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What's up, Doc?'

Exploring the creative genius of Chuck Jones

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September 22nd, 2014
Bugs Bunny
Bugs Bunny

You may not know his name, but you definitely know his work. Animated film director Chuck Jones is responsible for the creation and development of some of the most endearing characters in cartoon history, including Pepe Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck. 

In his mind, cartoons were more than mere doodles on a celluloid sheet; they were stories driven by characters distinct for their personalities. Throughout a career that spanned from the 1930s up to his death in 2002 at age 89, Jones led the way in shaping the face of animated film, and a new museum exhibit shows us how.

Large-scale production

What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones combines 23 of the director’s animated films, an interactive audio/visual program, and 136 original sketches, drawings, storyboards, production backgrounds, animation cels, and photographs. These materials give the public a rare behind-the scenes look at the cartoons loved by generations of audiences. 

At least three years in the making, the exhibit is a product of collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and the Museum of the Moving Image. 

“Back in 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had organized an exhibition that was tailored specifically to Chuck’s artwork—framed original drawings and related objects like his sketch books,” recalls SITES project director Deborah Mecanic. “Even at the time, it was clear that this was just the beginning; this was an exhibition that had to occur on a larger scale.”

Through a blend of each institution’s curatorial expertise along with extensive input from Jones’s daughter, Linda, the exhibition’s planners plumbed the Warner Brothers archive, as well as collections at the University of Southern California and the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. The result was a vast, multimedia presentation that pulls visitors deep into the animated filmmaking process and into the world of Chuck Jones.

“In designing the exhibit, we could have concentrated on any one of Chuck’s many facets—the animator, the painter, the visual artist, the comedic writer, the film director,” says Mecanic. “But we chose his role as a film director because that’s where he had the greatest impact on art and culture.”

Indeed, his brilliance as a director was central to his success and his professional legacy. He received an Academy Award in 1965 for his short film titled The Dot and the Line, the story of a fickle dot and an erstwhile line that tries to woo her away from the unkempt squiggle she prefers.

By all accounts, Jones possessed an uncanny ability to maintain creative control over his films, yet never at the expense of his talented team of voice actors, animators, background painters, and score composers.

Those who worked under Jones had a chance to shine, and it showed in every Looney Tunes episode they produced.

A daughter’s perspective

“A key aspect of this exhibition is to show how my father brought together a crew of gifted artists to make these classic movies,” explains Linda Jones Clough. “For instance, he often thought of the animators as the actors. 

“In large part, they could establish a character’s personality by having them move and react in certain ways, and this was further enhanced by the contributions of the voice artists and music composers.” 

Still, however much Jones relied on his colleagues, the antics of Bugs, Daffy, Wile E., and Road Runner wouldn’t have been the same if he wasn’t at the helm.

“My father believed that the characters have lives unto themselves, beyond the script or the film itself,” Jones says. “That’s why they come to life on the screen; there’s real depth to them.”

His approach to the characters was unique, according to Jones. He didn’t create Pepe Le Pew, Wile E., Road Runner, Bugs, or Daffy. He discovered them.

“He would wake up in the morning hoping he’d be like Bugs, and then he’d look in the mirror and see Daffy,” she remembers. “He looked inside of himself, found characteristics that he liked, and exaggerated them.”

These are the intimate details that visitors will take away from this exhibit, glimpses of creative genius.

“I hope that people who come to see this collection that we’ve assembled leave with an appreciation not only of the production process but of how much my father loved what he did,” Jones says. “He used to say that any worthwhile endeavor is 95% work and 5% love and only the love should show. That sums up his life.”

 

Current exhibit information

What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones

Museum of the Moving Image 

3601 35th Avenue

New York, NY  11106

718-777-6877

Exhibit dates: July 19, 2014 - January 19, 2015

 

 

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