Noble Effort

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

If you grew up watching Warner Brothers cartoons, and I really, really hope you did, you might remember seeing the words, “Directed by Chuck Jones” in big letters in the opening credits.

Roman: Chuck Jones worked for decades on cartoons, like Looney Tunes from the 1930s until his death in 2002. In addition to being a director, he was also an animator. He gave Bugs Bunny, that cocky slash, he gave Daffy Duck those mischievous eyes.

Chuck Jones: I think Bugs Bunny’s more mischievous Daffy Duck is insane,

Roman: He made a mute Wily Coyote hold up signs at commented on the sad irony of his cartoon life. In 1996, Jones accepted an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Chuck Jones: Oh, I stand guilty before the world, of directing over 300 cartoons over the last 50 or 60 years. Hopefully, this means you forgiven me.

Roman: Chuck Jones is the name most people remember when they think about those cartoons. But I want to talk about another guy, an artist who work with Chuck Jones, a guy who wasn’t just important to Looney Tunes. He changed the entire Art of Animation.

Eric Malinowski: Yeah. The amazing thing about this guy is that he never drew Bugs Bunny, or Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam, or any of those characters. He drew the backgrounds behind those characters. So if you think of like, have you ever seen Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half century?

[Cartoon Voice]

Eric: Daffy Duck lands on this weird, futuristic planet. Or you know, the Roadrunner cartoons that jagged, bright, abstract desert. That is the work of Maurice Noble.

Roman: Here helping us tell this story is reporter Eric Malinowski. Hey, Eric used to work in animation as a storyboard artist on the Rugrats and a couple of other cartoons for Nickelodeon.

Eric: Late 90s, Early 2000s.

Roman: So breakdown for us what the layout artist does in the whole animation process.

Eric: Alright, well, so today like in a, you know, a TV show, you would start out with a script. Or in the case of Looney Tunes, they’d probably start drawing story sketches to figure out the gags and the camera angles and stuff. And then before the animation starts, the background designer or layout artist has the first crack at drawing this world. And those drawings are then later painted in by someone else but you know, layout artist like Maurice Noble, who is really accomplished, would actually have a say in the color choices as well. And so this is actually really important. So imagine you’re watching a cartoon and you know, the layout or the, you know, the background sometimes the first image that you see it just pops on screen for a second and your brain needs to instantly register where you are and what mood you’re supposed to feel. So like, you know, let’s say you’re watching Roadrunner cartoon: you cut to this big boulder that’s perched on top of a really high narrow cliff, you’re gonna immediately feel dread for the Coyote.

Mars: So the layout artist is kind of like the straight man in the comedy duo. Setting up the gag for the animator who gets to be, you know, the funny guy,

Eric: Right? And…. and they don’t get much credit. I mean they’re literally in the background. They’re creating this painstaking work of art before somebody else plops their drawings right on top of it. So you have to keep your ego in check.

Mars: Maurice Noble spent most of his career working for Warner Brothers, but he didn’t start out doing wacky cartoons. As a young man. He wanted to be a fine artist painting desert landscapes.

Eric: When he graduated art school, Maurice found work at Walt Disney Studios.

Bob McKinnon: His first job was painting an apple and he said it was very sort of tedious process, an exacting process of just putting the colors down, browsing to match. You know, he didn’t think so at the moment, but it was definitely hampering him creatively.

Eric: This is Bob McKinnon, who wrote a biography of Maurice Noble. He says that even though Disney Feature films have these really realistic and subtle backgrounds, you know, you see every leaf on a tree or the shine on a doorknob. Maurice felt like he was slumming it, squandering his talent on commercial art.

Roman: in 1941 Disney Studios was torn apart by a strike. The artists wanted to create a union and Walt took the walkout very, very personally. When it was over he got rid of anyone associated with the strike, including Maurice Noble.

Bob: I think if the strike had not happened he said he would have had a job for a lifetime at Disney. I think he would have stayed there forever.

Roman: But Maurice wasn’t unemployed for long. World War II broke out and he was drafted into a unit that made propaganda films featuring a cartoon character named Private Snafu.

[Cartoon voice]

Mars: As you can probably tell from that film clip, which has the very distinct voice of Mel Blanc and it, the propaganda film crew was full of people from Warner Brothers, including Chuck Jones.

Eric: So I also talked with Todd Paulson who’s working on a book about Maurice’s artwork and he says Maurice’s found their style to be liberating.

Todd Paulson: You know, everybody that was involved with those, those films for the army. Definitely were able to finally express themselves.

Eric: And then after the war, they got Maurice a job working at Warner Brothers.

Bob: Says “I was sweating,” he said. No one knew how little he knew about that particular end of the business. And according to him, he was flying by the seat of his pants.

Eric: I mean, he had done layouts before. But I mean, they were cranking out something like 30 short films per year. And just to give you a sense of how crazy that is: So today, you know, or at least when I worked in TV, you know, we would ship our storyboards to Korea. Today, they would probably just, you know, email them to Korea where you know, cheaper labor will fill in the animation. Or you could use a computer-based program like Flash to speed up the workflow, and that’s just to make 22 episodes for a season. These guys are doing more work and doing it all by hand.

Roman: Unlike that first painstakingly, realistic apple that he painted for Disney, Maurice Noble comes to embrace the idea that backgrounds should be flatter and more cartoonish. More like the characters.

Eric: Yeah, I mean, like, another example would be Jungle Book. I mean, going back to Disney. It’s one of my favorite movies because the animation is totally amazing. And it matches so beautifully the voices of those actors, but I’ve always been bothered by the fact that the characters are kind of flat in 2D. But the jungle is rendered with these subtle colors and lighting and the trees a three-dimensional shading and I can never really suspend my disbelief that those characters are actually living in that world, and Maurice Noble felt the same way about Disney films

[Singing Cartoons]

Bob: He always felt animation was a flat, stylized medium so he wanted the backgrounds to support that. He didn’t like the use of airbrushing, he always felt the backgrounds at some other studios were fighting the characters. And people would come up to him and say, “Oh, you were inspired by Monet?” he says to you, “I don’t think that way.” He says “You, you….we’re working in a completely new medium. This is a completely unique art form.”

Eric: And Maurice ends up changing what Warner Brothers was doing because he’s pushing the cartoonyness into the backgrounds until they have the same sass as Bugs Bunny, or the delusional insanity of Daffy Duck. Like in the Roadrunner cartoons, the coyote is real antagonist isn’t really the Road Runner. It’s the desert landscape and, you know, the Acme Corporation which are conspiring to make his life miserable.

Bob: The earlier Roadrunner cartoons that were done before he got there, there’s a few of them, they’re a little more realistic. They’re a little more just straight ahead and then when he got there he started to use all these different techniques and create as you went along, he would have these what he called, “off registration colors” with the lines of the rocks would line up with the color behind them. And he said that was to give you a heat shimmer.

Eric: Which he knew all about because he grew up in New Mexico.

Bob: He grew up in that kind of thing. He played in the rocks and salt,I’m sure all that influenced his take on the deserts when he did the roadrunner cartoons.

Eric: And this is how Maurice Noble becomes a hero to lay out designers. Remember, his work is not supposed to detract from the characters. I mean, the layouts are supposed to support the animation and make it stand out. And he does that brilliantly. But he also develops a unique and recognizable style. And it’s almost like he built a stage for a show, but the stage is winking at the audience. So I studied animation at Cal Arts. And so we’d be watching a cartoon-like Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half century and we would burst out laughing because Daffy Duck had landed on Planet X, and Maurice had drawn the clouds in the trees and the shape of giant x’s.

[Cartoon voice]

Mars: As Noble is coming into his own, he’s starting to get co-director credit on some of the films, but Chuck Jones is still reaping most of the acclaim. Todd Polson one of Maurice’s proteges says that this became a point of tension between them in the 60s, when they were working at MGM.

Todd Polson: It was a working relationship and it became more and more strained as Chuck became more and more successful, especially in the 60s. And that came to a head when they made, Dot and The Line.

Eric: The dot in the line was an adaptation of a children’s book.

Todd: And it was about a dot that falls in love with a line and it’s a story of their romance.

Eric: Chuck Jones was the director on the short but he was having trouble figuring out how to adapt it, so to the executives went to Maurice.

Bob: He said, “Well if you don’t involve Chuck, I can make this work for you.” And so Chuck brought the stuff in, threw it down on his desk and stomped out. And Maurice wouldn’t show him what he was working on.

[Cartoon Voice]

Bob: It’s a very charming film but it’s probably the most personal of all of Maurice’s films because it’s really just him on the screen. It’s pure graphics, there are no classic characters as you might think of them as just dots lines. It’ss purely abstract, but really beautiful.

Eric: The film is this pure distillation of Maurice’s says work and he’s telling a story creating emotions and humor with just basic shapes and colors but Chuck Jones still got director credit.

Bob: And of course they won the Oscar, but he said that Chuck didn’t ever thank him.

Roman: And Todd says that even though everyone knew it was Maurice’s film, Maurice wasn’t invited to the Oscars.

Eric: So Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble kept working together, they worked on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and a bunch of other Dr. Seuss adaptations, but they fell out of touch for about 20 years until the early 1990s when Warner Brothers reunited them to make cartoons that play before feature films. They hired a bunch of young artists who just graduated from Cal Arts and one of them was Scott Morse.

Bob: Maurice Noble, Maurice Noble. Where do I know that from? It’s like, “Oh, it’s because it was one of the names that preceded directed by Charles M Jones on all the cartoons that I grew up watching every day of my life.”

Eric: One of the first lessons that Scott learned was that Maurice’s fantastic backgrounds were not just invented out of thin air. Maurice did a ton of research. Everything he exaggerated was based on something in the real world.

Bob: You get an assignment like, Bugs Bunny is gonna be stuck on a Desert Island, or stuck on the jungle Island so there should be palm trees and should be all this stuff. It’s like, “Okay great.” and I come back with a drawing and he’d be like, “What is this?” and I’m like, “They’re palm trees.” and he’s like, “Those are stuccas, what were looking at?” It’s like, “Well there’s a palm tree right out the window!” and he’s like, “That’s a stucca! You got to learn your trees.”

Eric: But Maurice wasn’t really that gruff. After work, he’d talk to these 22-year-old animators like he was just one of the guys.

Bob: He’d be like, “Let’s go let’s go to the baseball game. Let’s go do this other thing.” You know, “We should go to a museum.” Pretty soon you realize he’s more like your grandpa who is just a really cool guy to hang out with.

Eric: So, Scott Morse and this group of artists became known as “The Noble Boys” and Maurice pushed them to develop their own style but his sensibility really seeped into their work. Like, Scott is at Pixar now which is the home of 3D animation which you would think is the complete opposite of you know the flat landscapes of Looney Tunes, but you can really see Maurice’s influence on the Pixar films if you look for it. Like, the film UP. Think about that house carried by a massive amount of balloons that lands at the very edge of a cliff. Or in Wall E, this cute little robot is scooting around these big menacing towers of garbage. You know, those are layouts that make you smile. That’s that’s classic Maurice.

Roman: In May of 2001, The Noble Boys were reunited one last time.

Bob: We all got, you know, the call that Maurice, he was in hospice basically at home. It was just natural causes that he that he was dying of, and he was pretty sure you know, everybody’s pretty sure that that night was going to maybe be the last night. So we all came over and hung out with him.

Roman: And Chuck Jones did call that night.

Bob: I remember being in the room with Maurice and somebody brought in the phone was like, “Chuck’s on the phone.” and Maurice was like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll talk to him.” And we all knew for a fact that they hadn’t really talked for months, if not a couple of years at that point, and I just heard Maurice side of the conversation but you know, you could definitely tell that they had put everything behind them and they were friends, you know? And it was nice. And I again, I don’t know exactly what Chuck said on the other end of that line, but it was a very sweet moment to be able to see that and know that people could go through a lot together in life and still have respect for each other, you know, up to the last minute, and kind of celebrate what they had created together.

Eric: To some extent, Maurice saw The Noble Boys as his real legacy. He was proud of the fact that they had blossomed into well-rounded artists.

Bob: If Maurice could leave behind this idea in other people to do their own thing, we would never be in the background like he was.

Mars: But it was a beautiful, beautiful background.

Eric: I actually met Maurice Noble once. I went to Cal Arts and he came into our class on… it was like a Monday night. I had happened have gone to the opera the day before, on, you know, the weekend, and I was thinking about how often those guys made fun of opera in their cartoons.

[Cartoon song]

Eric: And I asked him, you know, “Did you guys actually go to the Opera regularly or were you just kind of making fun of it as a sort of, you know, high-falutin cultural institution?” and he asked me, “What Opera did you see?” and I said, “La Traviata” and he said, “Violetta. Her death, It’s beautiful.”

Roman: And that is a man who knew a good death when he saw one.

Roman: 99% invisible was produced this week by Eric Malinowski with Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars we are a project of 91.7 local public radio, KALW. In San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. Matt

    Great show about Maurice Noble and Warner Brothers. But there is someone else in the background of a lot of those cartoons also – and much of his music was used in the background of your podcast. How about an episode (or at least a shout out ) to Raymond Scott, who’s music was featured prominently in a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons. He did much more than this, however. It could be argued that he was one of the people responsible for creating what the “future” sounded like way back. But I digress…

  2. Cathleen Julian Ph.D,Psy.D.

    Listening with eagerness much enjoyment. I am an old background painter and more significantly my father is Paul Julian. My father was a brilliant painter and he also loved to compose filthy limericks, many of which described Noble, Jones or their relationship. I brought my portfolio to Maurice once and he shredded my self-worth with cool, haughty pointedness………he was right.

  3. fatgoose

    Thanks for this. I’ve loved animation my entire life and I had never heard of Maurice Noble. After listening to this segment I immediately ordered the book on his art from Amazon

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