When Ron Campbell got a call from King Features about directing a new show called "The Beatles," the young animator let slip his unfamiliarity with pop culture. He told them that "insects make terrible characters for a children's cartoon," he said in a phone interview.
Learning to animate by hand was a time-consuming process that had kept him out of the loop regarding the pop sensations. He asked around and quickly learned who they were and listened to their music. "Everybody in the world liked their music, including me," he said.
Campbell served as a director on the show from 1964 to 1965. It was a "madcap" half-hour, with several stories per episode that were based on Beatles songs. The Fab Four followed their basic public personality, albeit exaggerated, he said. John Lennon was the leader. Paul McCartney was the magnet for female fans. George Harrison was the mystic type. Ringo Starr was the comic relief. That last one, he said, was the real exaggeration. While they made him a fool in the cartoon, he wasn't in real life.
By 1968, Campbell and his wife and young daughter had moved from their native Australia to California, the center of the animation world.
He was working at Hanna-Barbera when he received another call. The team producing the Beatles' feature-length animated film, "Yellow Submarine" needed help with character animation.
He and his colleague Duane Crowther spent eight months animating about 12 minutes of the film. They included "The Sea of Time" scene and the leader of the Blue Meanies, the Beatles' adversaries; and the "Nowhere Man."
The time-consuming work of animating by hand was broken down: the animator does key drawings. Sometimes, without finishing them, they can be sent to an assistant or an "inbetweener," the folks who do the cells "between."
"It wasn't dreary in the slightest," he said. Their pencil drawings were shipped to England, where they were inked, painted, filmed and so on.
Campbell is fond of saying that he can sit at a table with people of all ages, and chances are they've watched a show he worked on at one point in their lives. After all, he worked in animation for 50 years.
A short list includes "The Rugrats," "The Smurfs," "The Jetsons," "The Flintstones," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Scooby Doo," "Winnie the Pooh," "Darkwing Duck" and more.
A personal highlight for him was producing "The Big Blue Marble," a 1970s children's program that won a Peabody Award and an Emmy. The show paired children across the world as pen pals and explored their distinct cultures and corners of the world.
Since retiring, Campbell, now 77, has been traveling the country for art shows, typically three days.
He shares paintings based on films and cartoons he's been involved with over the years. He'll bring 50 or so to Missoula's L.A. Design, many related to the Beatles cartoons.
As with all his stops, he'll be there all three days, visiting with fans and making paintings, with bright colors and cheerful moods. (He also does little drawings for small children for free.)
One of the most surprising things about this phase of his career is meeting fans.
During his career on television, the audiences was dispersed and somewhat abstract — viewership numbers and not people, although he of course met people who had seen his work.
"People come up and say, I was living on a farm in Iowa and I'm actually meeting the people who were children, watching the shows," he said. He's amazed at "what affection they express for the pleasure, the happy memories they have of watching the shows."
He's careful to note that he's not responsible for everything you see on screen during those shows.
"I'm constantly trying to explain, films are made by many, many people, some far more talented than I ever was," he said.
It calls for "writers, directors, producers, animators, assistants, inkers, painters, cameramen, technicians, sound people, musicians," he added. "All these people go toward making a cartoon film."