Covered in this installment:
- Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!
Nintendo’s Mario was created when technology was dramatically weaker than it is now, and every pixel on the screen mattered. His design is a bunch of creatively cut corners: When you’re animating a little man running, you have to make his hair move around… unless you hide the hair under a hat, and when you only have a few pixels to make a face, you have to draw a bunch of little details… unless you give him a mustache and sideburns and let those define and/or cover his nose, mouth and ears. There are reasons he’s wearing overalls, there are reasons those overalls have buttons, there are reasons they’re red.
The ingenuity behind the design is impressive, but the result is a squat, chubby Italian plumber, which makes it a little difficult to call the result itself impressive. Nintendo’s artists would soon make a world of cute little Boos and Shy Guys and Chomps, but whatever else they created, their recurring protagonist looks like a schlub. It’s 2018 and Mario’s look is still defined by the limits of 1980s technology. Pac-Man, designed to be a simple moving mouth, has seen one upgrade since his creation: he’s evolved from a yellow circle to a yellow globe.
Yogi Bear looks great, though.
Some Hanna-Barbera characters have high collars, some have necklaces, and Yogi Bear had a necktie. In the rush to get episodes of their shows out weekly, H-B’s animators barely animated. Yogi was often drawn in two pieces, with the necktie acting as their dividing line— when the character was standing still, talking, everything below the tie was a static image while the space above the tie was fully animated. If you’re going to crank this stuff out for broadcast, you aren’t going to have time to properly animate the other 80% of Yogi’s body.
The tie isn’t just there because character artist Ed Benedict thought it added to Yogi’s persona, it’s there so it’s harder to tell what parts of him are and are not alive. As in a political thriller where the protagonist discovers a clue to terrible conspiracy partway through the movie and then flashes back to all the scenes whose contexts have just been rocked by the revelation, you learn about one Hanna-Barbera character’s tie and then click around Google image search thinking “My God, they’ve all been wearing bow ties and scarves the entire time. It was right in front of my face from the start.”
Sometimes you will watch an old Looney Tunes short and see Porky Pig walk up to a large pile of rocks, most of which are dully colored, one of which is more brightly colored. He will, inevitably, pick up the lighter rock, because if those other rocks aren’t going to move, the overworked, underpaid person sketching all this out isn’t going to bother drawing them individually every second they’re on screen. They’re dull because they’re just drawn as part of the background. Effort only really needs to be extended to the one element that’s going to be moving. And Yogi Bear’s body is, for all intents and purposes, as much a piece of the background as a pile of rocks.
There’s also this specific way characters from that studio talk, and once you see it you can’t un-see it. As their bodies ossify into the background, their heads tilt up and down, with the animator’s hope being that this small piece of movement is enough to convince the viewer that more is happening on screen. A conversation between Top Cat and Huckleberry Hound is just two people standing perfectly still, slowly nodding at each other.
Earlier cartoons had gotten around the challenge of producing work on a tight schedule and tighter budget in less-appealing ways. Jay Ward’s Crusader Rabbit shorts relied on camera movement to force the appearance of character movement and featured an unseen narrator to do all the talking and minimize face animation. Clutch Cargo filmed actors reading their lines and, terrifyingly, superimposed their lips onto frozen cartoon faces. Creative stabs at streamlining the animation process exist everywhere— just think of how many times you’ve watched a cartoon starring a character with a beard so big you can’t see his mouth— but rarely come from a machine as prolific as Hanna-Barbera.
In 1998, I was watching the Pokémon TV show when my dad walked into the room, looked at the TV and said “They didn’t put any effort into this cartoon.” He would later take me to see The Pokémon Movie in theaters, which I now see as a noble sacrifice of an afternoon on his part. Dad was willing to indulge his kids’ taste in two-frame walking loop cartoons, but he would still, repeatedly go on to express his bafflement at how bad Pokémon looked, with its mouths blinking from fully open to shut and even the smoothest piece of movement looking jagged.
He would have been surprised, then, to watch old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. As kids, we think they look great, but if you watch them past the age of twelve, you realize it’s all looping backgrounds and brief flourishes of the tiniest articulation. Whether you know why Wally Gator has a shirtless collar, you start to realize how stiff he is.
We remember these cartoons as they felt, not as they are. It was better in my day because I remember the animation being better. The mid-century modern aesthetic applied to Yogi and his national park are gorgeous, though. The background paintings Yogi and Boo-Boo walk through look like travel posters from the early 60s, distracting us into thinking that if the art is good, the animation is as well. I came up in a world of Marios and Pac-Men, characters whose utilitarian design was fine for a moment and then awkward after they outgrew their original constraints. Characters like Yogi Bear looked good then and, when the money became available, were easily translated into better worlds.
This is the case with Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!, the first feature film Hanna-Barbera produced. Unlike many movies I’ll talk about in this column, Hey There screened in theaters, where stiff, minimal animation was going to be more noticeable than it had been on small black and white TVs. Given room, the animators at Hanna-Barbera stretched (though characters still nod up and down as they talk, as if years of tight budgets had made the animators think that was just how people communicated with each other). The characters become elastic, their bodies and heads moving at the same time.
In a mix-up that leads to New York and back, love interest Cindy Bear mistakenly boards a train to St. Louis and Yogi and Boo-Boo follow to help bring her back to Jellystone. The story is loose, just an excuse to put the familiar characters in unfamiliar scenery. Fascinatingly, people in New York City are frightened of the bears, which makes sense because they’re bears, but also grants Ranger Smith courage we didn’t previously know he had— Smith has been standing down an upright grizzly.
It’s a boring movie— I truly struggle to say anything more about the plot— but it’s always beautiful watching the form of the character designs break away from their initial function. Characters finally move as you expected them to move, and now the tie is there to flap in the wind, not just sever a moving head from a stone body.
Author: Alex Rudolph
Alex is from the Bay Area and has lived in Philadelphia for three years, though he is trying to find a way to transport into the Squand commercial that always played early in the morning on Nickelodeon (with a summer place in the Crossfire ad). If you want to talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow, he will sit here and talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow all dang day. He is also the founder of the popular websites AV Club, The New York Times, Harpo Productions and Bitcoin. Follow him on Instagram.