Animation History Lesson
February 21, 2018

Animation History Lesson

Animation is a complex endeavor. For many outside the industry, they enjoy the end result but have little understanding of what it takes to produce such memorable and engaging productions. One person is hoping to change that with an inside look.

Darrell Van Citters is creative director of Renegade Animation, which is currently celebrating its 25th year. Renegade has produced animation for features, commercials and numerous television series, including Cartoon Network’s The Tom and Jerry Show. Van Citters is also the author of two books. His first, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special, is a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the 1962 classic. The Art of Jay Ward Productions chronicles the art and artists of the animation studio behind such popular cartoons as Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-right and Fractured Fairy Tales.

Here, Van Citters talks about the inspiration behind his books and the impact their subjects made on his own career as an artist. 

How did you come to write a book about Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol?

I've always been interested in that special and wanted to know more about it. There had been books written on other animated Christmas specials – A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph – but not one on Magoo, which was the first. I kept hoping for a book on it but none ever showed up so, I thought, I guess I’m going to have to do it. I began by searching through the credits, and my father, who had been researching a lot of family history, helped me find people associated with the show through public records. I started interviewing them. Before long, I found the widow of the producer, crazily enough, through Amazon; her son had written a review of the DVD of the show and I contacted him through that. He told me that his mom was alive and living in Burbank, right around the corner from me. He said, ‘She’s got a great memory and could tell you a lot about the making of the show.’ Once I talked with her, I knew there was a story there and I had to do something about it. 

How was the book published?

I had an agent who shopped it around to publishers, but they weren’t really interested. She cautioned me against self-publishing, but I felt strongly about the material and thought it had to get out. No one else was going to publish it, so I decided to take the risk and do it anyway.

Did it sell?

The first edition sold out after 1500 copies, so I did another print run of 1000 copies, and that sold out. Then, for the 50th anniversary of the show, I got some angel funding and produced a deluxe edition of 250. That sold out too. 

How did that lead you to write a book on Jay Ward?

There was a lot of overlap of artists between Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which was produced by UPA, and Jay Ward Productions. While doing the research for Magoo, I interviewed an artist who offhandedly mentioned some of the artists who defined the Jay Ward style. I didn’t think much of it at the time but later, after she passed away, her daughter asked for my help going through boxes of artwork in her garage and that’s when I discovered the Jay Ward artwork. As I was going through the art I noticed the it was far more sophisticated than I had ever given it credit for and that gave me the idea for the book. It was a compelling story that needed to be told. 

How did you research that book?

The initial process was similar to the Magoo book although when I started that book, I at least had a half dozen pieces of art. When I started the Jay Ward book, I had no art and little expectation of finding any because the early Jay Ward shows were produced in Mexico and little of it made it back to the States. But, it’s funny, when you start looking, you’d be amazed at what turns up. To kick off the project, I went to the office of Jay Ward's daughter in Costa Mesa to go through her father’s files. She took me to a room that was full of letter-sized file cabinets. My heart sank. ‘Undersized file cabinets? There's not gonna be artwork in those. They aren’t big enough.’ But when I opened them, I found they were full of original artwork…all folded in half. 

After that, the project blossomed. I had people coming to me with artwork nobody knew existed. I found artists who had been forgotten; never been interviewed. Before I was done, I had thousands of pieces of art. That was fortunate since the book was called The Art of Jay Ward Productions.

Did you market that book the same way as Magoo?

No, this time I didn’t go through a national distributor. I did it independently and I sold it online.

Were you successful? 

That book sold out too.

Both books have attracted passionate response from fans. Why do people feel such a strong connection with these subjects?

People grew up with Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and the cartoons of Jay Ward. They were a key part of childhood for my generation. The attachment to the Magoo Christmas special is very strong, and it’s not that the animation was that great, it was the songs. For a musical, it’s a classic case of how to use songs to advance a story. They did a great job. As for Jay Ward, the animation was also not very well done, but that’s not the point. It was how funny it was, despite the poor execution. 

When did you become a fan of Jay Ward?

I grew up watching it and loved it. What drew me to his stuff was not only the humor, it was the easily accessible style of drawing. Disney drawing is more grounded in classical training and appears more sophisticated but the Jay Ward stuff, superficially, looks like anybody could draw it. There's a sophistication that's hidden to most eyes due to the poor execution onscreen. It was cartoony and goofy looking which drew you in.  

Part of the reason I did the book was for kids. I hope that kids will see these drawings and think, ‘That looks like fun. I want to try that.’ It would be great if I could inspire one kid to become a cartoonist. 

What’s Jay Ward’s impact on cartoons of today?

It’s probably nonexistent, but at the time it was huge. Jay’s artists took a left turn toward a cartoon design style that was completely different from anything else at the time. For about five years there, everybody was doing something in that vein. It was a golden age for that drawing style. Then it disappeared, at least in TV animation. Its downfall was Johnny Quest, which introduced a comic-book style. After that came stuff like Scooby Doo where the drawing style become more earthbound. It was nowhere near as fantastical or whimsical.

What do you miss most about the Jay Ward style?

It was funny to look at. I don’t think there’s nearly enough ‘funny drawing’ in animation today.

Is that something you’re trying to recapture through your work?

Yes. I’m interested in doing things that are fun to look at and that make people laugh. At the end of the day, we all need something to laugh about.