This Week: Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research

All too often, websites about pop culture that claim to be authoritative resources are really just thrown together by fans who may or may not know what they're writing about (see: PopCult). But in the case of Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research, a bona fide cartoon expert really does write its content. Beck works full-time as a cartoon researcher and writer about classic 'toons (authoring The 50 Greatest Cartoons and Warner Bros. Animation Art, among others) as well as a producer of new 'toons (he's currently developing a revival of Heckle and Jeckle for MTV Animation). His site offers his personal views and insider buzz on the animation world while also providing interesting historical items, such as the original title cards of the golden-age animation studios. Even better, he offers to answer the questions of the cartoo-curious.

What are your earliest cartoon memories?

I remember being a fan of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear (probably around 1959/60) when I was 4 or 5 years old. I sent away for the Huckleberry Hound Fan Club, offered on the back of Kellogg’s cereals–that was the first piece of mail I ever received. I also remember my Mom and Dad watching The Flintstones (at what I thought was) late at night. That memory instilled the belief in me that cartoons aren’t "just for kids." They are for all ages. A gag in a Beany & Cecil cartoon ("Spots Off A Leopard") marked the first time I laughed at a cartoon. Before that I just watched them in a hypnotic trance.

What do you "get" out of watching cartoons today?
Do you feel the same entertainment value, or is it something else?

I loved to draw as a kid, and always wanted to be a cartoonist–mainly a comic book artist. I tried to be an animator when I got out of high school, but I didn’t have a chance (circa 1975), as there were no careers in animation at the time. I enjoy watching any animation. Good or bad, there is something in it that always attracts me: the character design, the backgrounds, the character animation, the layouts, the soundtrack–so much to see. In bad films, I try to understand the animator or directors choices, and think about how I could have made this film better.

What are your own favorite characters or artists?

Characters: Bugs Bunny, of course–everyone seems to be able to relate to him. I love the old, original Looney Tunes star, Bosko, mainly because his films embody an optimistic spirit of the era, which was the Depression. I also love the original Fleischer Popeye cartoons, Fleischer’s Superman and anything by Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery–and Disney (during his lifetime).

How did you arrive at your occupation as a cartoon expert?

A lifetime of being interested in it and collecting films, data, stills, and researching every little nook and cranny of its history. I think it’s because I have an open mind about the films–I love Casper the Friendly Ghost as much as I love Daffy Duck or an animated film from Zagreb or Japanese anime. It’s all animation–creating a film one frame at a time. It’s a medium where anything is possible and all manner of visuals can be created. Live action seems rather boring next to animation, doesn’t it?

A literal answer to your question would be that I fell into a community of film buffs in the New York City area during the 1970s. One guy in our group was really into B-Westerns, another into Charlie Chan mysteries. Another specialized in musicals, another into live action shorts, another into serials (I'm into all that, too). I was interested in cartoons a little more than my friends, so it fell to me to start collecting data on them. One day back then I realized that there was nowhere to look up the simplest information on Warner Bros. Cartoons–what was the title of the one where Bugs Bunny meets the Marvin Martian, for example.

So I started to research the filmographies of all the old Hollywood cartoons. At the same time I began my friendship with Leonard Maltin (years before Entertainment Tonight–I met Leonard after he published the first edition of his book The Disney Films). Leonard was teaching a class on the history of animation and we became colleagues–I was officially his "research associate" on his book Of Mice & Magic (1980). A year later, Will Friedwald and I compiled a book called The Warner Brothers Cartoons (1981) which listed and described every Warner Bros. Cartoon. It goes on from there…

How many other experts are there?
Why are cartoons worthy of serious study?

Well, I’ve come to know my esteemed fellow historians around the world: Mike Barrier, John Canemaker, Joe Adamson, Leonard Maltin, Charles Solomon, Steve Schneider, Leslie Cabarga, and many others. There is a group called The Society of Animation Studies that is an academic group–so there are many others who take it seriously. Animation is worthy of serious study because the genre is ignored by most mainstream writers and film historians. Animation is an artform, mainly celebrated by its artists–but it needs champions out of the field to recognize how wonderful a medium it is.

How do you go about your job as "cartoon researcher"?

Well, as a "cartoon researcher" I write books, compile animated home video programming, put on retrospective screenings, and do other consulting work. But I also make a living as an animation producer. I write articles for trade publications and write production notes for the movie studios. And juggle a million other things.

What would be your dream project–your ultimate cartoon achievement?

I’d like to see every Warner Bros. Cartoon released on DVD, in chronological order. And I’d like to see a cartoon cable channel that respects classic animation–as Turner Classic Movies respects classic feature films–with all the old studio cartoons showing continuously. And I’d like to be president of that network.

Are we seeing a resurgence in quality animation?

It has surged during the past 15 years–there are incredibly talented people who have emerged. Pixar, Dreamworks, Aardman, Disney Feature Animation, The Simpsons, etc. This is a second "golden age"–and with people being able to do animation on the computer, the opportunities are there for anyone to make their mark.

Who do you think are some of the most creative cartoon artists of today?

John Lassester, John K. (Kricfalusi), Brad Bird, Eric Goldberg, Genndy Tartakovsky, Mike Judge.

How do you think contemporary cartoons compare
to the classics of the "golden age?"

They are different animals–or fruits, like apples & oranges. And yet they are the same. Yesterday’s Bugs Bunny is today’s South Park. Yesterday’s Flintstones is today’s Simpsons. The artform has evolved, but it is still doing what it does best.

How have cartoons changed?

Technically, today's cartoons are superior, but I miss the charm of the earlier films. We may have computer graphics, but the Fleischer stereo-optical process (live-action sets) still look cool and magical to me.

What are your feelings on the censorship of older cartoons for airing today?
Will the originals remain intact?

Luckily, all the master elements (negatives and tracks) to all the classic Hollywood cartoons still exist intact, locked up in Hollywood vaults. I have no problem with companies editing their cartoons for children's cable channels, but they should make the uncut originals available to adults. There are no Warner Bros. Cartoons available on DVD at this time, and I find that criminal. The classic cartoons should be treated with the same care that The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca or I Love Lucy is treated. They are timeless, classic films. But Hollywood regards them as children’s fodder–old children's fodder at that. They need to realize there is a large adult audience for these films. They need to understand the difference between a classic Chuck Jones cartoon and a He-Man TV episode–Hollywood execs don’t understand that or care.

What kinds of cartoons are your least favorite?

Most, but not all, TV cartoons are crap. You want names? Butt Ugly Martians, crap. Braceface, crap. Spygroove, crap. Catdog, crap. Feature animation by Richard Rich (Swan Princess, Trumpet of the Swan), is crap. There are a few great TV cartoons, however: Teacher's Pet, Invader Zim, Powerpuff Girls, anything by John K., as well as The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill.

What's the goal of your website?

My goal is to have a personal outlet for myself and to entertain, educate, and inform like-minded people. My website isn’t a news source like AWN or Animation Magazine. It’s just my personal worldview.

What kinds of interaction do you get with visitors?

I get a lot of e-mail asking questions about lost cartoons. If I can answer it quickly, without heavy-duty research, I’ll quickly reply free of charge. The best questions (in my humble opinion) make it to my FAQ pages.

Are you planning any additions to the site?

I’d love to moderate a bulletin board, but haven’t had the time. I make additions and changes when I can–nothing major is planned at the moment. One idea I have is to create a new website devoted to my other non-cartoon interests (mainly movies and comic books). I may spin-off a "Cartoon Research" magazine.

Will we see a Looney Tunes DVD within our lifetime?

Yes. You will. The current plan is to release a DVD to tie in with the new Looney Tunes: Back In Action movie (Directed by Joe Dante and Eric Goldberg) due out in late 2003.

 

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