Well known animation artist coming to Iowa City kicked off career with Beatles cartoons

Ron Campbell: 'Cartoon Pop Art' exhibit is coming to Iowa City this week

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Ron Campbell thought he was being tapped to draw crickets when he was asked to animate a Beatles cartoon series in his native Australia in the early 1960s.

“I didn’t even know who The Beatles were when I received the telephone call,” Campbell, now 75, says by phone from his home north of Phoenix.

He agreed to the deal, even though he thought crickets “would not make very good characters.”

When told that he would be drawing the British rock ’n’ roll sensations, not bugs, he realized he had heard of them “peripherally.”

The Fab Four had just stormed American television via “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964, but their music wasn’t on the budding artist’s radar.

“I was a very serious young man, I guess,” he says. “I was very familiar with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and ‘Appassionata.’ Popular music was OK, but it was mostly, ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie’ or ‘How much is that doggy in the window,’ so it didn’t mean all that much to me. And I didn’t understand Elvis Presley at all — the words to his songs were incomprehensible to me.”

Campbell quickly became very well acquainted with Beatles songs, since each cartoon episode included three tunes.

“I thought the songs were sort of nice and cute, but I did also think they were a little bit like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ — very simple in an ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ way. I really appreciated them more as they became more complex later on, as they evolved,” he says.

The cartoon hit the airwaves on Sept. 25, 1965, and audiences gave it all their lovin’, making it the top-rated show for its four-year run.

That series was Campbell’s springboard to Hollywood, where he started working with Hanna-Barbera. Campbell was there in 1968 when he got a call from England, asking for some last-minute help on the “Yellow Submarine” feature film. He was juggling “George of the Jungle” and the new “Scooby Doo” cartoon shows at the time, but spent about eight months animating 11 or 12 minutes of the wildly popular film that took advantage of the psychedelic culture of the day. (Among his contributions are the Sea of Time sequence, the action between the Chief Blue Meanie and his sidekick, Max, as well as many scenes involving the Nowhere Man.)

He juggled all the projects, eager for the work.

“My wife was pregnant, so I was the young guy and I was very anxious to make sure we had everything we needed,” says Campbell, who over the years, met Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, but not the late John Lennon and George Harrison.

Starr has a couple of his paintings, at least one of which hangs in the famed drummer’s Los Angeles studio, because Campbell spotted it during a “60 Minutes” interview with Starr.

“I thought perhaps he might have been hanging them in his garage,” the artist says drolly.

A collection of Campbell’s watercolor paintings and pen and ink drawings based largely on those Beatles projects will be featured in his solo “Cartoon Pop Art” exhibition and sale this week in downtown Iowa City. The event runs from Tuesday through Thursday at the Iowa Artisans Gallery, 207 E. Washington St. Campbell will be there all three days, painting more pieces and talking with anyone “who stops by to say hello.”

He was a dominant force in animation for 50 years, beginning with such features as “Krazy Kat” and “Beetle Bailey” and continuing through “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “George of the Jungle,” “The Smurfs,” “Scooby Doo,” “Goof Troop,” “Rugrats” and “Ed, Edd & Eddy.”

Hanna-Barbera helped shape the face of Saturday morning cartoons, making them affordable for the burgeoning television trade. Unlike the Disney style of intricate shading and nuanced movements that drove up production costs, Hanna-Barbera stripped it all down.

“Many of the people who designed the early Hanna-Barbera characters were ex-Disney artists,” he says. “There is a connection. The designs were adapted and changed for the limited animation that was necessary through children’s television, because of the different economics involved. (Viewers) will remember Fred Flintstone’s head bobbing up and down as he spoke, and when they walked, their little legs worked and their bodies were more or less still.

“It was heavy on simple animation because the budget was $5,000 for a half-hour film, and a 7-minute Warner Bros. cartoon was $50,000. There was a huge difference in the economics,” he says.

“Without going to those extremes, it would not have been possible to do cartoons for children on television in those days.”

Campbell opened his own studio in 1971 and retired in 2008, 50 years and one month after beginning his career in Australia in 1958.

His animation fascination began in childhood, thanks to all the “wonderful cartoons” that preceded the Saturday cowboy movie matinees he saw in his hometown of Seymour, about 60 miles north of Melbourne.

“I sat watching the cartoons enthralled,” he says. “I thought somehow Tom and Jerry must have been chasing each other behind the screen or something.”

He didn’t understand the concept of projecting images.

“I didn’t associate the screen with that beam of light that was coming from behind me,” he adds with a laugh. “Then when I learned there were actually drawings that had been photographed and projected — ‘You mean I could do a drawing and it could come alive?’ And that’s all I could get into my head. I became obsessed with that. Instead of wanting to build bridges or something useful, I wanted to do these stupid drawings.”

He also fell in love with comic books, but those were forbidden in his home, after his parents learned that a psychologist in New York said they were bad for children. So he started drawing his own. They didn’t capture his fancy the way animation did, so he turned to the Swinburne Art Institute in Melbourne to learn “to draw well enough to make drawings come alive.”

He learned animation by projecting 8 mm films on his bedroom wall and tracing them on paper, frame by frame.

Television came to Australia in 1956, and a year or two later, lured by the drawings he saw coming to life in commercials, he set out for Sydney’s lone animation studio.

He knocked on the door and demanded they hire him. They refused. A few days later, he knocked on the door again, with the same demand — and the same result. He just kept going back, repeating the scenario until the studio caved and hired him.

“I recommend this technique to every young person looking to break into whatever field they want to break into,” he says. “Just make a bloody nuisance of yourself. Sooner or later, there you are. And that’s what happened to me.”

If you go

What: Ron Campbell: “Cartoon Pop Art” exhibit

Where: Iowa Artisans Gallery, 207 E. Washington St., Iowa City

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday

Features: Paintings and personal appearance by Campbell, director of “The Beatles” Saturday morning cartoon series and animator for “Yellow Submarine,” “Scooby Doo,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Krazy Kat,” “George of the Jungle,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones,” “The Smurfs,” “Goof Troop,” “Rugrats” and “Ed, Edd & Eddy”; he also will paint new works and chat with visitors

Admission: Free; artwork available for purchase

Information: Iowa-artisans-gallery.com

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