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Giving Lip Service to ‘Clutch Cargo’ and His Friends

After nearly 60 years, Clark Haas’ episodic adventure is still popular and adored by many today. 

Bringing original cartoon content to television presented a challenge to animation studios. It would be an expensive venture, with limited finances.

The first animated cartoon series created for television, Crusader Rabbit, was the invention of Jay Ward and Alexander Anderson. It was released in syndication in 1949. Produced by Jerry Fairbanks, the brave bunny was offered as a “five times a week” package to TV stations.

According to a February 9, 1949, Variety article, the Crusader Rabbit series carried a price tag of $75 to $150 per week, depending on the size of market areas. The article also included information on how to produce a cartoon economically.

“Fairbanks was able to bring the films in at a cost permitting the low rentals through use of a new simulated animation process, in which much of the animation is effected through varying camera angles,” Variety said. “Minimum of actual animation is also employed.”

The new “Teletoon” animation technique was developed by Television Arts Productions, of Berkeley, California, which had been recently organized by former Terrytoons animator and story editor, Alexander Anderson, and San Francisco producer, Jay Ward.

Fairbanks’ company, Jerry Fairbanks Productions, was under contract with NBC, which distributed everything he created for TV. But, when the network snubbed him, Fairbanks pitched the show to television stations himself. The plan was to produce 130 five-minute cartoons for the syndication package. When the show went into production the second week of September, Fairbanks completed a 13-week package that featured 65 episodes. Crusader Rabbit made his debut on the boob tube in December.

The first network cartoon series, The Ruff and Reddy Show, made its debut the end of 1957. The cartoon, created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, originated from their newly established H. B. Enterprises, Inc., with offices located at Kling Studios. George Sidney was president of the upstart cartoon production company.

Hanna and Barbera, vice-presidents of the studio, successfully pitched the idea of the space-bound cat and dog via storyboards to Columbia’s Screen Gems for distribution. NBC bought the show and broadcast its network premiere on December 14.

The series used “limited animation” techniques which enabled the show to be financially feasible. The process limited the number of illustrations used to create motion and incorporated repeated actions. According to a report published in Broadcasting-Telecasting magazine on October 28 that year, New York animation studio, Anime Inc., stated the “limited animation” technique “can reduce costs as much as 50% below those of standard animation.”

Joining the cartoon television wave in 1959 was Cambria Productions, who cut animation costs even more by introducing a somewhat creepy, and bizarre, technique called “Syncro-Vox.” The process involved superimposing the actual mouths of voice artists onto illustrations.

Cambria Productions, founded by illustrator Clark Haas in 1957, launched their first adventure series featuring “Syncro-Vox,” Clutch Cargo, on March 9, 1959. By doing so, the studio introduced “lip service” to the world of animated cartoons.

Subsequent “lip service” Cambria cartoons were Space Angel (1962) and Captain Fathom (1965).

The animation in Clutch Cargo was so limited that Cambria marketed it not as a cartoon but as “television’s first comic strip.” Haas, the show’s creator and art director, was quite familiar with comic strips. He previously had illustrated the Sunday edition of “Buz Sawyer.” He also created and illustrated his own syndicated comic strip, “Sunnyside.”

The star of the series, Clutch Cargo, was a brawny, white-haired action-figure. Beside him on adventures was an inquisitive, freckle-faced boy named Spinner and a dachshund named Paddlefoot. Radio announcer Richard Cotting provided the voice for the series star, with actress Margaret Kerry as Spinner. Actor Hal Smith, best known for his role as Otis Campbell, the town drunk of The Andy Griffith Show, made the sounds for Paddlefoot and voiced Swampy, among others.

Dick Brown produced the program. Edwin Gillette oversaw production as the technical director and jazz artist Paul Horn provided a musical score.

George Bagnall and Associates, Inc. sold the program and distributed Clutch Cargo to TV stations across the nation. Bagnall secured its first sales to stations at the end of November 1958. The 52-episode series was offered in both color, and black and white, via 16mm film prints. By the fall of 1961, Clutch Cargo appeared on some 80 TV stations, encompassing an estimated 23 million viewers.

In a feature article written by Tom Pickens for the March 1962 issue of American Cinematographer, Brown explained that even with the limited animation in the show, they are not making animated cartoons.

“We’re making comic strips for television, and this is a completely different form of expression,” Brown said.

Haas agreed.

“The results we obtain aren’t comparable to conventional animation,” Haas stated. “We’re someplace in between live-action and drawing.”

Cambria Productions required about a thousand animation cels to create a half-hour show, which included six 5-minute parts. Full animation, the studio said, needed a thousand cels to produce one minute of film. Also, Cambria “carefully stored cels for possible re-use in future episodes.”

You can credit, or blame, Gillette for inventing and developing the Syncro-Vox technique. The process superimposed live-action photography of the voice artist’s mouth, speaking lines, on the faces of the illustrated characters. The effect produced a perfectly synchronized mouth to voice, complete with expression. The process saved hundreds of hours an animator would have been needed to draw and film.

Yes, those are the mouths of Richard Cotting, Margaret Kerry and Hal Smith you see. They were filmed speaking their lines through a matte, which eliminated all but the actor’s mouth. The film of the mouth in motion was superimposed over a coordinating cel illustration, in which, the mouth was missing.

Cutting cost corners wasn’t just pasting mouths. Cambria also utilized a variety of techniques to reduce the number of drawing and animation cels, but that would also convey action.

“The conservative use of animation cels is made possible through a series of new mechanized techniques developed by Cambria Studios,” American Cinematographer reported. “One of the most important innovations is a continuous action rig which allows the cameraman to shoot animation cels at live-action camera speeds and simulate almost any type [of] live-action camera shot, including trucking, dolly, and pan shots.”

A rocket ship, as an example, would use one cel picturing the craft. The sky background, mounted on a moving glass, created the appearance of flight and enabled the cameraman to shoot a sequence in real-time.

Live effects, like smoke and flames, were superimposed on illustrations, adding further real-time movement. In one scene, a balloon was filmed to represent bubble gum.

To superimpose action, Cambria used an optical reflection device the staff called a “frajilly.” It was named such because it was delivered in a box marked “fragile.” The mechanism was positioned between the camera and continuous rig, and superimposed on the artwork using the action rig. The “frajilly” process blended the two images requiring one camera shot.

Also, to substitute for animation, Cambria integrated working models into the action. As an example, in the Clutch Cargo episode “Cheddar Cheaters,” set in the Netherlands, windmills were featured in backgrounds with blades that were turned mechanically.

Perhaps these shortcut techniques are one reason why, after nearly 60 years, Clutch Cargo is still popular and adored by many today. The episodic adventures were great, but visually, you never knew what you would see next. Real mouths, real fire, real smoke.

I was a loyal Clutch Cargo fan in the early 1960’s, but I must admit, I thought the human lips were kind of creepy, and in a way, still think so today.

Kevin Scott Collier's picture

Kevin Scott Collier is an author and illustrator with 40 years of professional experience in advertising and design.