The Animation Critic's Art Part IX: Mistakes in Directing
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.
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.