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« Generation Gaps | Main | Where Are They Now, and How Do They Sell? »

July 02, 2003

Warner Brothers Cartoons and the Business of Art

Michael:

Have you ever considered how peculiar a phenomenon the artistic quality of Warner Brothers’ cartoons of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s was? I was just reading Hugh Kenner's book, "Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings," and got to wondering what this data point means for theories about the business of art.

First, whatever artistic quality was produced was not as the result of any conscious intent on the part of Warner Brothers. By the early 1940s the studio owned 17,000 movie-houses in 7,500 cities, which gave them a total of 10,500,000 possible paying seats. They needed a stream of product to fill those seats. This included a new cartoon every couple of weeks because their customers expected to see them. Apparently, nobody in the corporate hierarchy of the Warner’s empire cared a hoot about animation as long as the cartoons showed up on time—an attitude quite different from the micro-management Jack Warner and his brothers applied to their feature films.

Warner’s thinking regarding these cartoons was purely economic, as they were, effectively, a cost center. Originally these cartoons apparently ran around 7 minutes, as Mr. Kenner explains:

At 420 seconds, that's 10,080 frames, or 5,040 drawings when we shoot each of them twice. A lot of drawings. Even at starvation wages, a lot of money: say $30,000 per Looney Tune: say three-quarters of a million bucks annually, plus change...Cartoons being trivial, something seemed out of balance. Seven minutes per product: might [patrons] stand for less? It turned out they'd regard five minutes as short weight. The compromise was six; six minutes plus or minus a grotesquely specified two-thirds of a second.

A consequence of these unbelievably precise time limits coupled with the notorious cheapness of the Warner corporate machine was a higher degree of pre-planning than was practiced at any of the other cartoon shops in Hollywood. At Disney, for example, the practice was to shoot animated footage at the length of its internal logic and then edit things down to meet the running time of a cartoon. Penny-pinching Warner executives, however, regarded drawing, inking, and shooting frames as a waste of money, which meant everything had to be laid out, in advance, to an unbelievably exacting tolerance.

The need to lay out the action with such precision seems to have focused the directors’ attention to a far more mechanical notion of timing than would have happened otherwise. Chuck Jones, for example, arrived at an interval of precisely 14 frames between the time Wiley Cayote disappeared from sight in his vertiginous falls and the time a puff of dust suggested he had hit the ground. He had to repeatedly tell his animators that it wasn’t funny at either 13 or 15 frames—it had to be 14.

Presumably because the design of these precision machines became so essential to their success, the director became the total boss of the projects, as Mr. Kenner describes:

That system was firmly in place by 1944...By 1947 the three directors were Isadore (Friz) Freleng, Charles Martin (Chuck) Jones, Robert (Bob) McKimson. And the control of each, over each project credited to him, was, finally, absolute. Termite Terrace being the only shop where so rigid a system was installed to meet so exacting a schedule, the Warner Bros. cartoon division was likely the only place in all of cinedom to which the auteur theory can be rigidly applied.

The cartoons certainly did not achieve quality as a result of receiving the obsessive focus of a guiding “artiste.” Since it took around a year to generate a cartoon, from conception to the completion of the sound track, each director was dividing his attention between 8 or 9 projects at once.

It also didn't occur as the result of constantly checking how the audience was responding to the cartoons. There was no organized method of getting feedback from the audience. By the time the animators heard anything about how well a given cartoon had gone over with the audience, it was often years after the idea had been conceived and long after additional cartoons involving the same characters had been put into the works.

So what do we have here: (1) a lack of interference as long as production was met; (2) very strict formal boundaries that had to be coped with; (3) a system that allowed the prime “creator” vast amounts of control over the final product, but without having to devote years of his life to the mechanics of producing it; (4) a high rate of production that allowed the creators not to get too hung up on any individual product; and (5) isolation from the consumers, allowing a high degree of autonomous development.

Are these the factors that dictate the creation of a popularly accessible yet highly developed art form? Or did this just happen to work because of the talents of Mssrs. Freleng, Jones, McKimson and their writers, animators, background designers and voice talents? (I’ve long wondered if the spurt in animation creativity wasn’t largely the result of the Great Depression and the resulting work in animation of people that might have gone into many other fields.)

Well, sorry not to have arrived at a terribly polished theory, but it’s a fun case-study to ponder. Does it give you any ideas?

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at July 2, 2003




Comments

I had always loved these cartoons as a kid, but a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to see about three hours of them on film in a theater. I was blown away. It was truely a great experience to see them as they were designed to be seen.

Posted by: Tom on July 2, 2003 3:49 PM



It is fun trying to puzzle these things out. So many variables... I wonder how conditions at Hanna-Barbera compared? Do you know? Talk about cheap and pennypinching, but in a way that drove down quality. And sometimes supertight producer control can be a good thing, as can audience feedback. (Without it, how can you learn?) But the WB crowd certainly did something right. Give you any ideas about how to be a more creative boss yourself? Come to think of it, is thinking about the biz of art at all useful to businesspeople in less overtly cultural fields?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2003 5:37 PM



lack of interference... very strict formal boundaries that had to be coped with... allowed the prime “creator” vast amounts of control over the final product... isolation from the consumers...

Sounds like High Art to me.

Posted by: Lynn S on July 2, 2003 10:31 PM



Remember, too, that part of the pre-planning process at Termite Terrace was to actually shoot live-action tests, whereby one of the animators would film the others literally going through the motions the characters would go through in the film. Some of these test films still exist and have made it into documentaries about the cartoons.

I notice you carefully left out the 1960s in your intro :) Sadly, the only peculiar phenomenon about the quality of the sixties Warner cartoons was how badly it dropped off from that of the previous decade once David DePatie started to appear in the credits...

Posted by: James Russell on July 2, 2003 10:46 PM



I wouldn't be TOO hard on Hanna-Barbera, Mr. Michael. The Tom & Jerry cartoons they were doing for MGM in the '40s were as lushly animated as anything Warners and the other studios were doing. But costs were rising drastically, and you can see all theatrical cartoons cheapening up into the '50s. Finally, the theatrical cartoons just weren't profitable and MGM closed its operation, leaving Mr. Hanna and Mr. Barbera on the street. TV was the only viable market for animation, but they had to learn how to do cartoons on vastly lower budgets. I have my disagreements with Hanna-Barbera's approach to animation (which has been described as "illustrated radio"), but they did survive and thrive in economically difficult conditions when the old theatrical cartoons were choking. Warners kept its theatrical cartoons going a few years longer, but as the above poster noted, the decline in quality (the cartoons looked like they were animated in Friz Freleng's garage) was really noticeable.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 2, 2003 11:17 PM



Sounds like time to put a word in for Chuck Jones' outstanding book, "Chuck Amuck". Amazingly, the guy's as good a storyteller in prose as he was in pictures.

Friedrich, thanks for putting this into words. In my view, the Termite Terrace era cartoons are one of the greatest artistic creations of the 20th century, and will continue to be watched when many other things are forgotten.

Chuck Jones et al had to deal with strict constraints on length and cost and production time, but had almost no constraints otherwise but their own imaginations--and they were having a ball, for which they were paid. Sounds like a recipe for great art to me.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 3, 2003 12:01 AM



Great post. It could be the reason that they did so well without audience feedback was that they were adapting a comedy form that was a "proven" crowd-pleaser: Vaudeville slapstick. The verbal jokes, sight gags and timing seem pretty much the same. Anyone know more about this?

Posted by: Jim on July 4, 2003 10:05 AM



The greatest work of the very greatest directors of WB animation (and I'd place Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery far above Freleng and McKimson) was done in the stringent conditions of the studio, true. But it was a precarious and short-lived balancing act: the best burned out, got tired of fighting, went elsewhere. There's no reliable formula for maintaining the output of great art any more than for maintaining the fire of a grand amour.

In the case of WB, what fed the Golden Age was a tight-knit spirit of competition and conspiracy: Clampett, Tashlin, Jones all trying to impress and outdo each other and cheering each other on. A fairly typical set-up for a living genre at its most living. I've seen such communities in action among science fiction writers and pop musicians, and read of them among poets, pornographers, mystery writers, and moviemakers.

Posted by: Ray on July 4, 2003 7:20 PM






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