Cartoons and Animation
Two highly creative and innovative factions were at work just around the start of the 1950s and the era of television. While both started off doing theatrical short cartoons, these two separate “cartoon units” would have an impact on the new medium of television, while at the same time closing the high art era of cartoon animation.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera came into the world just as cartoon animation was starting to grow as a crude art form and people like Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Rudolph Ising, Hugh Harman and Max Fleischer were busy with their own animation units at various places around the country. Hanna and Barbera were also raised on different sides of the continent, with Hanna being raised in the South West and Barbera being raised in New York.
They each were bitten by the cartoon bug and took entry level jobs in the “industry.” Bill Hanna working with Harmon and Ising at the Warner Unit, then moving with them to found the MGM unit. Joe Barbera, who grew up in the “Flatbush” region of Brooklyn on the lower East side, has been working for a large New York bank when he decided to go into animation, start with Max Fleischer, then quickly moving to the Van Buren operation, then Paul Terry’s “Terrytoons” company before getting an invite from Walt Disney to come to the "coast.” He eventually ended up at the MGM unit where Bill Hanna was now a Director of Animation.
Hanna-Barbera eventually became a team and produced the “Tom and Jerry” series for M-G-M, which is considered to be among the cream of the crop of animations in this period, competing toe to toe with Disney and the new Warner unit’s “termite terrace” crew (and from there Tex Avery defected to the M-G-M unit).
Tom and Jerry was about a cat and a mouse. There was no dialog, so it was all based on sight gags and made exhibition in Europe a breeze, since they didn’t have to do translations or dub in voices.
Elsewhere in the same time frame was Stephen Bosustow, who started his animation career with Ub Iwerks, then moved to the Lantz studios and finally to Walt Disney where he eventually lead a mass exodus, taking many other Disney creative workers with him to eventually found the United Productions of America (or UPA) unit, which largely did non-commercial educational cartoons or commissioned political offerings (such as the one made for Franklin Roosevelt’s election, called “Hell Bent For Election” which was paid for by the United Auto Workers union and purportedly directed by Chuck Jones, with Bosustow serving as Executive Producer).
UPA got a first right of refusal distribution deal with Columbia Pictures and the studio promptly refused UPA’s first offering Robin Hoodlum (1949), which did manage to see the light of day with it’s unique and innovative approach to animation, which won it an Academy Award nomination.
After that Columbia began taking the UPA unit more seriously and took a big chance on an idea directed by Bob Canon about a boy who couldn’t speak, but instead mimicked the sounds he heard around him. His name was Gerald McBoing, Boing and this first cartoon appeared in 1951, quickly followed by a new character that would become far more mainstream, the near-sighted Mr. Magoo in 1955.
While the animators at the UPA unit were very innovative (and probably heavily influenced by the Zagreb and European animators of the period – especially since Mr. Magoo’s car had a big round hood and everyone had large heads and little bodies, much like the European caricatures employed in their animated avant garde shorts), they were also frugal.
For better or worse, UPA is credited with innovating the idea that animated cartoons need only use 12 unique frames instead of 24 per second and still look very fluid. As a result of this “double frame” shooting started to occur, which cut down production time and costs as basically only half the amount of animation cells were required to make a 7 minute cartoon.
Warner quickly followed this trend after their animation unit was taken over by the junior artists who had worked under Jones, Freeleng, Avery and Clampett. It was probably not so much these artists and directors who instituted the changes, but the “suits” in charge who demanded the cuts be made when it was learned that UPA and the newly form Hanna-Barbera units were cutting costs by double shooting each cel.
One of the first things Hanna-Barbera did on their own once leaving the M-G-M operation in the 1950’s was to make cartoons for the new medium television.
Children’s shows were quite popular, with Howdy Doody, Pinky Lee, Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room and a slew of locally produced shows, such as those coming out of WGN in Chicago.
The first Hanna-Barbera offering I remember seeing as a kid was “Ruff n Ready” about a dog and cat team. This was shown one installment per week and was an on-going mini series that was a part of a live action TV show.
The problem with television is television was cheap. There was no money. It was like the internet was and still to a large degree is! Anyone who could breath became a TV director, because no one from the studios wanted anything to do with TV. So, smaller, non-affiliated units such as Hanna-Barbera and UPA got to fill the void.
CBS tried out Gerald McBoing Boing as a series in the late 1950’s and while it was popular with many people, the show was hard to produce, expensive and didn’t draw the ratings to merit the effort of a second year.
Hanna-Barbera devised methods to cut production costs down even further by only animating feet, hands and head, but using the same body, much like George Pal did with his wooden Puppetoons. They also made the backgrounds very simple.
What started off termed as “limited” animation around 1950 with UPA and Warner cartoons, was now becoming ultra-limited animation! There might be no more than three or four whole body cells and these were re-used in cartoon after cartoon, as often were the head, arm and leg movement. But, it allowed the team to keep the costs so low that they could actually form a large enough production unit to create 22 minute (half-hour) complete cartoon shows and among the first was “Huckleberry Hound” which quickly followed with this first cartoon spin-off in “The Yogi Bear” show, with “Top Cat” and their premier offering “The Flintstones” which actually made it to network television as was one of the first network programs to be broadcast in Color during the 1960’s.
Hanna-Barbera became the ruling animation unit, as almost all the other units closed down or were quite small. Disney was mostly doing live action during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Friz Freeleng started a new unit for United Artists to create the Pink Panther opening scenes and later a whole Pink Panther series of cartoons. Filmation, in Reseda, was doing super-ultra-limited animations which were practically single frames shot for many seconds at a time!
The Hanna-Barbera studios pioneered the use of Xerox equipment to convert pencil drawings into finished cel outlines (thus cutting down on extra artists and art work) and outsourced a lot of material, including segments to directors working in Canada, Europe and Japan. One I knew, Maria Miletic, started doing timing and direction work for Bill Hanna and then came down from Canada to the U.S. to work at the Hanna-Barbera facility located in the San Fernando Valley half way into Hollywood on the Chuenga Pass.
Taft Entertainment eventually bought out the studio, all animations and characters in the 1980’s.
Chicago Super Station WGN Children's Programming