Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“Yabba dabba doo!”: Remembering Hanna-Barbera

Threatened with eviction by his owner, the clumsy cat cannot afford to break any more dishes. Overjoyed at the situation, the mouse begins to mercilessly throw dishes from a high shelf, forcing the cat to catch them. When the cat is holding up a huge stack of dishes, sweating profusely, and unable to catch anything else, the mouse throws one last dish. The dish breaks. The mouse then kicks the cat, causing all of the other dishes to fall to the ground. The cat is thrown out of the house. 

The release of this cartoon — “Puss Gets the Boot” — in 1940 marked the beginning of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s twenty-year stint at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) as directors of Tom and Jerry, a series of movie theater cartoons. Hanna’s keen sense of comedic timing and Barbera’s artistic skills won the cat-and-mouse duo seven Academy Awards.

By early 1957, however, the rise of television had eroded the film industry’s profits, prompting MGM to close its animation division. After 20 successful years, Hanna and Barbera suddenly found themselves unemployed. For a moment, it seemed that the era of animated cartoons was over. 

Fortunately, Hanna and Barbera refused to give up. They established their own cartoon studio. Hanna-Barbera Productions focused on producing cartoons for television — the very same medium that had forced the MGM cartoon studio out of business. Producing cartoons for television was an innovative idea at the time, and the transition from theatrical cartoons to TV cartoons was not as simple as it may seem. Indeed, Hanna and Barbera had some difficulty getting financial backing for their new business. Many investors told them that it was impossible to make cartoons for TV. 

The naysayers had a point. After all, television required a constant flow of new material. Yet when they worked for MGM, Hanna, Barbera, and their staff only managed to produce about 6 seven-minute movie theater cartoons a year. How could animators who were accustomed to producing just 6 cartoons a year possibly keep up with the demands of television?

Happily, the two men managed to find a willing investor. Soon, they were producing over 200 cartoons a year. How did they manage to do it?

They did it thanks to an innovative technique called limited animation, as opposed to the full animation method they had used at MGM. Limited animation is characterized by the use of significantly fewer drawings than full animation. In contrast to the lush, detailed backgrounds of full animation, limited animation backgrounds are minimalist and frequently reused. Another key characteristic of limited animation was characters with neckties or collars.

Such collars were not merely an aesthetic choice. You see, Hanna-Barbera characters were drawn in layers — meaning that the head was drawn on a separate cel from the rest of the body. When the cartoons would be filmed, the cel on which the head was drawn would be placed on top of the cels depicting the rest of the body. Thus, the purpose of the collar was to conceal the divide between the character’s face and the rest of its body, enabling animators to only redraw those sections of the body that really needed to be redrawn. For example, the presence of the collar allowed the animator to only redraw the character’s face in each frame and keep the body motionless — without making it too obvious to the audience that the character’s head was on a separate plane from the rest of the body and was in fact the only part of the body that was moving. This video explains it a lot better than I can.

To give you a better idea of how full animation and limited animation work, let me point you to a quick example of each of these, both of them courtesy of Don M. Yowp, one of my favorite bloggers. Here’s an example of full animation, from The Cat that Hated People, a 1949 MGM cartoon directed by Tex Avery. Notice how lush and detailed the background is, and how radically the cat’s facial expressions and gestures change from one frame to the next. In contrast, here’s an example of limited animation, from Cousin Tex, a 1958 Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Notice how much more simplistic the background is, and how the cat’s facial expressions and movements remain relatively static and limited from one frame to the next. 

Such shortcuts enabled Hanna and Barbera to make far more cartoons far more cheaply than they had able to do at MGM. As a result, Hanna-Barbera managed to quickly and profitably keep up with the demands of television. Thanks to limited animation, television animation became viable, and the animation industry was saved from extinction. Using limited animation, Hanna-Barbera created countless beloved characters, including Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, and Scooby-Doo. By the 1980s, Hanna-Barbera was the largest animation company in the world.

Happy 60th anniversary to one of the most prolific and creative cartoon studios ever!

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