LJ reviewer Dan McClure recently had the opportunity to discuss two new books with their authors, both related to Saturday morning mainstays Rocky and Bullwinkle, and their creator, Jay Ward of Jay Ward Productions. Darrell Van Citters’s (above, right) book, The Art of Jay Ward Productions (Oxberry Pr.) offers a fascinating glimpse at the prolific production company behind Dudley Do-Right, Boris and Natasha, and countless other whimsical cartoon characters of the 1960s and ’70s, while Jerry Beck’s (above left) The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Insight Editions) provides an inside view of the process of creating the recently released DreamWorks Animation feature film adaptation.
LJ: Mr. Peabody & Sherman joins a growing list of Hollywood movies inspired by characters from Jay Ward Productions, such as George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. There are quite a few noteworthy personalities left; will there be more feature films based on Jay Ward creations? Who would you like to see and why?
Darrell Van Citters: If this film is successful, I’m sure there will other attempts to capitalize on the rich legacy of the Ward studio. I suspect that if there is a next film, it will be on the flagship brands of Rocky & Bullwinkle. I would like to see [one] with Super Chicken, as I think his segments were the funniest in the George of the Jungle series.
Jerry Beck: I’d love to see Super Chicken adapted. With all the Marvel and DC superhero movies today, I think it’s time to unleash Jay Ward’s response to the previous superhero craze (of the 1960s).
LJ: Much of the humor generated by these characters is based on the context of 20th-century America, such as the Cold War, mid-century advertising, even vaudeville. How well does this translate to modern audiences?
JB: Strangely enough, the Cold War is back, Mad Men is a hit, and between SNL and American Idol, vaudeville still lives! Everything old is new again—and classic characters like Mr. Peabody and Sherman do not date. I love that it is their turn in the spotlight.
DVC: The key element now, as it was then, would be wit. Previous attempts to update the Ward canon were slapstick-oriented and wholly lacking in wit. If one pays close attention to the Ward films, one will notice that they are almost entirely devoid of slapstick; physical gags involve action animation, something the Ward budgets couldn’t afford. Although this lack of a former staple of cartoon animation could be seen as a liability, the Ward writers were forced to rely on witty dialog and repartee and elevated their cartoons above the crowd.
LJ: You both have extensive experience in the animation industry and write about it. Now that your latest books have been published, what’s next for you?
JB: I teach animation history at Woodbury University in Burbank, CA; edit two blogs (Cartoon Research for history, Animation Scoop for news); and am consulting on several DVD/Blu-ray cartoon compilations at the moment.
DVC: I’ve been in the animation business for 35 years, 22 at my own shop, Renegade Animation. The benefit of that is I never know what interesting project will walk in the door next, which I think keeps the studio fresh. Currently, the studio is finishing up a reboot of Tom & Jerry for Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network.
LJ: Jerry, what was your favorite aspect of working on The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman?
JB: The best part was how warm and open the entire crew of the film and everyone at DreamWorks was toward me—and their help in getting the details in the book just right. They are justifiably proud of the film and wanted the book to be the perfect companion. The artwork itself is pretty amazing on its own terms—but everyone involved with the movie wanted to be sure it would honor the original Jay Ward blueprint. A lot of love went into the entire project—the book and the film.
LJ: And Darrell, what did you most enjoy about writing The Art of Jay Ward Productions?
DVC: Several things: One was the discovery process, searching out and finding caches of artwork from the Ward studio. Another was connecting the dots, figuring out who did what, as there were no records anywhere giving credit to individual artists. I had to rely on drawing styles, handwriting, and brief, offhand statements in decades-old interviews. Last but not least, as both the writer and publisher, I had the freedom to structure the story of these artists and their work and to lay out the book in a way that was respectful to the artists, without relying on sericels and other recreated animation art as many other historical animation art books have done.
LJ: Technology has changed animation production dramatically over the last 50 years. How do you think Jay Ward and his team would react to the new Mr. Peabody & Sherman feature?
JB: They would probably be in total shock that the characters could support a feature film! What they were doing back then was creating a TV show on a low budget and filling it with as many jokes as they could. They did not have the means to make any film as lavishly as this—nor with such a fantastic story. Tiffany Ward knew her father well—and she thinks he would have loved this movie.
DVC: As long as it was true to the spirit and wit of the original, I think they would be pleased with it. As for the quality of the animation, I think it would have exceeded their wildest dreams.
LJ: Jerry, of the many artists you interacted with in the research for your book, did you develop any special bond or appreciation? It must have been a difficult task deciding which artwork to include, given the volume of production and process work available.
JB: Everyone on the crew was extremely helpful to me on the book—I suppose the biggest shout-out would go to production designer David James. He got more of my phone calls than anyone—and he kept tabs of the particularly good pieces of art right from the beginning. That made our job much easier in the end. I also think this is the first of any of these “Art of” books that had a special cover created for it (usually they use a nice piece of production art). The cover piece was created by artist Tim Lamb, even before we began the book. That’s how enthused the crew was.
LJ: Darrell, all the time spent with archival material from Jay Ward Productions and its constituents must have been amazing. Do you have any special moments during the process you can share with us?
DVC: There were several. First, at the very beginning of the process, when I walked into the Ward archives filled with only 8½ x 11-inch file cabinets. I was sure the project was now exponentially more difficult as animation art is done on 10½ x 12½-inch paper—which doesn’t fit into conventional file cabinets. However, when I finally began a deep dive into the files, I discovered that there was an unexpected treasure trove of material as the animation drawings had been folded in half in order to fit into the file folders. I found dozens of character designs and storyboards in those files, and in a much larger file cabinet in another part of the office I found a few color pieces. Later on, Ward artwork would just walk into my office. One surviving Ward artist who knew I was working on the book showed up at the 11th hour with about three dozen backgrounds, some going back to 1961, that he had just discovered in a flat file at home. I started the book with just a concept and no artwork at all and by the time I was done I had about 5,000 scans.
LJ: What advice would you give to college students studying animation today? What does it take to succeed in the field?
JB: Be passionate about your ideas and your work. You’ll succeed in animation if you love it and care about it far and away from your other interests. Those who have made it feel that strongly about animation.
DVC: I would tell them what I always tell them: learn the fundamentals of art. With those, you can do anything in the business; without them, you’re at the mercy of the software or the rigging. Any studio will hire a good artist, even if they’re only trained in conventional media; however, there are a lot of people trained mostly in the software who don’t know what to say with it or how to say it.
As for succeeding in the business, it takes talent but even beyond that, it takes a strong constitution and perseverance. Animation has always been an erratic business, usually working from picture to picture, and if one can’t handle the unknown of where your next job is coming from, this wouldn’t be the best career choice. There will be down times, so you better love what you do and be willing and able to weather those periods. That being said, I wouldn’t want any other job.
Dan McClure is the Director of Library Services at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR