When I was a teenager, after I had completed the mandatory girl career aspiration phase of marine biologist, I determined I wanted to grow up to be an animated cartoonist. It seemed to be the natural fruition of my interest in sketching, my attraction to the bright and frenetic and my affinity for philosophical anarchy. I studied the limited number of films I had access to, planned to go to art school and thought that, since Disney was likely out of my reach, I would shoot for a job at one of the smaller network studios.
I am not an animator now. I didn't even come close. I decided not to go to art school, with the help of stunningly nonsensical logic along the lines of "I'm not good enough" (isn't that what you go to school to fix?), and thus began an almost comical progression of educational and professional missteps, false starts, backtracks and strange, unforeseen successes. I managed to stumble into a job I love but which is very unlike the one I first anticipated.
At least, it is superficially. As a web and interface designer, I'm not drawing cartoons. But I am creating things, and creativity draws both inspiration and instruction from a variety of sources. There are still lessons I learned from cartoons that I apply to my life and work now - especially as it concerns the creator who made me want to make them in the first place.
I have a theory that Chuck Jones is the most well-known and yet most overlooked creator of the twentieth century. Everyone knows what he made, but not many people know he made it. Which is a shame, because beyond his legacy as the artist/director who made some of Warner Brothers' most famous characters and short films during the 1930s-60s, he was also an astute observer of human character, a learned storyteller and one hell of a writer. Most notably, he knew how describe and explain his process of creation. This is very rare, and equally valuable to someone else learning the process. His two autobiographies/drawing manuals are treasure troves of stories, advice and guidance on how to be creative. Which, as I've discovered, you can be no matter what you do.
Start anywhere and stick with it
... my first instructor at Chouinard Art Institute, like Nicolaides at the Art Students League, greeted his beginning classes with the following grim edict: "All of you here have one hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone." ¹
More than ten years after I more or less gave up on being an artist, I started drawing again. It was, in a word, demoralizing. Whatever skill I once had has most certainly fled with disuse, and I'm essentially a beginner again. There's an impulse to repeat history and declare I'm simply "not good enough" as a precursor to quitting.
But I think often about this anecdote. It's not truly grim, even if you're just starting out. In fact, when you're just starting out, it's liberating. It takes away the pressure of being judged. It's okay if you create something bad. It's okay if you create many things bad. You need to get it all out.
And it leads you into the next lesson - you need to keep doing it, over and over again, until it is good.
Chuck Jones was born in 1902, and had the enviable fortune to grow up in Hollywood in an era where he literally could walk down the street and watch Charlie Chaplin film. Except, as he recounted:
One evening I lost faith in both my father and Chaplin when my father came home to tell us that he had seen Chaplin shoot a single fifteen-second scene 132 times. … "Why," I asked myself, "not do it right in the first place? Can't he learn how to do it by watching his own movies?" … It was the beginning of my understanding of the two primary rules of all creativity. The first is you must love what you are doing; the second is that you must be willing to do the often dull and tiring work necessary to bring each creative endeavor to completion, and in that endeavor only the love should show. It took Chaplin more than a hundred takes a thousand times to bring his incredible craft to the screen he loved so well, and never, never did the work show. ²
I've never encountered anyone who could explain it better than that.
Study individuality and character
If you haven't watched a Warner Brothers' cartoon since you were young, it's an interesting experience to watch one as an adult and notice there are a lot more subtle character interactions than you may have ever imagined. This may sound like I'm getting overly academic, but the truth is good, enduring comedy is rarely, if ever, superficial slapstick. Good comedy is sympathetic, humble, self-aware, wry and intimately in tune with human foible and the uniquely human capacity to persevere and succeed in spite of ourselves. Good comedy is a meditation on the human condition wrapped in an unthreatening veneer. Believe it or not, so is a good cartoon.
Jones cared deeply about the cartoon characters he drew, and he spoke eloquently about them as characters. He described how the animators learned how those personalities played off of each other and how their story formulas reflected that interplay. For example, Bugs Bunny never instigated a fight. He only responded when his peace or livelihood was attacked, and he only responded in ways that suited his personality - he fought with intelligence and restraint, usually allowing his enemies to hang themselves with their own greed or anger. More often, however, Jones ruefully acknowledged his characters reflected his own failings: rampant self-interest (Daffy Duck), dreamy absentmindedness (Ralph Phillips), or stubbornness to the point of idiocy (Wile E. Coyote). But it doesn't matter they're not all comic heroes, because they're all human. Which is exactly why audiences respond to them.
One of my favorite Chuck Jones cartoons is Feed the Kitty, about a ferocious bulldog who falls in love with a tiny kitten he then adopts and scrupulously protects from harm. It's a six-minute animated film featuring two cartoon animals who don't speak one word. And, yet, as Jones wrote, he saw numerous people shed tears by the end of it. I've seen it, too. It's not cheap sentiment. It's a profound understanding about how people feel and how they connect with the world around them through those feelings.
Understanding how people feel will help you create meaningful objects, be it art or software application. You learn how people feel through practicing empathy, observing character and valuing individuality. If you can understand these things and successfully translate them through your creations, people will connect with those creations and make them a part of their lives, and they will be able to use them to make their lives better, either materially or emotionally. That's also what sets innovations apart from products that only aim to fulfill a current status quo. Cartoons designed to simply distract children or sell them toys fulfill a current status quo. Cartoons about individual human feelings and qualities transcend. The same goes for anything else you make. Innovation is in the recognizable details of human connection and context. Anything else simply isn't good enough.
Respect your medium
Jones's father entertained varied but uniformly unsuccessful plans for his own business, and Chuck cited each business's inevitable failure as an opportunity for the Jones children to use up the business's specially-printed stationery and pencils.
We were forbidden - actually forbidden - to draw on both sides of the paper. Because, of course, Father wanted to get rid of the stationery from a defunct business as soon as possible, and he brought logic to bear in sustaining his viewpoint: "You never know when you're going to make a good drawing," he said. And then, stretching credulity to the point of idiocy: "Suppose you were Leonardo da Vinci and you painted the Mona Lisa on one side of your canvas and The Last Supper on the other - how would you ever hang it?" Nevertheless - and perhaps, just perhaps, he knew what he was saying - he brought into focus a most vital rule of creativity: You must, if you ever pretend to artistry, respect your medium; be it a blank piece of paper or canvas, an untouched bar sheet, an uncarved piece of stone, or an exposed frame of film. ¹
Or a browser window. This has been the most unexpectedly applicable lesson to my own work. I came to web design with no formal design training, which meant that I learned how to "design" websites in the browser. It meant that I became deeply embedded in my medium, and learned how to respect its capabilities and challenges - knowledge that helps me design most effectively for it. If you don't respect your medium enough to understand it, your ignorance will always limit what you make.
Find inspiration in imposed constraints
I irritate many creatives I know by championing that dreaded burden known as a "day job." At best, most of them see it as a necessary evil. I have always disagreed vehemently. Structure and discipline are necessary to creativity, and there is nothing evil about it. I find a lot more evil in the entitled notion the world owes anyone a living. Embrace the day job. Yes, it's a plus, a wonderful, magical plus, if you can find a day job that inspires and energizes you, even if it's not in your chosen field. If you're amazingly lucky, you can find a day job that you can plug your creativity into, even if you never imagined doing that before. But don't waste your time waiting and watching for a perfect place to support your creativity. Not only because it's not realistic, but, more importantly, because resistance and hardship can be very good for it.
The Warner Brothers animation studio of the 40s and 50s was not tailored by management to be a nurturing creative environment. In fact, it was more often precisely the opposite. In those days, cartoons were required as part of a film "package" sold to theaters: a feature film, a newsreel and a cartoon. The cartoons were not intended for posterity and no one who made them ever imagined they would be shown again outside of a theater. Which meant management didn't give a shit about the animators or their happiness in their jobs. The animators were there to churn out a product, and that was it.
Jones worked in a place where post-film editing literally didn't exist. There was no budget for it. So directors planned out every single frame of a hand-drawn cartoon (which runs twenty-four frames a second) in advance of making it. That's how methodical and attentive to detail they had to be. Making a film longer six minutes, or fixing anything in post, simply wasn't an option. But, now, pick out one of the best films from their golden age and watch it. Every aspect of it is tight and focused. Not one moment is wasted. The visuals, the pace, the story - they all move with the grace of an accomplished dancer who knows how precious energy and intent is. It's the Chaplin lesson. Only the love shows. But the work is there underneath, and it was in reality encouraged and possibly even made possible by external constraints.
Humor is a powerful, sophisticated human quality
You must remember that only man, of all creatures, can blush, or needs to; that only man can laugh, or needs to; and that if you are in that trade of helping others to laugh and to survive by laughter, then you are privileged indeed. ¹
Don't underestimate humor as a light, inconsequential quality. It's a key to people and places in people they normally don't let others explore. I am not in the "trade" of helping others to laugh, but I seemed to have carved out a niche for myself in public speaking and teaching, based on my spirited personality, my willingness to laugh at myself and the openness to talk about all of it. People are drawn to it, and it creates human connections where before there were none. It takes courage to be humorous about something as difficult and stressful as work, or life, often is. Create things with a humorous spirit and that strength of courage will come through.
Do what you love and make your own path
When Chuck Jones first went to art school in the 1920s, animation did not exactly exist as a career path. Very similar to when I was in high school in the late 1990s and had no idea what web design was. I grew up in the rural, working-class Midwest, and I didn't even have (limited) access to the internet until I went to college. It took me roughly ten years to figure out a) what I was good at, and b) if there was actually a job that involved what I was good at. As it turns out, even ten years down the road, the job I'm really good at it (relatively speaking) is still evolving. But, all that time, I was practicing making things I liked to make, and how to make them better. I didn't always understand what I was making or why, and I especially didn't understand how what I made could fit into an useful, employable context. But, eventually, it led me right where I need to be. Instead of trying to conform myself to someone else's definition of what I should do or be, I managed to create my own.
And so while I didn't fulfill the specific career goal I once had in mind, I might not have ended up where I did if I hadn't started somewhere else, somewhere more fundamental. I learned to learn what you love and learn how to do it well. Keep doing it, however you can, whether or not anyone pays you for it or even notices you're doing it. Take inspiration and instruction from everything. What is a disadvantage in one field can be an asset in another. Apply lessons across boundaries; realize boundaries are a myth in the first place. Make your own rules. I can't guarantee it will work out. But sometimes it does. And it's worth it.
- ¹ Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist
- ² Chuck Reducks: Drawing from the Fun Side of Life