Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Happy Birthday Ken Harris, the Bugs Bunny animator "who could do it all"


Ken Harris was born on July 31st 1898. Were he still alive, today would be his 115th birthday.  I met him when I was just a kid, and he was already a very old man, but still doing some of the very best work of his career.  It was the mid-1970s, and Ken had come over from LA to London to work with my father at his Soho Square studio.

By the time he came to London, Ken had already had an extraordinary career in Hollywood. He worked at Warner Bros. Cartoons under the supervision of director Chuck Jones; an association which began in 1936 and lasted until 1962. Jones described him as "... a virtuoso. Ken Harris did it all."

Think of your favourite Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoons, and the chances are, Ken animated them. Check out his IMDB page - he animated literally hundreds of shorts at Warners. Among them, my personal favourite - "What's Opera, Doc?".
Ken draws Bugs Bunny
When I was a child, and a WB cartoon would come on the TV, Dad would say "look in the credits at the front (credits were always at the front) - see if it's a Ken Harris cartoon - it'll be a good one".  It was true.  Ken's comic timing was always spot on.

And he was fast too.  Warner shorts were made on a shoestring budget, with hardly any time for revisions.  Animators had to do 15 feet a week of finished animation to keep up.  Working at Warners, Ken put in his 10,000 hours - and more. No wonder he got really good, and really fast.

Soho Square in the 1970s: Ken is in the back row, to the left of Grim Natwick, creator of Betty Boop
But when Warners closed down their shorts division in the 1960's, Ken found himself out of work.  Which is how he came to be in London, working on commercials at No 13 Soho Square and, when time allowed, working on The Thief.

He and Dad had a very unusual relationship, since Ken was both my father's mentor as well as his employee. Dad would always defer to Ken as a master animator, and yet he would go over Ken's drawings as well, refining his key poses. It was a very special and flexible collaboration, one which I have never really seen replicated anywhere else.

In a documentary interview made in the early 1980s titled "The Animator Who Never Gave Up" (which you can find at YouTube), Dad describes the long, slow process of earning Ken's respect. In the end, after many years of collaboration, Ken said finally "you are an animator". As if to say: "You're the master now. There's not much left I can teach you".

No 13 Soho Square.
Ken did a ton of work on A Christmas Carol in 1971. He was a workhorse, still doing fifteen feet a week of finished animation, as he had been trained to do in his days at Warner Bros. Though some of his shots of Ebenezer Scrooge, if you look closely, seem at times oddly reminiscent of Wile E Coyote. In fact, Harris himself looked a bit like the Coyote - kind of.


As the 1970s wore on Ken's health began to deteriorate. He moved back to California but still kept working on scenes from The Thief. Dad went to see him there and, once, I went along too, visiting Ken in his trailer home near Ojai, in the foothills of the moutains north west of Los Angeles. I must have been around 10 years old, and I spent the afternoon drawing pictures and fishing for bluegills in a nearby lake.  Ken died in 1982, from Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

Many years later, in the early 1990s, I got to animate some of his shots on The Thief. I say "animate", but what I really doing was working as Ken's assistant animator, re-drawing his shots and putting them "on-model" (The Thief had changed a fair bit over the previous decade). I thought I was producing beautiful animation, but really I was just an assistant to the animator "who could do it all".
Ken Harris rough of The Thief
In 1996, when I moved to LA, I found Ken's rough drawings from The Thief in a box, which I had saved at the end of the production in 1992. Not knowing what to do with them, and having nowhere to store them, I threw them out.

To my eternal regret.

---Alex 

(Editor's note: You can read more about Ken, and see examples of his work, at www.masteranimator.com)

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