Though his name may be unfamiliar to many, Ron Campbell’s work is not. From Scooby-Doo and Captain Caveman to The Smurfs and The Rugrats, Campbell’s work in the field of animation has touched the lives of millions across the globe.
Among the most iconic of all his work is The Beatles cartoon show and the 1968 musical fantasy film, The Yellow Submarine. With a career spanning 50 years, Campbell is now touring the country with a collection featuring his own artwork based on the cartoon creations he helped bring to life.
One of Campbell’s stops on this tour is Augusta’s Gallery on the Row on Tuesday-Thursday, September 22-24.
Described as a “force in animation for five decades,” Campbell began his career in his home country of Australia, working on Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat and Cool McCool. Then a call came to work on the new Saturday morning cartoon show, The Beatles. The show debuted in September of 1965 and quickly rose to the No. 1 spot, where it stayed until its final show four years later.
Campbell says that though cartoons became accepted and very popular, initially they were very low budget and a risk to producers.
“Television production is always lower than feature film production, always,” he said. “But because there were such vast improvements in efficiency by using less expensive talent and labor in Asia — higher quality for similar budgets — it became possible. When we first made The Beatles, I think we had about $5,000 to make a half-hour film, which is actually 22 minutes long. At the same time, to make a seven-minute film for the cinema, like your Bugs Bunny or Road Runner, the budget for that would be $50,000. That improved as time went on. Nobody in the early days of television really was confident about making any money at all out of children’s television. The advertising dollars that the networks received were a lot less than they receive now in relative terms.”
As a result, cartoons of the ‘50s and ‘60s were often very simple. Transmitting over the airwaves often made the images look very soft and blurry, which animators combated by keeping their characters very simple looking with a lot of close-ups to help with clarity.
“Complex imagery was not as attractive in the early days,” Campbell explained. “Now, the TV sets are LCD and complex imagery is much more effective.”
Another technique used by animators was the use of static backgrounds and only animating when necessary. In cartoons such as The Beatles, the top half of the character remained the same single image while a series of five or six leg positions were used to create the illusion of movement. These devices, Campbell says, were born of necessity to manage the budget.
“Of all the costs of creating a cartoon, the most expensive was human labor,” he said. “We measured human labor in terms of pencil mileage, which meant the more pencil drawings an animator had to do, or the more complicated the drawing was, the more the cost.”
The members of the Beatles were not actually involved with the production of their cartoon, but the studio in England and the producer in New York received feedback from the Fab Four, which Ron recalls as being “not especially good.”
“As I understand it, Paul and George and Ringo thought it was okay, but John didn’t like it very much,” he said. “The main complaint they had was — John had, actually — was the fact the producer Al Broadax refused to use their voices. They didn’t really want to do it anyway. But, Al was very concerned that the American children would not understand a word that the Beatles were saying. So, American actors were used. John was particularly incensed by that — he called it ‘that Flinstones shit,’ and in point of fact the Flintstones were really very good. So he thought that was an insult, but we didn’t.”
Following the success of The Beatles, Campbell made the permanent move from Australia to the United States, working for Hanna-Barbera and becoming a naturalized citizen. In the late ‘60s, Ron found himself once again making his mark on yet another Beatles product — the 87-minute-long musical comedy The Yellow Submarine.
A vibrant exploration of imagery and psychedelia inspired by the music of the Beatles, The Yellow Submarine’s style was a result of a decision to differentiate it from The Beatles cartoon show, says Campbell. They also had a much larger cast, production crew and budget — $250,000 — and this time the Beatles were more involved with the film, contributing to the final closing scene of the film. The Yellow Submarine also ushered in an era of greater interest in animation, and inspiring pop culture references still seen in shows and media today.
Ron Campbell’s contribution was as part of the animators, he says, whose primary role was the animate many of the connecting sequences and facilitating the flow of different scenes. Working on the film post-production, Campbell and his colleague Duane Crowther drew and painted the scenes from their office in Hollywood, and sent them back to England by mail where they were inserted into the film as needed.
“They would send me a tape with a voice track on it, give me a storyboard, and I sent back completely animated scenes — hundreds and hundreds of pencil drawings,” he said. “All in all, the two produced approximately 12 minutes of the film.”
The resulting images are still familiar to Beatles fans today, and make up a large portion of the artwork found in Campbell’s touring art show.
One of the most well-known of all cartoon producers, Bill Hanna, played a significant part in Campbell’s career and life in general. After working as an employee for Hanna-Barbera for a year, the artist established his own studio — Ron Campbell Films, Inc. — across the road from Hanna-Barbera and, for more than 20 years, Bill Hanna sub-contracted shows to him and his studio. “Bill Hanna was almost like a father figure to me. I can honestly say I kinda loved the guy. He was a tough, witty and a very nice guy. I liked him.”
During the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Campbell’s studio and Campbell himself were involved in multiple popular cartoons and children’s shows, such as the original George of the Jungle and Tom Slick TV shows, as well as animated cartoon segments for Sesame Street. Campbell’s studio also produced and directed the animation for The Big Blue Marble, which won multiple awards, including a Peabody for Excellence in Broadcasting and an Emmy for Best Children’s Show of the Year.
Campbell went on to either produce, direct, animate or storyboard multiple popular shows. A member of the original team who created Scooby-Doo, Campbell also worked on Captain Caveman, the Jetsons, Ed, Edd and Eddy, and more. Campbell storyboarded The Smurfs for a decade and spent another decade working on The Rugrats. He says the enjoyment he gained from each show was a great motivator.
“I tried very hard to work on shows that I actually liked or that I had admiration for in some way or another,” he said. “For the most part, I managed to achieve that.”
In the ‘90s Campbell contracted animation direction and storyboarding for Disney TV Animation productions Bonkers, Goof Troop, Darkwing Duck and Winnie the Pooh. He was nominated for an Emmy for a storyboard for Aaahh! Real Monsters, and another for his work on The Rugrats.
After 50 years of animation, Ron retired, ready to enjoy life in Arizona. But, as he tells it, retirement didn’t mean staying idle and eventually he began to paint subjects based on the animated cartoons he helped bring into living rooms all over the world. The Beatles Cartoon Art Show primarily showcases the work he did on The Beatles cartoon show and The Yellow Submarine, although he still plays with other characters, customizing his work for paying customers.
The touring art show allows him to pay the power bill, he says, but it also connects him with the public he never knew — a side of creating cartoons he didn’t deal with during his career.
“It’s strange you know,” he said. “I do the artwork and mingle with people who used to be numbers on a page — the audience — they used to just be ratings.”
And people remember his work. In fact, says Campbell, people have a better memory of the cartoons he’s worked on than he has, and the sense of nostalgia brings them out in droves. “The whole world loves Scooby-Doo. People at a show in Mexico City were lining out the door, up the road, around the corner. Not because of me, but because of The Beatles, and American pop culture and cartoons like Scooby-Doo.”
The experience has revealed to Campbell the impact his art has had on other people. It has also opened his eyes to the phenomena that is the world wide web.
“A few years ago, a man came up to me at one of my shows and asked me if I remembered any of the cartoons I did on Sesame Street. I told him there was one I remembered, where there was an elevator and people kept getting on this elevator as it went up the floors up to the 10th floor,” he said. “Gradually the elevator fills up, and there’s someone counting the number of people — and then at the top a mouse gets in and the whole thing collapses and starts going down, 10, 9, 8, and so on to the final floor. The man said to me, ‘Oh yes — hang on a minute.’ and gets on his phone and after a minute he puts it under my nose and there’s my cartoon being played on YouTube. A cartoon I made way back in 1969. Nothing’s bloody private anymore. I guess everything I’ve ever done can be found on YouTube.”
A double-edged sword, Campbell has discovered the show has pulled him out of retirement by making him really work. “After I finish speaking to you, I have to go and get started on with some work. What’s that all about? I’m supposed to be retired!”
This kind of retirement isn’t for the faint of heart, but Campbell explains there’s more to his tour than just earning cash.
“We all work for selfish motives, and one of the big motives I have is to remain in some way relevant to myself,” he said. “I can’t imagine how I could have lived as long as I have without painting and drawing — it is just who I am. And to stop doing that is to die. And I, like most people, don’t want to die.”
Catch Ron Campbell at The Gallery on the Row, 1016 Broad Street, Tuesday-Thursday, September 22-24. All work will be available to purchase — prices start at around $200. For more information, visit beatlescartoonartshow.com.