room and said "Let's see what you got , son!"

He started flipping through the drawings and his eyes lit up and he said, "Hey kid! This is just what we're looking for! You got this old style down! Let's go see if Joe is in his office!"

Alex whisked me down the hall and knocked on the door to Joe's office. Joe opened the door and there he was! I was looking at my childhood hero in the flesh for the first time. A tall suave Italian guy in a nice suit and jet black curly hair.

Alex said, Joe, you gotta see what the kid is doing! Take a look at this stuff!"

Joe led us in and started flipping through the drawings and chuckling. He smiled real big, then smacked the stack of drawings and said. "This is what we've been trying to get for months now! I keep telling the guys that this is an old fashioned UPA style and that it's supposed to be flat but no one will do it!"

He then looked serious and a bit worried. "Iwao and Bob are great artists but they just don't seem to get this style. Tell me about yourself kid. Why is this so important to you?"

So I told him how I used to draw his characters all the time when I was a kid and that I loved this style and always wanted to do it. I had begged Bob Singer to let me work on it but he kept telling me I was drawing too flat so he wouldn't show you."

I went on, like an idiot to tell him I hated Scooby Doo and all modern cartoons, and Joe said "Me too kid. I've never understood why the networks keep ordering more episodes of it. What is there to it? A big dumb dog and some teenagers. Every show is the same Goddamn story! It doesn't make sense to me but they can have it as long they want it."

I was amazed that Joe wasn't offended by that. This was my first inkling that Joe really knew how awful the cartoons were that his studio had been churning out for decades.

Joe was rubbing his face and thinking.

By the way, he had the coolest office. It was filled with toys of all his characters and awards and he even showed off his private shower! He didn't get naked or anything, luckily.

Joe said, "Son, I want you on this show but I gotta figure out how to do it without offending Bob and Iwao. These guys got feelings you know. They been here a long time and figure they have seniority. But don't worry, I'll work it out and get you on."

To be continued:

I have so many stories that I think I will spread them out for a bit.

Coming soon:

Being a development artist for Joe on a project for Fred Silverman.

My stint on the Jetsons and trying out an early version of the Spumco production system.

Developing "Perry Gunite" in a trailor with Eddie's wife on the HB lot.

Being consultants for Cartoon Network with Bill, Joe, Friz and Don Messick.

Helping Fred Seibert revolutionize Hanna Barbera and starting the shorts program.

Making Hanna Barbera merchandise with Fred and showing the products to Bill and Joe.

Interviewing Bill, Joe and Friz for the Hollywood Reporter.

Joe reveals his selling secrets to me.

Joe's thoughts on "writers" and "executives"

Making my own caricatured Hanna Barbera cartoons and having other cartoonists try to imitate them.