Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Chops of Seasoned Citizens

Mr. Jones.

Will Finn has a nice think-piece on the long-term skills of animation veteran Chuck Jones: Did he hang onto his creative edge into old age? Or did he lose it?

Will has gotten lots of traffic and comments with the piece, and I don't have much to add about Charles M. Jones's pluses and minuses. But the post got me thinking about what I've seen and experienced with long-timers over the past thirty-plus years.

Good animation artists who last are like cagey big-league ball-players. The best ones cherish and nurture their skills, and keep learning curves on upward trajectories. When they find a stimulating creative strategy or approach, they pull it into their repertoire and make it their own ...

Years back, I knew an artist at Disney who briefly worked with Ken Anderson and adapted his storyboard style. (You're going to steal, steal from the best). At the Mouse House today, story artists have Bill Peet story panels pinned to their walls.

Emulating the masters never goes out of style. And it's a fine starting point when you're developing your own style.

But like professional athletes, most of us lose speed and agility as we age. Joe Grant might draw elegantly at 95, everyone else is pretty much dead. And even for those still breathing and willing to work, the eysight fades, the hand shakes, and the ability to concentrate for long periods of time recdes out of reach.

I first experienced this when a 75-year-old animator called me up in the early nineties furious that some "snot-nosed kid" had rejected him for a job at one of the studios that was then doubling its staff. As a courtesy, I went to the studio and tried to track down what the problem was. One of the recruiters finally leveled with me:

"Bill has a hell of a resume, but the test he did wasn't pretty. His line quality isn't there. He did great work for Joe Barbera at MGM, but forty years later he's lost it ..."

There's no rejoinder you can make to that.

The maddening part is, some artists do crackerjack work well into their eighties, but others don't. The ones who draw every day, who keep their eye-hand coordination sharp (and are blessed with excellent genes) will often be picking up work at eighty-four and turning down jobs.

The artists who stop? Put it this way. You stop throwing your hard slider, you probably aren't going to get it back when you pull on the uniform for the old-timers' game.


Floyd Norman said...

When I worked at Disney, Joe Grant was down the hall from me. Joe was always trying to sharpen his PhotoShop computer skills even in his nineties.

If I learned any lesson from Joe it was - - never stop learning! That's what keeps you sharp.

I still consider myself a 72 year old apprentice.

Anonymous said...

...and part of keeping your skills sharp is taking care of the physical equipment. Once the hand and arm aren't responsive anymore, the game gets harder to play. Take breaks, stretch, exercise to stay limber. Take it from one who's struggling to recover from tendinitis that was all of my making through poor work habits: if you lose your skills because you did something stupid to your body, you have nothing but time to regret it.

Will Finn said...

Thanks for the plug Steve. I was a little overwhelmed by the traffic it attracted and i regret appearing dismissive of such an individual but it remains food for thought. Indeed, many artists do improve with age right through their final work and examples listed in the comments are just the tip of the iceberg, yet others don't.

The ones that decline despite the absence of obvious physical handicaps are the ones that puzzle me. How someone who drew the LT characters with such lean and vibrant energy could later render Bugs and Daffy as paunchy, evenly proportioned and generally "thickened" is a complete puzzle. It is particularly odd because it is clear that Chuck Jones' drawing ability hadn't left him, but his take on the characters is starkly different.

Anonymous said...

I met Chuck a few times - saw him lecture, etc. and it amazed me too that his drawings took on his style to the degree that they did. It was still "Bugs" but it was clearly Chuck's "Bugs" and not the one I grew up with on hundreds of saturday mornings. He clearly was expressing his own artistic eye and the world held him in such esteem that they went along with it, but Chuck's "Bugs" is not Bugs Bunny it's more like of a drawing of Bugs if that makes sense...

Steve Hulett said...

Thanks for the plug Steve.

You need no plug here when Cartoon Brew links you.

It was a good post.

Stephen Worth said...

I know who "Bill" was. I was working for Bakshi at the time. He came to Ralph and told him that he had just been fired from working on the characters he had made famous.

Sadly, the guy really had lost it. I suspect it was a medical impairment, not a creative one because his chops seem to have turned off like a light bulb. But in any case, Ralph gave him scenes to take home and work on, thanked him profusely for coming out of retirement for him, paid him for the work... and quietly put the scene folders in the drawer.

I asked him about it and he said, "You don't do that to an old lion like that. It's not right." Ralph admitted that he owed a great deal to that man. If the folks he worked with at MGM for decades weren't going to give him the honor and respect he deserved, he sure as hell was going to for the great work "Bill" had done on his pictures. Ralph gave "Bill" something at the end of his life that other people didn't... respect.

I was a snot-nosed-kid myself at the time, but Ralph taught me a lot about respecting the people who built our industry for us. That doesn't mean that you lie or pretend that it's all equal. But you allow them to maintain their dignity, at least when they're standing on the other side of the desk from you asking for a job. A few bucks for a few feet of animation in the drawer isn't too much to pay for that.

See ya

Anonymous said...

I suppose Bakshi could do that because it was basically his money he was spending. The "kid" at the studio had to account for why he was hiring someone and wouldn't have had authority to do that if he wanted to.

Rather than give the guy some dummy work they might have found some way to use his non-drawing talent.

I worked with (Rocky and BullWinkle supervisor) "Tex" Henson late in his life. He was not drawing in a refined manner at that point but he was full of good story ideas and had an experienced eye for finding problems in our own drawings.

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