Thursday 8 October 2015

'Eighteen frames into the distance'

Until I happened upon it while browsing the web, I had no idea that the eminent literary scholar Hugh Kenner had written a book about the great animator Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame). But there it was - Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, the third in a University of California Press series, Portraits of American Genius. And so, of course, it is: if any animator can claim the 'genius' label, it is surely Chuck Jones (no, not Walt Disney, who wasn't a particularly brilliant animator himself; his gifts lay elsewhere).
 Kenner's book draws on other published studies of Jones, on Chuck's own Chuck Amuck, and on conversations with the highly articulate and intelligent Jones. But most of all it draws on a deep knowledge and love of those great animations. Kenner outlines the unique set of circumstances that enabled them: Jones's own extraordinary talent and imagination, the coming together of a dream team of animators and voice artist (Mel Blanc) around him, and, paradoxically, the extreme parsimony of the producer overseeing their activities at Warner Brothers, Leon Schlesinger, whose only interest in animation was to keep it cheap. 'He [Schlesinger] once bought a yacht from Richard Arlen,' recalls Jones in conversation with Kenner, 'and called it the Merrie Melodie, with a little dinghy on the back that he called Looney Tunes. One day I said, "Mr Schlesinger, when are you going to take us out on your yacht?' And he replied, "I don't want any poor people on my boat."'
 Financial restraints worked with the artistic restrictions Jones imposed on his work - always paring it down to essentials - to create greatness. 'You don't lose when you restrict,' writes Kenner, 'no, you gain. That's true of all Art, and a maxim Animation was a long time validating. Out in Burbank the Disney folk were never sure that there was any limit between what they were doing and sheer hang-it-all Realism. (T.S. Eliot, whom they didn't read, had supplied a theme for pondering a decade previously. What had killed off the theatre the glory of which was Shakespeare, had been, Eliot postulated, its limitless appetite for Realism.)' There's the literary critic showing through...
 Chuck Jones, who was art-school trained and knew his anatomy, realised that the key to characterisation - in fact to just about everything - in animation was movement. You had to get the way a character moved precisely right, and to get that you needed to know that character's weight. This is one of many insights into Jones's technique that Kenner passes on. As a gauge of how precise an artist Jones was, here he is on Wile E. Coyote's trademark fall into space:
 'When I put down a twelve-frame hold, that didn't mean thirteen frames or eleven frames, it meant twelve frames exactly. When the Coyote fell off, I knew he had to go exactly eighteen frames into the distance and then disappear for fourteen frames before he hit. A new animator would come in and he would overlap it, and it would never work.' Eighteen frames, Kenner calculates, is three-quarters of a second, the time between heartbeats at a regular 72 per minute.
 Kenner (like all persons of taste and discernment) prefers Chuck Jones's style to Disney's, whose obsession with 'the illusion of life' led him into expensive artistic dead ends. 'If you're animating,' says Kenner, 'then take pencil in hand and animate! Don't restrict yourself to what a clicky-click tripod-supported optical eavesdropper might have picked up without even thinking (because it can't think) about trying.'
 Warner Brothers, having never really seen the point of its cartoon operation, closed it down twice: once in 1953 when they were convinced that 3-D was about to take over(!), and again, finally, in 1962, when it fell victim to the onward march of television. The movie theatres' standard bill of newsreel, cartoon, short and feature was becoming a dead letter as audiences got all they needed from the television. My own experience of Chuck Jones cartoons began in the news cinemas that were to be found everywhere in my boyhood and youth, and continued when those same six-minute shorts became a staple of television. Television didn't kill Chuck Jones's creations. Nothing ever could.

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