In 1964, Australian animator Ron Campbell received a call in the middle of the night from TV producer Al Brodax.
Brodax wondered if Campbell wanted to work on a kids’ show about beetles.
“I thought for a minute,” Campbell recalled in a phone interview. “And I said, ‘Beetles? Beetles make terrible characters for cartoons for children.’”
Campbell’s confusion was understandable. He wasn’t really paying much attention at the time to popular music trends.
Opportunity of a lifetime
Brodax, an American, was referring to the Beatles, a British band that “went on to achieve some renown,” the reporter wrote, understatedly. Brodax had recently seen the band on The Ed Sullivan Show and he wanted to create a kids’ show loosely based on the Fab Four.
Campbell didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to embark on a lifetime professional association with The Beatles.
Campbell will host a show of his artwork on July 16 and 17 at Rhapsody Art Gallery and Studio.
The animated show didn’t make use of the band members’ speaking voices, but it did feature the Beatles’ music.
Thus it was that Campbell grew to love the music in a manner that no other fan had before or has since: while animating that music.
“I had a particularly unusual opportunity to listen to the Beatles music,” he said. “Second by second.”
Campbell went on to help animate George Dunning’s 1968 film, Yellow Submarine.
Campbell had relocated to the States at that point and was not allowed to leave the country while he tried to establish permanent residency. So he had to send his work to London where the film was being made.
This was not easily done in those days. And it is not easily remembered in these days.
“When I was animating on Yellow Submarine, I had to ship a big box with 500,000 drawings in it,” Campbell said. “And I can’t, for the life of me, remember how I did that. It was 1968. Did we trust in the mail? Or was there an early version of FedEx?”
Campbell had no idea at the time that he was working on an animated classic.
“I personally lacked the imagination to see that, 50 years later, I’d still be talking about this film,” he said.
Like any overworked freelancer, Campbell had several other projects going while Yellow Submarine was being made. He was also animating a then-new show called Scooby Doo. And he was working for Jay Ward on George of the Jungle.
These were the days when studios were looking to cut costs on animation. Older animators had trouble in this period, Campbell said.
“They never did learn how to do it,” he said. “I came on board in the industry at a time when that was the greatest need: finding ways of doing things simply. So I was sort of born into the techniques. By the time I’d been animating for several years, I could have written a book on the thousands of ways I’d discovered to save money.”
Campbell may be turning 80 this year, but his work is still enjoyed daily by children on reruns of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, Winnie the Pooh, Duck Tales, DarkWing Duck, Rugrats, and Edd n’ Eddy.
Retired without regret
His crowning achievement, he said, was the PBS show The Big Blue Marble, which won numerous awards, including a Peabody. Campbell designed and created all the show’s animation.
When computer animation started to replace the hand-drawn variety, Campbell retired without regret.
Inspired by the great Warner Brothers’ animator Chuck Jones, who spent his golden years creating fine art based on characters he’d animated, Campbell started to paint instantly recognizable watercolors.
“Some of Chuck Jones’ paintings sell for over $100,000,” Campbell said. “Mine haven’t reached that level yet.”
Campbell knows his work, especially the Beatles images, stirs nostalgia and he has no problem with that.
Yellow Submarine has become a film that people watch to try to understand the 1960s, he said, so artwork inspired by that film can be quite powerful.
“When they walk into a show of mine, these paintings hit their memory banks,” Campbell said, “the nostalgic ribbons in their bodies.”