Duck Dynasty

Nick Pinkerton on “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones”

Chuck Jones, Beep Beep, 1952, animation, color, sound.

A FEW IMAGES, to set the mood: Daffy Duck being bullied by the pencil and paintbrush of a persecuting artist/vengeful God in Duck Amuck (1953); the stricken expression on Wile E. Coyote’s face at the moment when he realizes that he is standing on thin air and a catastrophic canyon plunge is imminent; the lovelorn line teaching himself to make geometrical bouquets in The Dot and the Line (1965).

These moments, and countless others, can be traced back to the pen of Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones, who, when he died in 2002 at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the most honored animators that the world has ever known. Jones was born in Spokane, Washington, and raised in Los Angeles, which his father saw as fertile ground for his own get-rich-quick schemes. Jones père unsuccessfully tried his hand at geraniums and avocados—shades of the Sisyphean trial-and-failure that would be essential to Jones’s comedy—while other recently arrived carpetbaggers were making a pile, as the creation of the West Coast motion picture industry was in full swing. Jones, who was a child extra in Mack Sennett short subjects, might’ve gone into pictures straightaways, but instead he enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute, a fine-arts academy that was later merged into CalArts. Jones graduated with the intention of becoming an easel painter but instead found work under former Disney associate Ub Iwerks as a cel washer—cleaning the clear celluloid sheets on which character drawings are done, for later reuse—and was thereafter lost to cartooning. From the Iwerks Studio, Jones moved to Leon Schlesinger Productions, an independent which cranked out the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animations for Warner Bros. After Frank Tashlin’s (temporary) departure from the studio in 1938, Jones earned his first director credit. He would work for Schlesinger, then Warners, until they closed their cartooning studio in 1963, and in animation until the end of his life.

The artist’s ink-stained seventy-year career is the subject of “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones.” Jointly organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, this exhibition of artifacts opened to the public last Saturday and will remain in place for six months before embarking on a three-year, thirteen-city tour. While at MoMI, the show will be augmented by weekend matinee screenings of Jones’s films, epiphanies when seen in 35-mm Technicolor prints from the director’s personal archive. At a public preview of “What’s Up Doc?” last Thursday, the crowd was treated to a restored print of 1949’s Academy Award–winning short subject So Much for So Little, an awareness-raising plea for proper health care facilities that is both a sterling illustration of Jones’s dynamic visual imagination and a memento of a time in which a reasonable proposal for the public welfare was not considered un-American.

“What’s Up Doc?,” which occupies most of the museum’s third-floor exhibition space, is made up of a sequence of galleries wrapped around a small theater in which a program of Jones’s most famous works are projected on continual loop, the bill-of-fare “hosted” by Pixar’s John Lasseter, one of Jones’s many, many disciples. Numerous smaller screens and projectors scattered throughout the galleries play excerpts from Jones’s oeuvre, a journey leading from his early work (Jones disowned his pre-1948 output) to his 1950s apex to his 1960s adaptations of the works of Dr. Seuss, with whom Jones had previously collaborated on the Private Snafu cartoons, a World War II–era series of instructional shorts for servicemen. Prominent niches are dedicated to Jones’s acknowledged masterpieces, like 1957’s What’s Opera Doc? (a Wagner pastiche with Elmer Fudd as Siegfried pursuing Bugs, who cross-dresses as Brünnhilde) and 1952’s Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (a sci-fi burlesque in which Rocket Age techie ambition leads to mutually assured nuclear destruction). There is also a shrine to Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, two characters that Jones himself invented in 1949, the former inspired by a description of a coyote in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

Chuck Jones, Duck Amuck, 1953, animation, color, sound.

Twain was a lifelong inspiration to Jones, who writes in his 1989 autobiography Chuck Amuck that the author “used words the way the graphic artist uses line control.” Viewing Jones’s cartoons—or re-viewing, as will be the case for most visitors, for they are part of a shared world heritage—you appreciate just how much of the humor is in the details: a pivot of the hip, a sidelong glance at the audience, various bits of filigree in both scripting and animation. Wordplay-based Duck Seasoning (1952), for example, is all about pronoun switcheroos, but Jones also worked extensively in “silent” comedy, like the Road Runner ’toons or One Froggy Evening (1955), dialogue-free save for vaudeville outbursts at every moment but the crucial one from a singing frog.

In common with Warners stalwarts like Tashlin, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett (the proverbial underrated genius), Jones was master of the killingly funny detail, given resonance through isolation on the screen-canvas. The studio’s house style, determined in part by budgets that were a fraction of Disney’s, was minimalism—this aligned the Looney Tunes look of the late ’40s and ’50s to then-contemporary currents in streamlined design. The history of pre-CGI American animation in the twentieth century is in many respects a story of gradually cutting corners, from the teeming detail of Disney’s first features to the bargain-basement product that Hanna-Barbara assembly-lined for television, the medium which effectively administered the coup de grâce to Warners. The heyday of Looney Tunes was a moment when poverty and ingenuity miraculously aligned, creating works that thrived through what Jones called “the ability to live by the single line—that single, honest delineation of the artist’s intent.”

The “What’s Up Doc?” galleries are anything but minimalist, crowded with posters, promotional folderol, cel art, exposure sheets (a table layout of the shot selection and timing of an animation, down to the last frame), bar sheets (same, showing the relationship between image and musical notation), and other production ephemera, some 125 pieces overall, hung in close proximity to video excerpts of the finished product. Jones’s character style sheets, annotated guidelines as to how to illustrate Bugs or Wile E., offer a privileged perspective on the top-down creative process, while the display items which are of the most interest as standalone objets d’art are the background paintings, like Maurice Noble and Philip De Guard’s futuristic world-building pieces for Duck Dodgers or the southwestern vistas of the Road Runner shorts. Using Jones’s career as a specific point of entry, “What’s Up Doc?” provides an education in the step-by-step collaborative process whereby cartoons were constructed in the cel animation era—the same process that is deconstructed on-screen in the Pirandellian Duck Amuck. (Which may have taught Godard a thing or two about sound track subversion.) Not only does all of this aid in understanding what it is precisely that a cartoon director (or “Supervisor,” as Jones was sometimes credited) does, but it also highlights the contributions of his regular collaborators at the run-down “Termite Terrace” building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, including Noble and De Guard, writer Michael Maltese, musical director Carl Stalling, and man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc.

One can eavesdrop on Jones and Blanc in the middle of Warners voice-recording sessions in the two listening stations which are part of the exhibition, or listen to latter-day interviews in which Jones discusses his formative influences and his technique. Jones was unusually articulate analyst of his own work, a fact that the wall text benefits from, setting up side-by-side illustrations of his inspirations from fine art—Degas, Van Gogh, and Japanese printmaking—as reflected in his cartooning. The former aspiring painter had no thought that he was making anything gallery-worthy, though: Jones didn’t collect the by-products of his cartooning, and that so many artifacts have been assembled in one place and formed into a coherent show is a small miracle. The type of materials on display here were traditionally destroyed as soon as they had served their purpose—remember Jones’s tenure as a cel washer?—and sometime in the mid-’60s a great deal of the Looney Tunes “archive” was unceremoniously put to the torch in the Warners parking lot. As Daffy says in Duck Amuck: “Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”

“What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, through January 19, 2015.