Chuck Jones at the MacDowell Colony

Posted inComics & Animation Design
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Chuck Jones

Since 1907, the MacDowell Colony has nurtured the creativity of more than 6,000 established and emerging artists. Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, Meredith Monk, Alice Walker, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Ned Rorem, and artists less well-known have found inspiration and artistic sustenance working in the 32 studios set on 75 acres of peaceful woodland and fields in bucolic Peterborough, New Hampshire.

In addition to residency grants, the Colony has, since 1960, annually rewarded an artist who has significantly contributed to his or her field. Past winners include Aaron Copeland, Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, Lillian Hellman, John Updike, Louise Bourgeois, Merce Cunningham, and Joan Didion. You might not think an animator would fit in with such august company, but 13 years ago—on August 17, 1997, to be precise—nearly 1,000 visitors gathered beneath a huge tent as the 38th annual MacDowell Medal was awarded to to Chuck Jones, one of the greatest directors of animated films. “People are still talking about how wonderful and magical that day and ceremony were,” recalls Cheryl Young, the executive director of MacDowell. I headed the MacDowell Medal selection committee that year, which was comprised of MoMA film curator Mary Lea Bandy and filmmakers Donna Cameron and George Stoney, and we unanimously chose Jones as honoree. He became only the second filmmaker to win the medal; the great non-narrative experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was the first in 1989.

When announced, the selection was greeted with general delight despite a couple of dissenting voices. One MacDowell board member considered the choice too much of a departure from the past but deferred to the Colony custom of respecting the Medal committee’s decision. (The other dissenter, interestingly enough, was Brakhage, who angrily disagreed that a commercial Hollywood studio could produce an individualistic artist/auteur—despite such figures as Chaplin, Keaton, Sturges, Hitchcock.) On Medal Day in Peterborough, the crowd’s affection was palpable for Jones and the cartoon characters he brought to vivid life in scores of films that he directed during six-decade career, primarily at Warner Bros.

As the tall, 85-year old Jones, aided by a cane, gingerly made his way from the back of the tent to the stage, a ripple of applause became a wave that swept the entire audience. Bowing and grinning and wearing a six-button suit with bowtie and wide-brimmed Panama hat, the bearded cartoonist resembled a riverboat captain that could have been described by his favorite author, Mark Twain. Before he received the MacDowell Medal, I made an introductory speech about Chuck Jones and his art. I present that speech once again (below) in memory of a lovely day with a great filmmaker and friend.


“Charlie Chaplin, so the story goes, once admitted that he was jealous of animated cartoons because ‘their timing is perfect.’ And the reason the timing of animated cartoons is perfect, figured Chaplin, is because ‘the characters never have to take the time to breathe.’

As a boy, Chuck Jones watched Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and other silent movie clowns as they improvised pantomimic magic before the cameras in the dusty streets of Los Angeles. Sometimes, young Jones appeared as an extra in the films, which allowed him a closer look at the comics and their creative processes. ‘They were honestly and simply trying to make funny pictures,’ he recalled, “and were about as aware of dramatic and comedic theory as a bunch of otters. All I wanted in the whole world when I grew up,’ said Jones, ‘was to be one of them.’

Years later at Warner Brothers, Chuck Jones did become one of them! It’s debatable, however, whether animators ever really grow up; from what I’ve observed, they are so in touch with the child part of themselves that they never grow old. Ray Bradbury agrees: At his 55th birthday party, he said that when he grows up he wants to be 14 years old ‘like Chuck Jones!’

In any case, at Warners, Chuck Jones ran with the joyful legacy of the silent comics, and passed the torch to a new roster of physical comedians—namely Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Pepe Le Pew, the Roadrunner and Coyote, among others. Jones’ films are, of course, not silent. There’s music in the background and often spectacularly in the foreground, as heard in Jones’ masterwork, ‘What’s Opera, Doc?,’ for which he compressed Wagner’s 14-hour Ring into six minutes.

And there is dialogue, often literate, eloquent, witty dialogue. Long known as the thinking person’s animator, Jones mingles verbal wit with slapstick for hilarious results. For example, who else but Chuck Jones would find the root cause of an explosive Daffy-Bugs exchange to be ‘pronoun trouble’?

The well-read Mr. Jones’ favorite author is Mark Twain and he ‘devoured’ Roughing It at the age of 7; years later, Twain’s description therein of a coyote as ‘a living, breathing allegory of Want’ inspired the creation of Jones’ great, non-verbal Wile E. Coyote.

Words, in Chuck Jones’ films, are a decidedly secondary means of communication compared to motion. His characters express themselves and project their inimitable personalities essentially through the way they move, as did their spiritual fathers, the silent screen clowns. ‘If you turned off the sound,’ Jones once said of his animation, ‘you could truly tell what was happening … I worked the whole thing out visually.’

Jones knows the importance of the telling pose and how it can reveal exactly a character’s feelings and thoughts. In a Jones film, economy of gesture—the weight of one walk as opposed to another; the scrunch of a jowl; eyes resigned to the inevitability of doom—yields a wealth of psychological information.

His powers as a draftsman allow him to communicate succinctly, with full effect on audiences. As for the timing and the general construction of Jones’ films, the best as so jewel-like, precise, and funny that it was undoubtedly they that provoke The Little Tramp’s pea-green envy. Chuck Jones is a grand master of an art form new to our century, known as ‘personality animation.’ Like jazz and the musical comedy, personality animation is indigenous to America. Europe can claim the earliest film examples of frame-by-frame manipulation of objects; but ‘personality’ animation—in which drawings of characters appear to think, to own a distinctive persona, even a soul—that began in Brooklyn, New York. And you can’t get more American than that!

It was in 1912 in Sheepshead Bay that the great cartoonist Winsor McCay made an animated film about a show-off, blood-thirsty mosquito, and, miracle of miracles, the character exhibited inklings of individuality. In the mosquito’s eye contact with the audience, his calculated manipulation of props, and, most of all, the visual implication that he thinks about how to solve problems, McCay bestowed upon his gluttonous insect the gift of personality, for the first time in animation. Encouraged by the experiment, McCay followed two years later with a girlish, pouting dinosaur named Gertie in a film now acknowledged as personality animation’s first film masterpiece and one that Mr. Jones has noted ‘was to have a profound effect on me.’

The year personality animation began, 1912, also happens to be the year Chuck J
ones was born. A poetic coincidence, yes, but also a cosmic inevitability that Chuck is here today to be honored for his superb contributions to this new American art form. There is also a mystical confluence in the Jones/Chaplin connection, for Chaplin was the unwitting model of Felix the Cat, the next leap forward in personality animation.

After Felix came Walt Disney and his now immortal mouse to build upon and bring to maturity McCay’s earliest experiments. Musing about first-generation animator McCay’s uncannily advanced techniques, second-generation Jones once wrote, ‘It is as though the first creature to emerge from the primeval slime was Albert Einstein; and the second was an amoeba, because after McCay’s animation, it took his followers nearly twenty years to find out how he did it. The two most important people in animation,’ continued Chuck, ‘ are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney, and I’m not sure which should go first.’

Today, Chuck Jones goes first. He led personality animation into psychological and emotional territory that Winsor McCay never thought of going and Walt Disney never went. Early in his directing career (which began in 1938), there was a period of what he calls ‘Disney worship.’ That is, he learned his craft by emulating Disney films’ naturalistic design, rendering, timing, and motion, which protects the illusion of believability by disguising the characters’ cartoon-y origins.

But Jones’ adventuresome nature soon led to bold experimentation using exaggerated poses to communicate a character’s thoughts, faster paced gags, razor-sharp timing and cutting, and stylized designs influenced by modern art. In the 1942 short The Dover Boys, Jones uses strong storytelling poses alternated with over-the-top, dynamic manipulation of transitional forms – a conscious experiment that proved to be a turning point in his career.

That and other of his Warner films, plus his moonlighting as director on Hell Bent for Election, a 1944 re-elect Roosevelt short for the innovative U.P.A. studio, were major influences that led the animation industry decisively away from Disney naturalism, the so-called ‘illusion of life.’ Chuck Jones celebrates the cartoon as cartoon, while managing to reveal depths in his characters that bring them truly to life. To judge the extent of his success on the tightrope between cartoon exaggeration and human believability, consider the wise child who refuted his parents’ comments that Mr. Jones is the nice man who draws Bugs Bunny: ‘He doesn’t draw Bugs Bunny,’ said the kid. ‘He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny.’

Chuck Jones has rightly been called ‘the most gifted animation director who ever lived.’ It’s true that he toils within the Hollywood studio system, but animation – as he practices the art – is the ultimate auteurist cinema. His control over the animation process as well as the highly expressive faces and bodies of his characters sometimes required him to draw as many as three or four hundred layout drawings per film. His personal filmic stamp is as distinctive, recognizable, and enduring as that of Capra and Sturges, Chaplin and Keaton.

The brief six minutes allowed for each short did not prevent Jones from creating a full and limitless world on the screen. His numerous self-imposed disciplines within each film refined character to its essence, as Jones unerringly locates the gist of a personality, an emotion, a story. The 1953 tour de force “Duck Amuck” hinges solely on the personality of Daffy Duck and creates what one critic has called ‘an essay by demonstration on the nature and condition of the animated film and the mechanics of film in general.’

The Dot and the Line, meanwhile, distills designs of simple forms that assume full personalities, expressed (again) primarily through movement. The construction of Jones’ films could have been devised by a Swiss watchmaker, yet they are not mechanical. They are joy-filled, warm, and often ironic cinematic observations of the human condition. Greed, lust, cowardice, obsession, and frustration are among a full gamut of adult-oriented emotions revealed and explored by this modern Aesop.

Our life experiences are profoundly reflected, clarified, and intensified in the animated antics of a trickster rabbit, a cowardly duck, an obsessive coyote, an elusive roadrunner, a singing frog, a soft-hearted bulldog, an amorous skunk, a Grinch, a dot, a line, and, occasionally, a hapless human. These durable characters have attained, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, a ‘mythic position in world culture – as entirely recognizable human, not ethnic, archetypes.’

Like his idol Mark Twain, Chuck Jones had ‘a call to humor’ and has spent a lifetime ‘seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.’ Like John Dryden’s straw that tickles a man, your films, Chuck, are instruments of happiness. We thank you for the happiness and pleasure your art has given us through the years, especially the laughter.”