Cartoons and Animation
The Golden Age of Warner Cartoons is probably the high point for this art form in total popularity. Generally ranking above most of the Disney efforts comes the exploits of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote.
While Harmon and Ising (who once worked with Disney in Kansas City at the newspaper doing animation) started the Warner animation unit, it is the work of Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones (along with Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimsom and Bob Clampett) that truly became the “Warner classics.”
In the earlier part of the 1930’s Avery and Freleng were both unit directors at Warner’s steering cartoons, while Jones was a senior animator. One day a new head of the unit came in as asked what Jones did and he told him he was a Director, so the head guy told him to go direct something! Within a few years the name Chuck (Charles M.) Jones would be associated with some of the best cartoons of the Warner era, including the “Road Runner” series which Jones created (along with the affectionate skunk, Pepe Le Pew).
Each of the Warner directors had their own trademarked approach to things. Avery was into the sexual, violent and social side of things (he created some of the raciest and racial of cartoons, including "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs"). Jones was into sight gags and broad humor (Opps, zoooooom, wham, bam, bang!). Freleng was more cerebral and abstract, but also embraced sexuality a bit at times.
The animation unit of Warner Studios was actually located in a converted house on Sunset Boulevard in the Hollywood area and quickly became known as “Termite Terrace.” Far from the studio lot and front office the only connection with the “suits,” as they are known in the trade (nee: studio functionary executives), was a sole producer and the classic era of Warner cartoons has two, Eddie Selzer and Leon Schlesinger, of which the most prolific cartoons emerged during the Schlesinger era. In fact, it was Schlesinger’s voice that was the model for Daffy Duck (although all the voices for all the Warner cartoons of this era were done exclusively by Mel Blanc, except for the “little old lady” voice which was done by June Foray). After they made the first Daffy cartoon Schlesinger congratulated them on the outstanding work, especially the voice! He wanted to know where they got that wonderful voice from. (Of course, they never told him to his face, they all just scurried to their workstations in giggles.)
At this point you need to understand what an animation unit is. At Disney, Fleischer, Lantz and Warner animation divisions there are a lot of artists. Some are junior artists (called “in-betweeners”). Some are senior artists (called “key animators”). Some do backgrounds (and Maurice Noble was the best at this task for the Warner studios). Some of the creative people write (of which Michael Maltese was the primary writer at the Warner unit) and some do voices. Some design. Starting work is cel polisher. “Cels” are clear sheets of plastic on which the final characters, backgrounds and foreground elements are drawn in black India ink by the animators. Cel polishers clean these sheets. From here you move into the art department cleaning up pencil drawings or painting background colors onto the back side of the cels. Starting work here is often painting sheet white over all the colored in areas to prevent color bleed during photography. Then you paint the actual colors based on an instruction sheet from the director.
The director (aka: unit director) is in charge of a given cartoon from concept to completion. The director will work with a writer and designer on an idea. Pepe Le Pew, the French skunk who falls in love with a female cat who accidentally gets a white stripe down her back, was a Jones creation. Jones fancied himself as Le Pew. He designed the character of both Pepe and probably the female cat and breached the idea to the staff. Then Michael Maltese and other would work with Jones on developing a full story line with action and dialog around this "character” and “concepts” as shown by Jones with a few drawings and words in what is often known as a “pitch” sessions.
All the main people, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and others would probably be in this “pitch” session and, unlike the “suits,” they were more receptive and would give good creative input. Once the whole idea was given their 'blessings' Jones, Maltese and Noble would go to work developing a “story board” with Jones doing the key drawings for the action and written dialog devised by Maltese and Jones. Noble would submit a few key drawings for the “surroundings” or “setting” of the action.
Once again the “clan” would be assembled for a presentation or “pitch” on the final idea for a 7 minute cartoon. They’d look at the 20, 30, 40, 50 still images of characters and action. Hear the dialog by Maltese and decide if it was a good and funny idea worth investing 5% of the yearly budget they were allowed to make cartoons.
Somewhere along the lines Schlesinger would also be clued in, but if an idea had the support of every major player his approval was largely rubber stamp. He was a bean counter.
Road Runner was another Jones creation based on a young “go-fer” – that’s a kid who works in the office and goes fer coffee, goes fer lunch and goes between offices with stacks of paper and as he goes, he goes “beep, beep!” as a caution to those who might walk in his path.
Jones liked that “beep, beep!” and created a character to go with it.
Bugs Bunny was created by an animator at the unit, who drew a rabbit. Everyone called it “Bugs' Bunny” because the artist was named Bugs Hardaway. Hence, the name Bugs' Bunny stuck, in a modified form of Bugs Bunny.
Bugs Bunny evolved in size and shape over the year from the original “Bugs” design to what Avery and Jones had him looking like by the 1940s.
Once a “story board” and new “characters” (such as Bugs Bunny or Pepe le Lew) have been approved, the director -- in our instance Chuck Jones -- goes to work designing the whole thing. The first thing they do is the sound track. Mel Blanc (and if necessary June Foray) goes over the storyboard with Maltese and Jones. Then they go into a recording session in which the voices are put together piece by piece on sound film (back in the 30’s and 40’s they didn’t have tape so things were recorded directly on film with light).
Jones would work and re-work the sounds. Then it would go to a sound editor who would mix and render a final audio track of the voices. Jones would then take this and create a log sheet known as a “timing sheet” that tells the animation department how many frames (individual drawings) must be made for each word and each second of action. Sometimes sound effects are added up front, other times after the finished animation is made. The length of these sound effects are also “timed” if they are already in place.
Once a timing sheet is finished Jones would then draw the major action frames for each character. These would be handed to a senior animator for clean-up and extra “key” drawings.
Jones would work on the primary expressions. If Pepe Le Pew was to move his eyebrows up and down Jones would draw that action. If the girl “cat” was to have a facial reaction, Jones would draw that. The rest of the action was left to the “key” animator to draw the starting and ending (or "key") frames. From here an “in-betweener” or junior artist would draw all the frames “in-between” the key actions.
Remember that timing sheet? Now, understand it takes 24 drawings to make one second of animated cartoon. Pepe Le Pew raising his eyebrows might take two or thee seconds. Jones would draw only four or five drawings to express what he “wanted” in a look and feel. The key animator might only add a few more drawings. The in-betweener must come up with the remaining 38 to 40 drawings for that two second eye brow “bit.” The director has to time the whole 7 minute cartoon, supervise and direct the voices, decide how the action plays over the background, put in notes for sound effects and musice cues!
Once all the drawings are finished the key animator “flips” them in a process called a flip book to make sure the action is smooth. New drawings are made, added or drawings removed as needed to make the action smooth.
Then Jones goes over this flip book.
Once all the drawings are approved, the pencil and paper drawings made by the animators is turned over to “clean-up” people who erase extraneous lines (remember they were drawing in pencil on paper the size of animation cels). Then a cel artist puts clear plastic over the pencil drawing and traces a solid India ink outline that must capture the flavor of the original Jones and other animator’s drawings.
Once this is done, other junior artists (mostly women) then paint in the colors based on designs by Jones and Noble. A sort of “paint by numbers” concept.
The same process is done for the Noble backgrounds, although Noble, himself, may do most of the work with tracing and painting. Only about a dozen very large background cels (they can be may feet wide) or strips are made for each cartoon.
For the action of a cartoon, approximately 10,000 cels are made for each 7 minute cartoon. That’s 24 cels for each second, with 60 seconds in each of the 7 minutes!
It takes several weeks to a month to create one cartoon and the “director” for each cartoon must share all the “workers” with other directors creating other cartoon in tandem (there are generally more than enough artists to make two cartoons at one time, but there were up to 5 or 6 directors working in the unit).
Once all of this is done the Jones timing sheet – complete with notes for music and sound effects to be added around a given time frame – plus the dialog audio track, all finished cels, backgrounds and storyboard is given to the camera department. Jones may or may not be around when they shoot the cartoon from cel to film. He might be around for set-up of the backgrounds and characters. It can take a day or two or even three to film the 10,000 frames one by one.
The background is put on a light table in a frame. The cels, which have punch holes, are put over the background (that white paint over the characters is meant to keep background from bleeding through weak spots and holes in the paint job), they are then lighted and one frame of 35mm film is exposed in an overhead camera. The next numbered cel is placed over the background and the background moved slightly as indicated by directions and marks from Jones on the timing sheet.
Once fully shot, the cartoon is then melded with the audio track and viewed. This is called a “trial composite.” At this point changes can still be made. More footage shot. Frames removed. Jones and another artist may quickly draw some additional material, get it colored, shot and edited into the film.
The final film is sent to the music department at the main studio lot for effects and music. Then a finished print is returned for viewing. At this point only minor edits to the music, effects and color balance can be made and a new “trial composite” returned.
Leon Schlesinger generally has say over how much “re-do” can be done. This is where the bean counter can win out over the creative forces. With each re-do more of the yearly “budget” is spent as the studio bills them for editing time, projection time, lab processing charges, raw film stock and the “go fer” who must deliver the prints for viewing at Termite Terrace from the Warner studio lot in Burbank.
I don’t need to go into detail about the productivity of the Warner unit. “Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century” with Chuck Jones character creation Marvin the Martian (a send up of the Buck Rogers Republic serials, who is out to destroy the Earth and either Bugs or Daffy must stop him and his death ray, which usually fries the fur or feathers off our hero), Duck Amuck (Bugs Bunny as animator of Daffy Duck in a world of paradoxes -- "ain't I a stinker!?"), Rabbit Rampage (Elmer Fudd as animator of Bugs Bunny in a world of paradoxes), Wabbit Seasoning, Falling Hare (with the little blue Gremlin) and all the Road Runner shows speak for themselves!
As time goes by, Tex Avery left Warner did a short stint at the Lantz studio then established the M-G-M studio animation unit. Frank Tashlin moved to live action directing work for the major studios. Bob Clampett when on to do independent work and created "Beanie and Cecil" for television. Friz Freleng also went semi-independent (he was a part of the United Artists studios for a while) and had a long run with the "Pink Panther" series which he created as a title sequence for the live action movie (see our TV section for the "Life and Death of Peter Sellers" HBO Movie) and then was commissioned to do theatrical and later television versions.
By the 1940's "Termite Terrace" was a memory and the Warner animation unit was moved the studio lot.
The Warner unit was basically an "out-sourced" or "guest" director creative area starting in the 1960's, mostly doing "re-packaging" and "rerun" work of the classics into television formats like the "Bugs Bunny Show" with Freleng and others brought in as consultants.
While not the highest of art, as produced by Disney in films like Snow White or Flower and Trees, the Warner output is fast, furious, funny and made with finesse!
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