Time and art entwine in animation, so it should be no surprise that retired television animator Ron Campbell attributes some of his career successes to timing, beginning with the start of his career in the 1950s.
“When I came of age, television (was) just coming to Australia. For the first time, there was a demand for animation and I found myself on the leading edge of animation in Australia,” he explained in a recent phone interview from his home in Phoenix. “For the first time, you could make a living in animation. This led to my career in the United States, of course.”
Campbell’s name may not be well known to fans of television animation, but the programs with which he was involved during his 50 years in the business certainly are: “The Beatles,” “Scooby-Doo,” “The Smurfs,” “The Big Blue Marble,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Rugrats” and film work on the 1968 animated feature “Yellow Submarine.”
The artist and his work come to Waco this week for a two-day appearance at downtown Waco’s Cultivate 7twelve art space, an appearance that delights the venue’s owner, Rebekah Hagman. “He’s the first nationally known artist to show in our space and we’re so excited,” she said.
Campbell, 78, will bring with him hand-colored drawings of his cartoon characters and will create new ones at customers’ request during his time at the Waco gallery. Since retiring more than a decade ago, Campbell has found a second career in creating art, traveling across the country to show it and interacting with fans.
He got the idea from legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones. “I tried it and, lo and behold, there was a tremendous market,” he said. “I’ve been surprised by the enormous affection people have for the cartoons they watched in childhood.”
It wasn’t that way when he got started, he recalled. Television animation was largely relegated to the dumping ground of Saturday mornings. “The television business and the advertising business did not think children’s television would pay that much,” he said. “Because of (studios’) nervousness in getting a return on their investment and a fear of spending too much money, our budgets were extraordinarily low. In 1954, Warner Bros. would do a seven-minute theatrical trailer for $50,000. For ‘The Beatles,’ we were paid $5,000 for a half-hour of film.”
“The Beatles” proved Campbell’s first big splash in television animation. The Saturday morning cartoon using the British pop quartet debuted in 1965 and ran for four years, logging as high as a 67 share — two-thirds of those watching television at a specific time — during its run.
When given the green light to start “The Beatles,” however, its creators weren’t sure if the band was merely a flash in the pan or not. “In 1964, we didn’t know the Beatles would be in existence when it went on the air,” he said
Compared to the better-funded, hand-drawn film animation produced by the artists at Disney and Warner Bros., television animation cut costs by using simpler palettes, less detail and repeating backgrounds.
Campbell became an expert in storyboarding, a crucial stage in the animation process. A storyboarder takes a script and its voice recording, then draws the key scenes in sequence, much like a comic book tells a story. The next level of animators create and color the scores of in-between scenes needed to cause the semblance of motion when viewed rapidly.
“Storyboarding is like an architectural plan. It tells everybody what needs to be done, he explained. “It doesn’t animate the film, but shows key moments . . . and visualizes what the characters are thinking.”
Campbell’s work with “The Beatles” led to his brief experience in film animation, when he was called on to help the Beatles’ animated feature “Yellow Submarine.” Campbell and colleague Duane Crowther contributed some 12 minutes of finished animation for that vibrantly colored feature, but the much slower pace of film animation — eight months to create that 12 minutes, he said — sent him back to television.
Campbell became involved with many of the top cartoon series of the 1960s through the 1990s, many of which were produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions: “Scooby Doo,” “George of the Jungle,” “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Rugrats,” the latter a personal favorite.
He also ran his own studio for a brief time in the 1970s, Ron Campbell Films, Inc., which did Emmy- and Peabody-Award winning work on such programs as “The Big Blue Marble,” “Sesame Street” and “The Smurfs.” Ironically, the growing success of children’s programming and television animation led to its demise as networks and larger studios demanded the rights to the animation they used, Campbell said.
“The industry was changing. It was not possible for a new studio to own its own programming,” he said, adding that the inability to own their work left smaller studios with shaky economics.
The animator eventually retired from the business about 10 years ago, turning to creating his own art, frame by frame. He starts with a pencil sketch, then redraws in ink and colors the image with vibrant, fade-proof dyes.
His most-requested works are characters from “The Beatles,” “Scooby Doo” and “George of the Jungle.” He frequently draws new works during his personal appearances at customers’ request or authenticates others with a signature and small drawing on the spot. He’ll do both during his Tuesday and Wednesday appearances at Cultivate 7twelve as well as a VIP preview on Monday night.
“I usually bring 40-50 paintings. That’s about as many paintings as people can stomach,” he laughed.