A tribute to the meticulous hand behind the whirlwind
antics of many favorite Looney Tunes shorts.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Will Friedwald
Friday, November 16, 2012
It’s only a piece of production artwork, not intended to be seen by the public, but the 1943 model sheet for Bugs Bunny—a guide prepared for the animation staff, defining how the character is to be drawn—is a work of art unto itself. We see what Bugs looks like running, pointing, laughing, exclaiming in surprise or just insouciantly relaxing with his carrot. We see Bugs amused, embarrassed, flirtatious, angry and then angrier.
This model sheet is drawn so expressively, by master animator and draftsman Robert McKimson, that it is all we need. We realize that the other elements that go into the making of an animated film—color, movement, music, voice—are mere additives. McKimson’s drawing tells a story all by itself. The best Bugs films were the product of various directors: Tex Avery gave Bugs Bunny his feisty belligerence, Bob Clampett his manic wackiness, Chuck Jones his calculating coolness, but McKimson made their collective vision concrete. In later years, he directed many excellent Bugs Bunny episodes himself, including “Rebel Rabbit,” ” A Lad and His Lamp” and “Hillbilly Hare.”
I Say, I Say . . . Son! By Robert McKimson Jr.
McKimson (1910-77) was a major force behind the visual style of the Looney Tunes’s animated characters. He either partially or entirely defined the look of one classic after another—Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd. Perhaps his quintessential creation was Bugs Bunny’s whirlwind of an opponent, the Tasmanian Devil, a character who expressed all his emotions in the language of pure movement.
The achievements of McKimson and his two brothers, Thomas (1907-98) and Charles (1914-99), also animators and illustrators, are detailed in a profusely illustrated biography, “I Say, I Say . . . Son!” by the animator-director’s son, Robert McKimson Jr. This collective biography benefits from beautiful and extensive reproductions of art by all three McKimsons, including not just film stills and preparatory sketches but also images from children’s books, comics and coloring books. There is even a vivid set of illustrations from a 1948 Capitol Records Bugs Bunny album.
After an early stint at Walt Disney, the McKimsons went to work, in 1931, for the studio that eventually morphed into Warner Bros. Cartoons. Bob McKimson was pegged early on as a virtuoso artist: His drawings, produced at several times the rate of most of his colleagues, were emotionally expressive and technically precise. His crowning moment was the mid-1940s, when he was the key animator of many classic one-reel shorts masterminded by the brilliant Bob Clampett, such as “Kitty Kornered” and “A Corny Concerto.”
Clampett once told me: “I always thought Bob was too great an animator to do anything else, even to direct.” And compared with animation and design, direction was probably the least of McKimson’s gifts, and his directorial efforts rarely show the same inspiration as those of Avery, Clampett or Jones. They were savants, true name-above-the-title auteurs, like Frank Capra or Billy Wilder. McKimson was more of a bread-and-butter director, who, given a true star (Bugs Bunny), key collaborators (voice actor Mel Blanc and musical director Carl Stalling) and a good story (especially when he worked with writer Warren Foster), could reliably turn out a very funny cartoon short.
Two of the earliest McKimson-directed Looney Tunes, “Walky Talky Hawky” (1946) and “Acrobatty Bunny” (1946), benefited from the way he played with perspective, with characters that shift their weight in a way that makes it seem like they exist in real space. “Walky Talky Hawky” also introduced one the later additions to the Looney Tunes pantheon of talking animals, the blustering barnyard rooster Foghorn Leghorn.
“Walky Talky Hawky” derives its humor from the interaction between the diminutive chick-size Henery Hawk and the full-grown adult birds around him. Part of the joke is that, although he is tiny enough to perch in their hands, Henery has more common sense than either his father or the man-size Foghorn. What Henery lacks, famously, is the specific and crucial knowledge of what a chicken actually looks like—he’s all too liable to believe that Sylvester the Cat or Barnyard Dawg fit the bill. “Walky Talky Hawky” earned the studio an Academy Award nomination, a major vote of confidence for the new director.
Leghorn began life strictly as a voice (inspired by Kenny Delmar as “Senator Claghorn” on the Fred Allen radio show), but McKimson made him one of the most physically expressive “performers” in Hollywood, his head bobbing and his arms flailing every which way as he hammers his verbal points home: “Pay attention, son!” In McKimson’s remarkable hands, the fast-talking chicken was poultry in motion.