Of all the art forms that face undeserved neglect, perhaps none is as underappreciated as the humble animation background.
Which actually seems pretty ludicrous. Whether it’s a classic Saturday morning cartoon or a mega-hit Disney movie, the backgrounds are what showcase the characters we tune in to see. These painstakingly hand-painted delights create mood and set the atmosphere of the scene. What would Scooby Doo be without the gloriously gruesome castle on the hill — its trees dark, ominous and foreboding? I’m sure you’d agree, Scooby and the gang running across a plain white page just wouldn’t cut it.
Things are quite different today (unfortunately so) thanks to modern technology, computers and CGI. There are few, if any, hand-animated films anymore, with even Disney joining the Dark Side and going digital. But that’s all the more reason for us to look back in awe and appreciation of the lost art of animation backgrounds.
Recently I read an article about these incredible cartoon backdrops, and it prompted me to reiterate something I’ve long believed: Background paintings are bonafide works of fine art, and it’s only appropriate that they be recognized and celebrated as such. Their artists deserve to be named among the great masters of art history, like Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rubens. And their importance to the art world needs to be accepted for what it is: Invaluable.
If I asked you who painted the spooky airfield in Scooby Doo’s “The Spooky Space Kook”, you likely couldn’t tell me. Heck, *I* couldn’t tell you with 100% certainty either!
The identity of the creators of these background masterpieces is just not common knowledge — and it really should be. Some of the most talented artists in the world are responsible for the amazing settings that bring our most beloved cartoons to life.
Walt Peregoy was one such artist. He worked for both Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera. He is responsible for many of the splendid backgrounds you’ll find in the original 1969 Scooby Doo, Where Are You? series, including the episodes “A Night of Fright is No Delight”, “Hassle in the Castle” and “Which Witch is Which?” Walt died January 16, 2015, at 89 years old.
Just a few of the other background artists who worked with Peregoy on Scooby Doo were Ron Dias (died aged 76 on July 30, 2013), Curt Perkins (died June 11, 1996 at age 80), and Daniela Bielecka (died July 28, 1980, age 54). With so few of these background artists left in the world today, this is becoming a “dying art” in the most literal sense of the term.
Eyvind Earle is another stellar background artist who should be more well known to the mainstream public. Earle started working at Walt Disney Productions as an assistant background painter in 1951. His work on “Sleeping Beauty”, arguably Disney’s most visually ambitious animated film, is meticulous and second to none. He received the Winsor McCay award for Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Animation in 1998, and was named a Disney Legend at the D23 Expo in 2015. Both awards were well deserved.
Art Lozzi, Bob Gentle and Ed Benedict are three artists who worked on another Hanna-Barbera classic, “The Flintstones”. I have such a soft spot for classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and let me tell you, it takes talent to create an interesting rock wall, and The Flintstones boasts some of the most creative, eye-catching backgrounds of the entire Saturday morning cartoon roster. Whether it’s Fred and Wilma’s kitchen, Betty and Barney’s backyard, or the boy’s beloved bowling alley, the background art just sings, and makes you wish you could step right into the scene.
Later seasons of “The Flintstones” saw the addition of artists like Rene Garcia, shown here hand-painting some of those fabulous Bedrock backdrops.
As you well know by now, I love anything Christmas related. So I’m particularly fond of the festive backgrounds in the season 5 episode, “A Christmas Flintstone”.
Garcia, Phil Lewis, and Don Watson are credited with the backgrounds this season, and their work is so warm, charming and homey-feeling — just a bit more refined than the background work from the slightly more primitively-drawn earlier seasons.
A great artist creates an environment that the viewer wants to be a part of, and there’s no question that Flintstones backgrounds from every season deliver on that.
So how does an entire branch of art go relatively unnoticed? One that is just bursting with breathtaking talent? Aside from a few art-obsessed, die-hard fans of particular shows and movies, who out there even consciously considers that a real live person was responsible for painting — by hand — these works of art? And receiving very little credit for it.
The problem with the World of Art is that success isn’t reliant on talent. It’s about making noise, and even more so, it’s about luck. It’s about what tickles the “right” person’s fancy at the right time. It’s not even about exposure — I mean, what gets more exposure than a blockbuster Disney film? Yet, the artists behind these rich and sumptuous backgrounds are often relegated to the background themselves.
Now, some of these works/artists are revered and can be found in museums or galleries, yes. But on the whole, the life of a background artist was largely anonymous. And as a lover of art and animation, I think that’s a real shame.
The Golden Age of animation background art, in my opinion, began in the 1950’s and lasted through to the 1970’s. Out of this nearly three decade period came some of the greatest animation art of all time. The artists at Hanna-Barbera, Disney and Warner Brothers were all operating at the height of perfection. But that’s not to say that it ended there, oh, no. As I’ve showcased in this post, Disney’s background artists were on point all the way through to one of their last traditional hand-drawn films, “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009.
With the continued degradation of quality in current TV cartoons today, and Disney’s insistence that they will not return to traditional 2D animation any time soon, it is more imperative than ever to remind the world that these forgotten treasures were an integral part of our history. Not just for their artistic value, but for the unprecedented way in which they fostered imagination and wonder in generations of children and adults alike.
Art is meant to enrich the lives of those who view it; to inspire and educate, to stimulate the mind and gladden the heart. One thing’s for sure, these animation backgrounds nutured a creativity in me that led to my pursuing a career in art myself. It’s my passion in life. And how could it not be when I grew up so deeply immersed in such talent and beauty?
Animation backgrounds may be a lost art, but in them, you might just find a part of yourself.
If you somehow didn’t get enough in this post, I recommend you take a trip over to Animations Backgrounds where you’ll find more amazing digitized background restorations to browse through.