He spent 50 years animating some the most iconic characters of the 20th century, from the Beatles to Scooby-Doo, and yet Ron Campbell still holds the same childlike fascination for animation he had growing up in Australia.
“For some reason, cartoons to a child are enormously interesting,” Campbell says. “It’s hard to quite figure out why, but they are. In fact, the joy people get looking at cartoons is a bit of a mystery to me. But anyway, people love them, and I did too. I fell in love with them.”
This month, Campbell travels to Sonoma County for a pop-up “Beatles Cartoon Art Show,” in which he shows classic work from his career in cartoons, including the Beatles’ 1960s Saturday morning series. Campbell appears at the Area Arts Gallery in Santa Rosa Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 16–18, to paint many of the famous figures he’s worked on and meet with visitors. Works of his original art will also be on sale.
Born in 1939 in Seymore, a small town in the Australian state of Victoria, Campbell remembers cartoons accompanying cowboy serials like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy at the local movie theater.
As a child, Campbell says that he initially thought of Tom & Jerry cartoons as a real cat and mouse chasing each other onscreen. “I remember my great-grandmother telling me, ‘Ronny, they’re just drawings,'” he says. “And I remember the moment. It was like a childish epiphany: You mean I can do drawings that can live? I became obsessed with the idea, really.”
Campbell never stopped drawing. He was educated at the Swinburne Art Institute in Melbourne, just as television came to Australia. Suddenly, there was a demand for animation in the country, for television and other commercial work. “I was right on the first wave of the first generation of animation there,” Campbell says.
After school, Campbell moved to Sydney, where he persisted in convincing the one animation studio in the city to hire him. Once he got in the door, Campbell went to work hand-drawing local projects before an American company hired his studio to work on cartoons like Beetle Bailey and Krazy Kat.
One night in 1964, Campbell got a telephone call from King Features in New York, who had sold a new Saturday morning television show based on the Beatles. They wanted him to direct the episodes. Campbell, who says he was only peripherally aware of the band at the time, asked if another insect-based cartoon was really a good idea. “Of course, he straightened me out,” Campbell laughs.
The Beatles animated series ran from 1965 to 1969, with episodes that featured Beatles songs and storylines that set the lovable lads on adventures that included Transylvanian detours, African safaris and Roman Colosseum rehearsals. The series was No. 1 in the ratings for its entire run.
That’s when Hollywood came calling. “I think because of
the tremendous success of
The Beatles that people might have mistakenly thought some of the success had to do with me,” Campbell jokes.
In 1968, Campbell was tapped to provide character animation for the film Yellow Submarine, again inspired by the Beatles. Campbell drew the pencils on much of the sequences involving the Blue Meanies and the Nowhere Man, based on the designs of psychedelic graphic designer and art director Heinz Edelmann.
When talking about his career, Campbell deflects praise by acknowledging creative talents around him, like William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, whom he worked for through the 1970s and ’80s, animating on shows like
The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs.
Bit Campbell’s humble nature can’t detract from the sheer volume of his work, including animating for the Emmy- and Peabody Award–winning PBS series Big Blue Marble, which ran from 1974 to 1983.
After retiring last decade, Campbell says he borrowed a page from Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, who took the show on the road after his retirement and sold original paintings of his most famous characters.
That’s what Campbell will be doing when he appears in Sonoma County this month. After 50 years behind the drawing board, he says the last few years of touring the country with his pop-up show have given him the chance to meet generations of fans whose lives he touched with his work.
“I finally get to meet the people who saw and enjoyed my work,” he says. “Those characters still mean so much to them, and it brings me back to that feeling I had as a kid in the movie theaters.”