Sound in Hanna-Barbera


Patrick Sullivan


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Accompanying text

In “Sound in Hanna-Barbera,” I illustrate the complex role sound plays in the prolific yet critically neglected animation of Hanna-Barbera Productions.  The studio inundated Saturday mornings with its wacky sound effects—sounds that have become iconic to generations of TV viewers. I began “Sound in Hanna-Barbera” during the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop that took place in June 2017.  The video essay emerges out of an interest in TV sound and a love for Hanna-Barbera’s wacky sounds.  While I have written on Hanna-Barbera’s sound effects, the video essay provides a different way to explore and convey the audiovisual relationship Hanna-Barbera produces in its cartoons.  With written research, I am left to evoke—through description, static images, and onomatopoetically rendered sound effects—the way in which Hanna-Barbera’s audiovisual economy produces movement.  But the audiovisual format of the video essay allows for a clear illustration of how particular sound-image structures are affecting the experience of movement in the cartoons.


Hanna-Barbera Productions adopted, refined, and popularized limited animation for generations of TV viewers, both children and adults alike.  Founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two veterans of animation, the studio knew the cost and time of full animation firsthand.  Like most theatrical animation of the era, Hanna and Barbera used full animation on their work at MGM, namely Tom and Jerry. When Hanna and Barbera moved to TV animation, limited, as opposed to full, animation would provide them a way to ameliorate the tension between TV’s narrow budget and animation’s laborious production process.  This cost-savings came at a price—movement.  Sacrificing movement saved time and money.  This exchange was facilitated by the reduction of the number of original drawings.  To achieve this reduction, limited animation would expand on techniques of animation already prevalent in full animation, notably, sectioning, repetition, and the sliding of cels.  Limited animation would intensify these techniques, leading to a different visual economy of movement than full animation.  While full animation often strives towards cinematic realism, limited animation forgoes any claims towards realism.  Instead, limited animation would exaggerate these techniques to the point that movement became aberrant—with stillness, sliding, and looping coming to the forefront in limited animation’s visual economy.  Anime scholar Thomas LaMarre provides a succinct summary of the modes’ differences: full animation is drawn movement, limited animation is moving drawings.  Economically motivated, Hanna-Barbera would embrace limited animation’s different visual economy of moving drawings.


With this attenuated visual register, Hanna-Barbera Productions would seek animation’s promise of life elsewhere, namely, through sound.  Hanna-Barbera Productions, following its limited animation progenitors, leaned heavily into sound to bring its characters and worlds to life, and this video essay hopes to make tangible the rich and fascinating sound design of Hanna-Barbera even though some have met this sonic focus of Hanna-Barbera’s limited animation with derision and neglect.  In fact, animation legend Chuck Jones, a competitor to Hanna-Barbera Productions, dubbed Hanna-Barbera’s animation (and TV animation in general) “illustrated radio.”  Yet while Hanna-Barbera Productions cartoons talk a lot, to solely focus on the character’s dialogue is to lose sight of the rich sonic worlds the studio would produce.  The studio’s theme songs lovingly live on in the aural memory of generations.  Its wacky sound effects can still be heard in animation today, and—yes—Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons talk a lot but that is what brings these characters to life.  While a handful of original TV animation and deracinated theatrical animation appeared on TV before Hanna-Barbera Productions, beginning in the late 1950s, Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons would, in the words of Jason Mittell, “…lead to an overhaul of what animation would look and sound like for years to come.”  Using sound and image, this video essay offers an illustration of Hanna-Barbera’s influential and popular sound design.


See Thomas Lamarre The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004), 69.