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Hollywood Is Playing Chuck Jones' Toon

Oscars: O.C.'s resident animation genius, creator of Bugs Bunny and more, will receive career tribute.

March 23, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORONA DEL MAR — Who is Chuck Jones? Short answer: the mad genius behind Bugs Bunny.

The long answer will be offered Monday night by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the form of a tribute to the 82-year-old animation artist and director, culminating in the presentation by Robin Williams of an honorary Oscar.

The Oscar is one of two being presented in recognition of exceptional career achievement (the other going to Kirk Douglas). In addition to Bugs, Charles Martin Jones created or was instrumental in creating such classic creatures as Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Pepe Le Pew.

His significance is summed up by one of his lifelong collaborators, background designer Maurice Noble, 84, who got his first screen credit on Walt Disney's "Snow White."

"I would rank Chuck right up there with Walt," Noble says.

Perhaps the grandest assessment comes from Hugh Kenner, a literary scholar and biographer noted for his critical studies of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Kenner, who also has written a book on Jones, calls him not just "a great artist"--the equal of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton--but "a creative genius in a wholly new medium" and a key innovator in a brilliant period of animation art comparable to "the brief flowering of Periclean Athens."

"Fortunately for us, we didn't know it," Jones replied recently, with a boyish smile bordering on a cat-ate-the-canary smirk.

"I never strove for success," Jones said, "any more than I strove to win an honorary Oscar. That's pudding. Nobody figured animation would go any place. I only wanted to do what I enjoyed. I didn't have any ambitions. When I came out of art school and somebody offered to pay me to draw, that's all I ever asked for."

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Tall, balding, freckled from a lifetime of too much sun, and wearing a gray goatee, Jones cuts a figure somewhere between a Bohemian and a boulevardier. He was sitting at a glass-topped desk with a silver-handled cane at his side in an art gallery devoted to his work. He comes regularly to the gallery, on Coast Highway, from his oceanside home nearby. He also commutes several times a week to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where he heads a new animation unit.

"The awards are raining down," he said. "I think they're trying to get them in before I go to Forest Lawn."

Earlier this month, the Directors Guild gave Jones its Honorary Life Member Award. (Director D.W. Griffith, one of Hollywood's founders, was the first recipient in 1938.)

"Now that award is quite an accolade because it comes from people who are very accomplished in their field. This isn't necessarily true of the Motion Picture Academy--though the Oscar they're giving me is from the board of governors, so I guess they're competent."

Hardly a sentimentalist, but full of real sentiment, Jones disarms you with a penetrating gaze. If the Oscars seem to him a somewhat-tarnished measure of excellence--Jones measures excellence exclusively against Mark Twain--his opinion comes from long experience with producers who often walked away with Oscars they didn't earn.

Of the three Academy Awards already bestowed on his work over the years, Jones has only one of them--for "The Dot and the Line," an abstract animation that brought a Matisse-like world to life.

When he made "For Scentimental Reasons" in 1949--"the first authentic Pepe Le Pew," he says--his Warner Bros. producer, Eddie Selzer, turned up his nose. He saw nothing entertaining in the idea of a dandified skunk with a French accent and fought to keep the film from being made.

"But," said Jones, "when it won an Academy Award, he gracefully went up and took the Oscar for himself and put it on his mantel. That was the rule: Producer gets the Oscar. Ridiculous! There was a producer at Warners who did all the short subjects. I know he had 14 Oscars, none of which he'd won. In some cases he hadn't even seen the films."

From 1933 to 1963, Jones worked out of an old bungalow dubbed Termite Terrace on the Warners lot, along with the prolific Friz Freleng and Tex Avery. They were the main competition for Disney, turning out hundreds of labor-intensive, hand-drawn cartoons (each 6 minutes long) for theatrical release.

Jones directed 208 of them--that is, he defined the characters and set them in motion with his expert sketches; helped write the story lines, and guided the actors who did the voices (chiefly the fabled Mel Blanc).

Jones also supervised the animators who made detailed drawings from his sketches and who, in turn, supervised the "in-betweeners" assigned to copy their drawings (one for every two frames)--so that with changes in position and perspective enhanced by the designers' backgrounds, this "flurry of drawings" would flesh out the illusion of motion when projected at 24 frames per second.

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