SALT LAKE CITY — There's a chance "Yellow Submarine," the Beatles' trippy, psychedelic 1968 feature cartoon, is the most famous show Ron Campbell ever worked on. But the time he spent on it doesn't represent much more than a moment in his years of work.
"It was eight months in a 50-year career," Campbell said in a recent interview ahead of his art show at Holladay's Relics Framemakers & Gallery. " … It took us eight months to do 12 minutes of the film. At the same time, I was doing other things — I was working on the fifth season of 'Scooby-Doo,' and 'George of the Jungle' and others shows, so I was a busy boy that year. … It was a memorable year."
Campbell's resume includes many of the iconic cartoons from the late '60s through the '80s, from "Scooby-Doo" and "The Smurfs" to "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones," to "Rugrats" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," to name just a few. As head of his own studio, he also created and directed the Peabody Award-winning animated show "The Blue Marble" that ran from 1974 to 1983.
Campbell's fascination with animation hit him when he was a kid living in his native Australia, even if initially he didn't realize that the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons he watched during Saturday matinées at the local movie house weren't real.
"I was really confuse because they didn’t look like they were real, you know, with their big ears and all of that, (but) I’d never seen anything like it," he said. "So when I was telling my great-grandmother about it, she said, 'Ronnie, it’s a drawing!'"
Like many children, Campbell liked to draw, but he had never considered that his work could be anything more than lines on a page.
"It hit me like an epiphany — 'I can do drawings that can come alive! … Maybe I can do that!'" he recalled thinking. It was a thought that guided him the rest of his life.
Campbell went to art school and then talked his way into animation jobs in the medium's early television days. After gaining experience working on commercials, he got a call from an American producer to work on an animated show called "The Beatles" — "and I said: 'Insects make terrible characters in cartoons,'" he recalled telling the producer. "Of course, he berated me for being so stupid."
"The Beatles" ran for three seasons, and Campbell's work on the popular kids show helped him get a job with the California-based animation studio Hanna-Barbera (where he relocated), and in 1968, he worked on "Yellow Submarine." He never went to London or met the Fab Four during or after his work on the show, but even after all of these years, Campbell does see in it something unique.
"When you watch that film, it explains to you what it felt like to be alive in 1968, in a very strange way," he said. "If you were alive and you saw that film in 1968, you’d be reminded vividly what it felt like, and if you weren’t yet born and you watch it now, you do get a sense of what it was like to be alive then."
He readily admits that the storyline for "Yellow Submarine," such as there is, is "weird," but that "the design work is out of this world — beautiful," he said.
Campbell was an instrumental part of the content that appeared on the golden years of Saturday morning cartoons that so many kids grew up with, something he has learned was "an island of relief," for many young viewers. Now that he's retired and traveling around the country for art shows, he gets to meet the people who were, for most of his career, just "numbers on a page."
"That Saturday morning experience — rushing downstairs, rushing to get to the TV to turn it on, the argument about what channel to watch and what show to watch — represented to all children a highlight of their weekly life," he said. "If you had a very unhappy childhood … or if your childhood was perfect in every way, it's aways the same: The highlight of your week was the Saturday morning cartoon."Comment on this story
The cartoons that Campbell favored then and now have a sweetness to them — shows that have with what he called a "gentle humor" and a "caring, worthwhile message." His love for these shows and his work is largely what keeps him still working years into his retirement. In spite of a stroke, his drawings are still as clear and vibrant as they were in his working years, and these days, he travels the country to art shows, meets fans and talks about the job that he enjoyed. In fact, he said, loving your job is the hallmark of the animator's working life.
"We never wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh (no), I have to go to work.' In other words, if you’re in animation, you’re there because you love it."
If you go …
What: Ron Campbell art show
When: May 23-25, 27, times vary
Where: Relics Framemakers & Gallery, 4685 S. Holladay Blvd., Holladay