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The above is how an obituary of the animation great may be run. It would be accurate, but incomplete as it would not truly represent the man or the influence in his work. It's said that Jack Warner, the boss at Warner Brothers during animation's Golden Age, thought that his animation unit made Mickey Mouse cartoons. That anyone could work and thrive under conditions where no one understands what you do is a testament to talent, creativity, tenacity and strength.
As one of the last surviving members of the great Warner Brothers animation unit of the 1930s - 1950's (in fact as one of the last surviving 'name' members of the entire 'Golden Age of Animation'), Jones often found himself standing in the spotlight. His work output, attitude and knowledge placed him in the position of 'Animation Guru', it was a job that he enjoyed to the fullest. He made constant appearances lecturing at classes and festivals, acting as a consultant to animators and historians and acting as a general 'Goodwill Ambassador' for animation. The more public and open he was though, the more scrutinized he, and his work, became.
He was often derided for seeming to take credit away from his peers and 'balloon' his contributions to the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 30's, 40's and 50's. (Arguments that some say Jones himself started himself in his books 'Chuck Amuck' and Chuck Reducks') This argument would be countered by others who would point to the creativity in his most famous cartoons, most notably 'What's Opera, Doc?' (1957) and 'Duck Amuck' (1953). Still others will concede that Jones did in fact create some memorable works, but if his career were to be looked at as a whole, it would show a definite imbalance, thanks in large part to his early Disney-influenced work like 'The Night Watchman' (1938) and his later turn with Tom and Jerry in the 1960's. It's obvious that Chuck Jones was, and remains to be, a much-studied artist.
There is a definite reason for that. Consider that during the course of his 60+-year career, he directed over 300 movies. Two of these films, 'What's Opera Doc?' and 'Duck Amuck', continually find themselves at or near the top of any 'All Time Greatest Cartoon' lists. 'What's Opera Doc? is an animation tour-de-force that takes on all of the conventions of opera and animation in six and one-half minutes. Its striking visual design and layout were created by Maurice Noble who did an amazing job of placing an opera into a cartoon without making it feel 'cartoony'. Michael Maltese wrote the story while Milt Franklyn arranged the score from Wagner's 'Ring' cycle (and he threw in some original music as well). All of this was orchestrated by Jones to create a memorable, exciting and moving animation experience. Prior to this, Jones and Co. created 'Duck Amuck', perhaps one of the most dissected short films ever created. In case you've failed to see it, its plot would seem to be a simple one: Daffy Duck appears on screen to act out a scene. As soon as he starts though an unseen animator changes the scene's settings. Daffy quickly adjusts and restarts only to have things change on him again and again. Soon everything is upside down and Daffy appears on a white 'canvas' arguing and pleading his case to the off-screen, omnipotent hand that controls his fate while he is painted purple with yellow polka-dots. This constant change and adjustment and change again builds and builds until the surprise ending which can be viewed in any number of ways. In fact this whole picture can be taken from a number of angles and in fact it has been. 'Duck Amuck' has been seen as everything from a pure piece of animation (a cartoonists cartoon as it were) to a philosophical statement on creation and existentialism. It's a far cry from the general 'Was it funny?' type of question that animation usually brings about but it's precisely these opposites that make the film the studied and admired work it is today.
If you had to single out one Jones cartoon to represent the director, this would be a solid choice for it works off of two of his strong point, split second timing and a strong sense of character, to relay it's comedy. Like a good live action comedy, you don't necessarily laugh at the action on screen, you laugh at the characters reactions to it.
'Duck Amuck' is Jones' most theorized about film and it alone would warrant him a place in animation history but in a testament to Jones' talent, creativity and energy there are literally dozens of other shorts in his cannon that can be looked to for inspiration or a simple smile.
A Chuck Jones Sampler:
'Rabbit Seasoning' (1952) - Even people who claim not to know cartoons, know this one. Elmer is hunting rabbits and then ducks and then rabbits again as Daffy and Bugs continually spin the world around turning each other into the target. The short's famous 'Rabbit season, Duck season' argument is not just a classic moment in animation, it's a classic piece of film.
'One Froggy Evening' (1953) - A construction worker finds a singing frog who will sing for no one but him. Proving Jones' mastery of timing and character, this is essentially a silent picture (minus the frogs singing).
Any of the early Road Runner/Coyote shorts - Start with their first outing 'Fast and Furry-Ous' (1949) and watch from there. These characters (created by Jones and Michael Maltese) eventually drifted into a sort of banal repetition but their early appearances feature crackling timing wrapped around some unique ACME-sponsored innovation.
'How The Grinch Stole Christmas' (1966) - For many, this half-hour television special is the Christmas program. Jones himself directed the piece and animated a number of the sequences.
'From A to Z-Z-Z-Z' (1954)- This Academy Award nominated short tells the story of a daydreaming schoolboy (sort of a junior Walter Mitty) in a uniquely stylized manner. At the time, design was being looked at in a whole new light in the field of animation; Jones created this picture and raised the mark.
'Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century' (1953) - Daffy Duck at his blowhearted finest. You needent be a science fiction fan to appreciate his 'ineptitude'.
It must be noted that Jones' official title for much of his career was that of 'Director' and he was fortunate enough to direct some amazing talents including design artist Maurice Noble and writer Michael Maltese. Jones' credit as a director was that he allowed each member of his team to display their talents. Granted as Director, his 'stamp' can be seen on each and every one of the animations that he oversaw but his imprint was not so overpowering so as to block out the contributions of the other members. Jones didn't direct as much as he orchestrated, enabling each team member to create and express their ideas while still keeping them within the framework of the story and characters. It should not be taken that all Jones did was sit back and point, on the contrary he was an accomplished artist who broke into animation as a cel washer; it's important because it shows that he indeed knew the business from the bottom up. He spent time in all facets of the job and was willing to dive into any of them when the time arose.
Of everyone that Chuck oversaw, perhaps none were more influential than the Dover Boys. The Dover Boys (Tom, Dick and Larry) appeared in Jones' 1942 short 'The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall'. A send up of late-19th century melodrama, the short told the story of Dainty Dora, her kidnapping by Dan Backslide and eventual rescue by The Dover Boys. What made this picture stand out was its unique stylization and design. It's use of wipes and 'limited animation' was light years ahead of its time and proved to be a major influence on the UPA revolution that occurred in animation in the 1950s. Jones would further lay influence on the artists who would form UPA when he directed 'Hellbent for Election' in 1944 for the Industrial Film and Poster Service, a collection of artists who would morph the company into UPA.
It wasn't just UPA that felt the effect of this film though, modern animators continue to turn to it as a benchmark. In an interview with Animato in the spring of 1988, Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfaluski cited the Dover Boys as a strong influence in the design of much of his work in through its innovation in the 'Strong Pose' theory. It's a theory that states that limited animation can be effective if the characters maintain and react to action with strong poses as a 'stance' can tell almost as much about who or what a person is as a walk can. Kricfaluski: "It (the strong pose) was all invented by Chuck Jones in The Dover Boys."
Over the course of his life Chuck Jones received 3 competitive Academy Awards as well as an honorary Oscar in 1996. He won a MacDowell Award, several Peabody Awards, saw 'What's Opera, Doc?' named to the National Film registry and received numerous other accolades.
One of the ultimate testaments to Jones' career and talents came in the early 1990's when Warner Brothers decided to resurrect their animation division. One of the people that they turned to for help was Chuck Jones. When the Coyote and Road Runner appeared in a brand new short, 'Chariots of Fur', in 1994 in theaters, a whole new generation was able to experience the magic of Chuck Jones on the silver screen. Jones continued to work for Warner Brothers, moving into the digital world through the creation of an all-new animation series, called 'Timber Wolf', that could be found exclusively on-line. He ended his life as he lived it, animating, innovating and entertaining.
Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife and daughter.
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