Emmy-award winning director and animator Larry Leichliter spends every morning hiking with his Australian shepherds for hours, in part to take in the beauty of nature that inspires him, in part to exercise and invigorate his all-too-smart canine best friends, Ben and Olive. He has always had dogs in his life. It’s no wonder, then, that he loved the over 30 years he spent animating Charlie Brown, his anthropomorphic beagle Snoopy, and the whole Peanuts gang at Bill Melendez Studios.
Born in May of 1941 in the LA area, Larry spent his childhood, as many did, watching cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye and reading the funny papers, where he fell in love with Peanuts comic strip. A reserved and introspective kid, he resonated most with Linus in particular, appreciating his loyal friendship with Charlie Brown and his musings on life.
In school he was good in math and loved to draw, but it didn’t occur to him he could be an animator or filmmaker until he was in high school. Once he got the idea into his head, he committed to going to a college where he could study but also take art classes. He went to Berkeley and UCLA, studying math and psychology, but by far enjoyed his art classes the most.
A great influence on his work and love of animation was when he went to the Tourney of Animation at the LA Museum of Art and saw the work of German abstract animator and filmmaker Oskar Fischinger. Fischinger was creating abstract animation years before anyone else, and was a huge influence on the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor segment of Fantasia.
Here is An Optical Poem from 1937, which he created for MGM.
Another animator that inspired Larry’s career aspirations was another German animator, avant garde artist Lotte Reiniger, whose work was also represented at the Tourney. Lotte is most famous for her silhouette animation, with her 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, thought to be the oldest surviving feature-length animated film, considered her masterpiece. Once again an example of a female artist being relegated to the footnotes in history, you animation fans should get to know her and her work. Without her, there might have been no multiplane camera!
Larry got his first gig in animation at Hanna Barbara in late 1969, and was there in the early 70s, where he worked as assistant animator on cartoons like Scooby Doo, Harlem Globetrotters, and Josie and the Pussycats. He found this introduction into the world of animation exciting, because not only did he work with artists of amazing talent, but it was his first time working with people from all over the world, and from a wide diversity of cultures. He says it felt very freewheeling, and the artists there had very individual perspectives and artistic visions, refusing to be pigeonholed. He recalls them playing a game where they yelled out “FRUIT ROLL”, and would roll pieces of fruit all the way through the studio from one section to the other. He worked with some of the greatest animators in history, including Iwao Takamoto and Bob Singer.
After a stint at Hanna Barbara, he followed a lot of fellow artists to Ralph Bakshi’s studio, Ralph Bakshi Productions, and worked on some of the animator’s edgy, some would say notorious underground projects in the early 70s, learning from folks like MGM Tom and Jerry animator Irv Spence the great Looney Tunes artist Virgil Ross.
It was in 1974 that Larry found his home at Bill Melendez Studios as an assistant animator under Bernie Gruver and Al Pabian. The first cartoon he worked on there in 1974, was Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, which debuted on CBS on January 28th, 1975.
Here’s a cute scene that captures his two favorite characters to animate, Linus and Snoopy:
It was feast or famine at Bill Melendez, as was often the case at animation studios, and Larry got laid off, so being a lover of nature, he took a cross-country bike trip, touring America and stopping to visit family and friends at various points across the US. When he was done after three months, the studio was ready for him again, and back he went with his old pal Al Pabian, to work on It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, again as assistant animator, which means he cleaned up key drawings, did the in-between drawings, and whatever else was needed. It was with 1977’s Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown that he first got animator credit, which means he had to animate a certain number of feet of film in order to qualify.
There’s a delightful scene that captures the ‘wave’ of feminism happening in the late 70s, as well as the mellow confidence we know and love from Snoopy and Woodstock.
At the same time, it was at Bill Melendez Studios where Larry was able to take advantage of an offer through the Local 839 Animation Guild union, and go to art school, since the union would pay a percentage of the tuition. He went back and forth for some years animating some and assisting on other projects, with Larry’s absolute favorite Peanuts special What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown and our special anniversary cartoon It’s Magic, Charlie Brown being examples of the latter.
Larry explains why he has such a soft spot for What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown, “The reason is, at the time we were making that show, my wife Cathy and I were guest hosting Japanese foreign exchange students at our house. As part of their time there, I would bring the group of them to the studio and give them a tour, and then we’d all watch a cartoon. That cartoon was easy to watch, because it didn’t have a lot of dialogue. They just loved it. What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown has a very different look, too. Part of that is the style of Tom Yakutis,, who did a lot of the backgrounds and designed a lot of the look of that show. The story itself is quite a departure for Snoopy.”
Here is a gorgeous series of drawings created for the Golden Book version of What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown:
Larry animated over 30 Peanuts cartoon specials and tv show episodes as animator. What it took for him to become an animation director was for him to leave and direct projects elsewhere, so that Bill and his crew could see him in a new light. He then went on to direct in partnership with Bill Melendez himself, as well as on his own, for Peanuts specials, and shows like Hey, Arnold, SpongeBob Squarepants, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, for which he won an BAFTA, and Over the Garden Wall, for which he won a Primetime Emmy.
Larry has been designing limited editions for Sopwith Productions, which archives Peanuts animation and sells the official art for Bill Melendez Productions since 2013, with Snoopy’s Dogfight. For his first design, he drew so many storyboards and images that he filled a section of wall wider and taller than he is! His challenge and the fun of these designs, Larry says, is maintaining the integrity of the drawing and animation styles of the many animators he knew and respected during his tenure at Bill Melendez Studios.
When asked the hardest challenge in animating the Peanuts characters, Larry explains, “The biggest problem in Peanuts is turning from profile to front on, because the two poses are slightly different anatomically, like the eyes in relationship to the nose and mouth. The shape of the head is different in profile. To do a head turn was hard. One of the first things I learned as an in-betweener was not to turn the head straight, but turn it with a slight dip or some kind of an arc. The advantage of doing that was you wouldn’t see things shift in alignment.”
Want to learn more about Larry and hear stories from his career animating Peanuts cartoons? Larry Leichliter is taking part in an anniversary celebration of It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, which originally aired on April 28th, 1981.
We’ll be interviewing him and putting the interview online for fans and collectors to see. We’ll have an exclusive pre-release of the new limited edition designed by Larry Leichliter from the cartoon, and with any art we sell, whether it be limited edition or original production art, collectors will get a hand-drawn image of Snoopy or Snoopy and Woodstock signed by the animator. You can see all of Larry’s art HERE.
WE WILL SEND OUT AN EMAIL BLAST AT 7pm EST APRIL 28th
WITH LINKS TO ALL THE EXCLUSIVE ART
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For more information or to see all the art available, contact the gallery at artinsight at artinsights dot com!