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The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design

Fred Patten reviews the long awaited book showcasing the tremendously rich legacy of Maurice Noble’s background designs.

The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design by Tod Polson, published by Chronicle Books.

The Noble Approach:  Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design, by Tod Polson.  Preface by Chuck Jones.  Foreword by Maurice Noble.

San Francisco, Chronicle Books, October 2013, hardcover $40.00 (176 pages).

Like most moviegoers of my age, I went to a lot of movies in the 1950s.  Most of them are forgotten sixty years later, but one thing that remains vivid in my memory are the Warner Bros. cartoons of Chuck Jones:  Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century, What’s Opera Doc?, all of the Road Runner & Coyote cartoons.  And what makes them particularly memorable is less Jones’ brilliant animation than the striking modernistic/futuristic background designs by Maurice Noble.

The cartoons have been lauded for decades by animation scholars and fans alike, but usually for Jones’ animation, with only a brief nod to Maurice Noble’s backgrounds and Michael Maltese’s writing.  Finally here is a book that concentrates on Noble’s artwork and career -- which it turns out is vastly more important than even most animation scholars have realized!

As Chuck Jones says in the Preface (originally written for Jones’ introduction to Noble’s Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement Award, by ASIFA in 1987):  “If a lawyer who defends himself in court has a fool for a client, then a director who tries to act as his own background or layout man, lead animator, or sound editor is doomed to be spastically handicapped by his own limitations.” (p. 9)

From Robin Hood Daffy, an example of the important aspect of negative space in Maurice’s work.

The Noble Approach:  Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design is more than just a history of who Noble was and what he did.  It is an exquisitely designed art book with sharp full-color reproductions on almost every page of dozens of his famous background paintings, plus text based on the notes for the book that Noble was working on before his death; all embellished by Tod Polson, Noble’s longtime close friend.  Also, Noble’s notes are more than just a history of his art.  They include an in-depth tutorial for animation designers that veterans as well as beginning animation artists will find invaluable.  And Noble’s biography is both an important history of the theatrical animation industry during its Golden Age, and a well-written and often amusing personal account.

Almost every page is illustrated, with Noble’s own art, the art of others (both fine art and animation) that influenced Noble throughout his career, and photographs from throughout Noble’s lifetime.  The book leads off with a full-page layout drawing by Chuck Jones of a caricature of Noble as the nervous matador at the beginning of Jones’ Bully for Bugs (1953).

The use of spotlight in What’s Opera, Doc? gives a feeling of super-drama.

The Introduction, “Setting the Stage”, is the 34-page biography of Noble (1910-2001).  It is based on Noble’s own extensive notes, what Noble told Polson throughout their relationship, and Noble’s professional record.  It is illustrated with mementos that Noble saved throughout his life; photographs of Noble and teammates, production sketches and roughs, color keys, Noble’s non-animation fine art, and memos from Chuck Jones.  Those who think that Noble’s professional career started with his modernistic backgrounds in the 1950s will be surprised to learn that Noble worked at Disney from 1934 to 1941, producing background paintings and concept sketches for such films as The Country Cousin, The Old Mill, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo.  Samples of his art from many of these films are shown.  (Noble hated being forced to draw in Disney’s cutely realistic house style.  It is no surprise that the most surrealistic Disney sequence of this period, the “Pink Elephants” in Dumbo, was designed by Noble.)

Polson has written Noble’s biography from a “warts and all” approach.  This matches Noble’s own personality, which was impish, humorous, and open.  One interesting fact is that, although Maurice Noble and Chuck Jones had tremendous respect for each other, they did not really like each other.  Two overly-large personalities grating against each other?  Noble walked out of or was fired from several jobs because of creative differences with management.  Another interesting fact is that Noble is practically the only Warner Bros. animation veteran other than Chuck Jones to have worked regularly with producer Leon Schlesinger’s successor, Eddie Selzer, and to have gone on record with his experiences; and he rather liked Selzer.  His description here of Selzer is in sharp contrast to Chuck Jones’ of Selzer as a bad-tempered, abysmally stupid dwarf.

The world of Horton Hears a Who! was inspired in part by Maurice’s many trips to Hawaii.

Pages 48 through 169 are the “how to do it/how he did it” tutorial part of this book; a combination of Noble’s own notes and Polson’s commentary on his almost ten years of participating with Noble in this tutorial.  “In 1993 Chuck Jones and his daughter, Linda Jones Clough, started Chuck Jones Film Productions with plans to develop a variety of long- and short-form projects.  They dreamed of making a creative environment reminiscent of Warner Bros. in the 1950s.  Maurice jumped at the chance to work on theatrical shorts, and was brought on board not only to help oversee the art styling of many of these projects, but also to train a group of young designers from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).  After his ‘Tiny Toon experience’ Maurice had become deeply concerned about the welfare and future of young artists.  He and Jones committed themselves to passing on their knowledge, teaching a new generation of artists a better way of putting short films together.  This desire became the seed of this book.” (p. 44).  Polson was one of these five trainees; the “Noble Boys”.

Eight “steps” are covered:  Getting Started, Story, Breaking Down the Elements, Research and Inspiration, Design, Color, Layout, and Final Film.  Each is a combination of Noble’s notes, Polson’s reminiscences of how Noble described these steps to them, and some specific examples.  These are well-written to be of interest to both professional animation artists and to the laymen who are interested in the details of how animated cartoons are made.  There are an extensive index, image & art credits, and bibliography.

A rough layout from The Grinch with color indications for background painter Phil DeGuard.

Maurice Noble died in 2001.  Why this book has not been published until 2013 is hinted at in the statement, “After years of discussions with Warner Bros. over the use of images from their collection, Maurice’s design book, The Noble Approach, is at last in print …” (p. 47)  There are also acknowledgements to the Disney Archives, and many other organizations and individuals who provided the art and photographs in this book.  Polson must have spent years tracking down the perfect images to illustrate his text.

The Noble Approach:  Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design is a truly essential book that belongs in every animator’s and animation fan’s library.  It also has its own blog:


Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at