Monday, February 4, 2013

The Annie Awards and the Secret of Chuck Jones' Success

The Annies - the Animation Oscars
Last Saturday night, February 2nd 2013, was animation's big night - the Annie Awards, held this year at the UCLA Royce Hall in Los Angeles. They are the Animation Oscars, held once a year to celebrate excellence in animated film-making.

The big winner this year was Wreck-It-Ralph, with five awards including Best Animated Picture. Winner of the award for best character animation (the one all animators covet) was Travis Knight for ParaNorman, and Erik de Boer, Matt Shumway, Brian Wells, Vinayak Pawar, and Michael Holzl for their animation of The Tiger in Life of Pi. The latter is a reminder of how many hands it takes to bring animated characters to life.

Fifteen years ago, in 1998, the Annies were held at the Alex Theater on Brand Boulevard in Glendale. I was working at Warner Bros at the time and managed to score a free ticket from a friend in the publicity dept.

The Alex Theater in Glendale
Maybe because I had dressed up for the occasion in a tail coat and white tie, I was asked by a member of the committee to hand out the award for best animator. The prize that year went to a very deserving Nik Ranieri for his work on the villain Hades, from the Disney film Hercules.

Later in the evening the legendary animator and director Chuck Jones stood up to give a short address. Chuck was quite elderly by then. He was the Grand Old Man of animation, always dressed impeccably and often in a white suit - in the style of Mark Twain.
Chuck Jones
"The secret of my success" - Chuck explained to the audience - "was to surround myself with people more talented than myself". Actually, he said, this was the secret of most successful artists and directors. In fact, he went on, "the only director I can think of who violated this rule was..." Chuck paused. We waited with anticipation. Who could this villain be? Chuck drew himself up to his full height: "...Richard Williams, who never could stand to work with anyone more talented than himself!"

I gasped and jumped up from my seat. "Rubbish!", I shouted as loud as I could. But the Alex is a big theatre and hardly anyone could hear me - and anyway Chuck had the microphone, which as every heckler knows is a distinct advantage. Following the ceremony there was a reception, and I tried to find Chuck to remonstrate - but his minders had long since whisked him away in his limo.
Grim Natwick (2nd from left), and Art Babbit (2nd from right) outside No 13 Soho Square
The injustice of this rankled since Dad always surrounded himself with talent (and still does). In the 1970's, when I was very young, he closed his studio in Soho Square for an entire month so that the great Disney animator Art Babbitt could give a series of lectures to the entire staff on animation, workshops which were transcribed into much-photocopied and re-photocopied notes which would later form the very beginnings of what would become, decades later, the Animator's Survival Kit - now the standard textbook for all students of character animation. 
Grim Natwick schools a mystery apprentice at Soho Square
And Art wasn't alone. He was joined by Grim Natwick, who designed and animated Betty Boop, and by Ken Harris, who animated literally hundreds of Warner Bros shorts back in the 1940's and 50's.

All three were incredibly talented, and they made a huge contribution to the work produced at no.13 Soho Square. They were kind of like Disney's Nine Old Men, except there were three of them. The Three Old Men, perhaps.
No 13 Soho Square in the 1970s. Art Babbit is in the front of the first row, Ken Harris and Grim Natwick are standing behind him and to the left
In a way I was myself trained by all three of these great animators since, many years later, as a novice animator on The Thief and The Cobbler, I was handed scenes which they themselves had animated, to adjust and put on-model. So I got to start my animation career being an assistant to these great men. They weren't alive any longer, but their work lived on.

- Alex