Ron Campbell retired from his 50-year career as an animator a little more than a decade ago, and in his retirement, he’s taken up painting. Inspired by Warner Bros. cartoonist and animator Chuck Jones, Campbell took retirement as, not the end of his career, but another phase. Now, at almost 80, he travels across America appearing at various art shows and displaying his original paintings of the iconic characters he helped bring to life.
An animator, illustrator and director, he’s worked on dozens of beloved cartoons including Beetle Bailey; George of the Jungle; Yogi Bear; The Flintstones; Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!; The Smurfs; Winnie The Pooh; Rugrats; Ed, Edd n Eddie; and more, and that’s only naming a few highlights of his work.
“[The art shows have] been eye-opening in my old age,” Campbell says. “One of the things I’ve learned is it doesn’t matter how unhappy your childhood may have been or how happy it may have been, you will carry with you happy memories of Saturday morning, turning on the TV by yourself or with your brothers and sisters, and settling on a show and sitting there knowing it’s just for you. It has nothing to do with your parents. For some people, that’s been the happiest moments of their childhood.”
After decades of working in production rooms and animation studios, where he says his audience was a series of numbers and ratings, his time traveling America allows him the opportunity to connect with his fans in a way that he hadn’t before, to see the “flesh-and-blood audience” who have been moved, inspired or simply entertained by his work.
Perhaps he’s most well-known for directing The Beatles animated ABC television series from 1965 to 1969, as well as serving as an animator for the 1968 Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine.
Last year, the film celebrated its 50th anniversary. Although Campbell only animated about 12 minutes of it, he says the project took him eight months to finish. During that time, Campbell was in the midst of his burgeoning animation career, working on other projects and cartoons. To him, his work on Yellow Submarine, which is often regarded as a turning point for animation in feature films, was simply a freelance gig.
“It was a fun project. We had no clue that it would have such longevity,” Campbell says. “We knew it was unusually designed for a feature film, but psychedelic art had already been established, so we were not surprised by the design. We thought it was appropriate for the music. But if you had told me that 50 years later I’d be talking to you about that experience, I would have said, ‘Are you nuts?’”
Before working on award-winning feature films and iconic cartoon television shows, Campbell lived in Australia where his great-grandmother introduced him to the world of animation. He says they’d often go to the movie theater where animated serials and cartoons would be shown before the feature.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I asked my great-grandmother about it, and she told me they were just drawings. And I said, ‘I can make drawings that come alive?’ That fact that I could make drawings live, that was something I’ve never been able to do. I carried that all through my childhood. Then I went to art school and I didn’t stop drawing. Instead of diverting into architecture or something like that, I kept with animation.”
His undying passion for cartoons and animation led him to a few jobs in the new art in Australia of animated commercials, televisions and movies. One day he got a call to direct a television series about The Beatles who were just then reaching massive stardom in America.
“I said, ‘Insects would make terrible cartoon characters for kids,’” Campbell says with a laugh.
His work on the series opened up opportunities in America, where Campbell began his 50-year career as an animator and director. He ran his own studio, Ron Campbell Inc., producing and directing the award-winning series The Big Blue Marble and playing a part in cartoons that have defined three generations of children.
Campbell had a “ferocious interest” in cartoons and comic books as a boy, but says his parents thought less of his passion. Born in 1939, Campbell’s interest in animation and drawing began to develop in the ‘50s. Coincidentally, a book called Seduction of the Innocent by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had created alarm in parents. The book, published in 1954, warned of the dangers of comic books, asserting that they encouraged violence, sex and drug use among readers who were predominately children.
“My parents fit into the belief, which was fairly common in the ‘50s, that comic books were harmful to children. I was not allowed to read comic books. I felt that was a great injustice. I still feel that way. So I was drawing on my own,” he says.
Campbell feels the stigma against comic books has since changed, given the myriad of blockbuster movies based on the medium, but he says, “Now we’re having a wave of the effects of computer games. There’s always a group of people trying to protect children, and always a group trying to make money off of children.”
Campbell has spent his retirement and the latter years of his career in Anthem, Arizona, but all the while he’s kept up with the change of direction the animation world has taken. Most noticeably, he says the field has turned more toward computer animation, whereas hand-drawn animation seems to be a dying art form, sometimes literally. As more and more of his friends with whom he worked in the industry have passed, hand-drawn animation is less and less regarded.
“It’s a damn shame that no one wants to do hand-drawn animation anymore,” he says. “The human hand and mind can do things no computer can do. On the other hand, the computer can do things that no human can do. It’s apples and oranges. But for economic reasons, and probably those alone, most movies are made on a computer.”
And just because Campbell is in retirement, it doesn’t mean he necessarily takes it easy. With shows year-round, tiring though it may be, Campbell says the galleries, his manager, his wife and the thousands of people who have grown up with his work depend on him.
“What’s the point of succumbing to tiredness? I eased off a bit, but I still have to work hard,” Campbell says. “Maybe that keeps me alive. All my friends have passed, and, I tell you, that is the most miserable part. It really is.”
Ron Campbell will be in Sedona for a one-man art show April 12-14, at Lanning Gallery, 431 State Rte. 179. The hours are Friday, 4-8 p.m.; Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. www.beatlescartoonartshow.com