Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crazy Colors and Designs

Daffy-blogging, essay 11 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Crazy Colors and Designs

These aren't crazy colors and designs.  This particular background,
from Chuck Jones' Old Glory (1939), shows the Disney-influenced
realistic approach, with landscape details delicately rendered in
watercolor.  The stylized backgrounds discussed here were a
reaction against this approach to animation.

Space column in
Duck Dodgers (1953).
Watching Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century (1953), few people complain that the ground of Planet X is pink and purple.  Or that the sky is more green than black.  We sense that Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Marvin the Martian naturally fit into this off-kilter world and we go with it.  It took time for Hollywood to realize that audiences would accept a non-realistic approach to cartoon backgrounds.  More than anyone, Maurice Noble pushed background stylization into the mainstream.

The characters of Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer were well-understood by the time that Noble arrived at the Warner Bros. Studio in mid-1950.  But while the characters were fully formed, the background landscapes that they moved through were less firmly established.  At first, Warner Bros. strived for the realism of mid-1930s Disney backgrounds, albeit with fewer resources and lower budgets.  Then, in the 1940s, 
Planet X in
Duck Dodgers.
Chuck Jones and others began experimenting with more stylized backgrounds.

In his essential book Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier recalls the instructions that Chuck Jones issued to his background artist Earl Klein in the mid-1940s.  According to Klein, Jones requested the following approach toward background art:  “Look, use exaggerated perspective, and think of it as a flat two-dimensional design instead of trying to get fake aerial perspective.”  Furthermore, Klein said that Jones encouraged the use of “way-out color.”

In later years, Noble would sometimes downplay the influence of previous Warner Bros. animators and the UPA cartoons on his work.  However, his boss Jones was always keenly aware of innovations emerging both within their own studio and at their rivals.  Jones embraced the idea of greater abstraction and he hired Noble because he sensed that Noble could do these new striking backgrounds better than anyone.

Great artist though he was, Maurice Noble didn’t arise from a vacuum.  Artists were putting their unique signatures on backgrounds since the beginning of animation.  Experimentation bloomed in the 1940s, with some of the most envelope-pushing ideas arising from the Chuck Jones’ unit.

Here’s a selection of some great backgrounds from cartoons of the 1940s and early 1950s that paved the way for the work of Maurice Noble at Warner Bros.

Note the stylized mountains, clouds, and cliff face in Chuck Jones'
The Dover Boys (1942), with background work by John McGrew
and Eugene Fleury.

Yellow sky, pink ground, and purple tree:  Chuck Jones plays with
color in The Case of the Missing Hare (1942), with background
work by John McGrew and Eugene Fleury.

Eugene Fleury left Warner Bros. for military service and his wife
Bernyce Polifka filled in, quickly and radically widening the palette
of the background artist.  In Wackiki Rabbit (1943), Polifka liberally
uses fabric patterns, bright colors, and all sorts of strange designs.

Former Warner Bros. animator Robert Cannon helped launch United
Productions of America (UPA) and made his mark there with the
extremely stylized Gerald McBoing Boing (1951), with backgrounds
by Bill Hurtz.  It received the Academy Award for best Animated
Short and was very influential on subsequent animation. 

John Hubley's UPA production Rooty Toot Toot (1952) pushed
background stylization even further.  The background art was by
Paul Julian, a former background artist for Warner Bros. whose
work there had been fairly traditional in nature, mainly for director
Friz Freleng.

Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Stepping Into the Picture by Robert J. McKinnon
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price

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