Chuck 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?
CJ: 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.
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”.
And 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.