“The rules are simple. Take your work, but never yourself, seriously. Pour in the love and whatever skill you have, and it will come out.”
If you grew up around a TV set of any kind, chances are you know the name Chuck Jones. At the very least, you would be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 5 who does not know about his animations. Jones created more than just cartoons, he created characters that lived and interacted vibrantly on screens across the nation. From Wile E. Coyote to Marvin the Martian, I’d be willing to bet that most people could list more Looney Tunes characters than current working Senators, probably with warmer feelings to boot.
I bring this up today because I recently enjoyed a brief but inspiring video about Chuck Jones by Tony Zhou from “Every Frame A Painting,” a fantastic youtube channel devoted to the analysis of film form. In this video, Zhou looks at the formulas behind the characters, jokes, and animations that Chuck Jones and the team at Warner Brothers crafted so masterfully throughout the “Golden Age of Animation.” It’s a nice analysis of method and a worthwhile watch for any creative trying to craft a personal “voice.” How did Chuck Jones create such vivid characters? The magic, it seems, is in the details.
Throughout his career Chuck Jones understood and stressed the minutia of complex character development. Actors have characters of their own to draw from when tackling a new role but animated characters start at square one as lifeless drawings. It is no small feat to give life and predictability to a cartoon, but by observing the real world and experimenting with those observations, Jones was able to shape highly relatable personalities that have stood the test of time. After only a few viewings, audiences quickly come to know the habits and desires of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, which in turn informs and enhances the comedy.
Jones often recalled a small child who, when told that Jones drew Bugs Bunny, replied: “He doesn’t draw Bugs Bunny. He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny.” His point was that the child thought of the character as being alive and believable, which was, in Jones’ belief, the key to true character animation.
Jones’ work is a testament to the value of curiosity and diversified interests. Yes, he was a talented and dedicated artist who probably spent hours upon hours at a drawing table but he was also the first one to tell his colleagues to leave the building and learn from the real world. There’s a reason the emotions of his caricatures on screen are instantly relatable; they are distinctly human.
“When a young artist asked me for advice on drawing the human foot, I told him, ‘The first thing you must learn is how to take your shoe off, and then how to take your sock off, then prop your leg up carefully on your other knee, take a piece of paper, and draw your foot.’”
Clearly, Jones’ sense of humor helped him to find inspiration just about anywhere and this would only serve to widen his audience. The characters created at Warner Brothers are not only popular because they are funny, they are popular because they are easily relatable. Jones made a career out of mashing, twisting, and juxtaposing ideas borrowed from everyday routines, classical literature, and popular music. He paid attention to the world around him and devoured information whenever he could. Because of this, nearly everyone can empathize with at least one of his characters, and even where antiquated cultural references might fall short, the emotions expressed will forever be universal.
Reading. Read everything. It doesn’t do you much good to draw, unless you have something to draw and the only place you can get anything to draw is from out of that head and the only way you can exercise the mind is by bringing new ideas to it so it’ll be surprised…and say ‘God I didn’t know that.’ That’s the greatest thing in the world…that ‘Gee I didn’t know that.’ And there you are you know?
To accomplish any level of universality, Jones and his colleagues had to dilute fairly complex emotions and thoughts down to instantly recognizable elements. Think about your everyday interactions. Person to person communication goes well beyond dialogue and is accented by countless subconscious facial cues. Even if divided by a language barrier, humans are quite capable of finding a way to communicate. Jones had a knack for observing these very human cues and incorporating them into his characters.
By the end of his time with Warner Brothers, Jones had become a master of minimalism. Through experimentation, Jones adopted a “less-is-more” approach to expressing his characters. Comparing the later cartoons with early ones presents an incredibly refined technique focused on subtle facial ticks and very human expressions. Marvin the Martian has no mouth and yet still conveys a broad array of emotions. It’s these small elements that make the humor more effective, exaggerated, and understandable at a base level.
“The whole essence of good drawing—and of good thinking, perhaps—is to work a subject down to the simplest form possible and still have it believable for what it is meant to be.”
Jones’ set of disciplines and guidelines for making his characters shine are as inspiring as they are logical. He created over 300 animated films throughout a career spanning more than 60 years and left a cultural imprint on generations. The accessibility of his humor and craft is extraordinary and worthy of study for any creative human being. At the very least, this video is a nice reminder to stay curious and find joy in the smallest details of your life.
“We must not confuse distortion with innovation; distortion is useless change, art is beneficial change.”
For more about Chuck Jones: