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Clutch Cargo: 'Syncro-Vox' Animation Was An Unlikely Hit

Entertainment | February 15, 2021

Source: YouTube

Airing in 1959-60, Clutch Cargo was unlike any other cartoon, thanks to the miracle of "Syncro-Vox" animation. In Syncro-Vox, a human talking mouth is superimposed over a still of a cartoon character's face, so that the lips move and the character seems to be talking -- sort of. Syncro-Vox wasn't exactly convincing, even by the standards of cartoons; in truth, the technique looked like a cheap workaround, which it was. Fifty years later, the Clutch Cargo look is an anomaly, a footnote in the history of animation, a noble effort to make a cartoon on a budget. But many of the things we remember fondly aren't necessarily good -- in fact, it is their weirdness that makes them endearing. Way back in the late '50s, someone had the half-baked idea to layer a human mouth overtop a cartoon face, and Clutch Cargo was born.

If You've Seen Spongebob Squarepants, You've Seen Syncro-Vox

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For those who've never seen Clutch Cargo, there's an example of the technique from a more recent and extremely popular animated show. On Spongebob Squarepants, when Painty the Talking Pirate asks viewers in the show’s theme song, “Are ya ready kids?,” his mouth strangely seems like it belongs on another person’s face. That's Syncro-Vox in action. Painty’s mouth is actually taken from his voiceover artist and superimposed atop the still image. It's an homage to Clutch Cargo, a show that has fascinated generations of animators. Although it took some time for people to look past the creepiness of this bizarre technique, the show was a minor hit, running for 52 episodes and staying on the air in re-runs for years. 

Cambria Productions Was On A Tight Budget

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Cambria Productions formed and joined the booming animation scene in 1957. Their claim to fame was the cartoon series Clutch Cargo, created by illustrator Clark Haas and officially syndicated on television on March 9, 1959. The show was produced by Dick Brown and and directed by Edwin Gillette, who would soon patent his own mechanism utilized for Clutch Cargo. As a relatively new company, Cambria was limited in their funds and cut as many corners as they could in order to keep expenses down. Since they could not spend too much on the series’ music, jazz musician Paul Horn composed the entire musical score. Clutch Cargo would release 52 episodes in both black-and-white and color, and by 1961, it was syndicated on over eighty television stations and was watched by around 23 million viewers.  

Syncro-Vox Brought The Characters’ Mouths To Life (Really)

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Created by Gillette, Syncro-Vox animation was another money-saving production choice by Cambria. The technique superimposes the real-life mouths of the voice artists onto their animated characters. Through this process, also referred to as “lip service”, the authentic expression of the voiceover actor is projected into the cartoon. On the downside, the human mouth often looks quite strange -- it's a special effect that serves its purpose, but is also a bit distracting.

Animation was relatively expensive, and since Cambria was on a low budget, Syncro-Vox was a wise shortcut, as they were able to save hundreds of hours on drawing and thousands of dollars on animating. Since the scenes in Clutch Cargo did not feature much movement or animation in general, the show was sold more as “Television’s First Comic Strip.” Haas was already very experienced in comics as he had previously created his own comic strip called “Sunnyside.” 

“The results we obtain aren’t comparable to conventional animation,” Haas stated. “We’re someplace in between live-action and drawing.”   

Real Life Objects And Effects Were Mixed Into The Cartoon

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Gillette not only saved money through utilizing Syncro-Vox for the character’s mouths, but he also incorporated live-action footage and photography into Clutch Cargo. Live effects included windmills, smoke, flames, and a balloon that was supposed to represent gum, were all superimposed into the show. The team even utilized a device they called a “frajilly” to superimpose action by blending two images together which required only one camera shot. Many viewers were creeped out by this process, but nevertheless they were still intrigued and entertained. People loved Clutch Cargo for its ridiculousness and part of the reason the show was so popular was more because people loved to criticize and laugh at it, rather than take it seriously.

Clutch Cargo Was A Typical Adventure Cartoon

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Each episode of Clutch Cargo was split into six five-minute chapters to make up the entire half-hour episode. The title character is a brooding action-man (voiced by radio personality Richard Cotting) who is teamed up with a young red-headed boy named Spinner (voiced by actress Margaret Kerry) and their dog, a Dachshund named Paddlefoot (voices and sounds by actor Hal Smith). Cotting, Kerry, and Smith’s mouths are the ones viewers see on the characters. As typical for an adventure series at the time, the trio set out together on dangerous missions around the globe to fight crime and prevent catastrophes. 

Clutch Cargo might deserve some credit as the first adventure cartoon -- except that it wasn't much of a cartoon due to the lack of true animation. Jonny Quest, which came along in 1964, is generally considered the first adventure cartoon starring human characters (rather than funny animals). While Jonny Quest was a hit, it lasted only one season -- canceled, as you might have guessed, because it was too expensive to produce.

Synchro-Vox Did Not Change Animation Forever

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Fifty-two episodes of Clutch Cargo were released from 1959 to 1960, and Cambria continued to use Syncro-Vox for their following series Space Angel in 1962 and Captain Fathom in 1965. However, Syncro-vox was a short-lived animation technique that never really caught on, but occasionally you can find it used even in the present day. The popular sitcom That ‘70s Show utilized the technique sporadically between scenes when they featured an iconic ‘70s figure, including Farah Fawcett and Richard Nixon, with superimposed mouths singing along to a rock song. Most notably, Late Night With Conan O’Brien used Syncro-Vox frequently to superimpose one of the writer’s lips over a celebrity’s face during a repeated segment. 

Clutch Cargo and Syncro-Vox helped add a shot of nostalgia to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), when Bruce Willis' character (Butch the boxer) remembers a scene from his childhood: he's watching Clutch Cargo on TV when Christopher Walken shows up and gives him his deceased father's watch. 

Although it might not be the most influential of animation styles, Syncro-Vox can still be appreciated for all of its absurdity. 

Tags: 1950s Cartoons | Animation | Cartoons | Clutch Cargo | Remember This?...

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.