Jerry Beck: Animation Maven
Animation historian Jerry Beck has written several books about cartoons, including Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide and Outlaw Animation. He was also part of the production of such compilation shows, such as Toonheads and Totally Tooned In, and DVD releases, including the Looney Tunes Golden Collections. He is also the founder and webmaster of Cartoon Research.
Toon Zone: What inspired you to become an animation historian?
Jerry Beck: Sheer frustration! There was very little written about classic cartoons (other than Disney) in the 1970s when I came of age. We had no books, no internet, no Cartoon Network, no Toonheads. So I decided to answer my own questions by digging into film history, buying film prints, and interviewing animators (when they were still alive). Luckily, I had met Leonard Maltin back then, way before he became famous—he was teaching a college course on animation history. We became fast friends and I became his research associate on the book Of Mice & Magic.
TZ: What was your very first project involving animation?
JB: I’m not sure what you mean by “project”. I started showing animation film retrospectives at New York comic book conventions in the 1970s. I wrote an article on George Pal Puppetoons for RBCC (Rocket’s Blast Comic Collector, a comics fanzine) and started a column in Mindrot (an early cartoon fanzine) both around 1976—those were my first writings on the subject. I suppose my first project involving animation was a student film I tried to make at SVA (The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan)—my lame attempt to become an animator myself. That has never been seen in public.
TZ: How do you do your research when writing a book?
JB: It depends on the subject. I usually begin by gathering all the reference material on the subject I’ve accumulated over the past thirty years. I also consult with my friends, and I make trips to the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) library. I try to find out more than I need about a film or subject. I usually end up with much more information about a subject than there is room to print.
TZ: There are currently two books of yours set to be released later this year: Pink Panther: The Ultimate Guide and Cartoon Research. Can you give us a little insight on these books?
JB: My first job in the motion picture industry was at United Artists in New York, from 1978 to 1984. At the time they were still releasing new Pink Panther cartoons to movie theaters. As a cartoon buff, I began collecting all the info on the Pink Panther and DePatie Freleng while I was there. And I held on to it all my life. When the opportunity came up to do a Pink Panther book with DK (the publishers of Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide), I jumped at the chance, knowing I had a lot of data and information that no other writer could have. I never thought I’d live to see the day “Hoot Kloot” and “The Dogfather” would rate a color double page spread in a lavishly produced coffee table book. The Animated Movie Guide was a labor of love—which means there was very little money involved. I’d been collecting info on animated features for thirty years—but ten years ago, right after The Lion King opened and the animation boom of the 1990s began, I wondered why no one had published a book on the history of animated features. There are great books documenting the cartoon shorts, TV shows, TV specials—but not one dedicated to animated features. So I began to compile it. The idea was rejected by several publishers due to the heavy amount of still photos I planned to use (one for every film—over 300 films). Chicago Review Press agreed with my vision of the project, and it was “greenlit” last year, just as I was writing the Pink Panther book.
Any book is a major project—a full time job that at times can be grueling. Two books at the same time is an impossible task. So I enlisted the help of several research associates (and friends) to help me with The Animated Movie Guide and I want them to get all the credit they deserve: Fred Patten, Martin Goodman, Andrew Leal, W. R. Miller, Sharon Burion, Dave Bastian, Daniel Goldmark, Stuart Fischer, and my wife Marea Boylan all pitched in to make the book a great reference piece. It’ll be out in October. I hope to update it in several years with new entries and expand it to include direct-to-video, international features, and made for TV titles. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve been involved with.
TZ: You’ve also been involved with many projects that involve restorations of classic cartoons. Can you describe us the process a cartoon goes through to be restored?
JB: The hard part is getting a company to commit to restoring classic cartoons. In some ways the process itself is simple. The studios won’t do it unless there is a financial incentive: DVD, TV syndication, merchandising, etc. Unfortunately, many old cartoons feature characters that have lost all commercial value in today’s kid-driven marketplace. The Fox & Crow? Mr. Magoo? Herman & Katnip? Tom Teriffic? Great characters, but unknown to most people under age 30.
Restoring old cartoons involves going back to the cartoon’s original negatives. Some of these materials are nitrate (which can deteriorate or explode). Some original materials are lost completely. The soundtrack element is also re-recorded to bring out all of the original sound. The classic cartoons we’ve been seeing for years—on TV, on video cassette—are from 16mm or 35mm prints. Going back to the negative gives us a sharper picture and the original colors.
TZ: How was your experience with the Looney Tunes DVDs? Any particular documentary or commentary you enjoyed making?
JB: George Feltenstein at Warner Home Video is a true hero to all of us who love classic movies and classic cartoons. He is the heart and soul behind all the good stuff you see coming from Warner Home Video. When George was running MGM/UA Home Video ten years ago, he enlisted me to help program The Golden Age of Looney Tunes laser disc sets. When he moved over to Warner Bros., he fought hard to get the cartoons released and to do them right. At Warner Bros. he does not have the free hand he had at MGM/UA, so problems (such as the edited cartoons accidentally placed on the Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection) have cropped up. George has kept me involved with DVDs, and I help pick the cartoons and consult on the documentaries. Some decisions are out of our hands—a group of Road Runners and Tweetys were restored (for international release) prior to our programming of the DVDs. We were required—since the restoration work was already done—to use these cartoons early on. This has made Road Runner and Tweety fans very happy,but some have questioned why we devoted whole sides to these characters.
My favorite part of these DVDs is placing odd items like “So Much For So Little” and “Philbert” on the discs as bonus material. I spent a day photographing each storyboard drawing for “The Hypo Condri-Cat” (from the Mike Glad collection) and the resulting work-in-progress piece (on volume one) turned out great. I especially loved the Bob Clampett documentary that Constantine Nasr (at New Wave Entertainment) put together for volume two, but my personal favorite thing on the Looney Tunes DVDs has been the restoration of several episodes of The Bugs Bunny Show bridging segments.
TZ: I understand that there was a six-month delay on the upcoming Pink Panther movie (from August to February). Do you have any info on this?
JB: Not really. Moving a film from the summer to February is not a good sign. However, I do know that they are refilming several scenes of the movie, and I have to assume they are really working to make the movie funnier. It’s an important franchise for the studio (first U.A., then MGM, now Sony) so I tend to believe them that they are doing this to strengthen the brand and not to dump the film. I have no idea when the Pink Panther book is coming out. It could be out in two weeks, or it could be held up till Christmas. I don’t have a printed bound copy myself (though I have a color Xerox of the pages).
TZ: I also understand you were involved with the making of some cartoon compilation TV shows such as Toonheads and (as yet unaired in the US) Totally Tooned In. Would you like to share your experience from those shows with us? And why was Totally Tooned In never picked up? It aired in lots of places outside the US.
JB: Totally Tooned In was originally made for Columbia Tri-Star’s International TV division. There was no U.S. deal ever in place. We hoped Cartoon Network would pick it up—and they did, for several of their international channels. Disney, Cartoon Network and Nick are heavily into creating new cartoons, the next Spongebob, which is more lucrative to them than showing old cartoons they have no merchandising rights to. In fact, Columbia doesn’t even have the merchandising rights to Mr. Magoo (Classic Media does) who is featured in every episode of Totally Tooned In. Columbia sold restored cartoons we created for Totally Tooned In to the short lived VOOM high definition digital service. That was its only U.S. showing.
TZ: Have you ever considered working on a new cartoon? Not a compilation show, but making an actual cartoon from scratch?
JB: Well, I started out wanting to be an animator. I was involved as a producer of The Baby Huey Show in 1994, and I was a development exec for Nickelodeon Movies. I co-wrote and co-created the short Karen & Kirby host segments that aired on Kids WB’s The Big Cartoonie Show in the 1999-2000 season (anyone remember that?). I spent much time developing a Heckle & Jeckle cartoon for MTV, but that project is dead now. I’m currently developing an original cartoon for Frederator’s Oh Yeah! Cartoons series on Nickelodeon. So yeah, I’ve more than considered working on a new cartoon. I’ve done it and will continue to do so.
TZ: Any other words on future projects, personal or not?
JB: I have a few more ideas for books I want to do. And there are so many cartoons that have yet to be put out on DVD. I hope I get a chance to work with them.
TZ: Just out of curiosity, what are your favorite cartoons, cartoonists, and cartoon characters?
JB: Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Fleischer Studios are at the top of the list. “Book Revue,” “Superman” (Fleischer’s first one), “One Froggy Evening,” “Flebus,” “King Size Canary,” “Feed The Kitty,” “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” and “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” are masterpieces. Bugs Bunny, Screwy Squirrel, Tom Terrific, Beany & Cecil, and Herman & Katnip are my top favorites.
TZ: And finally, any words for those interested on becoming animation historians?
JB: Follow your heart, your passions, and you will be able to do what you want in life. All those clichés are true. Don’t give up and keep watching cartoons—they contain all the secrets of how to survive in this crazy world.
Be sure to visit Cartoon Research for more information, reviews, and the latest updates on animation from Jerry Beck himself.