By Cassidy Ward
Salt Lake Comic Con 2014 had over 200 special guests; it was truly an event to remember. Among them was Tom Cook, a veteran animator with over 35 years of experience working for well known names in cartooning like Funimation and Hanna-Barbera, among others. On Friday, September 5, Cook was kind enough to give us an hour of his time to talk about his experience in animation and what it takes to make the cartoons we all know and love.
His story isn’t at all what you’d expect; most artists go through a lifetime of practice and training with an eye toward their goal, constantly pushing to get an opportunity to show the world what they’re made of. Cook’s story begins on a bus. I don’t mean to misrepresent the circumstances – Cook had some experience drawing as a hobby but becoming an animator or professional artist wasn’t really on his agenda. Just a few short weeks before his career began in earnest, he was still a bus driver in Los Angeles. He decided to take a comicbook art class, more or less as something to do. That class was taught by Don Rico. Rico was an early pioneer in the comicbook medium, working for companies like Marvel (you may have heard of them).
During the course of the class, Cook brought in a portfolio of work for Rico to look over. At this point, Cook was recommended for a three-week animation class taught by Hanna-Barbera, where Rico was then employed. The class consisted of 40 individuals and taught the basics of animation and, at the end of three weeks, four people – including Tom Cook – were selected for an assistant animator position.
Cook, in a pragmatic fashion, didn’t want to risk a good job as an L.A. bus driver on an animation pipe dream and felt a bit like he wasn’t qualified for the job, so he figured out a way to take a leave of absence from driving so that he would have a safety net in the event that this new opportunity didn’t pan out. He never had to go back.
In early conversations, Cook was told that everyone they hired could draw Fred Flintstone, but they were looking for talent to work on other things. Ironically, his first drawings were of that very character. He started by drawing “in-betweens” – essentially, movement frames that allow for a smoother transition of a character from one position to another. This consists of taking two drawings of a character in different locations or points of motion and literally drawing what they would be doing directly between those two positions.
Thus began the career of a man who would work on some of the most well-known titles of that generation. “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “Heathcliff,” “Blackstar,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” “The Jetsons,” The Flintstones,” “Scooby Doo,” “Thundarr the Barbarian,” “The Smurfs,” “Godzilla” and “Extreme Ghostbusters” are just a sampling of the works he literally had his hands in.
Cook went on to talk about what he considers to be the “Golden Age of Cartooning” and the parts of its “soul” that were lost with the rise of computer animation. He was quick to point out that he doesn’t think that all computer animation is bad, noting “Toy Story” and most things Pixar as an example of computer animation done right. However, he is of the opinion that computers aren’t able to capture all of the freedom that traditional animation has to offer. Cook provided an example of an animator working on a character who was in the act of taking flight. During a single frame, the animator turned the character into the space shuttle. He said you wouldn’t have been able to see the change when viewing the cartoon, but it did allow the character to appear more streamlined and aerodynamic on screen, as well as being a fun inside joke for those working on the production.
I’m reminded of similar “Easter eggs” in Disney productions. If you go frame-by-frame during a scene of “Aladdin” toward the end of the movie when Jafar’s spells are wearing off and Rajah is returning to normal size, you’ll see that for one frame the tiger’s head is in fact Mickey Mouse colored with tiger stripes. Such things are lost when working with a computer model which doesn’t allow for quite as much manipulation.
When asked about his favorite cartoon he ever worked on, Cook was quick to offer “Thundarr the Barbarian” as the reigning champion. He cites the creative work by Jack Kirby, as well as the futuristic elements, joking that it took place in the far-off year of 1994. He also mentioned that if there was any cartoon he would have wished to work on it would have been “Pinky and the Brain.”
When asked if he thought his story could be duplicated in modern day, allowing for a proverbial rags-to-riches animation experience, he said flatly, “No.” He explained that the environment has changed, animation isn’t what it used to be, it takes more experience and knowledge of the existing tools and there is more competition. Cook blamed overseas production for the death of American animation, coupled with the greed of unions. The demand for rising pay of the animators, along with the ability for overseas markets to do the job for roughly half the cost, resulted in the elimination of home-grown cartoons. Some of that has come back, said Cook, but the landscape has never quite been the same.
Tom Cook is now retired but is a wealth of knowledge on the cartoons that accompanied many of us through childhood. I’d invite you to pick his brain next time he’s in town.