183. CHUCK JONES: An animator’s advice
Chuck Jones (1912-2002) was an animation director responsible for some of the best films – animated or otherwise – ever made. He directed many classic Looney Tunes cartoons, where he helped shape the personalities of established characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig, and created many of his own characters including The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé Le Pew and Marvin the Martian.
Jones is one of my biggest influences and some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around his cartoons. Everyday after primary school, my brother, some cousins and I would walk to my grandparents home where we were looked after until our parents finished work. We would all watch Looney Tunes cartoons together and I remember my Grandma would laugh as much as the rest of us. She loved Bugs the most, especially when he dressed up as a woman and seduced Elmer or some other poor fool. My Grandma played a big role in my childhood and my happiest moments with her was when we watched cartoons together. She passed away when I was 15, and whenever I think of her, I think of Looney Tunes.
Even back then, I would have been 10 or 11, I was starting to pay attention to the animators and artists who were making these hilarious cartoons. I could predict who the director of the cartoon would be before their names appeared, and my brother or cousins never figured out how I was doing it. I would shout out ‘FRIZ FRELENG!” or “ROBERT McKIMSON!”. But I got most excited when I could shout “CHARLES M. JONES!” (I knew because I had memorised which animators worked with particular directors and Jones always used Ken Harris and Lloyd Vaughan). Jones’s cartoons were always my favourite – his poses were more dynamic, his character’s facial expressions more perfect, his cartoons just funnier to me.
This quote is taken from a video interview Jones did with The Archive of American Television and it’s certainly something I still need to remind myself. I often go down the Instagram rabbit hole of finding one great artist after another, constantly in awe of their work and comparing my stuff to theirs and coming to the obvious conclusion: “My work is total crap!” and “Why do I even bother?” But of course, that achieves nothing. I can only do the best that I can. Be the fastest pig I can be.
In the clip, Jones also recites a great quote that his art instructor would begin classes with, which reminds me of the Ira Glass quote I adapted awhile back: “All of you have one hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone.” In his memoir, Chuck Amuck, Jones followed up the quote with: “This was not a discouraging statement to me, because I was already well into my third hundred thousand.”
Jones was a terrible student growing up. Seeing that his son showed a talent for art, Jones’s father pulled him out of school and enrolled him in the Chouinard Art Institute, which later became CalArts (it’s a total coincidence that in the first appearance of Ballet Boy, he was terrible at school and his father took him out to join the dance academy). Jones was not training to be an animator, and he “came out of art school during the Depression, dreaming the dreams that all worthy art students dream: that I would become an easel painter, consumptive and unrecognised, dying picturesquely at some incredible old age like thirty-seven”. That was initially proving to be true, with Jones forced to work as a janitor to earn money. Desperate for any art-related job, he found work at the Ub Iwerks animation studio – starting at the very bottom, working as a cell washer, before moving on to painter, in-betweener and then joining the Leon Schlesinger studio (which made the Looney Tunes cartoons) as an assistant animator in 1933. There he worked under legendary directors Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. He was promoted to animator and finally became a director in 1938. Jones’s early cartoons were very Disney-like, extremely soft and cute and it took him awhile to find his voice. He developed his irreverent sensibility and more angular style over the years with his best cartoons being made in the late 1940s and 1950s. After the Looney Tunes glory days, Jones worked on Tom and Jerry for MGM and made other notable cartoons including The Dot and The Line and Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Jones received three Oscars for individual cartoons and was also awarded a Honorary Academy Award in 1996. You can see Robin Williams presenting him with the award in this clip.
It’s hard to single out a few, but some of my personal favourite Chuck Jones cartoons include Long-Haired Hare, with Bugs battling a opera singer dressed as the famous composer Leopold. Rabbit of Seville for the laugh-out-loud Bugs and Elmer haircut scene. Feed the Kitty for the hilarious bulldog Marc Antony and the greatest facial expressions ever drawn in a cartoon (which I poorly tried to ape in my comic). The meta Duck Amuck with the cruel animator Bugs messing with poor Daffy. And of course, my favourite and what many consider to be Jones’s masterpiece: One Froggy Evening, the ultimate parable about greed told through the story of a singing frog that will only sing for one man and no one else. Steven Spielberg called it “The Citizen Kane of the animated short”. Watch these scenes and try not to laugh, I dare you! Of course, it should be noted that Jones made these cartoons in collaboration with an incredible team of animators, musicians, voice artists, plus long-time writing partner Michael Maltese and legendary background artist Maurice Noble.
You have to remind yourself that these cartoons are 60 years old. And they still hold up! I guarantee you that if you show a kid a classic Chuck Jones cartoon, then show them a cartoon from 2015, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They would probably laugh MORE at the 1950s cartoon. I mean think about it, what other piece of entertainment could you say that about? I said this about Calvin and Hobbes and I’ll say it again for the work of Chuck Jones: great art is timeless. Just like my grandma used to laugh at these cartoons with me, I look forward to one day watching them with my grandchildren and laughing along too.
RELATED COMIC: The ballet boy first appeared in this comic, featuring a quote from Ken Robinson. I really like drawing this kid, so expect to see him again in the future.
THE ‘ADVICE’ SERIES:
Chris Hadfield An Astronaut’s Advice.
Bill Watterson A Cartoonist’s Advice.
Jim Henson A Puppeteer’s Advice.
Shonda Rhimes A Screenwriter’s Advice.
Stanley Kubrick Answers a Question.
Kevin Smith It costs nothing to encourage an artist.
BIG NEWS: I recently announced the new Zen Pencils book collection, which will be released on Oct 13! Plus I will be heading to America next month for my first USA Book Tour. I hope to meet many of you soon!