October 28, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Chuck Jones on Music in Animation

Suspended Animation #295

Chuck Jones in 1950

Producer, director, animator Chuck Jones often wrote little essays for a variety of publications. Many of Jones’ best cartoons rely on music for their impact so it is no surprise he had some opinions on the topic of music in animation even back in 1946.

I once told him in his later years that he looked like a disreputable English professor, a description I repeated in one of my ASIFA newsletter columns, and he delighted in that reference and agreed with it. He certainly never hesitated to pontificate and go off on a tangent. As a result, his autobiography was often tough reading for me.

Hollywood Quarterly was a serious journal devoted to the study of film, radio and later television published between 1945 and 1957 published by The University of Calfornia Press overseen by a five person editorial board guided by advisors in the different genres.

In the July 1946 issue of Hollywood Quarterly, Jones authored a seven page essay entitled Music and the Animated Cartoon. Here is an excerpt from my files that you may never have seen previously.

The animated cartoon, in its mature form, can be the most facile and elastic form of graphic art. Since the first Cro-Magnon Picasso hacked etchings on his cave wall every artist has longingly sought the ideal medium —one that would contain within its structure color, light, expanse, and movement. The animated cartoon can supply these needs.

It knows no bounds in form or scope. It can approach an absolute in technical realism and it can reach the absolute in abstraction. It can bridge the two without taking a deep breath. The technical problems present in live action, when it tends toward the unreal or fantastic, are simply not present to the animator.

The transition of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde is workaday routine to the animator. He can do it and add three pink elephants to the transition. He can do it while stifling a yawn. In fact, he frequently does.

A red ant can grow to a golden elephant under his hand, a flying horse recede to a black pearl. He can create thunderstorms, tidal waves, flying carpets, talking hornets, dancing orchids, all with credibility, all with no technical obstructions.

Yet in spite of these potentialities the animated cartoon has been severely restricted in its growth. Its use as an educational device is a comparatively recent development, stimulated by wartime needs.

Culturally, the animated cartoon is in the toddling stage, as it is politically. It has made few profound statements about anything. Like all other motion pictures, it is dependent on a wide and highly diversified audience approval —the thing known in some quarters as “box office,” and “box office” in terms of animated cartoons is judged almost wholly by the degree of audible audience reaction.

The appreciative chuckle, the pleased cluck, does not add up—in animation circles—to good “box office.” This has resulted in a wave of reaction throughout the industry against the type of cartoons known as “Rembrandts”; that is, any type of cartoon except those based on the “boff” or belly laugh.

One producer asked his artists to use lots of purple in the backgrounds because, as he put it, “purple is a funny color.” Well, I think G-flat is a funny note. I mention these instances, not because I am unsympathetic with the producer’s viewpoint or wish to suggest that the imperative pressures of the box office can be disregarded, but because I believe that a deeper understanding of the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of the medium can serve to broaden its usage and increase its popularity.

My purpose here is the appraisal of one of these possibilities—the function of music in relation to the cartoon.

All cartoons use music as an integral element in their format. Nearly all cartoons use it badly, confining it as they do to the hackneyed, the timeworn, the proverbial. The average cartoon musician was a theater organist during the silent era and so William Tell takes quite a beating in the average cartoon. For some reason, many cartoon musicians are more concerned with exact synchronization or “mickey-mousing” than with the originality of their contribution or the variety of their arrangement.

To be sure, many of the cartoons as they reach the musician are something less than inspirational, but most of them, even the best, gain less than they should from his contribution. I have seen a good cartoon ruined by a deadly score. If you can visualize Death and Transfiguration as a theme to Peter Rabbit, you get the idea.

Nor is this a diatribe against the practicing musicians in the cartoon field; many are excellent and conscientious artists (among them Carl Stalling, Warner Bros.; Scott Bradley, MGM; Frank Churchill, Paul Smith, Larry Morey, and others for the Disney features and shorts), but many tend to underrate the medium and to disregard its musical potentialities.

Here are two examples of what I believe to be the nearly perfect wedding of music and graphics which occurs when the visual and auditory impacts are simultaneous and almost equal.

Both examples are from the picture Fantasia; both are bits. One consumed about four seconds in the Toccata and Fugue sequence. It pictured simply a ponderous, rocklike, coffin like mass that waddled into a murky background accompanied by a series of deep bass notes. I should not say “accompanied,” because this Thing was the music: to my mind there was no separation; the fusion of the auditory and the visual was perfect.

The second of my two instances represents, I believe, the happiest, most perfect single sequence ever done in animated cartoons, perhaps in motion pictures: the little mushroom dance from the Nutcracker Suite.
Here was an instance of almost pure delight; again, an entrancing blend of the eye and the ear in which I found the music itself personified on the screen. There was a personal quality to these sequences, too, that was generally lacking throughout the rest of the film.

It may be that if the makers of future Fantasias will be less concerned with the pageantry of their project and will search harder for the humanness of the music, we will have better films and better box office; for I believe that the mushroom dance has universal appeal, that it will go well in St. Jo and Walla Walla—as well as it will go in Hollywood or New York.

I believe that the best solution to interpretation of abstract music is to go along with it; that is, to be abstract graphically. Audiences may read into your drawings the thing they’ve been visualizing all the time.

I don’t mean that you can throw a blob of ultramarine on the screen and hope thereby that the lady in the third row is going to find her dream prince, while the old gentleman in the right rear is mentally gulping flagons of sparkling mead.

But there are some generally accepted symbols in art as in music. Just as the low note of a contrabassoon does not conjure in your mind “hummingbird,” a single scarlet line does not, in drawing, say “elephant.” These are definite things, yet it is possible to find abstract sounds and abstract images that are sympathetic.

We are dealing with a relatively new but immensely versatile and horizonless medium. The ideas suggested in this paper serve merely to suggest, or outline, a few possibilities from one viewpoint. Any imaginative person can easily elaborate on it. The animated cartoon as an artistic, educational, and entertainment medium is in its infancy. Its maturity depends on you.


  • Chuck Jones’s essay was reprinted in full in THE CARTOON MUSIC BOOK (2002), edited by Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor. It reminds me of the assigned reading I had to muddle through for the 20th Century Music History course I took in graduate school. During the postwar period, academic journals were crammed full of such self-conscious theorising about the future of the fine arts. Some artists, like German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a prolific writer of such essays, ultimately obtained the support needed to fulfill their visions (in his case, from state-sponsored radio). But most never did. For instance, I recall numerous articles positing that in the not-too-distant future, symphony orchestras would have entire sections of electric guitars and synthesizers alongside the violins and cellos. Well, it hasn’t happened yet.

    But I’ll say this for Jones: he’s a much clearer, cleverer, wittier, and altogether better writer than any of the pedantic bores on my assigned reading list. I know that Jones regretted never having attended university, so having an article published by a university press must have been immensely gratifying to him.

    “I have seen a good cartoon ruined by a deadly score. If you can visualize ‘Death and Transfiguration’ as a theme to ‘Peter Rabbit’, you get the idea.” I can visualise it, and it’s hilarious, but I honestly can’t think of any such outlandish examples in any pre-1946 Hollywood cartoon. There are old cartoons with bad musical scores, but those cartoons were generally pretty bad to begin with.

    Jones seems to have had an affinity for the music of Richard Strauss. In addition to “Death and Transfiguration”, the essay mentions his tone poem “Don Quixote” as well as, curiously, his obscure ballet “Schlagobers”. This ballet, about the hallucinations of a boy who overindulges on sweets, premiered in 1924 at a time of food shortages and hyperinflation, and it was a tremendous flop, leading to Strauss’s resignation from the Vienna State Opera. Strauss never conducted it again, it wasn’t recorded until 1988, and to date it has never been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Clearly Jones was citing a work he had read about but never actually heard.

    Likewise, he mentions Erik Satie’s piano piece “Le poisson reveur [The dreamy fish]” as an example of a musical work that would lend itself well to animation. However, Satie never completed it — it was an experimental attempt to mimic the Impressionistic style of Claude Debussy — and it was not published until 1970. Again, Jones could only have known about it from his reading.

    However, there is one point on which Jones was prescient. “Peter and the Wolf, Hansel and Gretel, Don Quixote, among many others, are exciting possibilities.” Jones would, of course, later direct a cartoon based on the Hansel and Gretel story — “Bewitched Bunny” (1954) — although it doesn’t incorporate any of the music from Humperdinck’s opera. It is, in fact, the very kind of cartoon that Jones derided in this essay as going for the belly laugh and the big box office. But there’s nothing wrong with that, is there, Hansel? …Hansel? Hansel? Hansel?

  • I believe Jones was absolutely right about that moment in the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence. That thing WAS the music.

  • The animated cartoon, for me, was not only my introduction to the visual arts but it was my introduction to music appreciation as well, and boy did I appreciate both! Think of what some of our favorite cartoons would be if not for the full orchestration. and I am sure of that, in our lives, there have been many many instances where we’ve listened to a piece of music and found ourselves with our eyes closed, thinking of what kind of animation images would pop up as the piece of music progressed. I know I’ve done that many times.

  • Chuck Jones seemed to be embarrassed to be considered to be a mere “cartoonist.” He liked to compare himself to be a professor, a philosopher and even Mark fucking Twain. He was clearly a man with so little respect for himself that he constantly required a loftier description — always coming from himself — despite the fact that being a cartoonist is the best job on the planet.

  • Much of the enjoyment of a good cartoon is from the music – at least as I hear it. Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn did wonders with their scoring of Warner Bros. cartoons – based on classical compositions, pop tunes and original scores. Ditto for the composers at Fleischer’s, Famous, MGM, etc. in the 30s to the ’60s. Things kind of went down hill then, but sometimes Bill Lava did some lively stuff and I always liked the re-workings of Henry Mancini’s PINK PANTHER score, even if was used endlessly in the cartoons. For what it was, there was often great music in the Hanna-Barbera cartoons scored by Hoyt Curtin. JONNY QUEST – to me – is timeless. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that Warner’s tried to recapture the style of the “classic” cartoon music – and they pretty much succeeded for awhile. But, we’ve all seen cartoons ruined by bland, mediocre or hopelessly “funny” music!

  • I get the feeling Mr. Jones rather enjoyed showing people how brilliant he was (and he was), don’t you?

  • Right on cue, here come the “Jones is a snob” posts.

    • Considering he’s my favorite LT director, I rather not have those posts. This isn’t Cartoon Brew.

      • I’ve never heard of Cartoon Brew so I went and checked it out.
        As Bugs Bunny once said, SHEESH!!!

        • There’s a lot of good stuff posted on that site (years ago, our own host here Jerry Beck co-founded it with Amid Amidi, even); not too many other sites will bother covering some of the obscure, abstract, or experimental films that they periodically feature, and even if not all of them are to my tastes, some of them are fantastic. But there is also a curious mixture of disdain for making cartoons with broad audience appeal and of reverence for Illumination, the studio that best exemplifies creating cartoons with broad audience appeal. As much as I think it’s worth checking out regularly, some of their articles elicit a “Sheesh” from me as well.

    • To be fair, he was very much a self-conscious intellectual, and I can understand people rolling their eyes at that sort of thing.

      Still preferable to being a self-conscious vulgarian, IMHO.

  • I couldn’t even read this past the first few line.

  • You can’t blame Chuck Jones for wanting to sound a little “high-falutin'” now can you? It wasn’t all that long ago that being an animated cartoon director in the film industry was about at the level of directing THREE STOOGES shorts or movie serials. Film scholarship over the past 40 years ago – or so – has changed the perspective a bit. For the better, I think.

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