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Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts. Part 21.

January 6th, 2008

Pat Ventura

Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20.

So the Hanna-Barbera shorts program –still unnamed– was off and running. Everyone in development, and the production department leaders, was out beating the bushes looking for animators who wanted to make their own cartoons, their own way.

As we were out in the world trying to convince creative folks that Hanna-Barbera was serious about doing original shorts (remember, the animation industry had made it clear that original ideas were not to interesting or, for that matter, commercially viable), our hardest immediate job was convincing people already working at the studio. For years there had been almost no history of taking an idea from a staff member for a show. Everyone thought I was just spouting a line, or at the very least naive, and most of the company went about their daily jobs not paying too much attention to my call for shorts.

If I remember correctly, the first person who started a short was Pat Ventura. We met through John K while he was a writer on Tom & Jerry Kids (he wanted first hand experience working with a master like Joe Barbera) and struck up an immediate sympatico. He helped me often in my thinking about the shorts program, and his original style and excitement (tinged with a shade of cynicism) made me want to start a project with him. Since he was a Tex Avery fan I thought maybe launching him with one of Tex’s characters could make a smooth transition into the program, and when he suggested George and Juniorwe gave him the greenlight.

Of course, any short we began with would start a ruckus, and Pat was the perfect guy to help us through the muck.

From the very start there was a huge, tremendous positive. Basically, the feeling among the artists was, “If he’ll give that guy a short, he must be serious. Or crazy. Maybe both.” It was clear to everyone that Pat was a complete original who would never get a chance to do his own thing anywhere in the Hollywood commercial animation establishment. He was obviously a talent who would get a chance to contribute to some studio project (he’d worked on Aladdin and Roger Rabbit at Disney, for instance), but really, wasn’t he was too out there? Once it was clear that Pat was a ‘go’ lots of the folks, newbies and veterans both, started working on their own boards.

Once work started on the short the shit really started to cascade.

A little background you might already know: the real revolution at Hanna-Barbera was the ability of Bill Hanna to create tightly organized productions that could be systematized, reducing costs enough to be affordable for television stations. Everything –art & models, layout, directing, animation, voice recording, etcetera– was split up into departments, all controlled at the top by Bill and Joe. Decision making was highly centralized into as few places as possible, reducing waste of time and money. It worked great at the beginning, when the whole staff was the cream of the world class folk who made the great theatricals of the first half of the century, but began breaking down into merely hack-like efficiency as newbies came into the industry during its 30+ years. By the time Ted Turner bought the company in 1991 there were decades of rationalization piled on convenience, the famous system was spiritually, not to say creatively, broken, and existed merely for the sake of inertia.

Everything came to a head most clearly over voice acting and directing. My head of production, Buzz Potamkin, assigned veteran Larry Huber to supervise all the shorts production. Larry had been in the business since 1969 and had seen the transition from full to limited animation, from full on American production to overseas animation, and was comfortable with his superiors, his peers, and the young turks invading. But, as much as we insisted we wanted a return to a unit system of individual responsibility for a cartoon, Larry had to get along with the still powerful vestiges of Bill’s system.

Voice directing had become centralized with a “real director” who “understood actors,” like there was a big secret. Pat’s short was plugged into the game and his script was given over to one of the “voice directors” who “allowed” Pat to sit in on casting and recording, as if it was their right to decide. When I asked Pat about the session he told me everything was great, wasn’t that just the way it was? I realized what was going on and ordered everyone in the production line that from then on each of the shorts creators was to have final cut on all casting and would direct their own voice actors. If there was a disaster, so be it. To this day, I’m sure there was some weaseling going on around the edges, but all in all it worked OK. No actors refused to act, no voice sessions ended in horror, no cartoons were harmed.

When it came to directing, Larry assigned another veteran, but someone who’d been a young turk when he entered the biz 20 years before, Robert Alvarez. Robert did a pass on the exposure sheets, and this time Pat did come by my office to complain.

“He made the eyes blink!”

So?

“Tom and Jerry never blinked. Touché Turtle did. I don’t want the eyes to blink.” Pat filled me in on the directing compromises needed in TV animation, and keeping the eyes blinking while nothing else in the frame moved a hair was one of them. It wasn’t what he was looking for in his cartoons.

I called Larry and he patiently explained to me that Robert was directing on the very strict rules he was told to follow if he wanted to keep his job. And who didn’t want to keep their job? It was the same at every studio in town by then, and if a director directed by their own instincts they wouldn’t be working for long. I told Pat to tell Robert what he wanted, and that he’d be happy with the result. Robert was not only a pro, he wanted to involved with wonderful cartoons. Follow the creator.

Next thing I knew I was face to face with Robert. Scared to death I might add. Who was I, with no animation experience whatsoever, to question the wisdom of the best system ever devised for television cartoons? But Robert, a good man as well as a talented one (to very roughly paraphrase an old blues) shook my hand instead. He thanked me for trusting talent like Pat’s and trusting Hanna-Barbera to make great cartoons again. Soon, Robert was the go-to guy for everyone who wanted great animation direction in the short program, as well as creating two wonderful shorts of his own (Pizza Boy and Tumbleweed Tex).

Creators started to rule again.

(More next time)

Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20.

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This rules.
-jx

 

Robert rules! …. as his double Emmys for SAMURAI JACK and CLONE WARS prove.

 

Hi Fred,
I won’t get back into the information that I sent along in my private message but I still want to correct some history. Tom and Jerry did blink. Just look at couple of the old MGM shorts and you will see that they certainly blinked. The reason for this was simple. Hanna had the opinion that if you blink characters that are being held then they won’t be frozen on the screen. He passed this along to his T.V. shows. I know this from working with Ray Patterson at HB. It is too bad that Pat did not come to me first. I would have told him that Tom and Jerry did blink and why they did and then I would have done exactly what he wanted. Well that is exactly what happened in the end as you know.

 

OK, so I don’t want my absolute ignorance of animation spoil anyone’s reputation, especially Pat’s or Tom’s or Jerry’s. It’s the way I remember the conversation, but at that late age I could for sure be inaccurate or just plain wrong. Whatever the details were, the shape of the events is correct, however. Pat was thrilled to count Robert Alvarez among his most important collaborators, and I was lucky enough to get a chance to work with both of them, among many others.

 
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