Wednesday, March 19, 2008
A very classy guy
(This one is dedicated to Larry Levine, who has been reminding me to blog about Chuck Jones)
I recently called Chuck Jones a "classy guy" when discussing the pros and cons of his later artwork, a view I have always held and one that was confirmed the very fist time I saw him speak in person.
Chuck Jones came to USC campus early in 1979, when I was living nearby in an apartment with some friends who were students there. I was working in a book and stationery store near campus and saw the flyer for his appearance and made sure to attend. (Fortunately it was both free of charge and also open to non-students). Like a great deal of aspiring animators, I had grown up seeking out Chuck's literal and figurative signature on old Looney Tunes that ran on TV and also new specials and films like THE GRINCH and PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. John Canemaker published a wonderfully written appraisal of him for TIME magazine that raised general awareness of his work just a few years prior to the event I attended and Chuck was already an established racconteur by that time. For the USC show he brought along about a dozen of his best WB shorts, including DUCK DOGERS, the Hunting Season sign ones and perhaps my personal favorite, BULLY FOR BUGS.
Between reels he told anecdotes, (many of which wound up in his books) and he was already quoting Mark Twain quite a bit. At one point he referred to Fred Quimby, (the MGM shorts executive bean-counter) as a man who Metro had kicked downstairs to the cartoon division, where "the failure went to his head." He also referred to Eddie Selzer, (Quimby's counterpart at WB) as a man "who went through life like an un-tipped waiter." Despite this, he noted that there was a value to such people, grinding against the creative gears to be more creative. Selzer for instance one day burst into Jones' office and forbid Jones and Michael Maltese from ever doing a cartoon about bullfighting, because there was nothing funny about it. That gauntlet led them to immediately start working on the aforementioned BULLY FOR BUGS short, one of their most inspired of many. He suggested that had they been given total freedom, they probably wouldn't have been so inspired.
At one point he mentioned that he finally realized that not even a camera was necessary for something to be called animation--you could flip a Ken Harris scene of Pepe LePew for instance and there it was, animating in real time, as it were.
After the last short, the floor was opened up for questions, including one tactless person who criticized Chuck's TOM & JERRY shorts. The usually unflappable Jones was thrown a bit by this, but he recouped by commenting that such are the fortunes of cartoon characters who get passed from one studio or director to another. He mused that Hanna and Barbera were probably not too thrilled with his own T & J shorts, but by the same token he was less than crazy about the ROAD RUNNER shorts Rudy Larriva directed in the waning days of Looney Tunes.
I finally got up the gumption to ask "who designed the characters, like the bull in BULLY FOR BUGS?" Chuck said he did himself but he was hasty to point out that I was correct to separate character design from the function of the character animators, who he esteemed quite highly. "I did the designs but the animators brought them to life. That's an important distinction because I was never an animator, except very early on and not a very good one."
This comment continued to impress me as I later learned the extent to which Chuck scrupulously posed out his cartoons himself. In addition, he timed all this out to the frame and did not allow much for wiggle room there either. For all intents and purposes, his character poses practically animate themselves but Chuck remained adamantly modest about that and valued the animators' skill in rendering the scenes from his poses. It represents the ideal in what we are always calling a "collaborative" medium, because as restrictive as it sounds, I loved getting to animate to Chuck's poses, as I did many years later on CHARIOTS OF FUR, his last ROAD RUNNER short. I certainly did my best to bring everything I could to it, making sure that anywhere the poses left something up to my interpetation to make that interpetation as entertaining and well-designed as possible.
Chuck's modesty on this count only gets more admirable in an age when mo-cap directors want to feel that no single pixel in their film got by without their scrutiny and choice, reducing the contributions of artists, animators, actors and technical people to the chore of generating a slew of options for the director to edit ad nauseum until that director can feel himself the ultimate author of everything on the screen. For the record, I admit I have no experience with mo-cap and have even seen limited uses of it done well (the fight scenes in APPLESEED for instance). I am sure that the people involved in creating total mo-cap films are talented individuals, but the results still leave me puzzled as to the motives behind the whole enterprise.
Chuck Jones lived long enough to continue producing, inspiring and even directing a bit here and there, throughout his busy "golden years." I was glad to get to see him, meet him and work with him during those decades, and I will always remember his generous remarks about his crew and colleagues, who he genuinely admired and valued.