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Growing up with a cartoon genius

Created date

September 5th, 2014
Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote
Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote

In the world of animation, Chuck Jones is a legend. His artwork, his innate sense of comedy, and his gift for directing are responsible for timeless characters like Bugs Bunny, Pepe Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, and Roadrunner.

Now, his decades-long career is the subject of the multimedia exhibition, What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones, which will run at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image until January 2015. Recently, Jones’ daughter Linda spoke with the Tribune about life with a cartoon genius.

Q. Growing up, did you fully appreciate who your father was professionally?

A. No, not quite. When I was growing up, he had an 8 to 5 job like most people. He went to work in the morning, came home at night, and we had dinner together. I did, however, understand that he had a job that was different from many of my classmates’ fathers.

Of course, in the 1940s and 50s, most people didn’t know who the directors of the cartoons were. The only animation name widely recognized in those days was Walt Disney. It’s kind of an anomaly that Chuck’s name has become so widely known.

Q. How was he as a father?

A. He was a wonderful father. He was inspirational in the sense that he had a philosophy that people can learn from children as much as they can from adults—he was a real free thinker.

He had always admired Mark Twain because he believed, as many millions of people do, that Twain could look at something from a different perspective and bring a wonderful new angle to it.

I think a lot of that comes through in my father’s own work.

But to this day, I admire the way my father parented. His father was very abusive, so my dad vowed that he would never in any way abuse his children, and he bent over backwards not to do that. I never had any reason to feel that he wasn’t essentially a perfect father.

Q. Did he ever bring his work home with him, or did he generally leave that part of his life at the studio?

A. I think his work stayed at the studio for the most part. In those days, children usually weren’t invited to go to work with their fathers, so I very seldom went there.

There was one thing that he did bring home, though.

Every five weeks (and when you go to the Museum of the Moving Image, you’ll see this), they worked on a production line to make cartoons. After a film had been written and storyboarded, he would come home and, that particular night, instead of reading a book to me, he would tell me the story of his latest cartoon.

He was really good at it, too. He would act out all the parts, do the voices, and so on. I’ll never forget that.

And, occasionally, his work would enter into the conversation at the dinner table, as it does in most families. He and my mother would talk about some of the films he was directing, and sometimes you would hear him say something like, “You won’t believe what Daffy said today.” [LAUGHS]

Q. As an adult, you naturally have a fuller understanding of your father’s work and career. How does the What’s Up, Doc? exhibit reflect his contribution to the art of animated film?

A. The core of the exhibition is drawn from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ original exhibit three years ago, which was mainly my father’s drawings. In planning the current exhibit, we went through the various archives of his work, which included those at Warner Brothers, the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and some pieces out of the University of Southern California.

The selections were made primarily to support the directorial component of my father’s career. We wanted people to get a sense for how he approached a film and what an animation director actually does.

In fact, of the questions that people most often asked him, “What does an animation director do?” was second only to “How did you come up with the characters?”

Q. And what do you hope people will get out of this exhibition?

A. Ideally, I want them to be inspired to follow their passions. In any great exhibition, I believe visitors should leave with a sense of inspiration, one that they can channel into their own lives.