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Animation's Brick and Mortar: The Talents of Maurice Noble

Dana J. Lamb commemorates Maurice Noble and what he means to the animation community and our sense of heritage.

Maurice. All images © 1999-2001 Maurice Noble Productions, Inc.

Maurice. All images © 1999-2001 Maurice Noble Productions, Inc.

This past summer Warner Bros. held a tribute to Maurice Noble, one of their animated legends. When Dana Lamb returned home he did an usual thing... This "strictly pencil and sketchbook guy" wrote his own tribute...

I sit at my computer in khaki shorts and my one Hawaiian shirt, purchased for a father-daughter dance two years ago with a tropical island theme. The brightly colored shirt has served me well today, a pre-requisite to attend the tribute to Maurice Noble at the Stephen J. Ross Theater at the Warner Bros. studio. This fashion statement was decreed by the master layout artist himself in an effort to celebrate his remarkable life and career with humor and casual attire. Like many of his peers in the animation business, the appearance of suits and ties tended to cramp everybody's style.

The theatre is located on the WB backlot, blending in with the various avenues that act as architectural chameleons for whatever production is being shot at the time. It never fails to excite me to stroll through the streets and neighborhoods that have adorned the films and television shows I grew up on. The visual wizardry of craftsmen and design has truly mastered time travel from block to block.

Having arrived early, I had the opportunity to see the table of photos and artwork of Maurice's early years with family and friends. I studied the face of the young artist and saw the eagerness and hope that would eventually settle into wisdom and compassion, leading him to the roll of mentor for later generations. I remembered the books I had read of the influence of the Depression and war that threatened his goals; but I had to wonder what kind of faith he held in the future that helped him believe in his prospects as an artist in such trying times.

As the crowd began to gather, I spotted familiar faces representing the leadership and talents of this industry dating back generations. There was a strong feeling of anticipation among the youngest members of the group as the more knowledgeable placed faces with the names we had all grown up with on screen and television. I overheard them whisper the titles of shorts and feature films with the same enthusiasm and awe as kids spouting sport stats at a baseball game.

This made me feel good.

REAL good.

Having been educated as an illustrator and cartoonist at a time that held little career potential for animators, I ended up working primarily for advertising where they generally eat their own. I learned quickly that a marketing creative that hadn't opened his or her own shop by the time they were in their thirties was generally consider washed up, chum for the new batch of baby sharks in the executive wading pool.

One of the many things that always impressed me about animation was the respect for its masters. Even among those current leaders who love to ride and occasionally shred the edge of the envelope will recall those who did the same in the early years, inspiring their own efforts to redefine the medium. Background painter Jill Petrilak and colleague Bob Givens spoke about the remarkable use of color and shape in Noble's work, and his daily effort to push and challenge the medium. In the recent video about Chuck Jones, they screened the interviews with both he and Maurice as they remembered the battles to maintain the vision they had for their work. It is amongst their own, regardless of generation -- those who create the animation with their pencils, brushes, voices, hearts and minds -- that this understanding and reverence resides.

Maurice at work.

Maurice at work.

This sense of community was illustrated in a second panel discussion led by film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin. Panelist Tom Sito recalled Maurice's involvement with the early days of the animator's union and his refusal to accept the inequalities he witnessed in the treatment of his peers. In light of those devastating economic times, these principles could and did cost him his status and eventual position. Luckily for us, it also led him to the infamous Termite Terrace crew and the incredible body of work that has entertained the world for generations. The other panelists, including Wild Brain's Tod Polson (resplendent in an appropriate cadmium yellow suit causing temporary blindness in the theater's front row), spoke about Maurice's mentoring skills as he encouraged them to find their own vision, yet led them gently toward what was an "appropriate" approach.

It is this aspect of Maurice Noble's personality that led me to capture what I have witnessed and share it with others. It was well over a year ago that I went down to check on the animation classroom. This is the hub for our animators and is typically chaotic with people drawing, shooting tests, videotaping live-action for acting reference and reviewing pencil tests. I walked in and to my surprise, the usual cacophony was replaced with a single voice, coming from none other than Maurice Noble. A good friend of our program, Darrell Park, had asked Maurice to drop in and speak with our students. I just sat with the rest as he talked about what made things work in animation and why. The afternoon was remarkable in so many ways, but for me, the best was yet to come.

I asked Maurice if he would consider looking at the storyboards of two of our students who had been struggling with choosing the project that had the strongest elements of story. He agreed, and as Mike Roush and Justin Ridge pinned up their storyboards, I realized from the number of pushpins ending up on the floor that they were incredibly nervous. Maurice evidently felt the tension as well, and I wondered if I had placed all three in an awkward situation. Justin pitched one story, then Mike pitched the second, with Maurice sitting quietly as the guys proceeded. Then, the magic happened; Maurice began asking questions, leading the students carefully back into their own stories, exploring all the nuances and dark corners for potential gold.

I watched and marveled as these three artists separated by almost seven decades of social, political and cultural history, slowly became part of a community in search of an idea that would touch their audience. Maurice was bringing these two and those around him into his circle, passing on the knowledge and quest that will drive these new animators to carry on his generation's tradition of excellence. It is the bond that is frequently overlooked in the confusion that surrounds the conflict between commerce and art, especially in these days of such enormous stakes in the entertainment world.

As the fans, family and friends gathered in the lobby, the contagious joy and humor of our sampling of everything from Robin Hood Daffy to the stunning visuals of What's Opera Doc? had everyone in a mood that matched their Hawaiian décor. And as I walked back to my car through the facades and convertible structures, I realized that the man recognized that day was one of the true solid, brick and mortar figures in this industry. In this city of illusion, his talent, commitment to his field and his willingness to share his vision so generously place him permanently in the handful of men and women that have built the community we know as animation.

I thank Maurice for a great excuse to wear this Hawaiian shirt. I thank his family and friends for sharing his tribute with his community, and his inspiration to keep this art alive.

You can visit the official Maurice Noble Website now at:

Dana J. Lamb is a professor of art and the coordinator of the Entertainment Art and Animation program at California State University, Fullerton.