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!