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NYCC 2014: Animator Tom Cook On His Career and the Era of Saturday Morning Cartoons

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Challenge of the Superfriends, Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Bravestarr. Those are just some of the cartoons worked on by animator Tom Cook, whose animation career started in at Hanna-Barbera Studios in 1979 and stretched through the heyday of Saturday morning animation and beyond. At New York Comic Con Mr. Cook hosted a panel titled “The Art of Animation and Saturday Morning Cartoons”, and a packed room was treated to quite a retrospective about his time in the industry.

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A younger Tom Cook meeting Marvel comic book legend Stan Lee, one of his major creative influences.

Mr. Cook started by talking about his background and how he got started. He began drawing when he was 9 or 10 years old after being inspired by the work of Jack Kirby on such superheroes as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Cook also cited Stan Lee, who he was fortunate enough to meet and get a picture of when he was young. Years later Cook took the photo back to Stan Lee for a signature, prompting a quip from Lee that Cook once had brown hair back then while he once had hair! Cook took a moment to reflect on Stan Lee as an active man even in his advanced age, as at events he’ll still walk from panel to panel rather than be assisted or pushed by anyone. As for animated influences Mr. Cook grew up on the output of Hanna-Barbera and was a particular fan of Top Cat, which he attributes to the fact that he and the character share the same initials. Cook used to be in the Cub Scouts and they’d have meetings the same day Top Cat cartoons were on, so he would always rush home in order to see them in time.

Later on in life Mr. Cook was a bus driver in California, and his route would take him into Hollywood and past Hanna-Barbera studios. One day he picked up a pamphlet advertising a comic book class at a local college taught by none other than the accomplished Don Rico, who Cook new from his work on comics for Daredevil (the character from Lev Gleason Publications, not Marvel’s superhero) and Captain America. Cook signed up for the class just for the chance to meet him, and upon seeing his portfolio Mr. Rico approached him after class and informed him that Hanna-Barbera, where Mr. Rico was working as a storyboard artist, was working on Challenge of the Superfriends and that the studio didn’t have many people who could draw the human figure well. So he offered to introduce Cook to a workshop conducted at Hanna-Barbera’s building, an invitation Cook naturally accepted. At that class he was placed at an animation desk with three drawings and was instructed to do inbetween drawings, which took him three weeks to get the hang of when typically the task ought to take 20 minutes for a professional. The class was informed that four people would be chosen to be to be employed by the studio, and Cook made the cut.

In his time at Hanna-Barbeera Cook worked alongside such animators as  Tex Avery, Dave Tendlar, Kenny Muse and Ben Washam and got to know William “Bill” Hanna and Joe Barbera, who he considers “really good guys” and owners of “one of the premiere studios in TV” at the time.At the time of his employment Cook was grateful to be hired but expressed worry that he didn’t know what he was doing, but he was reassured and brought on as an animation assistant paired with an experienced animator. On his very first day, Cook was privileged to witness the great Mel Blanc doing voice work for an episode of The Flintstones. Cook also wound up meeting Jack Kirby himself in his early years, as both men were involved in Ruby-Spears’ Thundarr the Barbarian while Mr. Kirby was also a designer at Hanna-Barbera. Cook would venture out to the bridge connecting Hanna-Barbera’s two office buildings just to take opportunities to talk to Kirby, and their meetings led to Kirby extending open invitations to visit his house. Cook’s single greatest regret is that he never did this because he thought Mr. Kirby was simply “being nice”, but after his death Cook found out that “he did it all the time”.

Ultimately, Cook moved on from Hanna-Barbera to Filmation as a consequence of outsourcing. At one point the labor union he belonged to wanted to double the workers’ wages and as a result, he and his coworkers spent two months not working as bargaining ensued. Ultimately the union secured a favorable two year deal, but later Cook got word that the company was setting up studios overseas and was prepared to close down its studios in the U.S. indefinitely when the time for negotiations came again. Cook preemptively landed a job at Filmation through a friend that worked there, where he would work on such cartoons as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man, She-Ra, Flash Gordon and Bravestarr, among others. In regard to Filmation, Cook shared a highly amusing anecdote about the company’s early history. When CBS approached Filmation to do The New Adventures of Superman in the 60s they wanted to tour the company’s studio, but at the time it didn’t have one. So Filmation founder Lou Scheimer simply rented a building, stationed people in it and had the network’s people tour that as though it were Filmation’s formal office building, aiding the ruse by asking them not to interrupt the animators because it was “crunch time”. The gambit was a success and an impressed CBS commissioned Filmation to do the program, after which Mr. Scheimer promptly went about hiring more people and finding the company a real office building. During Cook’s time at Filmation the company transitioned from being spread across three separate buildings into being unified under one roof, which was for the better since it was considerably harder to communicate back then than it is today. At the time this required phone calls that cost money, or messages physically sent back and forth between the different buildings.

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Filmation’s Lou Scheimer, who Tom Cook credits for keeping animation work in the United States for the duration of the studio’s existence.

Cook remembers Filmation fondly because among all of the animation studios based in the United States, “it was the only one that sent nothing overseas” thanks to an attitude on the part of Lou Scheimer that was content to make a half billion dollars instead of a billion in exchange for employing his American animators. Thanks to this business practice “for ten years, the only place to work if you were an animator was Filmation” in Cook’s view, and he believes Lou Scheimer is “right under Walt Disney” for the role he played in keeping animation in the United States for so long.  In regard to the studio’s output Cook acknowledged that Filmation “got a rep for not doing good work” because of its extensive use of reused animation in series like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but that this wasn’t about ability to draw but rather the demands of their workload. He-Man was “65 episodes a year” whereas it’d be 13 for the likes of Thundarr the Barbarian and Bravestarr, and at 12 drawings per second of footage the labor quickly adds up. This is also why there were extended scenes where people are simply talking and not moving much, if they were at all. For a final anecdote Cook also told the audience about the origin of the ACME products of Looney Tunes, which is actually a reference to the company that produced the pegs used to hold paper to animation desks to keep them in proper order. Someone decided to put the ACME name into Looney Tunes as a joke, and the rest is history.

Cook ended his panel by spending its final minutes on an overview of the process for animating the cartoons of the time, with plenty of visual aids to go with his commentary.

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First they would record voices because the animators have to know what actions and expressions they are animating to, and so that the mouth movements could be drawn to match up correctly. For the animation process itself storyboards explain what will occur in a scene, and Cook explained them by comparing them to the layout of a comic book. You can see this illustrated well in the above image of a storyboard from He-Man. The layout department would take the storyboards and render them in full size to show what the scene would entail.

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Here you see a model sheet for Batman from Challenge of the Superfriends. This was drawn by none other than Alex Toth, who “would take very difficult characters to draw and boil them down into something much easier to draw”. Every animator and assistant animator received a was given a set of model sheets to refer to in order to ensure that characters looked the same from scene to scene.

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The animators drew in blue pencil and were “responsible for where the action was going to be.” Animators would draw about every fifth or sixth drawing and have them accompanied by a chart, and the assistant animators would be responsible for taking care of the inbetween drawings. Above you see one such reference drawing for He-man, instructing an assistant animator to include three inbetweens between two other drawings. With this arrangement the animator is free to focus on movement without having to be preoccupied with the “minutiae of each individual drawing”.

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This is what’s called an exposure sheet. Dialogue is written in the second while the letters in red denote different facial expressions. To the left the director often draws in sketches of specific poses or expressions that he specifically wants to have included in a scene. Cook described the process of directing a cartoon as the same as directing actors, except “The good thing about this is, you don’t have the actors saying ‘I’d rather do it this way!’ You basically tell them ‘no, you’re doing it this way.'”

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In the above image here you see a walk cycle, which animators would study in order to keep things consistent when drawing a character in motion.

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On the left is a coloring chart for The Flintstones, used as part of traditional animation’s ink-and-paint system. With that system, drawings were xeroxed onto a cel and then the cel would be painted on the opposite side. At times the skin color of the characters would vary, and Cook explained why: “The trick was there were six cel layers, and for every layer that you went underneath the color would darken a little bit. So they had six different shades of flesh tone, so the markup person would have put in which color to paint. That’s why you’ll see some shows where all the sudden the shoulder is the wrong color, they painted the wrong level.” Such mistakes were usually left alone due to the expense of fixing them, and also because doing so would have put production well behind schedule. In the right image is a filled out coloring chart for He-Man. These days matters are greatly simplified by computers, which allow animators to scan in images, paint with precise shades of color and quickly fix mistakes or adjust the look of something on the fly.

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Backgrounds are something Mr. Cook likes best in many of the old cartoons, and in his view they were “spectacular” for He-Man. At left is a pencil sketch of Castle Greyskull, and drawings like these artists would color and fill out to create backgrounds. At right is a finished background from The Flintstones, which according to Cook got the texture of its rocks from the use of sponges.

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Here is an old photo of a camera used to shoot cels onto film. This equipment is outfitted with lights shining at a 45 degree angle, as otherwise paint on the six layers of cels would cast shadows underneath them. With the footage finished the video would be edited together and have the audio and voice tracks added to it, resulting in a finished episode.

For more from Mr. Cook, he maintains a website dedicated to his artwork and career at comiccreations.com.