Cartoonist, Director and UAPB Grad Screens The Adventures of Brer Rabbit During Crossroad Festival
By Shannon Frazeur
If you or your children watched cartoons in the 1980s or ‘90s, it’s likely Byron Vaughns had a hand in one of your favorites.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Alvin & the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs are just a handful that Vaughns worked on as a storyboard artist or director.
Vaughns, who lives in White Hall and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, is the 2019 Crossroad Festival special guest. The Arts & Science Center will close out the festival with a screening of his 2006 Universal Pictures animated film The Adventures of Brer Rabbit at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3. Vaughns will take part in a question-and-answer session and a showing of his artwork following the film.
The event is free and open to the public, and no tickets or registration are required.
The screening is a bit of a homecoming celebration for Vaughns; he moved back to Jefferson County in 2015 after more than three decades in Los Angeles, where his longtime love of cartoons and animation, and a desire to work in the industry, took him.
Vaughns was born in Memphis, and raised in West Memphis, Arkansas. Still a teenager, his first paying job was drawing editorial cartoons for The Evening Times newspaper in West Memphis.
“I was always interested in cartoons — whether it was animation or comic books or comic strips,” Vaughns said.
He and his family moved to Pine Bluff in 1972. He enrolled in the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N) — now UAPB — where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in art.
“It was a valuable learning experience in the art department under various instructors, especially Henri Linton,” Vaughns said.
In the mid 1970s, he freelanced as an editorial cartoonist for the Pine Bluff Commercial and ended up creating a comic strip for the paper. “Pine Bluff Paradise” followed the adventures of Jeremy and Berry, two young boys (one white and one black) went around discovering new things to do in the city.
He landed a job as a graphic designer at KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock, creating news and weather graphics. He also animated “Gusty,” KATV’s popular news mascot in the 1970s and ‘80s.
After a couple of years, Vaughns wanted to try something new, so he went to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock to be an animation director for a film. He went on to other jobs — including as an artist-in-residence in Hope and working at a sign company.
“Eventually I knew that I wanted to do something related more to cartooning than what I was doing,” Vaughns said. “In Arkansas, I found out it was very difficult finding work in the types of things I was interested in.”
His family encouraged him to take a big leap, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1980.
“I was introduced more to the way things worked in Hollywood,” Vaughns said. “You pretty much had to knock on some doors — the right doors.” Through a North Little Rock animator with whom he was acquainted, Vaughns met Art Leonardi, who had worked on the classic Pink Panther cartoons. That meeting led him to the Screen Cartoonists Union.
“That place was a good entry to that specific type of work because they taught various things you needed to know, like basic mechanics in animation,” Vaughns said. “You took classes with them and eventually they gave you some real background in the field. There were various divisions of labor and you ended up learning how to be a storyboard artist or a visual development artist, or a timing director — the list is quite long. It was a great way to learn back then.”
Vaughns’ perseverance landed him work as a storyboard artist at Filmation Studios. The first series he worked on was Hero High — a segment of The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam! show that aired Saturday mornings on NBC — about the adventures of teenage superheroes.
“After that it, I was just jumping into one show after the other after the other,” Vaughns said.
Around that time, Vaughns was taking classes from a former Warner Bros. animator who held free animation classes in his garage. “Ben Washam was a very talented animator who worked on many of the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and was very generous.”
Other Filmation series Vaughns worked on include Blackstar, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Bravo & The Prairie People.
Vaughns stayed there long enough to receive good training doing storyboards, he said. After that, he moved into assistant animation.
“It’s kind of a nomad existence to work around Hollywood on these things. Wherever the work is in Hollywood, that’s where I would go,” Vaughns said.
Other series he worked on as a storyboard artist or story director include The Care Bears Family, Alvin & the Chipmunks, and The Smurfs, with work on shows such as Rainbow Brite, The Berenstain Bears, and the animated Punky Brewster series sprinkled in.
“After doing storyboarding, I ended up being a director in animation and I also became a producer,” Vaughns said. “So, I would just wear different hats.”
It was during his time directing Tiny Toon Adventures — which followed the antics of a new generation of Warner Bros. characters such as Buster Bunny, Babs Bunny, and Plucky Duck — in which he won an Emmy. Tiny Toon Adventures was named Outstanding Animated Program at the 1993 Daytime Emmys.
Vaughns continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s as a director, producer, and storyboard artist on a variety of projects, both long- and short-form. He worked on Animaniacs, The Pink Panther, The Lionhearts, and Clifford the Big Red Dog, and produced the 2000 direct-to-video film Casper's Haunted Christmas.
Two of Vaughns’ favorite projects were animated pilots for Nickelodeon: La-D-Da and the musical short Blotto, which he produced and directed.
In the 1990s, Vaughns and his wife, Betty Jean, launched their own production company, Byron Vaughns Productions Inc. The company released Buddy T’s Little Theater, a film dedicated to African American history, in 2001.
The Vaughns also owned and operated Animation Creations, a cartoon workshop for kids.
Betty Jean was instrumental to his career and in running their businesses. “Betty was extremely helpful and supportive in the many phases of my work. I called her my ‘computer guru.’ I wonder if I would have pursued operating an animation workshop studio for kids without her input. Her background was in art education at UAPB, and she naturally fell into that role when we ran Animation Creations. She was also excellent in handling contractual and legal details.”
“She was quite creative, too. She helped me write lyrics on Blotto and did some voiceover work on both La-D-Da and Buddy T’s Little Theater.”
Vaughns took a break from work when Betty Jean died in 2013. “I pretty much kind of folded the tents for a while.” He did storyboards on two Tom and Jerry movies, but work “slowed to a crawl,” he said.
In 2015, Vaughns moved back Arkansas to help out his family. Although he is now far from Hollywood, he hasn’t retired from cartooning and continues to seek projects. Since his return to in Arkansas, he has done some work for DC Comics and drawn caricatures.
He’s also extending his talents to new concepts, illustrating the children’s book Fun Time with Grandmo Evelyn by Evelyn Elizabeth Hughes-Bass.
The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
In the mid 2000s, Universal Studios was developing a direct-to-video movie featuring the folk stories of Brer Rabbit — and they were interested in bringing on Vaughns as director.
The movie was to be based on Dr. Julius Lester’s 1999 update of the Uncle Remus tales, which followed the antics of a mischievous rabbit, narrated by an African American. The original version of the Uncle Remus stories, written by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s, has been steeped in controversy over the years in part because of a white writer using what many considered to be stereotypical African American dialects. Disney adapted Harris’ stories for its 1946 film Song of the South. The movie experienced some popularity but has never been released to the home video market in the United States.
Lester retained the essence of the stories but dropped Harris’ heavy dialect in favor of contemporary language and references. “I think he did an excellent job making them much more palatable to kids today,” Vaughns said.
The actors who leant their voices to The Adventures of Brer Rabbit included Nick Cannon (Brer Rabbit), D.L. Hughley (Brer Fox), Wayne Brady (Brer Wolf), Danny Glover (Brer Turtle), and Wanda Sykes (Sister Moon).
What does the director of an animated movie do?
“Directors of animated films wear many different hats at the same time. Duties vary from studio to studio, but generally speaking, they need to have a background in animation, storyboarding, and timing, know how to spot music and sound effects, and give direction to voice-over actors,” Vaughns explained. “Because animation directors have to supervise the backgrounds and color, they have to think like art directors too.”
“It was a lot of fun to work on with exceptionally talented people,” Vaughns said. “Out of all those people, D.L. Hughley was really funny. And I’d never heard of him. I thought, ‘This guy’s got a lot of talent,’ and that’s why he’s still a top performer. Danny Glover was really good. He gave it a lot of credibility. Wanda Sykes was very entertaining.”
“All these people were just so professional. These actors really knew their stuff. Universal found some great people to do the voiceover work.”
The Adventures of Brer Rabbit was nominated for an Annie Award, the highest award in animation.
Vaughns hopes viewers will seek out the written works.
“Once you get into it, you can see there’s some genuine entertainment in the stories. And when you look further, you’ll see that there’s a story behind the story. These are humor tales originally from slaves. That’s a simplistic way of looking at it. These are like hand-me-down stories from people who believed in entertaining themselves even then — during all kinds of challenges.”
ASC’s screening of The Adventures of Brer Rabbit is 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3, followed by a question-and-answer session and artwork showing with Vaughns. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets or registration required.
A Brief Look at Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus
Variants of the tales involving a trickster rabbit and other animals, passed on through the oral tradition, are found throughout the world in regions including Europe, the Philippines, India, Africa, Corsica, Colombia and Brazil, and among several American Indian tribes.
For instance, the characters of Bouki (a fox) and Lapin (a rabbit) appear in traditional French Creole stories similar to the Brer Rabbit tales. Scholar Dr. Elista Istre will share these stories during the Folktales Family Fun session of the Crossroad Festival, at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 2.
In the United States, the most popular version comes from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus collections published in the late 1800s.
Harris (1848-1908), who was white, worked at a newspaper from 1862 to 1866 that was published on a Georgia plantation. There he heard the tales told by slaves working on the plantation.
After he joined the Atlanta Constitution in 1876, he began publishing “Uncle Remus” stories — tales he said were told to him by slaves on the plantation. The stories were popular, and three Remus books followed: Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), and Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892). Numerous other volumes of the tales were published during his lifetime and posthumously.
Harris’ Uncle Remus tales have been the source of controversy for decades, considered by some to be unfavorable if not racist to African Americans. For one, the characters speak with heavy African American dialects. Harris has also been seen as stealing these tales from slaves, while others believe that his writings have preserved an important part of African American cultural heritage.
These stories were the basis of Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South. The movie was notable at the time of its release for its combination of live action and animation. James Baskett, the actor who portrayed Uncle Remus during the live action segments, was even awarded a special Oscar for his performance.
Like its source material, Song of the South has been viewed less than favorably. (Even shortly after its premiere, The New York Times reported December 14, 1946, a picket line outside a Manhattan theater.) The movie enjoyed enough popularity to be re-released in theaters several times over the next four decades, lastly in 1986 for its 40th anniversary. It has never been released on videocassette or DVD in the United States.
Despite its lack of circulation in the last three decades, aspects of the film are present in current culture. Disney’s theme park ride Splash Mountain features the movie’s Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox characters, with “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as the ride’s main song.
Author, folklorist, and activist Dr. Julius Lester (1939-2018) retold the stories with his 1999 book Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales. Lester, who was African American, refreshed the tales by using contemporary language and references and dropping the heavy dialect.
That version was the basis of the 2006 Universal Pictures animated film The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which ASC will screen at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3, with the film’s director, Byron Vaughns.
Lester’s reinterpreted animal stories are also a part of the Crossroad Festival’s “Tricksters, Tales, and Blues Notes” program at 7 p.m. Friday, March 1. Lester had a local connection — he grew up spending summers in Pine Bluff with his grandmother.