Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Walt Disney And Chuck Jones: Talking To People

In terms of pop culture awareness, probably the two most famous names in the history of animation are Walt Disney and Chuck Jones.

Walt Disney was a few years older than Chuck Jones and Disney got started in animation a few years earlier than Jones, but for practical purposes the two men were contemporaries. The sensibilities of both men completely shaped the viewing public’s expectations of animation.

Their sensibilities were very different and they worked in very different business arenas.

Walt Disney created his own company and very quickly moved away from doing drawing work himself to functioning as a producer in the classic sense, forging a personal vision and using all his energies and skills and financial resources to share his vision with artists and craftsmen who would bring his visions into reality for audiences.

Chuck Jones, always an artist, always doing drawings himself, spent most of his life working for Warner Brothers, a very business-oriented company that pinched pennies at every opportunity, hired only young or old or dubious workers and delivered the most minimal product theaters would buy.

Oddly, both of these opposite approaches to the business of animation would generate some of the greatest examples of animation art and entertainment ever produced.

Perhaps surprisingly—perhaps not—Walt Disney and Chuck Jones never worked together. They never became friends behind the scenes. However, they did know each other. Chuck Jones tells the story in the second part of his autobiography.

The story starts in 1933. Walt Disney is already world famous and is often compared as an auteur to Charlie Chaplin. Chuck Jones is an unknown apprentice at Warner Brothers working under the guidance of professional animators.

Here is how Jones remembers it:

Character animation started in 1933 with one picture—Disney’s Three Little Pigs, where we saw for the first time how characters who looked alike could be differentiated by the way they moved. I was an in-betweener when Disney made The Three Little Pigs, and I saw immediately that if I wanted to remain in this business, I would have to learn the art of character animation.

Walt Disney, along with many other producers, may have had the political acumen of a squid, but to me he is the patron saint of all animators. When I saw The Three Little Pigs, I wrote him a letter to say how much I admired the picture, and to my surprise he replied, expressing the hope that I would continue to work in animation and that my work might one day stimulate the people at Disney. I was very proud of this piece of paper, and for years I always carried it in my back pocket and showed it to everyone until I wore it out.

Over the years I wrote perhaps four more letters to him, and he always wrote back. About six months before he died, I was at the hospital across the street from the Disney studio, and a nurse told me that Walt was a patient there and suggested I go and say hello to him. I found him alone, sitting up in his bed. Shading his eyes, he invited me in. I told him about the letters and thanked him for replying to every one. He said something peculiar: “It wasn’t difficult. You are the only animator who ever wrote to me.”

It is strange to think that he was adored by so many millions of people but apparently not by those he adored—his own animators, who could do something he could not do and whose talent he so admired.

It is always cool to talk to people.

You never really know what impact even a simple conversation may have.

In my whole life—I’m forty-eight and I’ve been a talkative guy my whole life—in my whole life I’ve only regretted talking to one person. (And even that regret is tempered by the awareness that life is strange and you never know how things ultimately will turn out until after the fact when God explains everything to you up among the clouds.)

It is always cool to talk to people.

1 comment:

Wes said...

Actually, this isn't true. There was a brief time in 1953 when Warner Bros shut down its animation studio. During this time, Disney hired him and put him to work on Sleeping Beauty. It didn't work out as the Disney environment was more micromanaged than at the freewheeling Warners. Four months later, Warners reopened their studios and Chuck went back home.

Anyway, according to Jones, he remained friends with Disney after that.