Sunday 1 July 2012

Bitesized Biographies #5 - Joseph Barbera

Barbera (left) with Hanna (right) with an assortment of their famed creations, including Fred Flintstone, Tom and Jerry, Yogi Bear and Top Cat, and some of their many Emmy Awards.

Our recent Facebook exclusive poll (to make sure you don't miss out on future polls, be sure to like us on Facebook) to decide who our next Bitesized Biography would be about returned an interesting draw: a split between the two halves of Hanna-Barbera, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Following through the logical order of Hanna-Barbera, we started with a Bitesized Biopgraphy (and accompanying Classic Cartoon) of William Hanna, and today, we look to complete that by covering the life and accomplishments of Joseph Barbera.

Born on 24th March, 1911 in Little Italy, New York, Joseph Barbera was the oldest of what would become three sons, born to immigrants Vincent Barbera and Frances Calvacca. Barbera's father owned three barbershops (with a name like Barbera, barber seems the perfect occupation), but wasn't a strong paternal influence or moral authority in his son's life, as he gambled away the family's funds and had abandoned the family by the time the young Joseph Barbera was 15. Despite some problems at home, Barbera's talent for drawing became evident from an early age, later leading him to seek a career as a cartoonist.

During the Depression, Barbera applied for a cartoonist position at a magazine called The NY Hits Magazine, but was unsuccessful. Though pragmatism temporarily prevailed and the future Jetsons co-creator was forced to accept a job at a bank to financially support himself, optimism was never far from Joseph Barbera's mind, and he continued to push his cartoons. As opposed to comic strips seen in some magazines, Barbera had drawn single cartoons, and eventually he found some success, when the magazines Redbook, Saturday Evening Post and Collier's took on his work. But this mild achievement wasn't destined to be the zenith of his career, and Barbera soon wrote a letter to Walt Disney, asking how to get a break in the animation industry.

Disney promised to call Barbera when he was in New York, and although this call never occurred, Barbera was now dead-set on his career trajectory: animation. He enrolled himself in art school, at the Art Students League of New York and the Pratt Institute, and was soon hired to work in the ink and paint department of the Fleischer Studios - the studio behind the Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor cartoons. This was a short-lived job however, and in 1932 he was hired by the Van Beuren Studios - the studio behind the Aesop's Film Fables cartoons that famously inspired Walt Disney for his own cartoons - at a higher grade animation job, an animator and storyboard artist.

Whilst at the Van Beuren Studios, Barbera worked on a few series, including one called Tom and Jerry, a cartoon series starring two humans, and not to be mistook for Barbera's later first collaboration with William Hanna, the Tom and Jerry cat and mouse cartoons. When the studio closed in 1936, Barbera was once again in search of work, and he eventually wound up at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's new animation division. Now, if you've read our previous Bitesized Biography, you know that this is where things start to gather steam, as Barbera's desk was directly opposite William Hanna's. The pair (who worked with, among others, Looney Tunes legend, Tex Avery) soon started a partnership that would create some of the best known cartoon characters in animation history. In 1940, the pair directed their first short film, the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot, earning them the first of their many Academy Award nominations.

You can read about Hanna and Barbera's MGM times in our William Hanna Bitesized Biography, but basically: they were a huge success. Tom and Jerry was a massive hit and Hanna and Barbera were placed in charge of the MGM cartoon studio. However, high TV related costs put MGM under financial strain, and the company decided that it was far more economically viable to re-release old cartoons than to produce new ones, and thus the MGM cartoon studio was closed.

Out of work, Barbera and William Hanna decided - after their own success at MGM - to continue their collaboration and set up shop for themselves. Towards the end of MGM, the two had conceived an idea for a show pairing up a cat and dog, called The Ruff & Reddy Show. MGM, already under financial strain, wasn't interested, and when the animation department folded, Hanna and Barbera decided to continue on with the idea on their own. It would be released, they decided, under their own company, which they founded, in September 1957, as H-B Enterprises (soon becoming Hanna-Barbera Productions).

The idea was there, the talent was there, but Hanna-Barbera needed backing if Ruff & Reddy, or indeed anything, was going to be output from the studio. Enter George Sidney, a live-action director who had worked with Hanna and Barbera on several projects whilst at MGM. Sidney offered to serve as a business partner for the duo, bringing the backing of Columbia Pictures' television subsidiary, Screen Gems, with him.

Many of the animators from MGM followed Barbera and Hanna, and with the financial backing of Screen Gems, Hanna-Barbera was ready to go. Ruff & Ready wasn't a huge hit, but the studio's subsequent shows, starting with The Huckleberry Hound Show, were. Despite success though, neither Barbera nor Hanna were quick to forget the importance of money and how it had unceremoniously ended their work at MGM, so Hanna-Barbera were keen to avoid the same fate for Hanna-Barbera. This and the lower budgets than they were used to for the theatrical shorts at MGM led Hanna-Barbera to adopt a style that would see them maligned by artists: limited animation.

Limited animation was more cost-effective, more efficient, and less appealing. It involved using far less key frames and drawings, foregoing elaborate movements or expressions, instead focusing on more abstract designs and on the characteristics of a character and the story of the cartoon. The most infamous use of this is with the 'ring around the collar', where low-budget characters would have a collar and tie if male, and a necklace if female, even if they weren't wearing a shirt - as it's cheaper just to animate the head, while reusing body drawings, and the collar provides a dividing line for the animators. You only need look at Yogi Bear to see an example of limited animation.

But limited animation wasn't entirely bad, as it's unlikely Hanna-Barbera would have survived otherwise; Barbera himself once said that the studio had a choice to "adapt to the television budgets or change careers". It was a far, far cheaper and less time-consuming method of animation; when experimenting with the style at MGM, the number of drawings for a seven-minute cartoon decreased from 14,000 to about 2,000. It also gave the studio its own unique, stylised look (perhaps inspiration for the stylised look of the Madagascar movies), crucially setting it apart from the more cutesy designs of the Disney studio. The less ambitious animation also meant that the emphasis was squarely on the characters and the story, a place that Hanna-Barbera excelled.

As, despite a lower quality of animation, Hanna-Barbera still had a remarkably high quality of characters. When you look at The Flintstones, do you think 'that show looks really shoddy'? No, you think 'that show is a classic'. And that would be the lasting legacy of Joseph Barbera and the studio he co-created. Characters like Fred Flintstone, Top Cat, Hong Kong Phooey and Yogi Bear have been cultural icons, and served as inspiration for some of the greatest shows on TV. The Simpsons, arguably the best and biggest show ever, was inspired directly from The Flintstones (inspired itself from live-action sitcom, The Honeymooners). That's how William Hanna is remembered, and that's how Joseph Barbera is remembered. Often the gag-man for the shows, Barbera is responsible for some of the most beloved and riotously funny characters and shows in the history of TV, and it's a huge testament to the quality of Hanna-Barbera shows that they're so beloved despite their less than superb animation.

After William Hanna's death in 2001, Hanna-Barbera became part of Warner Bros. Animation, later becoming Cartoon Network, and Barbera executive produced reboots of Hanna-Barbera shows, including What's New Scooby Doo. He also co-wrote, co-storyboarded, co-directed and co-produced The Karate Guard, the first Tom and Jerry short film in almost 5 decades. On December 18, 2006, Joseph Barbera died from natural causes, in his home in LA, at the grand old age of 95, leaving behind a legacy of animation that few can rival. His final project was the straight-to-video film, Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale, which was released in 2007, dedicated to him.

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