You've seen Tom Cook's work. You don't know the name, but if you've seen He-Man, The Smurfs, later Scooby-Doo or Flintstones, or a host of other Reagan-era cartoons, you've seen a panel or two by Cook, who began as an animator in 1979 at the legendary Hanna-Barbera studio in Los Angeles. Cook, 61, comes to Portland as part of Rose City Comic Con, so we called to ask what went on behind the scenes of our childhood entertainment.
WW: What are you doing now?
How did you get hired at Hanna-Barbera?
I was working as a transit bus driver in L.A. and I saw an ad in the paper for a comic-book course at a local college taught by the artist Don Rico, one of the legendary artists from the golden age of comics. He saw my work, mostly superheroes at that point, and suggested I send it to Hanna-Barbera, where he worked, which held an animation course you could take for free if someone at the studio recommended you. Don said they had a bunch of artists who could draw Fred Flintstone but needed artists who could draw realistic people for Challenge of the SuperFriends. After three weeks, they hired four of us out of the 33 who were in the class. I was amazed. I had no idea what I was doing at the time when it came to animation, but we started out as assistants and learned the ropes from there. It sure beat working as a bus driver.
What did you start out doing at Hanna-Barbera?
Strangely enough, after all of the talk about me working on human figures, the first thing they ever had me animate was actually an episode of The Flintstones. Fred was jumping up and down around Dino because he had just inherited some money. I still have my first drawing I ever did hung up in my art studio at home.
What was the environment like at Hanna-Barbera? How was it compared to a studio like Disney?
I never worked at Disney, but back then they didn't pay their animators as well as we got paid doing animation for TV. When I started at Hanna-Barbera, they had so many artists that they had to put us in a rented airplane hangar at Burbank airport [now Bob Hope Airport] that was built in the '40s. They were building a new addition to the studio at the time, that was originally going to be a warehouse, but they ended up having to turn half of it into an animation area for us.
What was the grind like?
Each of us animators had our own scenes to work on for the week. It really wasn't so bad—we worked hard and there were strict deadlines, but we still had the chance to fool around and play pranks on each other. As long as all our work was done by Friday, they didn't really care. But if you started to fall behind, they would crack down.
How much creative control did animators have?
Not all that much, really. By the time things came to me, everything was pretty much set in stone. All the things like the storyboarding, writing and voice-overs were already done when we got them. We looked at what the guy before us did, did our section and passed it to the assistant animation department.
You were a timing director on King of the Hill. What exactly does a timing director do?
A timing director makes sure the animation matches the voice-overs. I'd go through each frame and do things like mark down when the character's mouth would need to make the "O" sound and mark exactly where certain things needed to happen in the animation sequence as far as gestures and the like.
What's your favorite show that you worked on?
Thundarr the Barbarian, easily. Jack Kirby was a designer on the show and he was my personal hero, so getting to meet him and work on his designs was the best. There were a lot of shows I worked on that were more oriented toward very young children, and this was meant for teenaged kids. Thundarr felt like it had a lot more going for it, the writing just seemed so much better, and it had a bit more of a sci-fi feel than a lot of shows being made at the time.
How often could you get away with sneaking strange things into shows?
Sometimes people tried to do things they thought were really funny, but ended up getting them in a lot of trouble. Sneak something inappropriate in like the artist did in that cover scene painted for the box of The Little Mermaid VHS tape? Enjoy getting fired. There were a few things we could get away with, though. When we had to draw groups of nameless people, what they looked like didn't really matter since they were only in a few scenes, and a lot of times we'd draw ourselves into the crowd.
What do you think of today's animation industry?
There really aren't any animation studios left in the U.S.—our union back in the day ruined that. They wanted too much, and I didn't need to make $100 an hour. Now most of the animation work is in Korea, where they'll work for nothing compared to here.
What would you say to an artist who wants to break into the animation industry?
I always love giving advice to young artists who ask me to look at their portfolios, but there really isn't any work in animation anymore unless you go into storyboarding. Storyboarding is still done in the U.S., and if they get good at that, there's still jobs out there. But sadly there's really just nothing left in this country for an aspiring animator except for a few very small shops trying to stay alive.
Does it surprise you that people still remember these shows?
I used to be shocked when people would come up to me at conventions and say that He-Man or some other cartoon was their childhood. I had one guy stand up during one of my panels at a convention who said he grew up in Chile and the only thing that kept him from joining the violence around him was his desire to be like He-Man. When you hear stories like that, and it's because of something you did, it's really touching.
GO: Tom Cook will appear at Rose City Comic Con at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on Saturday (10 am-7 pm) and Sunday (10 am-5 pm), Sept. 21-22. $5-$30. rosecitycomiccon.com.