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As a boy in Australia in the 1940s, Ron Campbell was awestruck by the Saturday afternoon cartoons in the local movie theatre.
Little did he realize that years later he would become a leading animator, director and producer on many of animation’s most popular cartoons, including Popeye, Scooby Doo, The Beatles Cartoon Series and the iconic Beatles’ animated movie, Yellow Submarine.
After a 50-year career, Campbell is retired but continues to paint the characters he worked on, especially the Beatles, and displays them in galleries around the world. Campbell brings his cartoon pop art to St. Petersburg’s Libertine Contemporary Fine Art Gallery through Sunday, where he will be on hand to chat about his work and impressive career.
Like most kids, Campbell loved drawing since an early age. But the animated antics of Tom and Jerry and Heckle and Jeckle were both enchanting and perplexing, as he couldn’t understand what was making them move.
He remembers asking his great grandmother what they were. She explained that they were just drawings.
“You mean, I can make drawings can come alive?,” Campbell recalled thinking. “It was magical. It was like an epiphany to me.”
He later attended the Swinburne Art Institute in Melbourne, but Campbell was largely self-taught. He’d spend his Saturday afternoons in the Melbourne library poring over animation and drawing books, learning about Walt Disney and Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
Television came to Australia in 1956. After a brief stint animating commercials for Royal Greenhouse Productions, he went into business for himself. Then the American company King Features came to Australia looking for animators, and hired Campbell. He worked on Popeye, Krazy Kat and other shows for American television.
In 1964, King Features head of film and television Al Brodax saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and got the idea to make an animated series about the Fab Four. When he called Campbell to ask him to direct the series, Campbell misunderstood.
“I said, ‘Al, insects make terrible subjects for children’s cartoons,’” Campbell remembered.
The Beatles cartoon series debuted in 1965, and was wildly successful. But the Beatles themselves weren’t involved beyond the use of their songs; the characters were voiced by actors.
The success of the series eventually led to Yellow Submarine, and Brodax once again contacted Campbell, this time to do animation. Campbell, who by this time was living in the U.S., worked on the Sea of Time sequence and the action between Chief Blue Meanie and his sidekick, Max, using the psychedelic art style that defined the era. The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Meanwhile, he was busy storyboarding for the first season of Scooby Doo and animating for George of the Jungle. He went on to work on many of the most legendary cartoons ever, including The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Smurfs and Rugrats. He even worked on the very last scene of the very last episode on the last hand-drawn cartoon series, Ed, Edd and Eddy.
Campbell’s gallery shows include paintings of many of the beloved characters from these series. The Beatles cartoon series remains one of the most popular, which people love to tell Campbell at his art shows.
“I meet all the people now who used to watch it as a kid,” Campbell said. “Believe me, they’re nuts about it. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me about the happy memories they’ve had watching it.”