Saturday, 8 June 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Accelleratii Incredibus Editioncus

This cereal never came to be. But if it did, it would've been all I consumed as a kid.

This commercial never came to be either, other than the preliminary filmed storyboard you just watched. Apparently focus groups didn't connect to either cereal or the spot like I would have. True, the "beep" was all wrong (more on that below), but we could have fixed that in Post! Get it? Post? Cereal? Breakfast?

Oh, never mind.

By the way, that reminds me of other wasted breakfast endorsement potential!

But I digress...

Chuck Jones' Road Runner and Coyote series is cartoon perfection to me. They've been my favourites since I can remember.

See that kid below in the cap? That's me. Still is.

By the way, this cartoon will also provide you with refreshing clarification as to why Wile E. seemingly wastes his time chasing a solitary scrawny bird.

Every Saturday, my dad would attempt to move our antenna on top of the house, using a high-tech antenna mover in the basement, so that I could watch that solitary, scrawny bird by accessing a signal from Grand Forks, which on the occasional cloudy day, would reveal a broadcast of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show at 5 p.m. Most of the time, I'd watch with squinted eyes through layers of "snow", trying to make out the goings-on. And I was always stressed because the Road Runner came on at the end, closer to 6 - and I would pray it'd finish before my mom called me for supper. But if it didn't, my mom would always tolerate my temporary absence, knowing I'd react at precisely 6:01 on the dot.

As a kid, I wouldn't just watch any ol' Road Runner cartoon. I knew the difference between a Chuck Jones and a non-Chuck Jones Road Runner. I knew the violence isn't what made them funny. It was the quiet moments before the mayhem. The comic timing. The facial expressions. The fine sign making.

Chuck Jones and his writer, Michael Maltese, created the Road Runner and Coyote in 1947, when chase cartoons were all the rage. Inspired by Mark Twain's inclusion of a coyote in his book, "Roughing It", Jones and Maltese intended their first outing to be a satire of the chase genre. But instead they personified it.

Note the Coyote's original "punny" name from one of the first model sheets. 

1949's 'Fast and Furry-ous' revved up a never-ending chase that lasted 48 official cartoons to date - 29 of which were directed (or co-directed) by Jones.

Note the Coyote's sleeker, thicker-chested look early on in the series.

The Road Runner's famous "beep" was provided by Warner Bros. artist, Paul Julian, who used to make that noise at work in the hallway as a way of getting people to move out of his way. Editor Treg Brown recorded several different versions of that "beep" (which always sounded more like a "meep" to me) and it was used from thereon in as the only sound the Road Runner ever made - a sound which Julian never received screen credit for.

According to Chuck Jones' book, "Chuck Amuck", it was apparently decided early on to establish ground rules for the series. Those rules were...

1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "beep, beep".
2. No outside force can harm the Coyote - only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products.
3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- IF he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim." -- George Santayana).
4. No dialogue ever, except "beep, beep!"
5. Road Runner must stay on the road - otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.
6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters - the southwest American desert.
7. All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

It seems like a very complex way to simplify things, doesn't it? - for the benefit of making it more accessible to a wider audience. Many of those decisions, including eliminating dialogue, is the reason this series has played so well for so long - in all languages, in any country. Limitations considered, it's amazing the characters still possess the personality they do.

Wile E.'s reliance on the questionable Acme company was based on real life. Chuck Jones' sister was obsessed with the word 'Acme', as she found it hilarious that dubious advertisers would use it in their title as an obvious way to be listed first in the phone book. Of course the irony was that the word meant "the best", which Wile E. never received.

Freeze framing these product shots always revealed a hilarious sell line. 

By the 1950's, the Road Runner series was so well-established that it would seem it could almost "run" itself. But that was never the case. They were carefully crafted and calculated experiments in timing.

The Coyote's appearance changed to become more streamlined and less animal-like.

By the 1960's, cartoons became less "classic" looking, which for some reason was well-suited to the Road Runner's universe. This period marks my favourite look for Wile E. - kinda mangy, as you'd expect a coyote to be.

While I love all of Chuck Jones' Road Runners, I consider the best of the bunch to be from this "mangy" period of 1960-1964, when the cartoons became weirder, less polished and a lot funnier in my opinion. Upon losing his regular gag man, Michael Maltese, Chuck Jones began writing a lot of these episodes himself. And it's like he purposely started messing with the timing and format all over again. Set-ups you kinda-sorta expected from earlier cartoons were never reapplied. Single gags now became stretched out over a larger majority of the cartoon. Some of the violence was themed to particular kinds of products, like this infamous showcase of faulty catapults from 1963's 'To Beep Or Not To Beep'.

I also love the backgrounds from this period, which became more abstract and experimental, like the cartoons themselves. This was courtesy of artist Maurice Noble.

Noble gets a lot of credit for his Warner Bros. backgrounds, but not enough for making the desert so interesting in the Road Runner series.

Here's what the desert looked like pre-Maurice Noble.

And here's what it would become...

If you can look past the constant violence, you'll see that many of the Road Runner backgrounds follow a different colour scheme in each cartoon, from yellows and blues to pinks and purples. Definitely not always a palate you would commonly associate with the desert.

Here is one of my favourite cartoons of all time (not just Road Runner, but cartoons in general) - 1962's 'Zip N' Snort'. Not only is it an excellent showcase for the artwork described above, but it's a prime example of how Chuck Jones could keep taking the jokes you've seen a million times, and somehow rework them to be as fresh and funny as ever. That longevity is another reason why I admire this series so much.

If you're looking to get me something for Christmas, you can buy me the animation cel that contains the image seen at the :33 mark. That, to me, is Wile E. at his mangy best. In fact, there's great cel material throughout! (1:59, 4:14, 5:09, etc.)

'Zip N' Snort' also prompts me to praise Warner Bros. composer Milt Franklin, who revealed his understanding of comedy by choosing not to score certain scenes, instead allowing the sound effects to shine through. This is particularly effective at 1:23, and the sequence that begins at the 3:57 mark.

To me, 'Zip N' Snort' is the perfect culmination of comedy - from all sides. You can tell these guys were definitely in sync with each other. And it's that understanding that has proven difficult to replicate.

When Chuck Jones left Warner Bros. in the mid-1960's, the Road Runner was at his peak of popularity. After the studio cobbled together 2 shorts from an unreleased TV pilot that Chuck Jones directed called Adventures of The Road Runner (one of those shorts, 'Zip Zip Hooray', was included above), other directors started cranking out their own cheapie (and unfunny) Road Runner cartoons. I didn't even want to acknowledge them here, as they're embarrassing. But I'll include one for comparative purposes.

I couldn't even finish watching it, so I certainly hope you didn't feel obliged to.

Rudy Larriva handled the majority of the late 1960's series, but Warner Bros. legends Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson also took a stab at it and failed miserably.

Here's a pathetic example of what Warner Bros. was cranking out at the time, in 1965's 'The Wild Chase', which features a not-so-wild race between the Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales. Sylvester also cameos. Should you decide to view it, you may notice bright spots featuring the Road Runner and Coyote. Seem familiar? It should because they're scenes directly lifted from previous Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoons, in an attempt to save the studio money. It includes the entire smoke screen sequence you just watched above in 'Zoom And Bored'! For shame, Friz Freleng!

Speaking of cameos, did you know that another Warner Bros. star was once used as a fill-in for the Road Runner? In fact, he and the Coyote developed quite a history, but this is the only part of it that ever took place in the world of the Road Runner. We'll cover more on these mortal enemies in a separate blog.

But anyway, as evidenced by Freleng and McKimson's work, a proven track record wasn't important for a series like this - it was to have a basic understanding of the characters and the world they inhabited.

The Road Runner and Coyote are Chuck Jones's children. Several attempts have been made to resurrect the series, but don't compare. Nobody seems to "get" the dynamics as Chuck Jones understood them. Those rules above read pretty simple, but it still only seems like a world that existed in Chuck's head.

Chuck Jones returned to direct a few later Road Runner offerings, as part of TV specials in the 1970's and 80's. He also directed segments for early episodes of TV's The Electric Company.

His final theatrical short, 1994's 'Chariots of Fur', came out in front of screenings of Macaulay Culkin's Richie Rich. Chuck Jones would've been in his early 80's (!) while making this cartoon, and it contains more life than anything done on his behalf 30 years prior. Note that Maurice Noble also returned as background designer.

The Road Runner and Coyote recently reappeared in theatres again, this time in 3D/CGI form, without Chuck Jones at the helm. While not terrible, the cartoons certainly take some getting used to. Still, it's nice to see these characters alive and well after all these years - even if you have to pay for 3D glasses and a screening of Cats And Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore to see it. By the way, before you judge me, I will say that I left about 10 minutes into the actual movie. The movie I paid full price for - not even on half-price Tuesday. Okay, now you can judge me. I think I even ordered popcorn for some reason. Like, 3 minutes worth.

Road Runner and Coyote also appeared in CGI form on the first season of the new 'The Looney Tunes Show' on Cartoon Network. They appear to have been dropped from Season 2 though. 

Like that kid above, people who question my taste in judgement always ask the inevitable - "don't you wish that Coyote would catch the Road Runner, just once?" Well, no! For the same reasons above! And if you knew your cartoon history, you'd know that Wile E. DID in fact catch the Road Runner - in a TV cartoon that Jones directed in 1980 called 'Soup or Sonic'. Unfortunately, it didn't go the way Wile E. intended.

He also caught him in this Cartoon Network bumper, but only in his mind.

Wile E. has probably captured the Road Runner many times in his mind.

But here's hoping Wile E. still gets plenty of chances to continue the chase in years to come, overseen by obsessive types like myself who understand the sheer, unadulterated genius behind it all.

Beep, beep! Zip-tang!

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