It’s amazing, what you can get in life if you only ask.
I had admired the work of Chuck Jones (creator of The Road Runner and Pepe LePew) ever since I became one of those movie nerds who read credits. The interview below was obtained after only a couple of calls to the office of Jones’ daughter Linda (who was handling her father’s cartoon work at the time). I freely admit that the interview didn’t set the animation world on fire, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my life.
Steve Bailey: So how does it feel to have influenced an entire generation of filmmakers?
Chuck Jones: Well, I don’t like to look at it that way. If you start to take yourself very seriously, you don’t go very far. When one of my colleagues was given an Academy Award, he said, “What do I do now? I’ve earned the highest honor possible. There’s nowhere else to go.” And you have to think, Well, it’s just an award!
SB: But certainly you’re aware of your influence, when you can go to a record store and buy a Leon Redbone album with your drawing on the cover, or you see a Mel Brooks movie [Spaceballs] where an alien sings the same song your frog sang [in Jones’ 1955 cartoon One Froggy Evening].
CJ: I’d say I did a lot of good cartoons that were enjoyed by a lot of people, and someone else pegged me as an “artist.” We certainly didn’t regard ourselves as artists when we were doing them — we were making films that we thought would last maybe two or three years. We didn’t know what the audience wanted. And it probably still doesn’t know what it wants — this business of testing and marketing is pretty silly. We made the pictures for theaters, and for ourselves.
SB: Well, then, let’s say your cartoons had an impact on people. Were you aware of an impact when you were making them?
CJ: Oh, no. In fact, when UPA [creators of Mr. Magoo] first came about, their P.R. man decided they needed an enemy, so he said, “Our enemy is Disney. We’re doing ‘modern’ animation, and we’re against fuzzy animals.” Well, we never did fuzzy animals to begin with — you can hardly draw them. But people were impressed with UPA, and so all the local schools hired people from UPA. They never bothered with us. We were recognized in Europe long before we were in the United States, and I think the Californians were the last to notice.
SB: What’s the most surprising response you ever received to your work?
CJ: To be asked to lecture at Oxford is pretty startling. But then again, they’re all pretty startling. I don’t know how many languages we’ve been translating into. I saw a comic strip of the Coyote once in Copenhagen. It was a printed comic where the Coyote is falling, and as he fell off the cliff, he was saying in big letters, “HJELP!” I said, “What do you know? We can write in Danish!”
SB: What does an animation director do?
CJ: It depends on where he works — a director at Warners didn’t work the same way as at M-G-M. At Warner Bros., you’d work with a writer, though you’d find that you’d have to be about half of your own story department. Most of the writers at Warners didn’t draw very well, and really, I didn’t want them to — I wanted them for storylines and gags.
After we finished the story — and of course it wasn’t really finished, just like a director isn’t finished just because he has a script — then I’d take the storyboard into my room. And I’d ask Maurice Noble [Jones’ layout artist at Warners] to do “inspirational” sketches to see what worked visually. I’d do three or four hundred drawings myself, out of a cartoon with maybe four thousand drawings, and then I’d write the dialogue. Then I’d call in Mel Blanc [legendary voice artist for most of Warners’ cartoon characters] and direct him with the dialogue.
Then I’d time it before it went to animation. This is the part that amazes directors like Steven Spielberg. They can’t see how we’d do it. We’d time it in our heads so that it would come out pretty close to 540 feet, the average length of a six-minute cartoon. We had to time it ourselves, because we didn’t have the luxury of shooting it and then not using it, as was done at Disney. The director makes all the decisions.
SB: Is the humor in your cartoons based on your triumphs and failures?
CJ: Totally. Where else can you go for inspiration? You act on what you know. I’d like to think I’m Bugs Bunny or Pepe LePew, but in my heart I know I’m more like Daffy Duck or the Coyote. Or take the Grinch [from Jones’ 1966 TV special based on Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas]. Everyone hates Christmas a little. Someone who hates Christmas a lot is a real character find!
SB: What amused or influenced you when you were growing up?
CJ: Mostly reading — anything. My father always said, “If you read, you’ll get in the habit.” If you read The Bobbsey Twins, you’ll probably throw up. But in doing so, you’ll discover what is good. Beatrix Potter, on the other hand, is wonderful and can be read by children and adults, and that’s the key. If you try to write just for children, you’ll talk down to them, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.
SB: What sort of comedy do you find funny?
CJ: I loved Chaplin and Keaton. We didn’t consciously copy them, but a lot of it got in there, I guess. City Lights and Modern Times are two of my all-time favorite comedies, but then Chaplin started regarding himself as an artist and trying to be profound. I’m not even sure The Great Dictator is good social commentary, much less comedy. Woody Allen was wonderful until he tried to become Ingmar Bergman, and that’s a pity, because there aren’t enough talented comics around.
SB: There seems to be a resurgence of high-quality animation in the past few years. Do you think animation will ever return to the level it was when you were working at Warner Bros.?
CJ: Well, it’s possible — there are some great things going on. You have guys like Ralph Bakshi [Fritz the Cat] and Don Bluth [Anastasia] doing some wonderful things. I may not like a guy’s particular style, but if he likes animators, I’ll follow him to the end. I liked The Duxorcist [Daffy Duck’s 1987 “comeback” cartoon], but it was rather imitative of the old style. You have to find something new.
SB: Your work seems to reflect your philosophies. Do you subscribe to any particular religion or philosophy?
CJ: Oh, no. As the man once said, I have some suppositions but no facts. I prefer to live with the questions.
SB: If you had a choice, would you do anything differently?
CJ: No, not at all. You know, I don’t get residuals from my movies or videocassettes of my work, but it’s silly to complain about not making money from it. All those years, somebody paid me for what I wanted to do!