Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman delves into bad directing… even from master directors like Chuck Jones.
Animation directing is such a vital subject that I am devoting two installments to the subject. Last month we broke down a well-directed cartoon and examined it in terms of its components and as a whole. This month we will be doing the same with a poorly directed cartoon in order to draw a contrast between the two.
Poor directing is generally a result of the following: Lack of imagination, inability to pace, disconnect with the characters, inability to correct flaws in the story, or in some cases, pure laziness and lack of effort. It can be true that a penurious budget can affect the quality of a cartoon, but this is not the case every time. In the end, the director (as we have seen) has the ultimate responsibility for the finished cartoon.
Lack of imagination is seen in cliché devices that have become overused with time. The most obvious is the character who runs on thin air until he realizes it, then falls. More recent overused devices in animation include the 360-degree rotating fight scene homage to The Matrix and a series of three rapid jump cuts to successively longer shots while three shrill notes are played over a character's sustained scream in homage to Psycho.
Laziness and lack of effort are highlighted by reused gags in the same short, reused animation, and long, held poses in which dialogue supersedes action. Some of you may quibble that Waking Life was brilliant for the latter reason, but Waking Life, in truth, was a live-action film in animated clothing.
Recycling successful ideas previously used in other shorts and films is another failing. There is one cartoon series extant (which I shall not name) that is composed entirely of recycled ideas from older cartoon series. The very title of the series is, in fact, a play on words borrowed from another past series. I have yet to see one device or influence in this particular show that I could not trace to other animated efforts, and originality appears to be at a minimum.
Not everyone can be a brilliant director, but almost anyone can make poor cartoon shorts. Chuck Jones, who spent the bulk of his career directing cartoon shorts at the Warner studio, is widely regarded as one of animation's most accomplished directors. Erudite, experienced, and possessing an uncanny feel for his character's emotions, Jones carved a place for himself as an animation immortal, having the satisfaction of hearing most of his accolades before his passing in 2002. He duly conquered every challenge an animator and director could face.
Until he ran into Tom and Jerry.
In 1963 Jones was heading his own studio, SIB-Tower 12 Productions. When the suits at MGM were less than satisfied with director Gene Deitch's Tom and Jerry revival (1960-62), they handed the reins to Jones. In the process, MGM bought out SIB-12, put Jones at the head of their new MGM Animation-Visual Arts Department, and gave the Warner legend a budget of $42,000 per cartoon short (a whopping amount at that time) to work his magic with. They were sadly rewarded with four years of animated dross.
Jones never truly disagreed with this assessment. He admitted in a 1971 interview with Joe Adamson that he didn't understand the characters the way that Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera did, and that he was uncomfortable with the level of violence in the original MGM series. Jones stated that, unable to infuse Jerry with as much character as he wished to, Jones "just kind of changed the characters to my own way of thinking." In a 1972 interview with Greg Ford and Richard Thompson, Jones also related that he did not understand the characters and voiced his frustrations about working with someone else's creations. Jones' difficulty in working with Tom led him to tell his interviewers, "I said to hell with him."
Despite his frustration, this is a bit disingenuous on Jones' part: he had a long history of successfully working with characters that he did not create, producing updated roles and personalities for Daffy Duck and Porky Pig that endure to this day. A viewing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas rather disproves Jones' excuses. The Grinch was certainly not his character, yet Jones created a cartoon classic.
Tom and Jerry were even mute characters; anyone watching the Road Runner/Coyote faceoffs could see how expertly Jones could work sans dialogue In watching the Jones T&J cartoons today, it seems more that the director wanted to make Chuck Jones cartoons more than he wanted to make Tom and Jerry cartoons, and that was the crux of the problem.
A typical misfire can be observed in the Jones cartoon short Much Ado About Mousing (1964). This cartoon, as mentioned, had a high budget as well as many of Warners' former top talent on board. Jones had longtime story man Mike Maltese aboard, as well as master animators Ken Harris and Ben Washam. Yet, all of Jones' failings and little of his talent came through.
To begin with, there is no gag in the cartoon until a fishing gag pops up at 1:45. To have a gag this late in a cartoon that only runs 6:38 is the first mistake. We see Tom posing and making various canny expressions as he prepares to cast a fishing line, but little else. That's far too much time to set up a gag. At 2:20 Jerry takes refuge in a huge bulldog's mouth. Tom fishes out the bulldog's tongue, making the canine more than a bit unhappy. From 2:36 until 3:03 we get nothing but poses and expressions between the bulldog and Tom that essentially freeze the cartoon dead. Note especially Tom's facial expression at 2:39: this is either Jones at his laziest or more likely, lost. This is the set-up for a fairly good gag in which the bulldog rolls Tom up like a bowling ball and careens him through a ten-pin arrangement of trashcans. Tom rolls off the dock and emerges with a crab on his tail (3:03 to 3:30). That's over a minute to pull off one gag!
From 3:31 to 4:16 we have the bulldog caught by a dogcatcher and freed by Jerry: the dog gives Jerry a whistle to blow whenever Tom threatens. For shame. This is the same set-up from the 1944 Tom and Jerry short The Bodyguard as well as a pale echo of Tex Avery's 1949 short Bad Luck Blackie. It gets worse: the whistle-blowing results in an exact reuse (minus a few frames) of the bowling-ball-and-crab-gag used earlier. The animation, is, in fact, reused. This is the use to which $42,000 was put?
Tom attempts to put a set of blue earmuffs on the bulldog, perhaps the most engaging animation in the cartoon. He then celebrates and goes to confront Jerry. From 5:43 to 5:52, we get nothing but poses reminiscent of Delsarte acting technique. At 5:52 Jerry produces a pair of blue earmuffs; they are not actually the pair on the dog, but Tom does not know this. How did Jerry know there were blue earmuffs on the dog? He was nowhere in sight when Tom did the deed. The result is that bowling-ball-and-crab gag is used, with a minor variation, a third time, with the exception that a terrified Tom rolls himself into the ball and launches himself off the dock. He grabs a nearby crab and puts it on his own tail (5:58 to 6:16). Jerry lies down beside the dog, puts his own set of earmuffs on, and enjoys a snooze with his pal. The end.
So, we have gags that take too long to set up, are repeated too often, there are instances of reused animation, poses and cutesy expressions take the place of action, and the result is six-and-a half minutes of animation that, well, take up six-and-a-half-minutes. Nearly every mistake that a director can make was made in this cartoon, and there is good reason for Jones, in his later years, to view his own Tom and Jerry cartoons with disdain.
An argument can be made that no one ever recaptured the verve, charm, and mayhem of the original Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but it's not a strong one. A good director exploits the material given to its best advantage. When Walter Lantz assigned Tex Avery to make Chilly Willy cartoons, Avery took a character who was thinner than cheap wallpaper and exploited the comic situations in the cartoons until they were funny shorts. Chilly Willy should have been a one-shot character at best; Tom and Jerry had decades of rich history before Jones took them over, and his cartoons failed.
Jones' talent is unquestioned; in the sad case of Tom and Jerry, it seemed to be more the case that the desire to make these cartoons was not there. And thus we come to a crucial point about directing a short cartoon: without sufficient motivation, technical expertise and experience can easily count for nothing.
A comment was made last month by one reader who would appreciate more of the critic's art using examples from world animation. I would gladly do this, but this is really an intermediate course in animation criticism, and I am trying to present well-known and/or easily accessible cartoon shorts and films at this stage. It's probably a good idea to be able to dissect a Mickey Mouse or a Ren and Stimpy cartoon before tackling Waltzing with Bashir. Second, I have a 1,500 to 2,500 word limit per column so I am going with very familiar material and characters at least at this time, because exposition on a film such as Perfect Blue, with its Hitchcockian overtones, would be so much more complicated.
If I eventually expand these essays on animation criticism into a full-length book, I'll be sure to include more instances from world animation.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.
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