Some people make the best of a bad situation when they are fired, while others seem to disappear without a trace. And then there's Joseph Barbera. After losing his job 27 years ago, Barbera changed the course of animation history.
For 20 years, he and partner William Hanna created and produced "Tom and Jerry," the popular cat-and-mouse theatrical cartoon series distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. The cartoons won seven Oscars for the partners before MGM abruptly terminated the series in 1957.
"One minute you're on top of the world with Oscars and everything, and all of a sudden you're out of work," Barbera recalled. "I had two kids playing Little League ball, and they're running around happy and laughing, and I'm sitting there looking at them and saying, 'You poor dumb kids, you're gonna be starving next week.' "
But the Barbera kids never did starve. Instead, a few months after Hanna and Barbera were bounced from MGM, the two men invented "limited animation," the low-cost cartoon process that revolutionized Saturday morning television and continues to change the animation industry today.
At MGM, Hanna and Barbera had done full-scale animation in the style pioneered by Walt Disney, a process that involved many thousands of drawings for the detail required of each five-minute cartoon. "It was one of the things we all picked up from Walt, who loved all that beautiful animating of flowers and leaves and things like that," Barbera said. He and Hanna turned out five or six of the cartoons a year, on budgets usually ranging from $45,000 to $65,000 for each production.
But, once the two men were out of MGM, the best offer they could get was a contract to do a five-minute cartoon for $2,700. To accomplish that, the partners invented the first limited animation cartoon using 800 or 900 drawings, instead of the usual 26,000, Barbera recalled.
Whereas full animation is an art form involving more expense than the creation of a live-action movie, limited animation is effective with children and much cheaper to produce.
Admitting that the difference between the two is like "the difference between making Rolls-Royces and Ford Tempos," Barbera said, "It's purely a matter of money, and you either stay in the business or you don't."
Today, Hollywood-based Hanna-Barbera Productions, the company launched by the partners a few months after their firing at MGM, bills itself as "the largest producer of animated entertainment in the world." With more than 250 TV series produced so far, it is the home of such popular characters as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and the Flintstones.
The company was founded on a $4,000 investment and sold 10 years later, in 1967, to Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting Co. for $12.5 million under an arrangement that provides for Hanna and Barbera to continue operating the company. Barbera remains president.
To outsiders, the job of a Saturday morning cartoon mogul may seem like easy work, but it's really a business of battles all day long, according to Barbera.
Those battles have left remarkably few scars, however. At 74, Barbera appears much younger, and he continues to be the leading creative mind at Hanna-Barbera, where he has been responsible for most of the company's cartoon characters. Partner William Hanna, also 74, is executive vice president of the firm and handles the production end.
"I'm still involved with plotting or kicking off ideas, which is the part I like," Barbera said. "But I'm trying to get out of doing all the work . . . getting involved so much in every story."
Although Hanna-Barbera still dominates Saturday morning network TV programming, it has faced unusually tough competition lately. For example, DIC Enterprises, the U.S. subsidiary of a French firm, has sold seven network TV series since the company opened in Studio City in 1982. And in the non-network TV industry, Filmation's "He Man and the Masters of the Universe" has replaced reruns of Hanna-Barbera's "Scooby Doo" as the No. 1 children's show in syndication.
Barbera claims that, even at the networks, his company has no sales advantage over the newcomers despite Hanna-Barbera's tradition of longevity and dominance. ("Scooby Doo," on ABC, is now in its 15th year, making it the longest-running network series of its kind, and "The Smurfs," on NBC, is now in its fourth season.)
Nonetheless, Barbera said, "every year, all studios, new and old, start from scratch (in their relationship with network officials)." Then, "every two years there's a change of faces at the networks so all that pleading and begging and kneeling and kissing rings is gone, and you've got to start all over again because here's a new face," he said.