Sunday, June 26, 2005

Great WB Animators: Part 1

Update, July 8, 2005: Part 2, dealing with two more animators, is here.

One of the reasons why Warner Brothers cartoons are so fascinating to watch is that, more than at any other studio, the individual animators had strongly individual styles that were not swallowed up in the "house style" of the studio. Of course WB had a general style, defined not only by the kind of comedy they did, but by the budget (less lavish than Disney and therefore more dependent on strong poses and key drawings to make expressive points). But within that style, the best animators preserved their own quirky, not always by-the-book ways of doing things.

Even strongly contrasting ways of drawing a character were tolerated, sometimes even within the same cartoon. For example, Ben Washam, one of Chuck Jones' best animators, always drew Bugs Bunny with teeth that come to a point at the bottom; it's off-model and contrasts with the way all the other animators drew Bugs, but that was the way he could get the most expression out of Bugs, and nobody was going to make him do it differently just for the sake of making his Bugs look more like the others'. Bob Clampett's two best animators in the '40s, Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner, had totally contrasting styles of animation -- McKimson fluid and graceful, Scribner wild and extreme (really extreme, not Loonatics extreme). But their styles co-existed within the same cartoon and sometimes even within the same scene.

Because WB animators worked on individual scenes and shots, rather than individual characters -- that is, instead of assigning a particular character to a particular animator, a director would break up cartoons into scenes and assign an animator to draw all the main characters in his assigned scenes -- they had to be extremely versatile, adapting their styles to all kinds of different characters. A potential downside of this, at times, is that the acting in a particular scene is sometimes more expressive of the animator's individual personality than the character's: though obviously Rod Scribner animated Bugs Bunny differently from Daffy Duck, the difference between his Bugs and Daffy is not always as great as the difference between any character animated by Scribner and any character animated by Bob McKimson.

With that in mind, I'd like to write an occasional piece on the styles of particular WB animators. I'm not as much of an expert on this as some, expecially Greg Duffell, who can identify just about any WB animator's style and whose posts on alt.animation.warner-bros taught me a lot of what I do know about these animators. But I can, at least, point out some scenes that these guys animated, and mention the basics of what set them apart.

When I give examples of their work, I'll mostly be referring to cartoons that are on the first two Looney Tunes DVD sets, mostly because it's an easy frame of reference. And keep in mind that this is nowhere near an exhaustive survey of the best WB animators; it's really just a survey of a few animators whose styles are easy to spot.

Also, up until about 1945, WB credited only one animator per cartoon, even though most cartoons were animated by three or four people. So I'll sometimes be identifying animators' work in cartoons they're not actually credited for working on.

With that out of the way: this first post will deal with four animators, chosen more or less at random. Hopefully I'll cover a few more animators in future posts.

Manny Gould

Gould animated for Bob Clampett in the mid-1940s, and for Bob McKimson for a couple of years after Clampett left. He wasn't at the WB studio very long, but he left his mark as one of the best of the wild and crazy animators, perhaps second only to Rod Scribner.

One of the characteristics of Gould's animation is to have the characters do extremely broad gestures with their arms and hands, waving their arms around while they talk, and often making the same broad gesture with both arms at once. He wasn't quite as free as Scribner was with distorting faces and bodies for comic effect -- the wildness of Gould's animation is more in the physical acting. He liked to have characters move wildly and stick their arms and heads into the camera, but his drawings are a bit more down-to-earth than Scribner's.

Some examples of Gould's animation for McKimson are many of the scenes with Smoky the Genie in "A-Lad-In His Lamp," who always punctuates his speeches by waving both of his ultra-long arms; the opening scene of "The Foghorn Leghorn," and the Jingle Bells scene in "Daffy Duck Hunt," with Daffy waving his arms to and fro as he conducts Porky and his dog in a premature Christmas song. For Clampett, he did the scene in "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" where Daffy knocks himself out -- see the way he sticks his arm up in the air and throws his whole body forward into the camera as he speaks -- and the scene in "Kitty Kornered" where Sylvester makes his big speech about being skidded out, skooted out, etc., with other characters reacting broadly to Sylvester's broad movements.

Ken Harris

Harris animated for Chuck Jones almost from the beginning of Jones' time as a director and continued animating for Jones throughout his years at WB and beyond. He also animated for Richard Williams on the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and Williams' abortive dream project "The Thief and the Cobbler" (massacred by a studio and finally released as "Arabian Knight").

Harris was a brilliant animator of action, a master of the art of getting characters to express personality and emotion while doing things. One of his greatest achievements was the final scene in "A Bear For Punishment," especially the dance sequence, where, in addition to the basic gag of Mama Bear tap dancing while never changing her usual clueless facial expression, he creates all kinds of hilarious movements with the legs and feet, suggestive of someone dancing up a storm and yet conveying boredom and stiffness through her body language.

He seemed to draw characters with relatively small heads and pinched features; Bugs Bunny in the final scene of Jones' "Hare Conditioned", which looks like a Harris scene, has rather small eyes, nose and mouth. Harris conveyed expression with little looks and facial movements: he was great at raised eyebrows or shifting a character's pupils to the side of the eye for a puzzled or sarcastic look. He also seemed to love having characters look at the camera, sort of sharing their feelings with us without actually breaking the fourth wall; his animation of the Coyote's flying scene in "Gee Whiz-z-z-z" is marvelous, but the heart of the scene is the Coyote's triumphant look at the camera, just before his triumph is cut short. He was also good at animating non-speaking animals and making them act sort of like animals while keeping their cartoony qualities: he did the crying scenes of the dog in "Feed the Kitty" and animated one of my favorite Jones cartoons, "No Barking", the last cartoon featuring the Frisky Puppy who barks wildly and scares Claude Cat, all by himself.

Greg Duffell had a great analysis of the Harris touch in the scene in "Rabbit of Seville" where Bugs puts beauty clay on Elmer's face, waits for it to harden, and then chisels it off; I've quoted it before, and I'll quote it again now:

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!

Virgil Ross

Ross was not only one of the best WB animators, but one of the longest-running contributors to Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies; he started at the Warner Brothers studio in 1935, after a stint with Walter Lantz, and he stayed at WB until the cartoon studio shut down almost thirty years later. From 1935 to 1941 he animated for Tex Avery; when Bob Clampett took over Avery's unit, Ross animated for Clampett for a couple of years, but he and Clampett apparently didn't see eye-to-eye. Ross was transferred to director Friz Freleng. He worked on nearly all Freleng's cartoons for the next twenty years. After the studio shut down, he did some more work for Freleng's company, Depatie-Freleng, some television work, and some animation on Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat.

If animation is acting, then Ross's style can be described as a preference for seemingly subtle acting. I say "seemingly" because there's no such thing as genuine subtlety within the style of the WB cartoons; these are not subtle characters or subtle gags. But Ross liked relatively restrained movements, conveying character with little gestures rather than big ones. You can see this in one of the first cartoons Ross worked on for Bob Clampett, Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942). Ross's first scene in the cartoon starts when Bugs says "What's up, doc?" to Beaky Buzzard. The shot before that, animated by Rod Scribner, has the characters very loose and seemingly free in the way they move. When Ross takes over, he has Bugs and Beaky moving much less, and they express themselves through little gestures: Ross animates Bugs sticking his hands out and to the side as a way of trying to look innocent; Beaky tilting his head 90 degrees as he says "Don't tell me now, don't tell me" (trying to remember what he's trying to catch). Ross doesn't always look like he's doing a whole lot, but every gesture counts, and every movement says something about the character and what he's trying to do in the scene.

As Ross went on, he perfected the art of expressing emotion and personality with small but carefully-executed movements. My favorite Ross scene is probably the scene in "A Bird in a Guilty Cage" where Sylvester tries on a series of hats. His reaction to each hat is different and distinct: he sticks out his tongue and shifts between poses in deliberately limited movement; his face droops from a broad smile to a depressed frown; and, of course, he winds up looking devious yet stupid as he spots Tweety perched on top of a hat. The whole scene is perfectly in character for Sylvester even though he doesn't talk and is doing something seemingly uncharacteristic for him (trying on hats, and women's hats at that); Ross gets to the essence of the character -- what's likable and what's pathetic about him -- with small but perfectly-executed movements. Less can sometimes be more in animation.

Another thing you'll often see when Ross animates is character sort of leaning over to one side as they talk, or punctuating their lines by pointing with one hand or even one finger. You can see this, for example, in the scene in Freleng's "Greedy For Tweety" when Granny makes her first appearance: the animation budgets weren't much by this time, so she mostly just expresses herself by pointing her finger, almost rhythmically, while she speaks.

Other Ross scenes: the opening of "High Diving Hare," the lullaby scene in "Back Alley Oproar," most of the song and dance sequence in "The Hep Cat" (though another animator, probably Rod Scribner, did the close-ups). He was great at dance and singing sequences, and many of the shots of Bugs playing the piano in Rhapsody Rabbit are his, including the shot where Bugs's fingers get tangled up.

Rod Scribner

Scribner is best known for the work he did for Bob Clampett from about 1941 to 1946. Before 1941, Scribner animated for Tex Avery, and after Clampett left he animated for Bob McKimson.

His IMDb bio does a good job of describing his style. The ultimate Scribner scene comes near the beginning of Clampett's Tortoise Wins by a Hare. The opening scene of the cartoon is nearly all re-used footage from an earlier cartoon, "Tortoise Beats Hare." And then we cut to a Scribner-animated Bugs in his house, watching the earlier footage on a screen. He kicks over the projector, and Scribner takes off. Bugs's actual movements aren't all that broad here; Scribner doesn't make his effects by having Bugs overact. What he does is to treat the character's face and body in a very free way, using extreme and sometimes distorted drawings to convey emotion. Bugs doesn't just hunch over to display his perplexity; his whole body seems to crumple as if there's no spine holding him up. He doesn't just look angry toward the end of the scene; his face takes on almost grotesque shapes, with huge teeth drawn in for dramatic effect.

That was the Scribner touch: a willingness to break the rules -- to make drawings that were not pretty, break certain norms of anatomy and movement -- in order to enhance the impact and mood of the scene, and an ability to take characters' bodies to extremes without ever losing the feeling of solid movement. It's easy to draw bodies in free motion if you want characters to look like they have no weight to them. But what Scribner could do, as for example in McKimson's "Of Rice and Hen" in the scene where Foghorn Leghorn stops Miss Prissy's suicide attempt, was to make characters' bodies move in all directions at once, and strike the most extreme poses, while always giving the impression that the characters were characters and not just a bunch of random drawings. There's nothing wobbly or random about his animation, no matter how seemingly free it gets.

Bill Melendez's commentary track for "The Big Snooze" has some good observations about Scribner's style, as does John Kricfalusi's not-all-about-me-for-once commentary on "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery." Here is what looks like a Scribner drawing from that cartoon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across this article from Google looking for some information on Scribner. Wow! This is a fantastic entry.

Growing up and seeing most of these cartoons, I could have easily recognized one animator from the other, but I could never name them and never really knew who did what scene. The DVD grabs are especially helpful.

Thanks for putting this up, it's great.