Karl Cohen interviews the Disney legend, Maurice Noble, and discusses his career, working with Chuck Jones and the animation industry today.
Editors Note: Whatever you do, don't call him a 'veteran.' At 87, Maurice Noble is the second oldest person working in the Hollywood animation industry (Joe Grant at Disney is a year older than Noble and Chuck Jones is slightly younger so Noble calls him "Junior"), but his ideas, high energy and enthusiasm are that of a much younger man. We recently visited Maurice at his home in the hills north of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Marjorie. His unpublished autobiography, co-written with Robert McKinnon, is titled Stepping Into The Picture, a fitting title which refers to Noble's immersive approach to design. He is currently developing for television or home video Noble Tales, a series of seven-minute animated cartoons which he describes as "folktales from around the world told with a modern slant." When he's not working on Noble Tales in his home studio, meeting with development partners, or making appearances at various animation events, Maurice can be found doing one of his many talks with staff artists at studios such as Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Television Animation and DreamWorks Feature Animation. "I don't give lectures," he said, "I give conversations." Maurice Noble was recently interviewed by Cartoon Network for a program called The 50 Greatest Cartoons Of All Time, which will air on the U.S. cable channel on March 14 and 15, 1998. Just in time for our special issue on The Art of Pre-Production, Karl Cohen has brought us this interview about Maurice's career, covering the 'background' of one of the industry's legendary, but not yet 'veteran,' background designers.
Why is Maurice Noble considered a legend? Noble worked for Disney on Snow White, Bambi, Fantasia and Dumbo. During WWII, he worked for the Frank Capra film unit with Dr. Seuss on Private Snafu cartoons. In the 1950s he did the designs and layouts for Chuck Jones' greatest classic cartoons including Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century, What's Opera, Doc? and the ever-popular Roadrunner cartoons.
The self-proclaimed "old rebel" attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles with the help of a work scholarship. One of the first honors of his life was the school awarding him and Mary Blair their first full-time scholarships. She stayed on and graduated, but he eventually had to leave due to financial difficulties caused by "the great depression."
First Stop: Disney
About 1934, Noble took a job at Disney to get a U.S. $10 raise. He was working as a department store designer for $90 a month when he was offered a job at the studio for about $100. He said, "After all $10 is $10. I didn't know exactly what I was getting into, but I was going to earn $10 more a month."
The studio knew he was skilled with watercolors as Chouinard had presented a one-man show of his work. Noble believes this was the first watercolor show to be presented by the school. In any case Disney put him to work doing watercolor backgrounds for their Silly Symphonies. He recalled doing backgrounds for Elmer Elephant (1936), The Country Cousin (1936), Woodland Cafe (1937), The Old Mill (1937), Wynken, Blynken and Nod (1938), and many other shorts before he started work on Snow White.
The background materials used at Disney were Winsor Newton watercolors and Whatman paper stretched on boards. No opaque paints or airbrush were permitted, not even to make a minor correction. He said, "A light pencil drawing was put onto the stretched paper by a tracer. Then we would look at the layouts given to us and interpret the shadows and other details. Then we would paint the backgrounds. It was a very long and painstaking process because we had to build up our colors wash after wash. When we got on Snow White we had to match six scenes in transparent watercolors in some sequences." One section of Snow White where he had to do six matching background paintings was a sequence in the interior of the dwarf's cottage. He had to paint the same wall and props from six different camera angles. When the action cuts from one point of view to the next, the background paintings had to look the same. And they did.
An especially memorable scene that he worked on was the moment when the Prince kisses Snow White. Walt was rushing the film to completion so Noble said he was designing and laying out the scene while he was painting it.
As a background artist Noble didn't have to suffer through the famous "sweatbox sessions," where Disney critiqued what was being worked on by his animators. However, he often attended these screenings to learn how his backgrounds worked with figures over them and to see what was going on.
Background artists at Disney had to go through a different form of torture, "the OK session." Noble said some of the sessions were experiences similar to nervous breakdowns. "A critical jury had to pass on all the finished backgrounds. You know how difficult it is to make corrections with watercolors?"
One of the great moments of his career at Disney was attending the premiere of Snow White. He said it was a miracle that he got screen credit on the film and was given two tickets by Walt to attend the premiere. "That was a real thrill and a highlight of my life. It was interesting to watch the audience. All the movie stars were there. I wasn't sitting downstairs with the hoi polloi, but I had a front row seat in the balcony. When the picture was over they all stood up and cheered. It was really exciting. Walt's folly had paid off! A million and a quarter dollars had been put into this cartoon. It was a real turning point in the animation business."
On a different note, another important moment for him was making the decision to go out on strike against Walt, "because I didn't believe that the wages being paid to beginners and some people who had been in the industry a long time were sufficient to live on," he said. Noble recalled how some people who went on strike lost their cars and homes. He also remembered soup kitchens for the strikers and the Disney goon squads who went looking for trouble. He said, "the strike was a very difficult period."
Eventually, the strikers won their long and difficult battle with the studio, but when he went back to work things had changed. None of the people who had remained loyal to the company would talk with him. His new office was a former broom closest and he had to stand on a chair to reach the window if he wanted to open it. The studio didn't give him any work to do so when he reported each day he would read while waiting to get an assignment. Two or three weeks later he was laid off for lack of work. A few weeks after that, Pearl Harbor was bombed and three days later he made the decision to join the Army Signal Corps.
The War Years
Noble's war years were spent in the Army Photographic Signal Corp. He joined at the request of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Part of the time he traveled to different bases and helped present showings of films produced for soldiers by Colonel Frank Capra. Eventually he was transferred to Capra's command at Fort Fox in Los Angeles. He was assigned to the film unit headed by Major Theodore Geisel, a man known to his readers as Dr. Seuss. There were about 12 men in the unit. "We turned out propaganda booklets, health things, VD posters, `don't trust the enemy' type posters, maps for Capra's films, and the Snafu cartoons."
When Noble was asked to describe Geisel he replied, "He was very neat, slender, beady-eyed and wore his hair quite closely cropped." I then asked if he was a funny person and the response was, "Oh no! Ted was never a funny person. There were no yuck yuck yucks to this guy. He was all business. He had a sense of humor and a keen sense of story as demonstrated in his children's books, but he struck me as a rather serious person. I knew him for many years and worked with him on a good number of his pictures."
He continues, "In later years when I worked with him he was always well-dressed, polished shoes, cashmere sweaters, and stuff like that. I would say that he was a very reserved person, not much laughter. As a matter of fact I can't ever remember hearing Ted laugh. Of course, we were dealing with the serious business of story and picture development. He was a perfectionist. Every drawing, every bit of dialog had to be just right. I appreciated that because I'm a little bit that way myself." Noble is glad to have had the privilege of working with Ted over the years.
At Ted Geisel's memorial service his doctor told Noble that Ted really loved How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), especially his work on it. Noble said, "he never mentioned it while he was alive."The compliment meant a lot to him as he considers the television special one of his best works. He was glad finally to learn the author shared this opinion.
When Noble got out of the Army, he didn't have a job. He lived at home with his mother and took whatever freelance work was available. Eventually, he took a full-time job in St. Louis working for a company doing film strips for the Lutheran Church and other clients. When Warner Bros. contacted him in 1952 and asked if he wanted to do layouts for Chuck Jones, he happily returned to Hollywood.
Maurice barely knew Chuck Jones during WWII. They had met briefly when he visited Warner Bros. on official business. The Snafu cartoons were written and storyboarded at Fort Fox and then the materials were sent to Warner Bros. to be produced. Jones was one of the directors working on the Snafu cartoon series that was being made for the guys in the Army.
The Chuck Jones Era Begins
When Noble joined Chuck Jones' unit, "it was a very hectic period. I had never laid out a picture in my life. When you go into a new place you don't want to display your ignorance so I just had to figure things out. I looked around and saw what everybody was doing." He had to learn how they used exposure sheets at Warners, all of their technical vocabulary, etc. "Little by little I taught myself how to do layouts." He adds that he was very fortunate to work at Warners with a lot of people who helped him develop his skills, including background artist Phil DeGuard, and animators Benny Washam and Ken Harris.
Part of Noble's brilliance is his use of strong simple shapes to define the spaces where the animation is to take place. He was able to create unique designs for each film on which he worked. Jones let him develop whatever designs and looks he thought would work best with the animated action being planned for the project.
Noble's layouts in the 1950s avoided the fussy details of Disney and the over-designed look of UPA. He said the look of his layouts were not influenced by what was happening at UPA. Instead they were simply his personal feelings about what would work best with the project on which he was working. He began to feel comfortable at Warners when he "started to design stuff and they liked it." When asked if he designed the amazing landscapes in these films, or if the concepts were those of his background artist Phil de Guard, he said, "I designed everything. I not only gave Phil the layout, but the color sketches as well. I designed the pictures. He had to copy my sky, my colors, everything." In the book Duck Amuck, Chuck Jones calls Maurice Noble the architect and Phil de Guard the builder of the backgrounds in his films.
Noble explained that those wonderfully strange cliffs and pointed spires, with rocks balancing on the tops of them, in Roadrunner cartoons are exaggerations of his childhood memories of the desert. He grew up in New Mexico and visited Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and other National Parks as a youngster. He said he loved doing desert settings for cartoons. Each time he would do one they would become more exaggerated. He loved to balance big rocks on spires or on top of small ones and said, "I did it for the fun of the thing. It became Roadrunner country."
Noble said, "I'm often asked the question if we knew we were working on great cartoons and the answer is no, we had a job." He looks back on his career and is amazed at the quality of the work Chuck Jones' unit produced, but he maintains that the unit simply thought of their work as a job. He describes the group as "a basic crew of 10 or 12 people who turned out 11 cartoons a year from beginning to end." Noble feels something's been lost in today's approach to animation production, with "too many cooks in the kitchen." He said, "It's silly to have a whole crew develop a picture, then send it over to another crew, with a director who will change things." Noble is currently working with about 10 artists on Noble Tales.
When asked if he could add to the discussion about where that brilliance came from he said, "I've often said Mike Maltese enjoyed writing the stuff. I can remember watching Chuck chuckling over his drawings - making Daffy do something silly, or insane or insulting. I enjoyed designing the stuff. The animators enjoyed drawing the stuff and Phil enjoyed painting it. It all kind of rubbed off on the audience... We worked like demons."
Later in the interview he returned to the topic of what made their unit great. He said, "Chuck had a great ability to direct his characters. He did all his character sketches." He also praised three animators, Ken Harris, Ben Washam and Abe Levitow, who were capable of understanding Chuck's notes to them on the drawings about timing and other nuances and were able to turn Chuck's ideas into remarkable performances. He is proud that he was part of Jones' small unit and that their work is now recognized as some of the best from the Golden Age of animation.
Despite all the stories that have been told over the years about the gang at Termite Terrace having fun on the job, Noble said most of the time it was serious work for him and the people around him. Life among his co-workers was very informal and there were gags, in the form of comic drawings, floating around.
Among his fond memories are the lunches cooked by Ben ("Benny") Washam for the group. Noble said that once in a while on Fridays Benny would pass the hat and then go out and buy some provisions. It turns out that Washam was an original partner in the Bob's Big Boy restaurants. He quit and became an animator because he didn't make much money in the food business.
Another happy memory concerns writer Mike Maltese who Noble described as having a good wry sense of humor. Noble said they were very good friends and would go antique-hunting together. As he talked he looked around the room and pointed out a chest and other things that reminded him of his adventures with Maltese.
At Warners only a few cartoons were ever given official premieres, most just opened at downtown theaters without any fanfare. The studio made a big deal out of the premiere of What's Opera, Doc? because it was the only cartoon to use a 50-piece orchestra. The event was held at a theater on the studio lot. He doesn't remember who was in the audience, but he recalled the red curtain parting and that it was wonderful to see this great parody on the screen. "It was a big event. I was quite surprised that when I saw the picture that it turned out to be such a grand tour de force."
Noble was at Warners when the studio closed Termite Terrace and opened a new studio built for the animators on their back lot in Burbank. Beforehand, the site had been a trash pile. After the studio ended animation production the building became a music library and a computer center, among other things before it became Chuck Jones' studio.
Maurice and Chuck
Noble describes his relationship with Chuck Jones as strictly business. It was between two men who still have enormous respect for each other's abilities and a recognition that their skills complement each others talents. Noble had co-director credit with Jones on several Warner Brother cartoons in the 1960s. He said, "I owe a great deal to Chuck because he let me do my own thing. We got to do a lot of very interesting pictures together."
Noble's relationship with Chuck was "nothing social." He would attend parties for the whole unit at Chuck's house, "but never any lunches or socializing... It was strictly a business relationship and that's probably why we could work together for so long. I'd say good night and he would say good night and that was it."
Jones praises Noble's brilliance as a layout artist in the book Duck Amuck. Among the fine things Chuck Jones had to say about Maurice is the statement, "He never showed off, but he showed up every other layout man I have ever known by his honesty, his devotion to his craft, and above all, his devotion to the film at hand, and this is nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in What's Opera, Doc?"
Maurice worked at Chuck Jones Productions until the early `90s. He then went onto Cats Don't Dance at Turner Feature Animation, where he was reunited with his former assistant, Don Morgan, who he had worked with 35 years before, on Grinch and Horton at MGM. Noble also received a Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement Annie Award from ASIFA-Hollywood in 1995.
Noble presently works as a consultant for several Hollywood companies. He is called in to critique a lot of work. He said, "I check it out with the young artists. I try to suggest where they can make improvements. I work with young directors. We talk over story and story points. In other words I'm the old guru."
When asked about the training of young talent today he said, "The Warner Bros. Feature Animation Development Department has a very competent training program. They have classes, not only in animation, but in layout and other basics. They also teach improvisation so the students can spontaneously react to things. A good animator is always a kind of actor. They also hold life drawing classes 3 or 4 times a week. In other words they are improving all their skills. I've talked with the heads of the training department and they say the studio can't find enough experienced help so we are going to develop it ourselves."
One point that he stated several times is, "the studios are cursed with live-action writers. They don't have the visual writers. You say a lot of things in words that you can do in one drawing. They don't realize this. Recent features contain a tremendous amount of unnecessary dialog and situations that don't really present themselves in a graphic way. This is the curse of all the studios."
He blames the controlling interests in the studios for wanting to do blockbuster type films and wanting to make millions of dollars. He feels that creative animation people in Hollywood really want to do something good and their frustration comes from being handed scripts that are verbal, not visual. "They don't explore the graphic potential of animation," he said.
Another problem he talked about is the present fascination with computers. "The way they are using this computerized stuff is the difference between a lathe and a hand carving. The computer is a tool. When they over emphasize it like they did in the Hunchback you feel like you are on a roller coaster ride all the time." Talking about the growing use of computers in animation production, Noble said, "There's a difference between punching a button and drawing. The computer's a wonderful tool, but you can't animate with it." However, Maurice noted that a computer would have been useful in the production of the 1965 Academy Award-winning film, The Dot and the Line, which he worked on with Chuck Jones. "We did that with drawings, reversal film and tinting," he recalled of the complexly simple, geometric film.
"I know it's very difficult to find a good story to animate, but they shouldn't be throwing millions of dollars around to produce these so called epics; Gone With the Wind animated features. Story comes first. Every frame should push the story. There are so many good possibilities in animation. I'm sure there are good stories to be found. Why do they insist upon `the cutting edge?' What do they mean by it? In essence animation is about satire, exaggeration, puns and poking fun at human foibles. Real good adult humor is subtle humor. A good, fun, zany satire is wonderful. This is the field animation should work in instead of being bad live-action."
One producer that Noble admires is Bill Melendez. He said, "Bill Melendez has stuck to his simple approach to things. I think his simple animation, his very direct simple dialog, his simple backgrounds and the choice use of the little guy at the piano here and there result in a very consistent product. Melendez is a very keen guy. He is one of my favorite people." Noble considers A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) one of the nicest things ever put on film.
Noble concluded by saying, "I'm known as the old rebel. I'm invited to come talk here and there. I keep preaching the idea of full animation. Go easy on the computer. Let's have stories and graphics and satire and fun. The general level of acceptance of inferior animation is unfortunate. Look at some of the subtle animation done years ago. My favorite picture is Dumbo. It is so complete. Not a bit of wasted footage. It runs the gamete from tears to outrageous slapstick with the crows. Each section is so well done. The business needs more cartoons like this. Dumbo is a classic."
"The whole thing is geared to have fun and not to be too serious. That is the essence of what made a cartoon fun in the old days. It's not old hat. A good laugh is a good laugh whether it's an old one or a new one. It's just how you do it. I've been very lucky to have had so much fun."
Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, has recently been published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.