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Beatles animator Ron Campbell considers the past and future of animation

Animania

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Ron Campbell - NICK FOLLGER
  • Nick Follger
  • Ron Campbell
Retired animator Ron Campbell, 77, speaks deliberately and patiently, pausing every once in a while with a thoughtful “oh,” his airy Australian accent softening every vowel. He’s a quiet sort of man, the kind you imagine sitting on a puffy, floral-printed couch with some rowdy grandkids tugging on his sleeves, so it sounds natural when he says: “I just like shows that are gentle and sweet and funny for children ... Those are the kinds of things I think I had an aptitude for, and the things I liked. Everyone has an aptitude for the things they like, I suppose.”

And while he’s raised his own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Campbell has also played a part in influencing entire generations of youngsters. Those television shows he loves so much comprise the majority of his 50-year history in cartooning, peppered with titles like The Smurfs, Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Rugrats, among many others. Given that history, his place on Scott Segelbaum’s Rock Art Show tour ­— a traveling exhibit of works by and of musicians — may seem strange, but for the fact that Campbell’s extensive experience also includes directing The Beatles cartoon show and animating scenes for the classic Yellow Submarine feature film.

Since 2008, he’s been traveling city-to-city and sharing his work: beautiful new paintings of nostalgic characters that he’s touched and that have, in turn, touched millions of people.

He says he’s devoted his life to cartoons, and didn’t know what to do after retirement. “My career had come to an end. All my colleagues were either dead, dying or deeply retired. Young guys coming along don’t want to use the old styles and, besides which, 50 years and one month is a hell of a long time to be working in one industry.”
Like his predecessor Chuck Jones of Looney Toons fame, who took to painting after retirement, Campbell decided that he could continue working with the characters he loved, while leaving behind an animation industry he didn’t recognize anymore — and which didn’t recognize him. “So I started painting,” he says, “and found people liked them, the bright colors, the happy look, the reminder of their childhood.”

Though he works himself just as hard in retirement as he did when he was animating full-time and running a studio, he’s enjoyed the benefits of being on the road with his artwork. Along the Rock Art Show tour, he meets fans and sells his work to people who have a nostalgic appreciation for it. “The audience was always just numbers on a page,” he says, “but now I’m actually meeting the audience who watched the cartoons. And that’s the fun.”

Growing up in Australia in the ’40s and ’50s, Campbell didn’t have access to TV for much of his childhood. His first exposure to cartoons came about at the movies, when cartoon shorts would precede live-action films. “I couldn’t figure out as a child what they were,” he says, “because they didn’t look real and yet they were real. They ran around and yelled and screamed and did things, funny things, and they made us laugh.”

His whole life changed when his great-grandmother told him they were drawings.

“There is a way of making drawings come alive,” he says, with a sort of childlike wonder in his tone even now, “and I carried that idea with me all through childhood and teenage years, into art school.”
Television finally became commonplace in Australia around the time he graduated from Melbourne’s Swinburne Art Institute, and he began to animate for commercials. Though that side of the industry wasn’t quite as glamorous as what he would accomplish later, it earned him some recognition. He began to animate for television shows in America and Australia, when those programs needed extra help on their production teams. Around this time, he worked on Popeye and Krazy Kat, two classics that got his foot in the door of larger studios.

Then, one evening, he received a surprise phone call from London asking him to take on a project that would ultimately define his career — The Beatles cartoon series. At the time, Campbell didn’t even know who The Beatles were, and in fact said to the studio: “Insects make terrible characters for children’s cartoons!”

The situation sounds incredible to those of us living in an age when music-lovers treat The Beatles’ entire discography with as much reverence as the Bible, and the name Yoko Ono holds as much, if not more power than Benedict Arnold’s. But this was around 1964, when The Beatles had just begun to cultivate their fame in the United States.

In spite of Campbell’s initial lack of familiarity with their work, he agreed to direct all the episodes they would create in Australia, and proved himself integral to the success of the show’s four-year run.

Afterward, life quickly picked up pace for Campbell, and he soon moved to the U.S. to work for Hanna-Barbera, the studio responsible for classics like The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Eventually, Campbell started his own studio, which produced an impressive number of animated shorts for Sesame Street and other popular children’s shows.

When the next phone call came from London, it was 1967. The feature film Yellow Submarine had run into some production troubles, and they needed someone to contribute extra animation. The iconic “sea of time” sequence stands as a sparkling example of Campbell’s work, made more impressive by the fact that he worked on Yellow Submarine while storyboarding Scooby Doo and animating George of the Jungle and Super Chicken.

“I was a very busy boy in 1968,” he says with a chuckle.
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Unsurprisingly, The Beatles and Yellow Submarine remain his most recognized work, and some of his most well-loved, which may have something to do with The Beatles’ still-rabid fanbase. In any case, it is the reason many people come to see his touring art show. But when discussing what he’s proudest of, The Beatles doesn’t even earn a mention.

Campbell considers his greatest accomplishment to be Big Blue Marble, a ’70s educational program, which won a Peabody and an Emmy for its emphasis on teaching diversity of culture to children. Campbell’s own studio produced all of the show’s animation, and it encompassed everything he loved most about cartoons. Of the nearly 40 programs to which he contributed, he says that one inspires the greatest sense of pride, though he remains fond of many projects.

For instance, he spent 10 years storyboarding and animating The Smurfs, and was essential in the creation of Scooby Doo, both of which exemplify his preferred style. He says he only stayed with shows that he thought were genuinely good for children. While he enjoyed watching Superman and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he says, “I didn’t much like superheroes, the ‘bang-bang’ and catching villains.”

His current artwork embodies what he loved most about working in animation, reflected in brightly colored paintings of bubbly cartoon characters that inspire an immediate sense of nostalgia. Unlike the cels he would have worked on back in his animating days, these paintings take a great deal more time and finesse, and a great deal of love. But people receive this artwork with just as much affection as he pours into it.

He says that when people look at his work, they aren’t just seeing a painting or a cartoon character. “I think they’re seeing happy days of their youth,” he says. “[You] run downstairs on a Saturday morning and turn on the TV and get your Cocoa Puffs ... and you’re watching things designed, made with just you in mind. That’s a nostalgic pleasure that is remembered amazingly.”
And because his work has spanned generations, older parents and their grown children both can credit Campbell for some of that nostalgia.
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The final show of Campbell’s career was Ed, Edd n Eddy, which was also the last Western TV show to rely solely on traditional, hand-drawn, 2D animation. The popular Cartoon Network program, which ran from 1999 to 2008, began utilizing computers in its fifth season.

Comparing episodes in season four with episodes in season five, the difference startles. Though the animators obviously attempted to keep the shaky-sketchy style of the original, it feels forced, and it doesn’t retain the same kind of character as its hand-drawn counterpart. The colors shine brighter, unnaturally bright, and it lacks a sense of life that’s apparent in season four, a fluidity of movement and line that one might think computers would be more likely to produce, not less.

Of course, when a show’s style drastically changes after four beloved seasons, the difference is bound to be jarring, and this one example does not stand as proof that computers have ruined or even tainted the art of animation. In comparing modern animation to shows from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s hard to say if the art form as it stands now lacks anything it once had, or if it is just undergoing its natural evolution.
Campbell says that translating hand-drawn characters into computer animation can have unpleasant results, but that characters created specifically for computer animation seem to look natural. He brings up the Minions, those yellow bean-like creatures made popular by the Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment film Despicable Me. “They seem to be designed perfectly for computer-generated animation,” he says, “Whereas the Smurfs [which were revived into two 3D-animated films, one of which premiered just this year] really come from a hand-drawn [style], and I’m not sure if they translate effectively into computer-generated animation.”

But he acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with trying new styles, new programs, or new formats. Experimentation in animation has always moved the art form along, and it often turns out successful. Disney films like Frozen, for instance, have “advanced the science of animation” in Campbell’s words. But, he says, “there are things in my view that a computer can do that no human being could ever hope to emulate. On the other hand, there are things that hand-drawn animation can do that computers can’t seem to get the hang of at all.”
Tyler Jonas Castro, a 27-year-old UCCS graduate, currently resides in L.A., where he’s trying to break into the animation business. As a young animator, recently a production intern at Titmouse, his experience is based largely in Flash animation (a computer program). He has a clear appreciation for the animation of old, but says that this is “just the way they do it now.“

Where Campbell admits that technology has “moved the ball along tremendously,” in regard to animation, Castro clarifies that due to demand, studios have to work faster and ultimately end up sacrificing something.
He mentions Rick and Morty, a popular adult-oriented series on Cartoon Network. In order to focus on the story and animation, the creators improvise a great deal of the script. Or, for contrast, consider Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies. Though Castro says “it looks like a 6-year-old drew it,” the creators spend a lot of time crafting the jokes, deciding to put their emphasis on the script rather than the style.

“If you decide that good animation is what you want,” he says, “then you’re going to have to decide where you want to implement that.”

As a young animator, Castro’s perspective on the industry differs from his older counterpart’s. While Campbell laments the golden age, Castro suggests that there’s a resurgence in the works. Millennials who grew up on cartoons and, in his estimation, have bolstered the popularity of geek culture, are now entering the industry and creating iconic characters for a new generation.

Whether any of these characters will have the same staying power as their predecessors, is hard to say. But Castro remains optimistic. Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Gumball and others, he says, are just a few of the shows coming out now that could last. “When we think of our cartoons,” he says of the millennial generation, “we think of Dexter’s Lab, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Powerpuff Girls. That’s staying power. The reason why is they were trailblazers. They were ahead of their time.”
The shows that truly break ground are the ones that will last, he says, though only time will tell exactly what will remain.

From his perspective, both children and adults are currently cultivating a greater appreciation for television, and statistics may suggest as much. While the time the average American spends watching cable TV has gone down, streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have gained popularity. According to the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey, the average American, age 15 and older, spends more time watching TV than engaging in any other leisure activity — 2.73 hours a day. And with a host of networks that air cartoons 24/7, marketed toward both children and adults, perhaps Castro has a point.
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But, he says, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it has longevity. In fact, many of the shows to which Campbell contributed have faded out of cultural memory, in spite of their popularity at the time they aired.
Campbell still watches cartoons on occasion, new shows that work with Flash or CGI. He recognizes that it’s “completely different” from what he used to do, and he sounds somewhat lost when he says, “yet, children still seem to like it. I really have no idea.”

“If I were young today,” he adds, “I don’t think I’d be interested in doing animation. I don’t think I would be interested in having computers bring drawings to life ... It would take my hand out of it.”

Local animator Philip Lane, age 53, who teaches cartooning and animation at Bemis School of Art, specializes in stop-motion, and is drawn to animation (pardon the pun) for the same reason as Campbell. He says there’s a certain magic in seeing something inanimate come to life. “The way you’re moving them — they have to come to life for me. ’Cause that’s the artist in me.”

But unlike many traditional animators, he’s rather enamored with the technology available these days, especially when it comes to stop-motion. He mentions new software that allows for onion-skinning (layering frames on top of each other to ensure fluid movement) or making a figure’s lips move. “All the professional stop-motion animators are using [new technology],” he says, and this allows them to create more effective work.

Lane now uses his stop-motion superhero films to teach the Christian gospel to youth, saying he wants to “entertain with significance.” And because he’s using iconic characters like Superman and Wonder Woman to convey his message, he says kids seem to respond to it.
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It’s capitalizing on the same nostalgia that allows Campbell to exhibit and sell his paintings 50 years after the fact. These characters are loved and trusted across generations.

Animation doesn’t age, nor does its appeal. Instead, it evolves and grows, building off its predecessors and creating something new from experimentation, trial, error and success.

Which, on a smaller scale, is exactly what Campbell does. Drawing on his own past, he has created a whole new body of work, the evolution of his career from commercials to The Beatles to the Big Blue Marble, and now into fine art.

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