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Cambria Productions: On the Lips of Syncro-Vox

I've had a fascination with animation history for years. I'm taking on the task of covering as much about television animation as I can.

Clutch Cargo

Clutch Cargo

Cambria Productions, founded in West Hollywood in 1958, was largely a collaboration between cartoonist Clark Haas, who had been an assistant for a few series at King Features Syndicate as well as the creator of his own series Sunnyside, and cameraman Edwin Gillette, who created the Syncro-Vox animation technique.

Syncro-Vox: 1952

Syncro-Vox was developed in 1952, intended to cut down the costs of animating mouth movements, specifically on animals in TV commercials. What Syncro-Vox basically did was that the lips of a voice actor would be filmed as they read their lines, and then take the footage of their lips would be edited onto an image to visually simulate speech.

One animation shortcut Cambria used besides Syncro-Vox was real props over animation. In a scene where a pile of feathers blow away, rather than animate all the feathers individually, they filmed real feathers taken from a pillow.

One animation shortcut Cambria used besides Syncro-Vox was real props over animation. In a scene where a pile of feathers blow away, rather than animate all the feathers individually, they filmed real feathers taken from a pillow.

The average cost of animating mouth movements onto the commercial animals prior to this had been approximately $11,000 per minute. Using his Syncro-Vox technique, Edwin Gillette dramatically decreased the cost to just $500 per minute. In 1956, Gillette would gain a patent for his invention, and in 1958, he was contacted by Clark Haas about joining a new animation studio he was starting up called Cambria Productions.

The use of Syncro-Vox was Cambria’s biggest claim to fame (or infamy), though they also used other techniques to lower costs, including shaking the camera on a static frame and splicing in live-action footage (such as of a waving flag) to simulate more movement than there was in reality.

Moon Mullins (late 1950s)

One early attempt by the studio at marketing a cartoon for television was a two-episode pilot for a series based on the long-running comic strip Moon Mullins. Affiliates were disinterested in this example and the series never went forward. But, stations latched onto one idea, which would be Cambria's most well-known production.

Certificate from the official Clutch Cargo Adventure Club

Certificate from the official Clutch Cargo Adventure Club

Clutch Cargo (1959–60)

The first series produced by Cambria starred Clutch Cargo (voiced by TV and radio announcer Richard Cotting), a tough adventurer with handsome looks who’s regularly sent off on dangerous missions across the globe. Clutch typically flew around in an airplane, inspired by creator Clark Haas's time as an early jet pilot. With him are his loyal red-headed sidekick Spinner (voiced by Margaret Kerry, the real-life model for Tinker Bell in Disney’s Peter Pan) and their dog Paddlefoot (voiced by actor Hal Smith in one of his earliest roles). Sometimes the team was also helped by their ally Swampy (also voiced by Hal Smith).

Clutch Cargo, for all intents and purposes, was the first of what modern cartoon viewers would call an “action” cartoon—excepting perhaps the NBC Tele Comics series years earlier. While serialized cartoons on TV weren’t a new thing (going as far back as the first TV cartoon, Crusader Rabbit), unlike those series which were comedic at heart, Clutch Cargo drew more directly from the film serials of old by actually taking itself seriously. The heroes often found themselves in real danger against villains who meant them harm. Clutch and Spinner were forced to overcome these nemeses through ingenuity and teamwork. Future action cartoons would follow in its footsteps, bringing more serious storytelling to animation.

Clutch Cargo made its debut on March 9, 1959, running in weekday syndication on local children’s shows. Each of its 52 adventures consisted of five 5-minute shorts (260 total) which ran Monday through Friday, and in some markets would be rerun all together over the weekend as a half-hour show. While even back when it premiered it was ridiculed for its animation, Clutch Cargo gained a solid following for its storytelling for those who could see past the lips.

Space Angel (1962–64)

Space Angel was Cambria’s second series, created by Dick Darley (who directed the early '50s sci-fi TV show Space Patrol) and animated by former DC Comics artist Alex Toth. Centered around the eyepatch-wearing astronaut Scott McCloud (voiced by Ned Lefebver), he would don his helmet take on the identity of the hero Space Angel when the day needed saving.

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Employed by the Earth Bureau of Investigation, he, along with the mechanic Taurus and navigator Crystal (voiced by Hal Smith and Margaret Kerry respectively), made up the Bureau’s Interplanetary Space Force operating aboard the spaceship Starduster.

One of the most frequent villains opposing the Starduster, Queen Zora, who bears a striking resemblance to Queen Nefertiti.

One of the most frequent villains opposing the Starduster, Queen Zora, who bears a striking resemblance to Queen Nefertiti.

The most frequent alien force they faced were the Anthenians, a race of space-faring aliens with a society nearly identical to that of ancient Rome, frequently launching attacks to conquer other planets and enslave the inhabitants. There was also Queen Zora; physically resembling Nefertiti, she’d constantly try to create new weapons to terrorize the galaxy, as well as directly target the Interplanetary Space Force.

Space Angel, in certain ways, may have inspired elements of later, more well-known science fiction series. For example, in the “Space Hijackers” story of Space Angel, there is a docking scene that mirrors the famous docking sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, despite Space Angel premiering a full 7 years before 2001 was released.

It has also long been rumored that Gene Rodenberry watched Space Angel, which may be true as Space Angel’s Taurus character was the Starduster’s Scottish engineer, several years before Star Trek’s debut and the creation of Scottie.

The crew of the the Starduster: Scott McCloud (front), Taurus (back left), and Crystal Mace (back right)

The crew of the the Starduster: Scott McCloud (front), Taurus (back left), and Crystal Mace (back right)

Space Angel ran for 45 stories from 1962 to 1963, totaling 225 five-minute episodes. Space Angel had even stronger writing behind it than Clutch Cargo, as well as better artwork thanks to Alex Toth’s talent.

This series also helped to bring another comic book legend into the realm of television: Atlas Comics artist Doug Wildey, who worked on Space Angel as an assistant animator. Following the end of Space Angel's production, Wildey went down the road to work at Hanna-Barbera, where he helped to create Jonny Quest.

Captain Fathom (1965)

The last in the trilogy of Syncro-Vox series was Captain Fathom, beginning in 1965 and lasting a mere 17 stories (or 85 five-minute episodes). The series focused on Bill Fathom (voiced by artist Warren Tufts), the captain of the submarine Argonaut who’d go on various adventures with his crew. Like the previous series, the designs and animation were done by Alex Toth.

This series is not too fondly remembered (or remembered at all for that matter), and for good reason. By this time, the standards of animation on television were a bit higher than they were six years earlier when Clutch Cargo premiered.

Captain Bill Fathom

Captain Bill Fathom

Audiences just couldn’t see past the unsettling lips and bare minimum animation (as Haas once said, he didn’t consider his shows “cartoons” but rather “motorized movement”), especially when there were better options from studios like Hanna-Barbera (who had no less than six shows in production in 1965) and Total Television Productions (the studio behind shows like Tennessee Tuxedo). Cambria Productions was quickly falling into irrelevancy.

However, an effort was made to save Cambria and push them into making cartoons of slightly higher quality…

The New 3 Stooges (1965-66)

The New 3 Stooges (using a “3” instead of a “Three” to avoid copyright problems with Columbia Pictures) was an attempt at bringing the Three Stooges, who had just finished their long 25-year run in theaters, to television with their own series. Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and “Curly” Joe DeRita (Shemp and the original Curly Joe had died over 10 years earlier) all participated by filming 41 new live-action segments written and directed by Moe’s son-in-law Emil Sitka, as well as produced by cartoonist Norman Maurer.

Cambria Productions, to go with the 41 live-action wraparounds, produced 156 Three Stooges cartoons. Unlike their other three series, this was not produced using Syncro-Vox, but rather using the standard limited animation techniques that Hanna-Barbera had developed and the rest of the industry had since adapted.

Most episodes had the Stooges in a new career (such as gas station attendants, pianists at a silent movie theater, grocery store workers, or cowboys) and, in typical Three Stooges fashion, would comedically mess up their jobs before ultimately being fired and chased out by their boss.

The New 3 Stooges

The New 3 Stooges

In some shorts, the characters would be put into a storybook setting and recast as the various characters (for example, an Alice in Wonderland parody had Curly Joe in the role of Alice with Moe and Larry filling in for all the other characters).

While the show was initially popular when it premiered in syndication in 1965, it quickly ran into a few issues, mostly concerning the live-action segments. The Stooges were showing their age, especially Moe (who was 68) and Larry (who was on the verge of the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death 10 years later), and could no longer be as active in slapstick routines as they had once been.

There was also the problem that there were only 41 live-action segments filmed, intended to correspond with one animated short each; Cambria ended up producing nearly four times that amount. Rather than commission new live-action wraparounds, Cambria would just cycle back, reusing already-aired segments to wraparound new shorts, causing ratings to drop after the initial 41 episodes.

41 new Three Stooges segments were filmed to be included alongside the 130 cartoons. The Stooges were noticeably aged, leading to less slapstick as they could no longer perform most of their iconic routines.

41 new Three Stooges segments were filmed to be included alongside the 130 cartoons. The Stooges were noticeably aged, leading to less slapstick as they could no longer perform most of their iconic routines.

When reflecting back on the series for the 1982 book The Three Stooges Scrapbook, Joe DeRita would recall, “This turned out to be misleading because viewers would say, 'Oh, I've seen this one before,' and they'd turn off the television. They didn't know it was a new cartoon.”

This series ultimately resulted in a lawsuit between Cambria and the Stooge actors, as Cambria was contractually required to submit a quarterly report to the Stooges’ representatives about the earnings the show generated. Over the first five years that the series was in syndication, Cambria only submitted one or two of these reports before going silent on the Stooges; this led to the actors and their representatives filing a lawsuit against Cambria.

Unfortunately, by the time the courts found the case in their favor (following an appeal after a judge who didn’t even know who the Three Stooges were ruled in favor of Cambria), it was late 1975; Moe Howard and Larry Fine both died earlier that year.

One of the last legitimate uses of Syncro-Vox was in an episode of "Courage the Cowardly Dog" that aired on Halloween in the year 2000, where a magic tree speaks with real lips.

One of the last legitimate uses of Syncro-Vox was in an episode of "Courage the Cowardly Dog" that aired on Halloween in the year 2000, where a magic tree speaks with real lips.

The Legacy of Syncro-Vox

In the end, despite their efforts to stay alive, Cambria Productions quietly closed up shop by the end of the '60s, remembered primarily as a relic of an odd time in television animation. Clutch Cargo continued to play off-and-on in syndication into the '90s, seeing airplay on networks like Comedy Central’s predecessor, The Comedy Channel.

In fact, Clutch Cargo was forever immortalized in Pulp Fiction, just before Christopher Walken's infamous watch speech. A young Butch (Bruce Willis' character) is sitting in front of the TV when a weird looking eskimo cartoon says, "Him think totem pole alive!"

Space Angel and Captain Fathom, however, have disappeared from the collective public consciousness, only seeing the light of day as dollar bin DVDs. Only The New 3 Stooges still sees airtime on occasion, airing on TV channels specializing in retro television (though most of these channels tend to opt instead for the classic, and much more well-received, Three Stooges films).

Syncro-Vox, while it fell into disuse after the '60s, was still occasionally used as an animation technique, though never for its intended purpose. In a few cases, it was used to invoke an element of horror, such as in Courage the Cowardly Dog. But in most cases, it’s used for parodic effect, like as a recurring segment on Conan O’Brien’s old Late Night show, where he'd pretend to speak with celebrities and politicians who'd only move their lips.

Both Cambria founder Clark Haas and comic book artist Alex Toth would eventually work on the same project again with Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends series during 1973.

Both Cambria founder Clark Haas and comic book artist Alex Toth would eventually work on the same project again with Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends series during 1973.

Following Captain Fathom, Edwin Gillette and Alex Toth had both left Cambria. While Gillette never worked in animation again, Toth was hired by Hanna-Barbera, and put to work creating a line of superheroes for them; These included Space Ghost, Birdman, and The Herculoids. Through Hanna-Barbera, he would also eventually return to the heroes he once worked on at DC Comics, helping to create The Super Friends.

The same became of Cambria Productions’ founder Clark Haas, who, after the closure of his studio, was taken in by Hanna-Barbera to briefly work on series like Super Friends and Speed Buggy. Haas passed away on January 18, 1978.

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Comments

Kevin Measimer on August 26, 2015:

Oh those memories of Clutch Cargo reruns in my childhood.

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