Chuck Jones - Animator and Director Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Chuck Jones - Animator and Director

4 Conversations

A small child once said to me: 'You don't draw Bugs Bunny, you draw pictures of Bugs Bunny'. That's a very profound observation because it means that he thinks the characters are alive.

Charles Martin Jones was born on 21 September, 1912, in Spokane, Washington State, USA. His earliest influences as an artist were a grapefruit-eating, sea-loving cat called Johnson, who taught him the importance of uniqueness, and his Uncle Lynn, who installed in him a life-long love of storytelling. This built on Jones's own passion for reading and language, particularly the work of Mark Twain. Perhaps most important, though, was his father's never-ending stream of failing businesses - they presented the budding artist with an endless supply of paper and pencils.

A Child of Hollywood

The young Jones grew up in Hollywood, where as a child extra on Mack Sennett comedies, he observed the talents of silent greats Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In 1931, Jones was a penniless art graduate, struggling to hang on to the lowest rung of the ladder in a fledgling animation industry. From money earned working on the Sennett comedies, he paid for his tuition at Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of the Arts. To earn a bit extra, he drew pencil portraits for a dollar a-piece in Olvera Street. He then embarked on a series of short jobs in commercial art and animation before finally, in 1932, getting a job with the Harman-Ising Studio.

Over the next 60 years Chuck Jones went on to direct over 300 animated short films, win four Oscars (and be nominated for six others), create one of the most successful television cartoons ever, and be heralded as one of the greats of 20th Century animation.

Early Daze

At Harman-Ising, Jones worked for Ubbe Iwerks (who had worked with Walt Disney on Steamboat Willie1) as a cel-washer, diligently scrubbing transparencies clean of the art that collectors would pay thousands for today. He later worked as an 'in-betweener', filling in the action between key cels designed by the director. In 1933, Jones was assigned to the animation unit headed by the great Tex Avery, housed in what was known as Termite Terrace, due to the cramped nature of the building and the frenetic activity that went on there.

In 1936, Leon Schlesinger bought out the studio. In what was to become a pattern of Jones's life, he soon discovered that his new boss was not an easy man to work for. At showings of new cartoons produced by his employees, Schlesinger was often known to begin the viewing with the immortal phrase, 'Roll the garbage'.

Despite this indifference from his employer, it was while working for Schlesinger that Jones, together with Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, started creating some of the best-known and best-loved cartoon characters to grace the silver screen - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and many more.

Chuck Jones directed his first cartoon in 1938 at the age of 25. This was the otherwise unmemorable The Night-Watchman. For this six-minute cartoon he produced 5000 animated drawings and 300 layouts, finalised the script and directed the art design, animation, music and sound effects. However, 1938 was more important to him for a film he did not direct, but one that was nonetheless to have a profound effect on his career.

Rabbit! Duck! Rabbit!

It was in March 1938 that a strange rabbit named Bugs made his first appearance in a cartoon rejoicing in the unassuming name, Porky's Hare Hunt. Directed by Bugs Hardaway and Cal Dalton, nothing would ever be quite the same again at Schlesinger Studios.

Jones was not to direct his first short film featuring Bugs, Elmer's Candid Camera, until March, 1940. By that time he had already directed 12 further cartoons, including some early pictures in the burgeoning career of Daffy Duck. By most accounts, Elmer's Candid Camera was not a great success:

Perhaps the kindest thing to say [about it] was that it taught everyone what not to do and how not to do it.

Jones and Freleng generally agreed that Bugs had potential, much of which could be seen in Avery's A Wild Hare (1940). However, as even Avery himself was unable to say how he had achieved the desired effect, there was a great deal of stumbling around before Bugs became the smooth talking sophisticate so well-known and loved today.

Daffy Duck made his debut in Porky's Duck Hunt (April, 1937), directed by the indefatigable Tex Avery. Jones's first cartoon featuring Daffy was Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (April 1942).

Daffy's distinctive voice was a result of the staff's dislike for their boss, Leon Schlesinger, who remained blissfully unaware of the lampoon, even declaring at the first showing of Porky's Duck Hunt:

Jethuth Critht thath's a funny voithe! Where'd ya get that voithe?

Sibling Rivalry

Like any sibling rivals born only a year apart, Bugs and Daffy competed for the attention of their parents - and any available audience. This meant they soon developed unique characteristics. Bugs evolving into a wise-cracking, laconic success, whereas Daffy became loud, manic and out of control. If Bugs represented what we would like to be, Daffy was what we secretly recognised ourselves to be.

Perhaps the finest example of the two characters relationship is to be seen in the three brilliant cartoons - Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) - where Bugs and Daffy wage war against each other in an attempt to convince the hapless Elmer Fudd that it is duck or rabbit season. Film critic Richard Thompson wrote of the trio:

Elmer Fudd never knows what's going on; Bugs always knows what is going on and is in control of events; Daffy is bright enough to understand how to be in control, but he never quite makes it.
- Film Comment, January-February 1975

Helping The War Effort

The war years did not stop production at Schlesinger studio. During this period, Jones also worked alongside Theodor Geissel to create a series of cartoons starring Private Snafu for Army-Navy Screen Magazine. These were intended as educational films for the troops. The forging of a friendship between Jones and Geissel - who was to play an important part in Chuck's later life - also occurred at this time.

After the war, working in unison with the writers Michael Maltese and Tedd Pierce, the voice artist Mel Blanc and a host of talented animators and designers (most noticeably layout wizard Maurice Noble and background artist Phil De Guard) Jones went on to direct some of the most loved cartoons featuring both Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953) is particularly notable as it marked the first appearance of the inimitable Marvin the Martian.

A New Source Of 'Inspiration'

Bosses continued to be a rich source of inspiration for Jones and his colleagues. In 1944, Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Bros allowing a new inspiration in the shape of producer Eddie Selzer to came into Chuck's life. On one memorable occasion, Selzer burst into Jones's office and informed both Chuck and Mike Maltese that:

I don't want any gags about bullfights; bullfights aren't funny!

Jones and Maltese figured that as Selzer knew nothing about comedy, he must be wrong. The result was Bully for Bugs (1953), one of Jones's personal favourite Bugs cartoons.

The A-Scent of Pepe le Pew

In 1945, Jones created another strange and curious character, the amorous but odorous Pepe le Pew, for Odor-able You. Pepe was born from Jones's early lack of success with women:

I needed his self-assurance, his absolute certainty of his male desirability, his logical interpretation of any female peccadillo as simply a loving way to convey her love for him.

Oscar Successes

Predictably, Eddie Selzer was less than impressed, stating of the loveable skunk with the French accent:

No one'll laugh at that sh*t.

Curiously, when collecting the Oscar for best animated short in 1950 for Jones' Sentimental Over You (1947), Selzer failed to share this view with the assembled audience.

Chuck scored a unique double at the Oscars of 1950, as his Public Health; So Much for So Little became the first, and, at time of writing, only, cartoon to win an Oscar in the documentary category.

The 'unfunny' Pepe went on to appear in 16 shorts, all but two of which were directed by Jones.

The Wiles and Tribulations of Carnivores Vulgarise

In 1949, Jones and Maltese attempted to create a satire on the trend for chase cartoons that was then prevalent throughout the industry. While Fast and Furryous (1949) may not be brilliant satire, it marks the first appearance of the Road Runner and his tireless pursuer, Wile E Coyote. Against a simplistic background of a desert, with hills, and a road, the Coyote's endless struggle to catch the Road Runner was always doomed to failure, but his perseverance is a lesson to us all.

There was a strict formula to the misadventures of the Coyote, and all the cartoons adhered to a basic set of rules, as follows;

  • The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going 'beep beep'.

  • No outside force can harm the Coyote - only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.

  • The coyote could stop anytime - if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: 'a fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim' - Santayana.)

  • No dialogue, ever.

  • The Road Runner must stay on the road - otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.

  • All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters - the South-Western American desert.

  • All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.

  • Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.

  • The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

The trials and tribulations of the Coyote touch a deep well of sympathy and universal recognition within us all, as fan and director Joe Dante observed:

The cosmic significance of the Road Runner chase is something that you know is pretty much inescapable. Every time the unlucky predator finds himself suspended, he gingerly extends a foot and feels for earth that isn't there. He looks straight at us and blinks those yellow eyes. Then down he goes, until he raises a puff on the floor of the Monument Valley.

The Coyote also formed the basis for another Jones creation, Ralph Wolf, an extremely professional predator, who clocked on next to his nemesis, Sam Sheepdog, for the first time in Don't Give Up The Sheep (1953).

The Grinch Who Stole Our Hearts

Warner Bros finally shut down their Animation Studio in 1962. Undaunted, Chuck was soon back at work, this time for MGM, directing a series of Tom and Jerry cartoons. While at MGM, he also won a third Oscar, this time for the short The Dot and the Line. (1965).

In 1967, Jones joined the ABC television network, and renewed a friendship that he had made during the war. Theodor Geissel had since become famous as Dr Seuss, creator of The Cat In The Hat amongst others. Together, the pair created the ABC 1967 Christmas TV Special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The piece was a huge critical and popular success, with 38 million people watching the first broadcast. Remaining a favourite with audiences worldwide ever since, it was released on DVD in early 2002. The show also went on to win a Peabody Award for Meritorious Services to Television.

In 1971 Jones directed his only feature-length film, an adaptation of Norton Juster's classic book, The Phantom Tollbooth. The piece was a critical success, if not a box office one, and still plays at film festivals around the world.

Chuck Redux

The '70s and '80s were a 'quieter' time for Jones. He continued to work in broadcasting and film - as well as working on his art techniques (original Jones oils of his characters command considerable sums) - through his own company, Chuck Jones Enterprises. His services as an animator and director continued to be in demand - he was responsible for the animation sequences in the film Mrs Doubtfire. He also found time to write two books, Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks, both of which offer a wealth of humour and insight into the career of this great artist.

During his lifetime, Chuck Jones became the most widely-collected animated artist in the world. His art has been exhibited at more then 150 galleries and museums. Along with Windsor McCay, creator of the first cartoon, and Walt Disney, Jones was the first inductee into the Animation Hall of Fame. Of his remarkable artistic life, he once remarked:

I'm still astonished that somebody would offer me a job and pay me to do what I wanted to do.

In December 1992, his classic mixture of Wagner, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd What's Opera, Doc? (1957) was inducted into the Smithsonian's National Film Registry for being 'among the most culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films of our time.' Anyone who has seen the piece would be hard put to disagree with their assessment.

In 1996, Chuck was awarded an honorary membership of the Directors Guild of America. That same year he was also awarded a fourth Oscar. This time for 'Lifetime Achievement'. The award was presented to Jones by a life-long fan and admirer, Steven Spielberg.

On the occasion of Chuck Jones' 55th birthday party, somebody asked fantasist Ray Bradbury what he would like to be when he grew up. Bradbury's reply was Chuck Jones chosen epitaph:

I want to be 14 years old, just like Chuck Jones.

Chuck Jones died in California on February 15, 2002. He was aged 89, going on 14.

1Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1928 in Steamboat Willie.

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