From drawing board to screen: Exhibit offers a line on animation

November 06, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Everybody knows the name of that fumbling coyote who's always chasing the Road Runner in cartoons. He's Wile E. Coyote, right?

Yes, now. But originally, he was supposed to be Don Coyote.

And did you know Elmer J. Fudd, that equally frustrated fellow usually in pursuit of Bugs Bunny, began life as just plain Fred? And that Pepe LePew, the amorous skunk, was at first called Stinky?

You can learn the evolution of some of the world's best-loved cartoon characters during a visit to "Chuck Jones: An Animated Life," a major retrospective opening today at the Capital Children's Museum in Washington.

Indeed, the exhibit presents the evolution of film animation itself, for Mr. Jones ranks among the pioneers of the uniquely American medium. The artist who created many of the Warner Bros. cartoon figures has provided a number of original drawings and other artifacts never displayed in public.

Since 1987, he has led annual animation workshops at the Washington museum, which last year established within its red brick walls the National Center for Animation.

"We hope that people will gain an appreciation of animation as an art form right up there with jazz and theater," says Ann Lewin, director and founder of the 13-year-old museum. The exhibit is underwritten by cable television's Cartoon Network.

But Mr. Jones admits only to modest goals during his decades of work.

"You know, the literal meaning of the word animation, from the Latin, is 'to invoke life.' We felt that drawing was only a method of getting these personalities to the screen," says Mr. Jones, 81, in a telephone interview from his home in Corona del Mar, Calif.

As far as being a teacher and role model for others -- a video reel in the museum has such celebrities as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening talking of his influence on their work -- Mr. Jones seems downright shy.

"Well, the title 'teacher' is something someone else has to give you. . . . Teaching to me is just helping people do what they hope to do," he says.

He sums up his career by saying "I like what I do, and I have been lucky that someone has paid me to do it."

He opens up, however, when discussing his cartoon creations, such as that eternally hopeful coyote and his elusive quarry.

The coyote grew from Mr. Jones' love of Mark Twain, particularly the writer's western nonfiction work, "Roughing It." The book includes a succinct description of the scavenger beast native to the Southwest.

"That description helped me to discover something: That every animal was different," says Mr. Jones.

And making the coyote perpetually pursue the bird was an idea that grew from a colleague's observation about the movie industry: that "everybody seems to be chasing everybody else."

"I think of Chuck as one of the greatest actors alive because that's really what he does, he acts out these stories with his characters," says Chris Grotke, the museum's media director, who designed an interactive video portion of the Chuck Jones exhibit.

Mr. Jones' genius in using simple pencil lines to create memorable, culture-bridging personalities provides the central theme of the retrospective.

The display can be divided into three main elements, carried through 11 separate exhibits: history, "try it" interactive projects and many viewing opportunities.

In the latter category, for example, visitors can watch a screening of the classic Wagnerian cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?" in which Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny spoof the grand opera in grandly funny form. A video on the making of the `D cartoon follows, with Mr. Jones and collabo rator Maurice Noble describing their inspiration for the short.

Visitors may also try their hands at several work stations.

In a drawing studio, for example, 17 light-box stations let you trace Warner Bros. figures onto your own take-home sketch sheets.

In Mr. Grotke's second floor studios, you can stand in front of -- or even operate -- a color TV camera to create an animated feature, tape record your own voice readings of a Warner Bros. script or create sound effects for a cartoon.

A computer lab also offers ways to use new technology to animate stories.

Mr. Jones says he is happy that film and video animation has gained new prominence in recent years. But he draws a distinction between his work and such popular vehicles as "The Simpsons," "Ren and Stimpy" and "Beavis and Butt-head."

"I like to measure whether you can turn the sound off and tell what's going on," he says, contending most Chuck Jones cartoons involve a clearly discernible story.

The newer vehicles do not, he says, because they depend heavily on a script for their humor.

"I call it illustrated radio. It's OK, but it is not animation," Mr. Jones says.

EXHIBIT

What: "Chuck Jones: An Animated Life"

Where: Capital Children's Museum, 800 Third St., N.E., Washington.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Easter

Admission: $6; children under 2 and members free

Call: (202) 543-8600

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