As I’ve mentioned a few times, I began my careers producing jazz records, and as I moved through I never lost the jazz taste. For years I worked with Mosaic Records, and was proudly associated wtih helping them establish Mosaic Editions, formed to distribute the legacy of Blue Note Records founder Francis Wolff.
Primarily known for his classic black & white documentary jazz photography, Blue Note founder Francis Wolff was able to achieve the same aura with his switch to color in the late 1960s.
Blue Note Records was formed in 1939 by two German immigrants to the USA, producer Alfred Lion and photographer Francis (Frank) Wolff.
Mosaic Records is the brainchild of Charlie Lourie and producer Michael Cuscuna. Early on they focused on the music of Blue Note Records –Michael literally wrote the discography– though neither of them had ever met the legendary founder Alfred Lion.
A few years after they started the business Alfred, retired down South, started a phone relationship with Mosaic, giving them tips and an occasional session photo. When he died, his wife Ruth called Charlie and Michael and offered them custody of Francis Wolff’s personal Blue Note photo archive, which was stored in her bedroom in a trunk, having never been touched since Frank’s death in 1971.
Every Sunday for months, Michael, Charlie and yours truly would painstakingly go through the negatives and contact sheets to archive the stuff. We launched Mosiac Editions to distribute the best work, and eventually Mosiac lublished the two books of Frank’s work referenced above.
When I was seven years old “The Huckleberry Hound Show” made me fall in love with Hanna-Barbera cartoons forever. So when I accidentally became President of the studio in 1992 I was naturally biased towards honoring the classic characters that made me a fan in the first place.
It took us a few years to get it together on a lot of fronts (saving the studio from extinction was job one) but by 1995 we had key initiatives in place, including licensing Creative Director Russell Hicks, Animation Art head Tom Barreca, and business head Alan Keith. The whole studio was constantly disappointed with the lack of cool stuff from our licensees so we decided to take matters into our own hands. We began with building and stocking a retail store right in the studio with the merchandised we wished someone else would do (maybe if we sent sample to a licensee they’d see the wisdom in our way and make the product for mass consumption). And soon, the idea percolated up, in those pre-Ecommerce days, we should have a high end catalog to make the best stuff available to the general public.
Russell, Tom, Animation Art Creative Director Eric Homan, and AA Director David Barenholtz put their teams to work developing contemporary merch we thought was worthy of our classic characters, and conceiving a catalog to showcase the stuff properly. I got heavily involved (frankly, I probably would’ve taken the job as catalog chief if they’d asked in 1992; I had an unhealthy obsession with catalog selling). By 1996 everything was ready.
And then Ted Turner sold the company.
The dingbats from Warner Bros. (the division Hanna-Barbera was attached to in the merger) were of a classic corporate take-over mold. They completely flamed everything Hanna-Barbera. Whatever we did was considered sub-standard, everything they did was great (of course, who could forget Histeria?). Dump the crap, shred the catalog, please listen to what we want you to do. It was little consolation that Peter Starrett, the head dingbat at the Warner Bros. stores, was summarily corporately executed as his grand vision of retail went down in flames.
Hanna-Barbera Creative Director: Russell Hicks
Animation Art Creative Director: Eric Homan
Written by Marty Pekar
Designed by Susan McIntyre
Animation Art Vice President: Tom Barecca
Animation Art Director: David Barenholtz
When I first got to Hanna-Barbera in 1992 the studio was nine years past it’s last big success (The Smurfs) and Ted Turner was on the verge of closing the place (producer David Kirschner [Pagemaster, Cats Don’t Dance] convinced Ted to keep the doors open, primarily to save production of his ultimately doomed features). I had absolutely no idea how to turn the studio around –I wasn’t even a novice when it came to making cartoons– but I certainly knew how to resurrect the image of the place. We’d start the turnaround there.
1979 1969 1974
I wasn’t too crazy about the now-classic 70s HB logo (I know a lot of you disagree) because I felt the studio had turned its back on the powerful heritage they had making cartoons (I was insulted by the way that the prior regime had continued producing junk-for-revenue like Yo! Yogi and numerous pale Flintstones specials). I much preferred the graphic vibe of the 50s and I was determined to reclaim it. I turned to my pals Tom Corey and Scott Nash who had developed the Nickelodeon logo and gave them my rap. I also handed them Iraj Paran’s re-drawing of the vintage HB script. Tom and Scott agreed with my basic philosophy that contemporary trademarks should be kinetic in conception and presented dozens of logos that incorporated the classic characters (and not only the usual suspects, but Muttley, Barney, Secret Squirrel, Jonny Quest, and others) and Iraj’s script, and they added in the elemental shapes of ovals, circles, squares, and rectangles. I’m not sure we caught the exact spirit I was looking for (that would have to wait until Craig Kellman’s reclaiming of The Flinstones art authenticity) but I felt like we were ready to rock.
When it came to business cards (I’ve posted autographed versions from our founders Joe Barbera & Bill Hanna), I was still smarting from 12 years of purchasing bureaucrats at MTV Networks who’d constantly thwarted my efforts to make dozens of simultaneous business cards from dozens of variations of MTV and Nickelodeon logos. I thought it would be fun and make the brands sing, the company thought it would be wasteful. So, now I was in charge of a company, and multiple, collectible business cards were the order of the day; in fact, my ‘President’ cards were actually printed with the legend “Collect all 8″. The only person who was skeptical was by partner Jed Simmons because he loved making notes on the backs of his cards, and printing the character pictures frustrated his efforts. He got over it.
They were a big hit; when we were at business functions we all quickly ran out of cards. Soon, lots of companies in the entertainment business followed suit with fun collections of business cards (even MTV and Nickelodeon).
If only we could figure out how to make hit cartoons.
The backs of the 1990’s Hanna-Barbera business cards
I really like Steve Heller. He’s been reallynice to me, but much more importantly he’s a true inspiration to thousands of people. World class Pentagram designer Paula Scher says “Steven Heller has been graphic design’s biggest fan,” and as usual Paula’s got it right. Aside from a 40+ year career as an awesome art director himself (he would inaccurately and self deprecatingly tell you that he didn’t have the talent, couldn’t teach gym, so he became an art director), and the co-chair of SVA’s graduate program in graphic design, he’s the author of more books about graphic design than anyone in history, over 100 at last count.
Back in the day my partner Alan Goodman and I were known as the logo guys. It was both flattering and annoying, because we’re not designers and it deflected attention from the brilliant people we worked with often, like Manhattan Design (Frank Olinsky, Pat Gorman, and Patti Rogoff) and Corey & Co. But after we became known as the group who developed (not designed) the MTV logo, our reps were set in stone for a while. Eventually we were able to morph it into the idea of developing media brands, which more accurately reflected how Alan and I thought of ourselves.
After setting the vocabulary (more important than design in many ways) and “look” of MTV Alan and I left MTV Networks to set up our independent Fred/Alan Inc. and our first client was… MTV Networks. By 1984, the five year old Nickelodeon was in trouble, having lost an accumulated $40 million (that’s in 1980’s money, like $200 million today) and worse, it was the absolute lowest rated cable network in America. Dead last. MTVN chief Bob Pittman asked Alan and I to help. It was a tough decision for us to make since we were broke but had no interest in children’s television or the people who worked in it. The ‘broke’ part won out.
The key decisions we made:
• Keep the name “Nickelodeon.”
We figured that 10,000,000 kids (there current circulation) knew the name and what it stood for. Management wanted to switch to “Nick,” since it was easier to spell and say; let’s forget that everyone outside the company would wonder why they were named after a garage mechanic. There were a lot of reasons for killing it: no one under a certain age had ever heard of a nickelodeon, and those who had knew it had nothing whatsoever to do with children; the word was hard to spell correctly in the age of pre-Google and spellcheck; and, the word was way too long and thin to dominate a television screen.
• Treat the network like an exclusive club, where only kids could join, not like a TV station with all kids shows.
Kids in June of 1984 (when we started work) needed something they could call their own. They felt on the rear end of life, they told us so constantly. Adults (parents and teachers) made all the decisions for them. TV in the 80s wasn’t for them. They were scared of getting older, but their unconscious biology kept egging them on to age faster.
• Ban the word “FUN” from the Nickelodeon vocabulary.
Every network promo told the kids that Nickelodeon was fun. It wasn’t. We thought it was better to be “fun” than say “fun.”
• Redesign the logo.
Famous television designer, a moonlighting Lou Dorfsman, had designed the logo in 1981, and our brilliant friend Bob Klein had added a silver ball that zoomed around the screen in and out of everything a kid might find exciting. Alan and I didn’t find it exciting.
We’d been working a lot with a new friend, Tom Corey, who owned Corey & Co. (tragically, Tom’s passed away, his companies are now called Corey McPherson Nash & Big Blue Dot)in Boston. He came down to the Fred/Alan office in New York with his partner Scott Nash and heard our pitch for the network. we told them about our decisions I talked about above, and told them while we didn’t know anything about kids’ programming we knew that the offices of Nickelodeon were as quiet as a chapel (as one of the internal wags put it) and that in order to spice the place up we hoped that when our jobs were done they’d all be shooting spitballs at each other. Tom and Scott dug in eagerly.
I wish I had their presentation. It was pretty informal –a bunch of logos sketched on a page– and none any of us were all that crazy about. Eventually, we settled on one that was 3D in nature that revolved around itself, and kind of a standard designer treatment of a trademark. We were about to settle when Alan spoke up and said he didn’t think it was in keeping with our reputation as moving image thinkers about logos.
The MTV logo had been sold in with two thoughts. 1) Rock’N’Roll was a dynamic constantly changing medium and a logo should have a built in updating mechanism. And 2) More importantly, television was moving pictures. Logos were generally designed by print designers who wanted a perfect image, then handed off to moving image designers who had to figure out how to make the damn thing move. Often, it ended up with a big hunk of metal hurtling through space, cause what else were they going to do? We’d argued that in the 1980s that was a dumb thing to do. Why not just design a logo with movement baked into the conceptual frame right from the beginning? TV was the most important place to see the logo, and print designers could just *STOP* the motion and pick an image for an ad; it would be more dynamic even in the print that way.
Alan pointed out that’s how we’d made our bones, and besides were right, darn it. Movement was the way to go, constant change made for a energetic network, and kids were the most vital force in the world. Give them something they relate to: change. He was looking at the orange splat on their page. Tom and Scott argued that orange generally clashed with everything and that would make the logo stand out (as long as we didn’t let designers try and make it work “correctly.”) The splat could morph into any image we liked. And it wasn’t the MTV version of change. I came along for the ride that Tom, Scott, and Alan were proposing, and we trucked over to Bob Pittman’s and Gerry Laybourne’s office to make the pitch.
Bob and Gerry didn’t buy it. No one else there did either. “It doesn’t match anything.” “It’s flat.” “It’s not as cool as the MTV logo, what happened to you guys?”
Ultimately, we prevailed. I’m not really sure how, since all their objections were right on. But we were the “logo guys,” so they eventually bought our action. I’m thrilled they did, since our work with Nickelodeon is some of my favorite stuff in our careers. Tom and Scott went on to be among the premiere designers in television and kids (Scott’s now one of the leading children’s book authors and illustrators), Alan’s a successful producer and brand strategist (still consulting Nickelodeon), and they all deserved the accolades the world could throw at them.
(By the way, the book Nickelodeon Logo Logic was put together in 1998 by the in-house creative services department after Alan and I had stopped full time consulting to the company six years before. The company had expanded so dramatically and so many people had trademark needs that without us –the “logo police”– around they needed some objective rules set down for designers and marketers to follow. I’m not so sure we’d agree with all their points but a trademark is a dynamic thing. Different people interpret it different ways, kind of like a musical composition, and it’s natural it’ll be looked at in new ways over the years.)
I went visting my friend Alan Keith at Laika (the former WIll Vinton Studio) in Portland yesterday, and he really rolled out the red carpet. Including an hour where some of the staff gathered to talk with me about what we’re up to at the Frederators. It was great to meet everyone at this completely unique studio and catch up with some acquaintances like director/blogger/Drawn-er Ward Jenkins. It was particularly fun to meet Eric Weise, a director I “met” when he joined Channel Frederator RAW earlier this week.
Me & Ward
Alan Keith is one of my favorite people ever and Laika’s lucky to have him. He’s Laika’s new VP of Business Operations and Chief Financial Officer. He was my colleague at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons before he was the top business guy at Lucafilm.
Occasionally, I postsomeessays from Hanna-Barbera in the 90s. Everyone at the studio greatly admired what Joe and Bill had accomplished through the decades but strongly felt many of their milestones had gone uncommented beyond the aficionados. I commissioned HB Creative Director Bill Burnett to slightly rectify the situation.
ENTERING THE CULTURE
The true test of popularity is when the catch phrase of a cartoon becomes part of the language. “Yabba-dabba-doo” is one good example, but others like Astro’s “Rats rall right Reorge,” and of course, Yogi’s “smarter than the average bear” have become universal as well. (…continues here…)