Animating 'Tom and Jerry' Behind the Iron Curtain

Plus: Global animation news, Hungarian classics and retro ads.

Welcome to another edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter! We hope you’ll enjoy. If you’re stopping by from Substack’s front page, thanks for checking us out — it’s an honor to be featured.

This week’s batch is a diverse one. Here’s what we’ve got:

  • One — when Tom and Jerry was outsourced to a Soviet satellite state.

  • Two — animation stories from across the globe.

  • Three — a treasure trove of restored Hungarian cartoons.

  • Four — this week’s retro ad.

  • Five — the last word.

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With that out of the way, here we go!

1. Tom and Jerry and a Cold War secret

When you think of American cartoon characters, a few names quickly spring to mind. Mickey Mouse. Bugs Bunny. And, of course, Tom and Jerry. But the history of that all-American duo isn’t quite as all-American as most believe. It’s ironic. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Tom and Jerry cartoons were secretly coming from behind the Iron Curtain.

The story starts with a man named Gene Deitch. He rose through the ranks at UPA and other studios in 1950s New York — until his career hit a dead end. And then he met the slick-talking William L. Snyder in the late ‘50s. “He was 40 years old, prematurely gray, wore a striped seersucker suit, and expelled paralyzing clouds of smoke from his illegal Cuban cigars,” Deitch later wrote in his book How to Succeed in Animation.

The thing is, Snyder was also “a man who could talk anybody into anything.”

He’d arranged a deal, in the thick of the Cold War, to outsource animation to a country under Soviet influence — communist Czechoslovakia. The key was money. Snyder offered “peanuts,” but it was enough to make the cash-strapped Czechs overlook political quibbles. All Snyder needed was an American director to supervise things. Reluctantly, Deitch agreed. He went to Prague and entered a strange new world.

At the state-run studio Bratri v Triku, the animators had little love for communism, but the officials usually left them alone. Parties were frequent. “In spite of the shadow of the regime,” Deitch wrote, “they did manage to have fun.” He and the team proceeded to nab an Oscar for 1960’s Munro.

In March 1961, Boxoffice reported that Snyder had secured a new deal for Deitch. It was with MGM — to reboot Tom and Jerry.

Tom and Jerry’s famous run had ended back in 1958. By that point, the art and stories had changed a lot from the old days. Deitch wanted to continue this trajectory — but there were problems. The first was that Snyder had made a typically Snyder-style deal, giving Deitch little time and perhaps half the budget of the old cartoons. The second was that the Czechs had no idea what Tom and Jerry was.

Deitch tried to help the team understand with a few reels from overseas. He’d never been a Tom and Jerry fan himself — like many UPA alumni, he considered the series sadistic and brainless. But he got the logic of the characters and their movement in a way that the Czechs, accustomed to quiet art films, didn’t.

In the end, Deitch was “the only one present who could draw American-style cartoon characters.” He did the key animation for all of their Tom and Jerry shorts by himself.

Alongside these issues, Deitch was hampered by structural differences between Czech and American animation. Czechs didn’t use layout artists to set up their artwork. (Deitch handled this job, too.) And they didn’t use exposure sheets to organize their projects — instead, they covered their drawings with “enough numbers to look like an algebraic conundrum,” Deitch wrote.

In May 1961, a Boxoffice article reported the completion of the first new Tom and Jerry short, Switchin’ Kitten. But the series’ origin wasn’t mentioned in public. “Joe Vogel and his MGM team were … nervous about the communist Czechoslovak connection,” Deitch wrote. Names were Americanized in the credits — Štěpán Koníček became Steven Konichek, for example. The production location, always listed before, was omitted.

The team ultimately did 13 cartoons, the last hitting theaters in December 1962 — just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then a change in MGM’s management swiped Tom and Jerry away from Deitch. He once said that they “chickened out on [the] communist country issue.”

As for the cartoons themselves, they’re a bizarre, polarizing blend of American and Eastern European sensibilities. Many of them are uncomfortably, even distressingly violent — maybe because Deitch had perceived the originals that way. The sound effects are surreal. But there’s fun to be had, especially in The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit. Who knows what might have happened if they’d had more time? In Deitch’s words:

… just as we felt we were beginning to get the hang of T&J, we were not allowed to develop further, as had the original Hanna and Barbera crew. Just look at the first 12 Tom & Jerry films they did, and tell me they were hilarious classics!

2. Headlines around the world

Netflix shows off We the People

Wednesday brought an unexpected reveal — the star-studded new series We the People. Created by Chris Nee (Doc McStuffins) and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, it’s a batch of music videos that pair animation talents with major musicians. The focus is civics, but the former president noted on Twitter that “the result is a lot better than what we had in school.”

As Cartoon Brew reports, We the People boasts a “who’s who of animation directors.” Among them are Peter Ramsey, Jorge Gutierrez, Daron Nefcy and the popular indie animator Victoria “vewn” Vincent. They’re teaming up with the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, H.E.R. and Daveed Diggs. We’ll be checking out the series when it hits Netflix on July 4.

BUSINESS: The situation in Japan and China

This week gave us another chapter in one of the largest, most complex stories unfolding right now. That’s the interplay between Japanese and Chinese animation.

On Wednesday, Japan’s HuffPost published a long piece about the fall of anime exports to China. Japanese animation relies heavily on overseas sales, which made up nearly half of the industry’s income in 2019. Chinese audiences are ravenous anime consumers — and a core piece of Japan’s overseas market. But changes are coming.

As HuffPost puts it, Chinese animators have absorbed Japan’s tricks, talent and technology. It hasn’t been unusual for China even to outsource animation to Japan in recent years, offering perks to otherwise underpaid animators. Now, China has put this knowledge to work on its own version of anime — one even more tailored to national tastes. Given the size of its market, that’s huge.

Until recently, it was common sense in Japan to bank on Chinese audiences. Yet licensing deals with China have fallen year over year since 2018. Bilibili, the streaming giant at the center of China’s anime obsession, saw more viewers for domestic than Japanese anime in 2019 — a first. And China’s government has moved to stem the tide of imported anime, tossing up roadblocks like the one we reported on in April.

China has momentum in its favor, too. There were 114 new cartoons produced domestically in China during 2020, most of them based on Chinese IP, according to a new report in The Cover. That’s up from the previous year. Meanwhile, this week brought news that anime production in Japan had declined in 2020. Combined with a shrinking share of the Chinese market, that’s more than enough to worry investors.

BUSINESS: Warner Bros. Discovery moves forward

The saga of Warner and Discovery’s mega-merger continued this week. On Tuesday, a staff meeting revealed Warner Bros. Discovery as the new company’s name — with a rushed-looking tagline underneath. As we’ve written before, this deal is a complex scheme on AT&T’s part to stop the bleeding it caused to itself, thanks to its disastrous foray into media. It’s not quite a traditional merger. The Verge put it this way:

AT&T shareholders will own 71 percent of the new company, so it’s really more like WarnerMedia is being freed from AT&T and picking up Discovery along the way.

Warner owns a significant slice of the animation industry via Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, HBO Max and more. When AT&T purchased Warner back in 2018, it threw the company into disarray behind the scenes, including the cartoon divisions. We’re seeing trepidation from animation pros on Twitter about the Discovery merger — and the extra chaos it might bring. Exactly what happens next is an open question.

Best of the rest

  • News broke that American animator Phil Young, known for his work during the Disney Renaissance, passed away at 79.

  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines topped Nielsen’s streaming charts for May 3–9, with 853 million minutes viewed in the United States. The only other animated project in the top 10 was Cocomelon.

  • In Russia, Soyuzmultfilm signed with SberGames to launch mobile games based on its cartoons. The developer is a new branch of the state-owned SberBank, Russia’s largest public company.

  • Over in Britain, Aardman revealed a new stop-motion preschool series called The Very Small Creatures. It stars “five genderless, toddler-like clay creatures” and looks adorable. The show will air in November.

  • The Quirino Awards for Ibero-American Animation took place this week in Tenerife. Mexico’s A Costume for Nicholas won Best Full-Length Film, while Galicia’s Homeless Home claimed Best Short Film.

  • Co-production forum When East Meets West will showcase 26 animated projects next week. The focus is Russia, whose government is heavily involved this year.

  • Fascinating news from Ghana — the French school Gobelins is holding master classes on animation for local students and pros.

3. Treasure trove — Hungarian cartoons

Hungarian animation is one of Europe’s well-kept secrets. Like Czechoslovakia, the country spent decades under communist rule and the Soviet shadow — but it wasn’t officially in the USSR. Hungarian animators often used that leeway to go trippier and weirder than Soviet cartoons. Lately, Hungary’s government has taken to restoring this classic animation and dropping it online. If you know where to look, you’ll find gold.

For starters, check out the National Film Institute’s YouTube channel, which regularly posts Hungarian films both animated and live-action. A few cartoon highlights include The Ball with White Dots, The Kidnapping of the Sun and the Moon and an episode of the TV series Gustav. Plus, don’t miss Sisyphus and The Struggle by the late Marcell Jankovics, who passed away last weekend. All five are wordless, so no language barrier.

That’s not the only place to look, though. The Institute links more cartoons on its official site, among them unlisted YouTube videos — and films on Vimeo. The famous Hey, You! falls into the latter group, while the former includes The Year 1812, a mind-melting piece about the Napoleonic Wars. (Also on Vimeo: behind-the-scenes footage of Hungary’s first animated feature, Johnny Corncob.)

Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Hungarian Folk Tales, Jankovics’ beloved TV series that aired for more than 30 years. The show’s English dub has its own YouTube channel. If you prefer English subtitles and the original voices, Kecskemetfilm Kids has it in Hungarian — organized into playlists like this one.

4. Retro ad of the week

This week’s ad is on the rare side. It’s another from Faith and John Hubley at Storyboard Inc. — but there isn’t much information about it. What’s clear is that it’s part of their famous Maypo campaign. Late for School seems to be its title.

The Hubleys started doing Maypo ads in 1956 with I Want My Maypo. The star of that spot, Marky, reappeared in quite a few commercials, usually with guest characters like Uncle Ralph. A boy named Grover is his co-star in Late for School. Per Broadcasting, the Hubleys created Grover for a separate ad series — a Maltex Cereal campaign in 1958 that tried to repeat Marky’s success. Late for School may be a tie-in from ‘59 or ‘60.

This spot follows the classic Maypo formula. The kids don’t want to eat, and trouble ensues. It’s funny and fun. But what’s intriguing is that Late for School has essentially the same character dynamic and designs as the Hubleys’ Moonbird. It even sounds like they sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” You’re peering back into an era when a TV commercial and an Oscar-winning art film could share a cast. Watch it below:

5. Last word

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading.

One last thing. As mergers and corporate chaos buffet the animation industry, it only seems to get harder for workers to find and keep a foothold — especially this year. On Twitter, we read more and more stories from seasoned veterans who’ve gone unemployed for upward of three and six months at a time. It’s an unsettling trend that we’re watching closely.

If you work in animation and have a story of your own to share, feel free to email us (animationobsessive@substack) or leave a comment about it below. We’d love to hear from you.

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