Unlimited Imagination

Fred Seibert and Bill Burnett reflect on the importance of Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera's limited animation technique. Work in TV? You can thank them...

This much I know to be true: when theatrical cartoons were on death's door, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera single-handedly (or, rather, double-handedly) rescued cartoons from oblivion.

But, I've occasionally heard Hanna-Barbera criticized for "cheapening" the art of cartoons by inventing a technique for television called "limited animation." As a cartoon blues man might say, "If it wasn't for limited animation, we wouldn't have no animation at all."

Seven Oscars Weren't Enough

In 1957 Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were veteran cartoon directors with over forty years experience between them. These two men had created the cartoon cat and mouse team, Tom & Jerry. (That's tantamount to having "invented" Abbot & Costello.) They had won seven Oscars with Tom & Jerry, more than anybody else in cartoon history.

But in the mid-Fifties none of that mattered anymore. Television had arrived. The theatrical market for cartoons had dried up. And MGM, where Hanna and Barbera had risen to the rank of executive producers, suddenly closed up shop without warning. Overnight, Bill and Joe found themselves out of work, along with virtually all of their cartoon colleagues in Hollywood.

Never Say Die

But these two cartoonists refused to go gently. They started a studio, and figured out a way to make cartoons viable for television. You think that's easy? Consider this: The "full animation" cartoons that Hanna and Barbera made at MGM took six months per seven minute episode, with budgets that often exceeded $60,000. Now they had to create thirty minutes of cartoon material every week, with budgets that were half the size of what they used to spend to make a single short!

Bill And Joe Had A Plan

How did they do it? They called upon the "planned" animation technique they had developed to test out new Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM. Instead of making twenty or thirty thousand drawings, a planned or "limited" cartoon only used 2 or 3 thousand drawings. Now Hanna and Barbera had to make this "planned" approach work for them on actual cartoons. They adopted the minimalist cartoon style which was becoming popular at the time, with its simple lines and suggested backgrounds, and turned it to their advantage. They made backgrounds that could be used in multiple scenes; cloud formations that worked whether the action was going up, down or sideways; characters with "muzzles" so only their mouths had to be animated; characters that blinked a lot, to enhance the illusion of motion.

Shooting Stars

And to keep the entertainment value of their TV cartoons high, Hanna and Barbera turned up the burners on their imaginations. With Tom & Jerry they had worked with the same characters over and over, dreaming up different cat and mouse gags each time. Now these men in their late forties responded to the challenge of their careers by bringing out an avalanche of vivid, hilarious, new cartoon stars and stories. Limited animation coupled with unlimited imagination completely changed the rules of the game.

Ruff & Reddy, Huckleberry Hound, Pixie & Dixie, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw (and his alter ego El Kabong), Top Cat, Magilla Gorilla, Snagglepuss, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost ... the list goes on and on. (Oh, and let's not forget the most successful television cartoon team of all time, The Flintstones.)

In the list above I've barely scratched the surface of what sprang from the imaginations of Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and the other great cartoon talents they assembled at their studio in the Fifties and Sixties.

Stories, characters, ingenuity and a dedication to the cartoon cause. That's how Hanna-Barbera rescued cartoons from death's door. Anybody who says different will have to answer to El Kabong! (I wouldn't risk it if I were you.)

Fred Seibert is a partner in the Frederator Studios and executive producer of Nickelodeon's The Fairly Oddparents, ChalkZone and Oh Yeah! Cartoons. As president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons from 1992 through 1996, he had the honor of learning from Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.

Bill Burnett is the co-creator and executive producer of Nickelodeon's upcoming animated series ChalkZone. He also wrote the script, music and lyrics for that network's first feature-length animated musical The Electric Piper. Bill served as creative director at Hanna-Barbera before becoming story editor for the first two season's of Cartoon Network's Cow and Chicken. Bill is also a songwriter. His musical material has been performed and recorded by Bette Midler, Patti Lupone, Rodney Dangerfield, Pebbles Flintstone, Bamm-Bamm Rubble and Casper the Friendly Ghost -- to name but a few. Bill's live performances have been known to make grown men and women weep and laugh, often simultaneously.

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