Saturday, September 06, 2008

R. I. P. Bill Melendez

Ah, Linus and the hallowed pumpkin patch. It's with some bitter irony that my first Halloween related post of the season is a sad one.

Last Tuesday the animation world lost another heavy hitter... this time it's longtime Warner Brothers Cartoon and classic CBS-TV Peanuts Special director Bill Melendez.

From the Boston Globe:

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Bill Melendez, the animator who gave life to Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and other "Peanuts" characters in scores of movies and TV specials, has died.

He was 91.

Mr. Melendez died Tuesday at St. John's Hospital, according to publicist Amy Goldsmith.

Mr. Melendez's nearly seven decades as a professional animator began in 1938 when he was hired by Walt Disney Studios and worked on Mickey Mouse cartoons and classic animated features such as "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia."

He went on to animate TV specials such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and was the voice of Snoopy, who never spoke but issued expressive howls, sighs, and sobs.

Mr. Melendez was born in 1916 in Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora.

He moved with his family to Arizona in 1928 and then to Los Angeles in the 1930s, attending the Chouinard Art Institute.

Mr. Melendez took part in a strike that led to the unionization of Disney artists in 1941, and later moved to Warner Bros., where he worked on Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck shorts.

In 1948, Mr. Melendez left Warner Bros., and over the next 15 years worked as a director and producer on more than 1,000 commercials and movies for United Productions of America, Playhouse Pictures, and John Sutherland Productions.

At United Productions, he helped animate "Gerald McBoing-Boing," which won the 1951 Academy Award for best cartoon short.

Mr. Melendez met "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz in 1959 while creating Ford Motor Co. TV commercials featuring Peanuts characters.

The two became friends and Mr. Melendez became the only person Schulz authorized to animate his characters.

Mr. Melendez founded his own production company in 1964, and with his partner, Lee Mendelson, went on to produce, direct, or animate some 70 "Peanuts" TV specials, four movies, and hundreds of commercials.

The first special was 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The show reportedly worried CBS because it broke so much new ground for a cartoon: It lacked a laugh track, used real children as voice actors, had a jazz score, and included a scene in which Linus recited lines from the New Testament.

The show was a ratings success, however, and has gone on to become a Christmastime perennial.

Mr. Melendez created Emmy-winning specials based on the cartoon characters Cathy and Garfield, and was involved in animated versions of the Babar the elephant books and the C.S. Lewis book "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

He also was co-nominee for an Academy Award in 1971 for the music for "A Boy Named Charlie Brown."

His productions earned some 19 Emmy nominations, including six awards.

Mr. Melendez leaves his wife, Helen; two sons, Steven and Rodrigo, a retired Navy rear admiral; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Bill could've never met Charles Schultz and still have had what many would consider a full career. After toiling on some of the best-loved works in the Disney canon he really came into his own at Warner Brothers. Bill was not merely an animator at Warners, He worked in the Bob Clampett animation unit (credited as J.C. Melendez) and produced some of the funniest cartoons ever made including Wagon Heels, Book Revue, Baby Bottleneck, Kitty Kornered, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, and The Big Snooze.

After Clampett's departure he worked for both Art Davis' and Bob McKimson's unit on a ton more cartoons featuring Warner Brothers full stable of characters. But it wasn't until after the first few Peanuts Specials aired that he got such notoriety even my mom knew his name.

So here's some vintage shots and insights to the Melendez studio production process during their Peanuts production heyday... a little ditty we'll call:

"It's Old School Animation, Charlie Brown!"

At the start of any Peanuts production the action and the dialogue were always dictated by the comic strip's creator Charles "Sparky" Schultz. Then Bill Melendez would produce a storyboard (below).

When finished, the storyboard was pinned up so the directors could make sure it all flowed properly. In the photo below Bill goes over the storyboard with co-director Phil Roman (of Film Roman Studios) in discussion on how to plot a particular scene.

Animators now followed the storyboard --with direction from Melendez-- and start to create the many pencil sketches of characters and actions. Thousand of these sketches will be prepared for the "pencil test" reel, which shows the action in it's roughest form.

Once the final storyboard was approved, the entire soundtrack would be recorded, with Lee Mendelson directing the voices up in Northern California and Bill directing in Southern California.

Many folks don't know that in addition to his talents as director, Bill also provided the voice of Snoopy. (He's actually recording Snoopy in the above left photo.) Yeah, okay... Snoopy didn't talk per se, (unless you count the off-putting caterwauling of Cam Clarke in Snoopy The Musical) but he did laugh, growl, howl, cry and go "Bleah!" a lot. Next, (above right) the animation exposure sheets (or X-sheets) were made up by Bill. In short, he transposed the dialogue from the sound track by means of these sheets and incorporated mouth and facial movements as well as actions for each character, and how many frames of film it all needed to take. These sheets were then handed off to the animators, with each character's actions and movements already spelled out.

Next, one sketch at a time would be photographed and then all the animated action was checked --in pencil-- on a Movieola (ah, look it up). Editor Roger Donley and Bill (below left) carefully check the character mouth movements and action before committing to ink and paint. Once the pencil tests were approved, the hand-inking of every pencil sketch began (below right). The inking of which required perfectly consistent lines and was a long painstaking and under-appreciated process.

The inking (and subsequent painting) was done on transparent acetate cels so that these drawings could be eventually be placed over scenic layouts which provided a background for the animated characters.
(Yes, boys and girls... it was the dark ages. No computers with flash or after effects programs around to do the hard, dirty, boring or thankless work.)

Jigsaw Pumpkin: "...When it comes to the nitty-gritty, Lucy shoves in her knife..."

(Below left) A color model sheet was used for each of the characters to help the painters maintain consistency throughout the production. After the inking was completed, the cel was tuned over and the demanding task of hand painting each of the inked acetate cels began. Usually ten to fifteen minutes was needed to complete the painting of an individual cel.

When the inking and painting for an entire scene was complete, the cels were laid one frame at a time over the corresponding backgrounds, and cameraman Nick Vasu photographed the final pictures on color 35mm movie film (above).

Meanwhile up in Northern California, the musical composers and directors (seen here with Charles Schultz - Judy Mansen, left, and Ed Bogas, right) were creating the musical score for the show.

Finally the editors would take the sound track, including dialogue, sound effects and music, and match it perfectly to the picture... And somehow, after six to nine months of this effort a television special would miraculously appear! Man, they sure don't make 'em like that any more!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Bill Melendez has left the building.
How EERILY coincidental that he would do so on the very same day that the "Remastered Deluxe Edition" DVD of "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" hits the store shelves. Pretty Halloweeny. (I haven't seen this release yet but I hope to God they've corrected all the miserable single-frame animation compression issues that have plagued the Previous Peanuts releases on DVD. ) Godspeed Bill. You will be missed.

And by the way --here's the "Great Pumpkin" DVD new box art. A new for a 1966 TV special --that's been in wide release --in various formats-- for years now... and still most Atlanta BestBuy stores are already sold out of 'em.

And if that doesn't make your head spin --consider Linus in his oh-so-sincere Pumpkin Patch, and try not to think that this Halloween will be it's 42nd(!) annual airing ...and that in the real world Linus of 1966 would be turning 50 this year.

Big Thanks for this post go out to The Bill Melendez family, and The Boston Globe.

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Blogger Robert Pope said...

Great post, pally. When do we leave town to go beat up Cam Clarke?

2:08 PM

Anonymous AleyCatz08 said...

Hey I am not to sure how to reach you so I am leaving a comment here. I was reading a post you made on another site where you said you have several "good time gang" episodes in your collection. I was actually the "good time gang reporter and did the commericals for the show. I unfortunatley do not have any of the videos now and would love them! My dad created Bubba and designed the New set, he also ran camera and directed the show. I basically grew up on the set...Anyway, If you could possibly contact me to let me have a copy that would be incrediable! I am in the metro Atlanta area. You can contact me @ or
Thank You
Aley Michiaels
(was Felicia Price when on show)

12:51 PM


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