Ron Campbell’s life changed when he was 7 years old.
The Australian native, like children around the globe, was enthralled with the colorful dancing images on the movie screen presented through cartoon characters. Being 7, Campbell never associated the beam of light passing over his head with what was giving life to those images. That was until his great-grandmother told him that the images were lots of drawings.
“That’s when I had a 7-year-old epiphany,” Campbell says during a telephone interview from his retirement home in Arizona. “I could make those drawings.”
That was the moment he knew what he wanted to do in life. As he explains it, all children draw. But what makes him different is that he has never stopped. That childhood passion turned into a 50-year vocation where Campbell has created drawings to blow the minds of millions of children.
He has either directed or worked in the art department of such cartoon classics as “The Smurfs,” “Scooby-Doo,” “Captain Caveman,” “Yogi Bear,” “Heathcliff,” “Rugrats,” “The Jetsons,” “DuckTales” and “Tiny Toon Adventures.” Two of his biggest animation projects were as director on nine episodes of the 1965 animated series “The Beatles,” and as an animator of the Beatles’ 1968 animated feature film, “Yellow Submarine.”
Campbell has retired from working directly in the animation world, but he continues to make colorful creations. He will have a show and sell his works during a three-day visit to Fresno at the Jewel fm Gallery at 1415 Fulton St. in downtown Fresno. The exhibit is free and all works are available for purchase.
The veteran animator is in town at the invite of One Putt Broadcasting. John Ostlund, partner in the local radio group, says that the station has long been “ground zero for the cultural arts” and the appearance by Campbell is the latest example of continuing that trend.
For Campbell, getting to the point where he would work with animation companies around the globe was challenging. When the 76-year-old Campbell was growing up in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s, there wasn’t a wealth of material on animation. He was so hungry to learn the craft that he poured through the few animation books he could find, began to study the way humans and animals move and even dissected a U.S. TV commercial for Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger.
“I would project the commercial on the wall of my room and trace all of the images. Then I would look at how they worked together,” Campbell says.
The good news for Campbell was that animation work was beginning to come to Australia. His first attempt stalled because the company wasn’t hiring. But the 19-year-old Campbell went back week after week until he finally wore them down.
One of his first jobs was for a bug spray advertisement where he had to animate a centipede. Today, drawing the 100 legs would be the kind of tedious work he wouldn’t even attempt. Back then, he admits, he would have paid the animation company to get the chance to do the drawings.
Campbell soon moved to Los Angeles where he took a job at one of the main hubs of the cartoon world: the Hanna-Barbara Studios. He spent a year there before leaving to start his own animation studio. A phone call late at night brought him into a whole new world.
Producer Al Brodax, who is best known for the “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons, told Campbell they wanted him to direct a Saturday morning cartoon series. Campbell misunderstood what the show would feature.
“I told him that while Jiminy Cricket was OK, making a show starring beetles would not be a good thing for Children,” Campbell, who was not a big fan of pop music at the time, says.
He was informed the show had nothing to do with insects but was about the British music group the Beatles. That series generates the most questions from fans when Campbell chats during his gallery shows.
The truth is that he didn’t see it as an association with a group that would become music legends, just as another job where he was more concerned with how many animators to hire. Campbell was worried about hitting production dates so he could deliver a new show each week.
Although he worked on the series for months, Campbell never had any interaction with John, George, Paul or Ringo. The voices for the Fab Four were done by voice actors.
He delivered the show, which drew a 67 ratings share when it debuted Sept. 25, 1965. That means two of every three television sets in the United States in use at that time was tuned to the cartoon.
The paths of Campbell and the Beatles would not cross again until 1968. He was awakened by another late-night call from Brodax, who needed Campbell’s help getting the animation done on “Yellow Submarine.” Campbell and his colleague Duane Crowther joined the team and ended up animating approximately 12 minutes of the 87-minute movie. Much of his work involves the Blue Meanie, Max and the song “Nowhere Man.”
This time, while Campbell was in the United States to work on the movie, the Beatles were on a retreat in India.
Although both projects were connected to the Beatles, the animation styles between the two projects are at opposite ends of the cartoon spectrum. Campbell has never had a problem adjusting to the look of the animation project he was hired to do.
“That’s one misconception people have. They think that when you draw, you can only draw one way,” Campbell says. “That’s not true. Artists develop their own style, but all animation is just drawing with a pencil. We get model sheets show how to construct characters.”
The Beatles are only a small part of a long and successful animation career that has included a Peabody and Emmy award for his work in children’s television. Since retiring after a 50-year career, he has been painting subjects based on the animated cartoons he has helped bring to the screen.
Ron Campbell exhibit
- Hours: noon-7 p.m., Friday, noon-7 p.m. Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Jan. 15
- Where: K-Jewel Gallery, 1415 Fulton St.
- Telephone 559-497-5118