September 10, 2015 posted by

In His Own Words: Chuck Jones on Warner Bros.

chuck-jones-184Chuck Jones received multiple Academy Award nominations over the years and in 1996 he received an honorary Oscar for “the creation of classic cartoons and cartoon characters whose animated lives have brought joy to our real ones for more than half a century.”

Chuck Jones passed away February 22, 2002. This interview took place in 1976. I interviewed Chuck several times over the years and I later realized that Chuck, like many others, had “canned/pre-prepared” answers and anecdotes that he would repeat for many different interviewers so some of these responses may seem similar to other things you may have read.

Jim Korkis: How did you start in animation?

Chuck Jones: I attended Chouinard Art Institute, now known as California Institute of the Arts, graduating without distinction or the ability to draw. After nearly ten years of night school with Donald Graham, I still could not draw but I now could fake it quite well. Bad drawing was no particular advantage in the field of commercial art, but it was ideal for celluloid washing.

I got a job with Ub Iwerks, who had just started his own studio after leaving Walt Disney. He was doing the Flip the Frog series. I graduated to inking and then, eventually, inbetweening. Then I went to Walter Lantz for a short time and also Charlie Mintz. These periods were all very brief. The whole time period at these places was less than two years. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to be an animator. I didn’t see much future in it.

I spent some time doing sketches of people for a dollar a piece on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

JK: How did you first join Warners?

buddy-150CJ: I had married Dorothy Webster, who had fired me when I was working at Iwerks. She helped me get a start at Warners in 1933 and I spent the next twenty-eight years there. As an animator, I worked for directors like Jack King and Friz (Freleng). I was working as an inbetweener to Ham Hamilton and he was the one who eased me off inbetweening and into animation. This was on the Buddy series and fortunately nothing in the way of bad animation could make Buddy worse than he was anyway.

JK: What did the Warners animators think of the work from the Disney Studio at this time?

CJ: We viewed their work with absolute awe. In terms of international communication, Disney was the first one to break through. His cartoons were accepted all over the world. We never considered ourselves in the same league. In many ways, Disney is still the most important man in animation because he created an atmosphere where animators could flourish. In doing so, he pointed the way for everybody else to animate creatively.

bugs-bunny-200JK: How did Warners develop so many memorable characters?

CJ: Mahler once said his Sixth symphony came to him when he was opening a sandwich and peered down at the greasy wrapping paper. Likewise, there is no “moment of inspiration” for a cartoon character. It is more a process of evolution.

In those days, you never set out to create a long-running character. However, when you found a personality that worked, you’d begin thinking of ways to build upon it. Whenever we would begin using a character on a regular basis, rules would soon be developed. These were the “givens” that could not be broken and still have the character maintained.

And that was the key to so many of the Warner characters. They weren’t funny because of the way they were drawn; they were funny because of what they did and how they did things. It is the ability of the character’s personality to have an attitude that is funny.

JK: When you were working on cartoons at Warners, how beneficial was it to work with the same people all the time?

CJ: The team thing is very important. It gets to the point where you can snap your fingers, or make a single drawing to convey your idea. Whenever a new animator came to work for me, he was in trouble for a while, because on my exposure sheets, I would put down “BAL” which meant “balance” or “ANT” which meant “anticipate”.

hook-line-stinkerAnd all my animators had to know exactly what they meant. I’d want a particular character balanced solid on his feet before he did something. We began to understand that we could anticipate by one frame. If a step is supposed to come down on a beat, we found out that if you move it up one frame, it would work, would make the step appear to be exactly on beat. We found it worked best for the entire theater if you were one frame ahead of the beat.

JK: I know that the Disney Studios use to preview their cartoons at the Alex Theater in Glendale and watch the audience reaction to try and figure out what the audience wanted. I haven’t read of Warners doing the same thing.

CJ: Only in the first year or two as a director did I try to figure out what the public wanted and try to supply that want. Then I discovered that the public hasn’t any idea at all what it wants, as was so appallingly proved in the case of the Edsel automobile, in which the Ford automobile company spent a reported quarter of a billion dollars trying to build an automobile to the public’s taste and the public’s taste came out looking, as Bob Hope put it, “like a Buick sucking a lemon”.

What I have tried to do always was to realize that my field was laughter, that I should never make a film without trying something new, that something should never be ostentatious, and that I should always put in something just for myself. That I should ignore what the public wants without once ignoring the public. Above all, that I must never underestimate the public.

And finally, I must remember that eight to ten hours of every day was a big portion of my life and what I did during that time should be happy and stimulating. But the kind of animated comedy that I enjoy most requires public acceptability.

JK: Thank you, Chuck.



  • Is it really a ‘canned/pre-prepared response’ as much as it is a case of ‘ask the same question, get the same answer’? I’ve heard complaints about Chuck that he kept telling the same anecdotes over and over (not that you phrased it as a criticism but others have). Well, it dawned on me that he had been asked the same/similar questions for 30+ years.

    • I think you make a great point. It is something that I have always tried to mentor in young Disney historians. Don’t keep asking Ward Kimball how he created Jiminy Cricket. There are fifty interviews already where Kimball talks about creating Jiminy Cricket. I saw occasions when Ward would bite his lip and his eyes would look tense as he would once again recount the story very slowly as if it were a great waste of his time. On the other hand if you asked him about something out of the ordinary like using Ed Wynn for live action reference, he would brighten and sometimes launch into an answer that had nothing to do with the question but would be highly entertaining and informative.

      I liked Chuck Jones. I also liked Bob Clampett. One of the things they had in common was that they were both very aware when they were being interviewed that they should be careful about what they said and that it would impact their legacy. Bob was more relaxed about it but he was always careful to get the names and facts as correct as he could even to asking for me to put in a “bookmark” in the interview and he would get back to me with the right answer. He always did. I used to kid Chuck that in his later years he looked like a disreputable English professor and it made him laugh and he took great pride in that because he always (in the later years) made an effort to show off his knowledge of literature and music and such to show what an intelligent person he was. When I published my first interviews with them, they each sent me an autographed pencil sketch. Bob sent me Beany and Cecil and Chuck sent me Duck Dodgers. I miss them both and once I turned off the tape recorder they both regaled me with “off the record” stories.

  • I asked Ward Kimball a few animation questions in September of 1977 and he answered politely. But when I asked ‘How long have you been into trains?’ he brightened considerably and eagerly recounted about fifteen minutes of cherished railroad anecdotes.

    • A friend of mine likes to go to conventions with celebrity guests and get actors’ autographs on stills from their movies. He makes a point of getting stills from their less known efforts signed because the celebrities are more likely to open up about subjects they haven’t long since talked to death. Case in point being Richard Kiel, who was obviously thoroughly tired of talking about playing Jaws in the Bond movies. My friend brought him a still from one of his early movies (“Giant of Thunder Mountain”), and Kiel lit up in delight at seeing a picture of himself without metal teeth. Kiel actually co-wrote that movie and he chatted with my friend for a bit about how it was made and such. If my friend had presented yet another photo of him as Jaws, I’m sure he wouldn’t have talked nearly so much.

  • I liked Chuck Jones’ answer regarding the public and what it wants. An artist, I feel, should never compromise his or her own vision, and then just give it time and the public will come around. I’ve always been a bit disappointed in studios not giving certain ideas a chance to thrive before they decide that “something is wrong”. The pat story that Jones has always told is the epiphany when he put more comedy in his films and audiences responded positively to it. As for Disney, well, although his vision might have been the template, so to speak, for years, that doesn’t mean that so many since haven’t given so much more to the art of animation, changing its face and challenging the elders a bit. That’s not always a bad thing.

  • When I ever get a chance to ask a celebrity a question, i usually try to think of a question that I don’t think has ever been asked.

    Having attended a few convention panels, it frustrates me when a fan asks a celeb a question for something they could have easily googled.

  • For an interview that is said to be “pre-prepared”, this is the first time I heard that he married the girl that fired him at Iwerks.

    • That may have been a typo. Obviously it was meant to read hired.

  • I did a “round robin” interview (several journalists on one celebrity) with Spike Lee when he was doing press for Crooklyn. He gave solemn answers to questions about race and politics. But as this was his “seventies” movie, featuring lots of vintage TV in the background, I asked, “What were your favorite TV shows as a kid?” He brightened up and went into his list, starting with Wild Wild West.

  • Jim, you need to write an entire book of the “off the record” stories!

    • I have thought about that. I kept all the “off the record” stories as well as things that my interview subjects insisted be cut from their interview. The first animator I ever interviewed was Jack Hannah and he went on for five or ten minutes on what an S.O.B. Ben Sharpsteen was and it broke my heart when I gave him the interview for approval and he took all of that stuff out. “It doesn’t enrich Disney history to bad mouth a guy who is no longer around to defend himself,” he told me and because I allowed him to do that change, I got the chance to interview him many more times over the years and he was much more relaxed and I got even more “off the record” stories. A friend who is a reporter told me “Remember nothing is ever off the record. If they said it to you, then it has been said.”

      Unfortunately, my Animation Anecdotes book collection did not sell well at all. So there is no sequel for that book and no interest by my current publisher to print another animation book. The Animation Anecdotes book is still out there and if sales picked up that might open a few doors for an “off the record” book. Basically, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be interested in classic American Animation as we were in the 1980s.

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