Anyone who grew up watching the Warner Bros cartoons (think Looney Toons) will be familiar with the name Chuck Jones, always prominently displayed in large lettering in the opening credits. Jones directed these cartoons for over 70 years, but he also an animated and created many familiar characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd.
“Anyone who grew up watching the Warner Bros cartoons (think Looney Toons) will be familiar with the name Chuck Jones.”
Unfortunately, most layout artists are no where near as iconic as Chuck Jones to most of us. I hope that this Looney Toons background artist will be an exception, however, because he is none other than the great Maurice Noble. Not ringing a bell?
There are features from these shorts that are just as familiar to us the characters, the backgrounds of the worlds they inhabit. A major factor in the legacy of Looney Toons are their modernistic and geometrically inspired backgrounds.
The job of the layout artist is to scrupulously design the environment of the short’s characters. The goal is for the viewer to know where they are and immediately know how they are supposed to feel. A recent feature in 99% Invisible’s “Noble Effort” observed, “The dynamic is kind of like the straight man in a comedy duo—layout artists set up the gags, but it’s usually the animators who get the glory. Layout artists are, both figuratively and literally, working in the background.”
As a young man, Noble wanted to be a painter, concerning himself with the fine art of desert landscapes. He got a job at Walt Disney Studios as soon as he graduated, but in 1941, Disney studios experienced a famous strike which displaced Noble. He was drafted into a propaganda films unit during World War II where he met a large crew of people from Warner Brothers Studios like Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc, who would later voice the majority of the Looney Tunes characters. Noble became fast friends with the Warner Brothers band and got a job working there after the war.
“like the straight man in a comedy duo—layout artists set up the gags, but it’s usually the animators who get the glory.”
Most cartoons of that era had a fairly realistic, detailed approach to their backgrounds. This status quo began to change as Maurice’s style took on a life of its own at Warner Brothers. He intuited that animation was supposed to be flat. All of the characters and aesthetics we already exaggerated and stylized and he believed the backgrounds should be too. The Coyote’s greatest enemy in the Road Runner series is the desert landscape, a stark feature of Noble’s work, and most certainly a call back to his fine art studies.
Chuck Jones was always most well known for his role in these cartoons, but when Noble’s work began to pay off with co-director credits, the two split while working on a project with MGM. Jones couldn’t get an his short version of a popular book at the time off the ground. The big whigs at MGM gave the project to Noble when they saw it wasn’t going anywhere, a move which paid off for the executives and Noble in the end because it won an Academy award under his direction. Even with the success of the short, Noble was snubbed when he didn’t receive an invitation to the Oscars and Jones still received the credit as director in the end!
Now, 50 years later, history may help to swing this recognition pendulum in the other direction. To give that pendulum a little extra momentum, let’s start attributing “The Dot and the Line,” an academy award winning short, to the director who gave it its
Noble mentored young artists in his philosophy and this group of young artists came ot be know as “The Noble Boys”. They carried his legacy on to animation and storytelling, working at Pixar, Disney, and Nickelodeon. One “Noble Boy”, Tod Polson, wrote a biography on his mentor called, “The Noble Approach” which provides exciting details on Noble’s life and work.