Saturday, 18 April 2015

A Reply To Chuck Jones

There’s more to an animated cartoon than art.

The reason’s simple. Animated cartoons are entertainment. To be entertainment, there has to be something other than nifty artwork or movement. There has to be a story. If you want proof, watch any late ‘50s UPA short or any of the imitation Silly Symphonys put out by a number of studios. Pretty designs and intricate movement are nice, but if there’s no well-constructed plot to hang them on, you’re not entertaining anyone.

Chuck Jones created some of the funniest cartoons ever made. His best work is when all the elements of a cartoon—visual, aural, intellectual—come together. But Jones never seems to have divested himself of his 1930s Disney Superiority Complex, that he felt he’d really be making great cartoons if they looked like a Disney cartoon in terms of movement and artwork. Why else would Jones, years later in his career, continually denigrate television animation as “illustrated radio”?

Jones bragged on a number of occasions you could watch his cartoons with the sound down. The trouble is, in some cases, who would want to? Does anyone find Jones’ “The Bird Came C.O.D.” funny or amusing? And what about those 1960s Tom and Jerry cartoons he produced? The problem with them is simple—they’re not much more than a bunch of poses, and people (except maybe animators) don’t watch cartoons just to look at how characters are posed.

Conversely, there are some dialogue-heavy TV cartoons that have stood the test of time for decades. Why? Because people like the characters and find them funny. I’d love to see a fully-animated Quick Draw McGraw cartoon because an artist could fit in extra gags through movement. But the limited-animation version is still funny, thanks to good dialogue and a strong enough storyline.

For this reason, Jones’ “illustrated radio” sneer (at least, I take it to be one) has always bothered me. And evidently it bothered other animators. Certainly it bothered one who had a pretty good pedigree.

Jack Zander owned a commercial animation company for many decades but in the 1930s and ‘40s, he worked for several different cartoon studios. He was one of the original animators on Tom and Jerry at MGM, and had been at Warner Bros. in the Harman-Ising days before Jones’ arrival. Historian Mark Mayerson pointed out, upon Zander’s death in 2007 at the age of 99, Zander gave opportunities to all kinds of young animation talent. And Zander was put off in the 1960s by Jones’ comments about the deterioration of the animated cartoon, and the new people in the industry.

Here’s a story in the New York City-based Weekly Variety from January 27, 1965.
‘Simplified’ Cartoons Arouses Debate; Its Economy Versus Credibility
Charles M. Jones, director of Metro’s new animation and visual arts department, has drawn raps from execs of the eastern Animation Producers Assn. and Screen Cartoonists Guild for published remarks in which he attacked trends in animation toward simplification and stated that “there are hardly any animators around younger than 50 who know how to draw full animation.”
Leading the attack are Jack Zander, v.p. of Pelican Films and an exec of the Animation Producers Assn. and Richard Rauhn, prez of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. Jones had argued that the new, economy-oriented techniques, detracted from the realism of the product, a charge the assailants brand as “odd” in 1965 when realism “has all but disappeared from the world of painting and the graphic arts in general.”
The Metro exec had objected to tv animation principally, mentioning that new techniques enabled producers to make a six-minute cartoon for about $10,000 as opposed to $35,000 for a full-animation pic. Zender and Rauhn acknowledge the economic factor but claim that more important is the entire tendency of 20th century art which is toward simplification, citing such examples in cartooning as “Mr. Magoo,” a quite popular figure Also, as involves credibility, the objectors cite “Mickey Mouse” saying that he was never literally, zoologically speaking, an authentic rodent but rather a fantasy.
The cartoon chiefs also rapped the notion that there are hardly any animators around under 50 who can draw full animation, wholehardedly [sic] denying the charge. They claim that it is choice and not pressure that is leading the trend toward simplification in animation style. They asserted that Janes’ [sic] statements “sound like echoes from the distant past.”
One can imagine Jones’ reaction to being publicly criticised. He rebutted. Weekly Variety of February 24th reported:
...Jones has accused the Easterners of seeking publicity rather than accuracy and that his own comments were made for purpose of identification, not to indict an industry.
At to his claim that good animators under 50 are increasingly scarce, to which the pair replied “‘Tain’t so,” Jones told Zander and Rauh to send along any good ones, he'd be quite happy to employ them.
The argument about the proper definition of full animation and what it entailed was further elaborated by Jones whose conception of it is "moving three-dimensional objects in space in a believable manner." He said that it is a valuable and necessary aspect of the multiform art of animation but takes years to learn and that few artists today take the time required by the severe apprenticeship.
And with that, Variety dropped the subject and Jones went on to making snoozers like “The Cat’s Me-Ouch” and then, post-MGM, the interesting “Curiosity Shop” for ABC. And continually brought up the “illustrated radio” subject in interviews for the next several decades. However, we’ll let you have the last word about it if you want to leave a comment.

13 comments:

  1. As much as I revere Chuck Jones, I agree that his "illustrated radio" comment was a sneer. Look who's talking -- try to watch Charlie Dog with the sound off. And most of his post-Warner Bros. work gets too precious for words (even his Looney Tunes-themed TV specials of the 1970's). Every director has his twilight years, and Chuck Jones was no exception.

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  2. It's funny that Zander and Rauh (not Rauhn) were the ones to respond to this, as they were earning their livings from commercials. Budgets on commercials were often higher on a per-minute basis than the theatrical cartoons that Jones was making in 1965. When I was working for Zander in 1977, budgets were around $60,000 per minute and at the time, whole TV specials were being made for $350,000.

    Jack Zander regularly employed animators like Preston Blair, Irv Spence and Emery Hawkins at his next company, Zander's Animation Parlour. Jones would have no quarrel with those choices. And Zander was one of the few in New York to hire younger animators such as Dean Yeagle and Nancy Beiman, both of whom could hold their own against many golden age animators.

    Undoubtedly the theatricals still trickling out of Paramount and Terry in New York were done on the cheap, but it's not like the people working on them had any control over budgets. Jones opportunity to make theatricals disappeared just a few years after his statement. He managed to steer clear of TV series work, but too many of the specials he directed were leaden in terms of timing and entertainment value.

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  3. Chuck Jones (among many others) was among the people who spread gross misinformation about cartoons. On this topic I am going to quote myself from an article I wrote about seven years ago:

    "I have long held the belief that when it comes to animated cartoons, there is no link between cel counts and entertainment value. It is also true that many of the cartoons that make me laugh the loudest were made on not overgenerous budgets (In fact, most animation is made to a price.) You, see, there were (and still are) a lot of people in the cartoon business who think that what we are producing is animation. This has lead to a lot of bad films that had trite stories that only existed so that the animators had something to animate, the result being that the characters movement tended to be hammy, overly theatrical, and lacking in any real motivation. These pictures also tended to be badly timed, and the action was shown from inappropriate camera angles. In reality, the by-product of our labor is not animation, but filmed entertainment that combines moving drawings with sound. The way we draw the figures and make them move must occur naturally from the story material. The mechanics of filmmaking (Staging, editing, timing, sound cutting) must take precedent over making “pretty” animation."

    I should add that a great animator is great animator because he knows what makes a character do whatever he's doing, and has the skill to communicate it as well. Like an actor, he becomes the character and is not merely "animating." Animation literally means to give live. Not the illusion of life, but real life. Not just moving, but being. It's what happens when the audience forgets it a film and speaks of the characters as if they were real. Cel counts have little to do with that ability one way or another.

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  4. Even a couple of Chuck's late Warner Brothers efforts suffer from the same talkiness he complained about. Both "Hare-Breathe Hurry" and "I Was A Teenage Thumb" are incredibly enamored of their own premises and wit, to the point that the characters in the former and motor-mouth Bugs in the later can't shut up and allow the images to take precedence over the dialogue (and despite the extremely limited animation, Shamus Culhane gets far more out of the premise of 1967's "The Pulmber" -- especially the end gag -- than Chuck did using pretty much the same story six years earlier in the strikingly designed but far more cloying "Nellie's Folly").

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  5. J.Lee:..
    To say nothing of Bugs Bunny's extremely bullying in "Hare-Breadth Hurry" which also violated a Jones rule (i.e., Bugs cannot be a bully). BTW JL, "I Was a Teenage Thumb" didn't have Bugs. That was a Tom Thumb-themed one-shot.And I don't remember talkiness (though there's four voice actors credited, Mel Blanc, Julie Bennett, Ben Frommer (who did Count Blood Count in a somewhat superioir but still talky Bugs short from Jones's "Transylvania 6-5000"), and an actor from outside the WB cartoons, Richard Piel as narrator).

    SC

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    Replies
    1. I switched the 'former' and 'latter' order in my post by mistake. "Thumb" was the last one-shot by Chuck with the standard concentric circle opening and closing titles. His next one-shot, "Now Hear This" would at least be silent and avoided the extremely-pleased-with-itself dialogue that littered Chuck's shorts after Michael Maltese left, but did intro the modern graphic opening (Jones' goal with "Thumb" he later said was to annoy Jack Warner, but he did a good job doing the same thing to everyone else not named Jack Warner).

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    2. "Now Hear This" was more of a showcase for Treg Brown (who finally got credit for sound effects) than for Jones. (Brown would win an Oscar for his sound effects work on "The Great Race.")

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    3. Years ago I read an interview in which he called "Now Hear This" "Chuck Jones' revenge", though he didn't say who it was a revenge against.

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  6. I agree with Jones. When you're given scraps to work with and you see the industry you helped mould and build being dumbed down and cheapened, it must be discouraging. The cartoon industry was his work of love and passion. Look what he did before the industry went into the crapper. He's a genius. But even a genius can only do so much without the proper resources. I certainly understand his angst.

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  8. Interesting volley, and Jones did eventually come around to hiring young talent. But you guys really need to get the stick out of your ass about Chuck Jones's attitude. Yeah the later work is bad, glass houses, etcetera. Come up with another point. The last 35 years of his career was dreck, but the first 35 yielded droves of the best cartoons ever made. That contrast is a more interesting discussion than working up indignation that he took shots at whatever crap you guys grew up watching in the '70s.

    There are innumerable, wonderful animated films made for little money and with few drawings that counter Jones's claims, but name one that came out of Hanna-Barbera. There are many ways to make a film, but the 60s TV way ain't the way, and neither is the 60s and on Jones way. Like all the great pontificators in animation, take the advice but don't be like the advisor.

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  9. One wonders how Jones' Tom & Jerry entries compare to even Gene Deitch's, however wretched the latter's might have been.

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  10. 4/26/15
    RobGems.ca Wrote:
    Re: wbhist: Boomerang cable station certainly doesn't care about the difference between a mediocre Jones T&J short or a Gene Deitch T&J short; they just fill up the time gaps with whatever Deitch or Jones cartoons in their T&J time slots ro cover up the facts that they let personal (left-wing politically correct-cum-crap) prevent them from airing any Hanna & Barbera T&J cartoons from the 1940's with "Mammy Two-Shoes" accompanying T&J in said cartoon. They just won't chance it, censuring any ways by all means neccesary to allow more later, sometimes mediocre-to-weak Tom & Jerry episodes to be aired. In the cases of Jones' Tom & Jerry's, they are shorter in length (about 5-6 minutes in length) as opposed to older Tom & Jerry's from the 40's -early 50's,which are 6-8 minutes in length. Do the math; the advertisers make it more complicated. If you want H-B Tom & Jerry's with Mammy Two-Shoes uncut & uncensored, opt for the DVD or DVR releases, or try to track them down unedited on You-Tube if you can.

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