In any discussion of the legendary Leon Schlesinger/Warner Bros. cartoon studio, you often hear the words “friendly competition” used to describe the relationships between the various director-driven units. Once in a while you even hear stories about some not-so-friendly competition. But you would never hear things like that coming from Chuck Jones.
Trying to get anecdotes out of him was not easy, since Chuck was always happier to talk about his theories and philosophies of creating animated cartoons. Sometimes, just understanding what he was saying was not easy (particularly for a non-animator), and Chuck could become slightly impatient if you couldn’t follow the leaps and jinks his mind could take even in casual conversation.
One such occurrence happened in a conversation I had with Chuck in 1991, when I was attempting to get my head around his declaration that individual drawings were both vital and superfluous to the creation of an animated performance. “There’s a tendency to think that a single drawing means something,” he tried to explain. “It does, but only to the extent that a still photograph will mean something to the performance of an actor like Olivier.”
In 2000, though, I was able to have a more relaxed and personal conversation with Chuck, during which time the topic of competition with others came up. “One thing I became aware of very early is that, whether you’re writing or directing or acting, creativity is not competitive,” he told me.
“It’s a very difficult thing for all of us because we’re raised in a society that is competitive,” he added. “I think you have to shuck a lot of that off, and in drawing or writing, you have to realize that competition hurts you, it doesn’t help you. It doesn’t do you any good to think you did a better drawing, or that you wrote a better essay, than somebody else did. You must aim for something higher. You’re competing with the sky; you’re not competing with another person.”
Chuck wouldn’t even put any one of his cartoons up against any other in competition, declaring “I don’t have any favorites.” One particular title did come to his mind, but not as a favorite, per se:
“I have some that I respect, because they caused me a lot of trouble, like One Froggy Evening. That story was not a simple story, it was a complicated story, and it took me a helluva lot of sweat and tears, to coin a phrase. But I’ve always said that your pictures were like your children, and you never say you have a favorite. It would be like saying one of your children is your favorite, and if you ever say that, and you have several children, you put yourself on the road to insanity.”
Chuck was a filmmaker who always seemed to dance to his own music (which out of the studio was frequently square dance music, a passion of his). “If there were rules,” he once told me, “they were built into me.”