“Working on Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings was my Woodstock,” explains Gene Hamm, an animator now living in San Francisco who cut his teeth on the ambitious 1978 animation of JRR Tolkien’s classic novel.
“Everybody working on the production was just totally nuts. I’m amazed we got anything done because we’d have entire conversations just talking like cartoon characters.”
Gene and I are having a transatlantic video call. It’s been a grey and rainy day in the UK but speaking with Gene, who is based in San Francisco, is like sunbathing in the Californian sunshine: he radiates warmth with his sunny disposition, fun anecdotes and easy-going demeanour.
During his 40-year career Gene has worked on a variety of beloved American animations, including Hanna-Barbera’s ‘The Smurfs’ and ‘Super Friends’, and ‘Gumby Adventures’ about the eponymous green clay character.
His diverse portfolio includes providing animation for the ‘Living Books’ series, authoring a book (‘How To Get A Job In Animation and Keep It’) and working on the music video for Michael Bolton’s ‘Everybody’s Crazy’.
Travelling to Tinseltown
Gene attempted to break into Hollywood on three occasions.
The first was a bust: he made the journey at 17 in 1968 during his Christmas vacation but all the studios had shut up shop for the holiday season. The second was in 1971 with a dear friend of his, Dallas McKennon, whose voice work included Gumby as well as the primary voice of Buzz Buzzard in the ‘Woody Woodpecker’ cartoons.
“Dallas had a job lined up at Disney and needed someone to keep him awake driving on the highway from Oregon to Los Angeles. It took about a day to get there and all the way he was giving me voice lessons on how to do cartoon voices.”
Gene was in Hollywood for around a month. During that time he met Laverne Harding, one of the earliest female animators. Harding suggested he joined a union, which Gene duly did.
It was his third trip to Hollywood that culminated in working for Hanna-Barbera and Ralph Bakshi. Gene is a great storyteller who clearly loves his craft and remembering how he landed the gig on Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings gives him the opportunity to spin another interesting yarn.
“There used to be a magazine called ‘American Cinematographer’. On the back of the magazine, while I was still up in Oregon, there was an advertisement explaining how this studio was looking for animators down in Hollywood for The Lord of the Rings. I thought ‘Well, by the time I get there that there won’t be anything’ but I gave them a call just for the heck of it.
“I rung personnel, asked if they were hiring and was told no. I called my union and told them what had happened. They were astonished, saying ‘they’re hiring everybody who can breathe!’ and told me my mistake had been to call personnel.”
His own Woodstock
Gene landed the gig after speaking with Jackie Roettcher, a studio production supervisor for Saul Zaentz. Though uncredited, it is obvious that working with Bakshi was one of the highlights of Gene’s career.
“I missed Woodstock so working on Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings was my Woodstock. I was like the weird kid in my town, as I cared about animation when nobody cared about animation, but it was like all the weird kids from all around the country worked there and we found our tribe. It was really cool.
“I worked in the ‘white out’ department. The whole film was shot live-action and then every other frame, they would do a print on an 8×10 photograph. I’d paint out everything in white but the orc or the hobbit or whatever you were focusing on. Sometimes I’d paint out a 57 Chevy or a cameraman or telephone pole or something.”
As a fan of Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s trilogy, there was one scene that Gene particularly remembered from Bakshi’s adaptation that struck a chord with me.
“Every once in a while Ralph would bring us into the office to show us finished scenes to get us excited about doing some more stuff. There’s this scene after Boromir dies. He’s given like a Viking funeral and his body is put in a canoe and set fire to.
“We were watching the animation and then suddenly it cuts to black and white and it’s two guys pulling the canoe across the stage on a skateboard!”
Remembering Tex Avery
Another significant life event for Gene was his short friendship with American animator and director, Tex Avery.
“To animators, Tex Avery was like God, but he wasn’t God to himself. I didn’t appreciate him as much as I would have if I’d known a hell of a lot more then, but I was just young and stupid. He would show me a drawing and then scrunch it up, throw it in the waste basket. I didn’t realise it but he was dying of cancer at the time.
“Visiting him in hospital later there was a whole corner of his room filled with hand drawn ‘get well’ cards from animators. There was one card based on Tex’s famous ‘I’ve been sick’ joke of a crocodile with an itty bitty body but big head. The card was of Droopy, one of Tex’s most famous creations, saying ‘I’ve been sick’. It gives me a lump in my throat just thinking about that card.”
Thanking Dallas McKennon
As our conversation draws to a close – with Gene needing to grab some lunch before hosting an Airbnb ‘How to Caricature’ class and me needing to have some dinner – we loop back around to Dallas McKennon, a man fondly remembered by Gene.
“Dallas was like my mentor. He moved to my small town in Oregon and we became friends when I was around 12 after he saw some of my comedy performances and comics. He was the one who took me to Hollywood, introduced me to Laverne Harding and got me a job on ‘Gumby Adventures’. I think I would still be in seaside Oregon if it wasn’t for him.”
- Gene now balances his time between teaching special needs adults animation and working on his own projects
- His animated adaption of his graphic novel ‘Hell Toupee’, about the world’s first genetically engineered living toupee, won Best Animation at the Hell’s Kitchen NYC Festival 2020
- In 2018, his animation class won Best Animation at the Hell’s Kitchen NYC Festival for their collection of shorts, ‘The Good Animators’