Chuck Jones is one of the greatest animation directors of all time, having worked on hundreds of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, from What's Opera, Doc? to Duck Amuck to One Froggy Evening (which Jones recently sequelized), as well as the Dr. Seuss masterpiece How The Grinch Stole Christmas! At 85, Jones still keeps a busy professional schedule, but his cartoons from the '40s, '50s, and early '60s have taken on lives of their own: They've never stopped airing on Saturday mornings, and The Bugs Bunny Film Festival, a big-screen collection showcasing 30 favorites, makes its North American debut in Chicago on April 10. Jones—who personally created Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin Martian, Pepe Le Pew, Gossamer, and more—recently spoke to The Onion about animation past and present, modern depictions of Michigan J. Frog, and the personalities of his characters.
The Onion: Have you been at this for 60 years now?
Chuck Jones: Well, yes. As far as drawing is concerned, I've been at it for longer than that. I've been directing for 60 years, but I started in animation in 1931. So we're getting close to 70 years. As far as drawing is concerned, I've been drawing since I was big enough to hold a pencil, or a burnt match; I didn't care.
O: Do you ever plan to retire?
CJ: I don't know what I'd retire from. I had a splendid uncle… If you've read my book [Chuck Amuck], you know who he is. I'm not suggesting you do so, because I'd hate to suggest things that might bring evil into your life. But anyway, he told me an old Spanish proverb: "The road is better than the inn," which simply means that when you receive an Academy Award [Jones has three, plus an honorary award in 1996], or anything, you're at the inn, but then you've got to go outside and start up the road again. So there's no end to it. And another one you might find useful: He said, "No artist ever completes a work. He only abandons it." It's true: Nobody ever completes anything. The great American novel can't be written, because somebody is going to write a better one. So my feeling is that the question of retirement is absurd: I hope that when I'm buried, they'll leave a place for my arm to come out so I can make a drawing. [Laughs.]
O: You mentioned that someone will always top the great American novel. Who do you feel is carrying on your legacy?
CJ: Well, I don't really know. Animators today have technical and electronic tools that I wouldn't know how to use. We proceeded as all artists did before us: with pencil and paper. Nevertheless, if anybody wants to be an animator, they should learn to draw the human figure. That sounds strange, doesn't it? You don't want to copy Bugs Bunny or anything like that. If you learn how to draw the human figure, you will learn something that will stand you in good stead, because practically everything you will be doing throughout your life—whether you're an illustrator or an art director, or whoever you may be—will be based on the vertebrates, all the animals that have backbones. You see, anything from a shrew to a dinosaur has the same bones we do. So if you draw a dinosaur, or a shrew, all you have to do is look at it and compare it to your own anatomy, and you'll soon learn that a shrew is simply a very much diminished vertebrate. The big difference—and I don't know if this is really what you want to talk about—is in the skull. And if you think about it, our bodies aren't that much different from those of alligators. But our heads are quite different. So, anyway, I'm sure you want to talk about other things.
O: Whom do you feel is carrying on your legacy? Besides yourself, of course.
CJ: Well, for one thing, a legacy is what somebody else says about your work; you can't say it about yourself. My wife objects to the term "legend," because she says, "Legend is what somebody has done." She wants to know what I'm going to do.
O: Well, that was my next question.
CJ: What am I going to do? Well, I just continue on. People come in and ask me to do things, and I do them. But mainly I've been painting, and drawing oil paintings of beautiful women and beautiful rabbits, and beautiful ducks, whatever. I'm not sure that I have time to direct a feature, and I'm not sure I want to. I did one once, called The Phantom Tollbooth (1971), when I was at MGM. I had that experience, but mainly I'm a cartoonist and an animator. And I'm an animator of short-subjects: I've done three or four hundred of them in my lifetime—I've never counted them carefully—and that's my field. You go back to the great essayists, like Samuel Johnson and people of that caliber, and they didn't make any excuse for being essayists. I make no excuse for being an animator. I came up that way, and all the great directors—and I don't mean to include myself, but those who surrounded me… Every one of them had been an animator first, in order to learn how to time, because we had to time our pictures before they were animated. It's very different from live action. That's why Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Martin Scorsese can't believe that you can make a picture by timing it out to 540 feet, or six minutes. They don't understand how you can do that, because their idea is to take 25,000 feet of film and then cut it down to feature length. Well, we had to figure all that out before we even started. It's a curious craft, but as in all work, the most important thing is to have a discipline and a deadline. A lot of people figure that when you start writing, you don't have to have discipline. Well, oh, yes, you do. And when Scorsese starts cutting down a picture, he's tearing bits of his heart out and throwing them on the floor. Because his first inclination is to shoot the thing the way it should be shot, which is probably about six hours. And then he has to go chopping away at it, and that hurts. So at least we're not chopping beforehand.
O: As far as pacing goes, you must have to know what's happening in each individual second.
CJ: Yes, you do. You have to know what's going on in each 24th of a second. We had to time our pictures down to that. But if you look at any craft, you've got basic tools that you use. With writers, it's words and syntax; with us, it's timing and drawing. And unless you can do that, you'd better find another occupation, like grave-digging. [Laughs.] And that's rewarding work, because people are always dying. It's probably a good thing to learn.
O: What do you think of some of the other cartoons being produced today?
CJ: Well, I have a lot of respect for The Simpsons, but it's in the same tradition as Rocky & Bullwinkle: They're very clever scripts, and they had no intention of animating them. Animating goes back to that basic term that Noah Webster wrote in his dictionary—"Animation: to invoke life." Last night, when I was signing some cels, this deaf girl came up. She could read my lips, and she said that the thing she likes about the Warner cartoons and the Disney cartoons is that she could tell what was happening without hearing the dialogue. And that's what we tried to do: We always ran the pictures without dialogue, so we could see whether the action of the body would somehow convey what we were talking about. And she said that she'd watch Rocky & Bullwinkle or The Simpsons, and she couldn't tell what was happening, because so much of it is vocal. It's what I call "illustrated radio." The thing has to tell the whole story in words before you put drawings in front of it. But the basic tool, as I say… A great artist once said—in describing lines, which is really what we work with—that respect for the line is the most important thing. He described the line: "My little dot goes for a walk." You must have an equal amount of respect for any point on the line. You don't zip from one place to another like you're likely to do when you're young. When you watch your little dot go for a walk, it has to be carefully done, and thoughtfully done, and respectfully done.
O: How do you feel about Michigan J. Frog becoming a corporate logo for the WB network?
CJ: I had no control over it. They own all the characters, so there wasn't anything I could do about it. I could spend my life lamenting it, or I could continue to draw. I prefer to draw. See, the thing that makes all these characters is personality. The Three Little Pigs is one of the first pictures to use three characters that look alike and act differently; therefore, they had personality. A pretty woman isn't pretty because she's pretty; she's pretty because of the way she moves—her eyes, her mouth, and everything else. That's what makes beauty. Sure, it helps to have the proper features. But I remember someone asking Alfred Hitchcock what he required from actors, and he said, [imitating Alfred Hitchcock] "Well, I prefer them to have a mouth, and two eyes, hopefully on opposite sides of the nose…" He didn't care whether they were great actors or not; he could make them great actors by the way he directed them. So personality is what counts. The reason Bugs Bunny and the rest of them endure, I think, is that when you wrote lines for Bugs Bunny, they wouldn't ever work for Daffy, or Yosemite Sam. Each one of them had a personal way, when you wrote dialogue for them, in the same sense that you'd never write dialogue for Chico Marx that you'd write for Groucho. So the whole point here is personality, individuality—the character of each one—and this goes for the Disney people who worked on the early pictures, too. The same thing is true of them. You knew how Donald would act, and you knew how Daffy would act, and they're very different. You move your hands a certain way and move a certain way, and if you sat down with an animation director for two hours, he would be able to move a character the way you move. We not only have to figure out what a character looks like, but we have to find out what those little differences are. Moving your hands a certain way, or chopping your hands like Harry Truman did… That made him Harry Truman. That's the way he moved.
O: And Michigan J. Frog didn't talk, or rap…
CJ: No, no. He only sang, and his personality was pretty flamboyant. But I didn't know who the hell he was; all I knew is, he could sing. I was as puzzled by him as anybody else is. [Laughs.] But I did know that he didn't talk, and shouldn't talk. And the only person who could ever hear him sing would be the man who uncovered him, and the audience. They shared that, but nobody else in the picture could hear him. Those are the disciplines. You know that in writing, you've got to have disciplines. And so, when you work with a character like Bugs Bunny, at first, he was crazy. And then we soon discovered that pretending like you're crazy is a much better way to develop personality. It's like Groucho Marx: He wasn't crazy; he was pretending to be. Daffy is a blatant loudmouth; that's his personality. With Yosemite Sam, for example, which [animation director] Friz Freleng did, he took a grown man and had him act like a baby. If anything displeased him, he'd bellow and scream. My father was kind of like that, so I pushed him into a few characters of mine. Fortunately, he only saw them after… [Laughs.] I was going to say, "He only saw them after he was dead." I guess that's true.
O: Your relationship with your bosses influenced some of your Warner work, right?
CJ: Well, I had a boss who came to Warner to run our operation when they bought us out in 1945, from Leon Schlesinger; this guy went through life like an untipped waiter.
O: He was the origin of the bullfighting cartoon [Bully For Bugs], wasn't he?
CJ: Yeah, yeah. Mike [writer Michael Maltese] and I were sitting there looking at each other across the table, and suddenly here's this furious little man standing in the doorway, yelling at us. He said, "I don't want any pictures about bullfighting! There's nothing funny about a bullfight." And he walked out, and Mike and I looked at each other in wonderment, and he said, "My God, there must be something funny about a bullfight." We'd never even thought about doing a picture about a bullfight, but since everything he ever said was absolutely wrong, we were certain that we had to pursue it. We worked our asses off making that picture; I even went to Mexico City to see a bullfight. I figured that if we were going to do it, I might as well have fun with it, and do it the way it should be done. If you're doing a take-off on something, make sure you're doing it in an honest way.
O: What characters are most enduring for you?
CJ: All of them. It's like somebody saying, "What's your favorite child?" Are you married?
CJ: Do you have children?
O: No, not yet.
CJ: You know how to get them, don't you? When you have them, if you have more than one, you will have a favorite. But if you value your sanity, you will never mention it to anyone. The same thing is true here: Each character represents a part of me. You never find a character outside of yourself, because every human being has all the evil and all the good things, and it's how you use them, how you develop them. Those who enjoy Daffy obviously recognize Daffy in themselves. And with the heroes, like Bugs Bunny, what you have there is that that's the character you'd like to be like. You'll dream about being like Bugs Bunny, and then you wake up, and you're Daffy Duck.