Sound in Hanna-Barbera

Creator's Statement

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.


Patrick Sullivan is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester and, currently, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.  His work explores the role of sound in network-era television.  Before pursuing his PhD, he received a Bachelor and Master of Arts in English from George Mason University.

There is an odd overlap of desire and embarrassment in the critical and affective responses of many a person of a certain age to the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera. As Patrick Sullivan aptly points out, cartoons such as The Jetsons (1962-1963) or Jonny Quest (1964-1965) are derided for their clumsy limited motion, their almost offhand efforts to sync their sound, especially their dialogue, to that jerky motion. Yet as relics of the early days of television, and (if you believe parents) of misspent Saturday mornings, a lingering fondness attaches to them—to the snappy dialogue and hackneyed sitcom plots somehow made child-friendly through the halting physicality of their characters. Sullivan’s careful and elegant analysis of the relationship of sound to image in Hanna-Barbera cartoons, parsing the difference between the presentation of dialogue, music, and offscreen action, digs into the roots of this gentle contradiction: like children, the cartoons are animate (live), but only barely so, still (and always) getting their footing in the living world. In terms of dialogue, a more fluid soundtrack, and scripts that favored snappy dialogue, if they did not completely distract from the limited animation, offset the jerkiness and kept the plot sailing along. That is, Sullivan notes (quoting Bill Hanna), the fluid movement of the plot effectively substituted for limitations in the physical movement of characters. Effectively bracketing Chuck Jones’s critique of limited animation as “illustrated radio,” Sullivan notes that in the occasional musical numbers (more frequent, say, in Josie and the Pussycats [1970-1972]) Hanna-Barbera achieved an illusion of synchronization through landing on the beat (though not always as Mickey Mousing) and effectively cutting between players. Likewise, Hanna-Barbera’s reliance on sound effects also effectively distracted from the herky-jerky motion of characters and provided more affective charge than would nuanced facial expressions or bodily reactions. The same may be said about placing prat-falls and crashes offscreen, with the ensuing mayhem registered by a reaction shot itself blurred by apparent camera motion. Sullivan covers each of these details in the video very effectively and elegantly, choosing wisely when to isolate a frame in null space with textual commentary, and when to deploy an array in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of a given technique.


Here, perhaps is a good point to note the (very few) drawbacks to this approach. The grid may quickly catalogue an effect, but it may also hide, if not a multitude, at least a few sins. In the case of the offscreen crashes, for instance, Sullivan’s grid overwhelms a point that could otherwise have come to the foreground: the offscreen disaster works because of that simulated camera shake. It isn’t an effect that Hanna-Barbera invented, but it is one that the company made good use of: it simulates action in the real world by suggesting that the very static animation stand is actually an upright camera, one jarred by the force of the offscreen crash. It also offers an example of what Thomas Lamarre (whom Sullivan mentions) has referred to as an anime-ic effect, in which what we perceive is not drawn movement, but moving drawings. And this is at the heart of Chuck Jones’s complaint about the Hanna-Barbera approach: it eschews or reverses a longstanding tradition of developing techniques to produce a rather specifically understood “illusion of life.” Yet it would be worth it to further unpack Jones’s objection on two grounds. The first is medium-specific: classical full animation was designed to mimic, or approximate, the cinematic codes of  classic Hollywood film; the limited animation of Hanna-Barbera was televisual. Freed from the tropes and codes of cinematic realism (or even the parody of it that Warner Bros. and MGM practiced), the company could concentrate on simple, cost-effective ways to foreground story and situation (as in…sitcom). The other facet to Jones’s objection is practical: Hanna-Barbera was the competition, especially for Jones’s most popular 1950s duo, the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote, who occupied the Saturday morning slot from the mid-1960s on. Hanna-Barbera’s low-cost, high turnout approach to animation production was a threat to the more expensive Warner Bros. approach. That doesn’t make Jones’s critique wrong, but it does explain his dismissive tone. And perhaps it reminds us of why many feel an admixture of shame and nostalgic affection for Hanna-Barbera today: it was animation designed for TV, designed to be not so much realistic as situational…and to accompany breakfast cereal, not the main feature. (This brings us finally, to two small caveats regarding Sullivan’s otherwise excellent analysis of sound in Hanna-Barbera. A longer sidebar might have noted that The Flintstones (1960-1966) and the original The Jetsons (1962-1963) were both initially prime-time fare, not Saturday morning or after-school fodder. Also, the use of sound effects to enhance action really belongs to what Norman Klein has called the “zip-crash” school of animation, of which Chuck Jones was one of the founding were, to a certain extent, a younger Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, in their years at MGM.) But these are rather minor quibbles. If you don’t believe me, just ask Tralfaz…

Few quotations are as central to the history of American television animation than Chuck Jones's derisive classification of Hanna-Barbera as "illustrated radio," with a cross-medium comparison effectively othering an entire studio's output. In this videographic essay, Patrick Sullivan complicates Jones's quip by asking us to truly listen to Hanna-Barbera's so-called "radio." Sullivan efficiently walks us through the range of techniques that the studio's sound design team uses to distinguish itself, build on historical precedent, yield industrial efficiencies, and most importantly entertain a generation with sounds that have lingered in memories for decades. The result is that we are left with an acknowledgement that Jones was right in his description, but overly simplistic in the implications for how animation can operate differently by privileging sound over image.
The phrase "illustrated radio" evokes another cross-media comparison that used to discuss videographic criticism: "the illustrated lecture." Christian Keathley and I use this term to mark one type of video essay, lodged firmly in an explanatory mode that fails to capture the best of each format: "At its least sophisticated, a videographic essay functions as an illustrated lecture, with a critic reading a manuscript over a series of clips, but such an approach misses both the poetic possibilities of video and the engaged dynamic of a live lecture" (12). One could certainly imagine Sullivan presenting his analysis as a lecture with clips, and perhaps adapting such an approach to a video essay. But every videographic choice that he makes here leans into the medium possibilities unique to the audiovisual format, rather than trying to recreate the effect of an academic presentation. 
By limiting his own voice to text on screen, Sullivan directs our attention to the sound design of the clips he quotes from. His visual design creates a sense of play between text and cartoon clips, evoking the whimsical mode of Hanna-Barbera's animation. The quotations from Jones and Michel Chion are used effectively, creating rhetorical continuity between his sources and his own use of language. The timing of the video is tightly controlled, making efficient use of a six-minute run time to convey a lot of ideas and examples. In short, this is a video that exemplifies a mode of audiovisual rhetoric, rather than adapting traditional academic forms into a video. I imagine this will prove to be an important pedagogical piece in animation courses, highlighting sound design and complicating traditional hierarchies between film and television, and the relative worth of some of America's most successful animators.
Work Cited:
Keathley, Christian, and Jason Mittell. The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image. Montreal: caboose books, 2016.