Sunday, May 30, 2004

Welcome to My Shop, Let Me Cut Your Mop

Greg Duffell is a veteran animator (and sometime voice actor) who runs Lightbox Studios in Toronto. Through his work with animation legends such as Richard Williams and Chuck Jones, and his own tireless viewing of old cartoons, he became the ultimate expert on classic animation styles -- to the point that he could tell you exactly who animated which scenes in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. He used to post some of these observations on usenet, and I thought I would summarize his findings on one of the most famous Looney Tunes cartoons, Chuck Jones' Rabbit of Seville (which is available on the first Looney Tunes DVD collection).

One thing to note is that in WB cartoons, each animator would handle individual scenes or shots. This was a different system from that used for, say, the Disney feature films, where each major character would be assigned to an individual animator (who would, in effect, be the "actor" of that character, since animation is essentially the creation of physical "acting"). This means that the style of drawing and animation of characters can change from scene to scene; in Bob Clampett's cartoons, for example, there's often a sudden switch between the wild, broad movements created by Rod Scribner and the more subtle, fluid acting created by Robert McKimson. Chuck Jones' cartoons don't usually have that level of contrast, because Jones always made a lot of drawings to guide the animators and impose a certain unity of style on his cartoons, but each animator had his own style.

Anyway, see Rabbit of Seville again, and then read this summary of who animated what. This is my own summary, but again, it's based on Greg Duffell's brilliant work of identifying the animators and individual animation styles; I could never do that. So thanks to Mr. Duffell for his great work and his great eye, here is the summary of the animation in Rabbit of Seville:

- The opening sequence, where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny out of the woods and onto the stage, is animated by Emery Hawkins. (Hawkins wasn't a regular member of Jones' unit; he had animated for Walter Lantz, and then moved to WB to work for director Arthur Davis. When Davis's unit was closed down, Hawkins animated for the three remaining directors at WB, a sort of "rotating" animator, and then left; he mostly worked on commercials after that.)

- When Bugs introduces himself as the barber ("How do! Welcome to my shop -- let me cut your mop"), the animation is by Phil Monroe, who worked in Jones' unit in the late '40s and early '50s, and later animated for Jones at MGM on projects like How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

- Ken Harris, Jones' star animator (he's the guy who animated all the crying scenes in Feed the Kitty, for instance) animates the close shot of Bugs singing "Although your face looks like it might have gone through a machine." Harris was brilliant at doing these kinds of close shots, especially of characters looking toward the camera.

- The next scene, with Bugs in drag, is animated by Emery Hawkins.

- With Elmer back in the barber chair, Ben Washam animates the sequence where Bugs "is massaging Elmer's head and eventually makes a salad there." Washam also animates the subsequent sequence with Bugs as a snake charmer. (Washam is easy to identify, at least in Bugs Bunny cartoons, because he always makes Bugs' teeth pointier -- or "chisel-toothed" as Duffell calls it -- than any other animator.)

- The great chase scene where Elmer and Bugs zoom upward on barber chairs is animated by Lloyd Vaughan (who was with Jones through most of the '40s and the early '50s).

- Ken Harris now takes over in the scene where Elmer gives Bugs the barber a tip, Bugs pushes Elmer around in the revolving door, and then dances Elmer back into the barber chair. As Duffell comments: "This is rare animation, the likes of which we may never see again. The subtlety of action and expression...not to mention the analysis of action from the graceful movement of Bugs' the choreography of the dance with a limp Elmer---all without any live reference I'm sure---is breathtaking."

- Phil Monroe does the shots of Bugs giving Elmer a pedicure.

- Ken Harris is back for the shot of Bugs putting beauty clay on Elmer's face, waiting for it to harden, and then chiselling it off. Duffell again: " Typical of Harris, even in what might seem like a repetitive action of hammering, he subtly modifies each hit, each grimace by Bugs. Bugs seems like a living, breathing character here. What magic!"

- The famous "Figaro Fertilizer" scene, where Bugs applies said fertilizer to Elmer's head (including one shot where Bugs has five fingers all of a sudden) and causes flowers to grow on his bald head, is animated by Lloyd Vaughan.

- Ken Harris now animates the entire final scene of the film: the chase with increasingly large weapons (a perfect visual equivalent of a Rossini crescendo), the marriage sequence, and the final closeup of Bugs saying "next."

My personal note: what's great about Harris's animation -- and the animation of all the great WB animators -- is that it's just so filled with character; every movement made by Bugs or Elmer in this film is perfectly in-character and tells us something about their personalities (Bugs' self-confidence and wit; Elmer's gullibillity and his frustration at being twicked by that wabbit). We're now used to thinking of "acting" in animation as being synonymous with voice acting -- so that the Simpsons voice actors were routinely referred to, in their latest salary dispute, as just "the actors" who play Homer and Lisa and co. -- but acting and characterization comes from the animators too. There is hardly any dialogue in Rabbit of Seville, just one spoken line and a few sung lines, and yet Elmer and Bugs are clearly in character throughout, because of the great actors who were listed as "animators."

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