‘Beatles’ animator looks back at 50 years of bringing cartoons to life

You might not be able to pick Ron Campbell out of a crowd, but I’m willing to wager that you’ve seen his work. You couldn’t escape it.

For those of us who grew up in the “Golden Age” of Saturday morning cartoons, Campbell is responsible for much of its lasting content: “Scooby Doo,” “The Jetsons,” “The Smurfs,” to name a few. But go further back and you might remember a little band called The Beatles; a band that changed the face of popular music. If you saw them on Saturday morning as part of “The Beatles” cartoon series, you have Campbell to thank. And if you missed it on Saturday mornings, then likely you saw (or heard) the animated Fab Four in “Yellow Submarine.”

Campbell is a towering icon of popular culture, a single individual who might be responsible for much of the nostalgia that we carry in our collective consciousness. He’s worked for several animation studios and been involved in some way, either through storyboarding, designing, drawing, producing or creating, a diverse array of shows including “Big Blue Marble,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Rugrats” and “Sesame Street.” His work is expansive and extensive. He has devoted almost his entire career, nearly five decades, to children’s programming and, by proxy, popular culture. When I try to imagine what my life, and many other’s lives, I’m certain, might have been like without the existence of Campbell’s cartoons, I see nothing but an empty space; a blank canvas where something special should be.

It’s easy to dismiss cartoons and their characters as childish products, but Campbell is gracious and life-affirming in conversation. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the debut weekend for the Saturday morning “Beatles” cartoon. Campbell retired from animation in 2008 but he still creates pop culture artwork. And he will make a rare public appearance this weekend at The Art Mecca in Charleston as part of a brief Southeast tour. Get out and meet Campbell at the event and grab a piece or two of original artwork while you can. Because everything about his work is delightful, entertaining and wonderfully nostalgic. And not too many artists can say that they’ve brought The Beatles to the animated small screen.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more on how you got involved with “The Beatles” Saturday morning cartoon? Did you expect the longevity that came from it?

A: No, no. I was 24 years old when I worked on that project and if anybody would have told me at the time, “Fifty or so years later you’re going to be talking about that cartoon,” my jaw would have dropped.

Al Brodax (“Yellow Submarine” producer) phoned me and asked if I would direct (a cartoon about The Beatles). And I agreed and asked what the show was. And he said, “It’s The Beatles.” And I paused for a second and said, “Al, I don’t think insects make very good subjects for kids’ cartoons. What are The Beatles?” And he laughed and told me it was a rock-and-roll group that I had been ignoring. (Laughs)

Q: So you had no idea at the time that kind of staying power something like that would have.

A: No! I was in Australia and, a few months before, The Beatles had gone on the American show, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And the day after the Ed Sullivan show, Al Brodax had called The Beatles and told them he could really do something special for them. And I think they were intrigued by somebody cheeky enough to say something like that after their big performance at Ed Sullivan. So their secretary met up with Al’s secretary and a deal ended up being struck to make a cartoon show.

Q: It seems like the tradition of Saturday morning cartoons has evolved up until now where it’s almost nonexistent.

A: Well, there are no more Saturday morning cartoons because cartoons are on all day, every day, 24 hours a day. I retired in 2008; I put my pencil down directing the last scene of the last film of “Ed, Ed, and Eddy.” And I haven’t taken any notice of what’s going on with cartoons now. All my colleagues are retired or passed away and there are all new kids on the block. And they’re obliged to do everything with computers. That was coming in as I was going out. That’s the major change that has happened; although, in the early days like for “The Beatles” cartoon, no one ever had any confidence in the ability to make money in children’s programming. The budgets had to be very, very low because everyone was nervous about investing so much money. Over the years the budgets got bigger and bigger as people got more confident in being able to make money on children’s programming.

Q: Now it’s a big industry.

A: Oh yeah, or at least when I left it was a billion dollars in production a year. And the detail and quality of animation improved. Although, it was pretty damn good quality in the late 50s from Hannah-Barbera. They worked out a system that fit well with the economics of the time and looked good and was great entertainment.

Q: From Hannah-Barbara you worked on some of the biggest cartoons of any generation, correct?

A: Well, I’m not sure. Whenever anyone looks back on their childhood they think it was a Golden Age. (Laughs) People do claim that the period I was working in was the Golden Age of animation. And it very well might have been but there was a previous Golden Age, too — Bugs Bunny, Snow White, Bambi. I do think we made some very entertaining films and I helped work on them for shows like “Scooby Doo” and “George of the Jungle.” I spent almost 10 years of my life doing “Rugrats” and another 10 years of my life doing “The Smurfs.” And then five more years doing “Big Blue Marble” — a wonderful show for kids.

Q: Out of all these characters that you’ve worked with, is it possible for you to pick a favorite character or a favorite show?

A: I sometimes get that question and, you know, I have kind of a standard response which is the closest to the truth: how do you choose between Scooby Doo or Smurfette or George of the Jungle or Fred Flintstone? You can’t. It’s just not possible.

I was very lucky in my life; mostly because I found myself working on shows that I admired for one reason or another. I didn’t stay very long on a show I didn’t like or thought was too crude or inappropriate. And so I really can’t ... I love them all. Really.

Q: You put down your pencil in 2008 for animation, what keeps you busy now?

A: It was just not practical for me to work on animation anymore. I was too old, too tired and I just decided a second act was necessary. So I decided my second act was painting. Then it was just a question of, “What do I paint?” The most obvious answer, to me, was to be inspired by the work of Chuck Jones who came before me in a previous generation. He spent his retirement years doing paintings of Bugs Bunny and The Roadrunner, cartoons that he had made. And he had fun with that. I knew him and saw how he did that and thought that was a damn good idea. So I started doing paintings. Then I noticed that when I did paintings I couldn’t keep them in my possession for too long — somebody wanted to buy them! (Laughs) As a matter of fact, I don’t have a single drawing that I did three months ago. Everything sells and it’s because it’s Americana; it’s popular all over the world. You can go to Timbuktu and sell a painting of Scooby Doo.

Q: Who originally inspired you to pick up the pencil?

A: That came about when I was really young, about 16 years old. And my great-grandmother was very admiring of my drawing ability. But you know grandparents and parents are always admiring of their children’s abilities. But, for some reason, it hooked me and I kept drawing. No doubt the same thing happened to you when you were young, but you stopped drawing; I didn’t. Then I went to the Saturday afternoon movies, which was the way children saw movies in those days; there was no TV. And they would have a Buck Rogers or a Hopalong Cassidy movie or something or other. But before the movie there would be a bunch of cartoons which we loved. I was particularly enamored of Tom and Jerry and I did not understand how the whole thing worked. I thought at first there must be a cat and a mouse behind the screen somehow running around doing all these things. I never associated that beam of light from behind us with anything.

And then when I learned they were actually drawings and I connected that with my doing drawings, I thought, “You mean, I can do drawings that come to life? I can draw a cat getting hit on the head with a hammer and have the cat looked dazed and fall down with stars all around him? Just drawings? I can make all that happen with just drawings?!” That obsessed me for the rest of my life.

Q: That’s part of the magic that cartoons get to imbue; figuring out how they work. You never think about that when you’re watching, at least I never did.

A: Well, that came to me very early because it was explained to me when I was 7 or 8 years old—”No, they’re not behind the screen, you silly boy! They’re drawings!” Of course, I was stuck in Australia where there was absolutely no demand for animation. But as luck would have it, by the time I was in art school, television came to Australia. By the time I came out of art school, there was, for the first time, a need for animation. Because advertisers wanted animation to advertise for toothpaste and all that stuff. So I was able to get into animation straight out of art school and by the time I was 24 or 25, I was knowledgeable enough to get the jobs directly. And that’s how “The Beatles” cartoon show came to me. And later I animated scenes on “Yellow Submarine” and then came to America and had a career in animation.

Q: For the upcoming art show, what can people expect?

A: There will be a lot of my paintings; many of them framed and up for display. We’ll have a lot of unframed pieces, too, for sale. When someone buys a piece, I do a certificate of authenticity for them. We laugh, joke, have fun. (Laughs) People like to ask me questions about animation and, as I’ve explained or described, there’s a great deal of interest in Americana. So it’s a fun thing to do, for people to come and spend an hour and have fun.

The paintings are very happy, joyful pieces. And, I’ve had people tell me, “Every time I walk into the room I look at it and I smile.” Because it reminds me them of their childhood; their happy days, their salad days, their “Golden Age” as we called it.