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Author Tod Polson Discusses Maurice Noble and "The Noble Approach"

Interviews
by Thad Komorowski
October 21, 2013 11:00 PM
2 Comments
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If you're reading this, you obviously don't need an introduction to Maurice Noble. His contributions as a designer and layout man to such landmark animated films as Rabbit Seasoning, What's Opera Doc?, Duck Amuck, Claws for Alarm, Robin Hood Daffy, the Road Runner series, and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century make his name as firmly inseparable from them as the director Chuck Jones'.

Tod Polson was a protege of Noble's who has finally realized his generous teacher's dream of putting all of Noble's notes and theories on animation design in book form. You'll first learn about Noble's history and find out how things were like in the ever-evolving Golden Age of animation and then how things got so bad that Noble was afraid the wisdom he mistook for common knowledge would vanish into the ether. Hence why he wanted his thoughts recorded in the first place!

Now available from Chronicle Books, Polson’s The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design fills an important spot on the animation history bookshelf and is easily destined to become the bible of animation design. Unlike previous books on the Warner studio that are outsider interpretations of the filmmaking (some of them wonderful, regardless), the book is a selfless account of exactly what Noble did on a daily basis when he was part of what was easily the most important shorts unit of mid-century animation.

More so, the remarkable takeaway from Polson's book, besides making what could have been tedious information incredibly readable, is how applicable Noble's lessons are to all kinds of animated filmmaking. The text doesn't simply explain how to design the scenery of one of Daffy Duck's ego trips and mental breakdowns (though it does an excellent job of doing just that), but how any film is dictated by the same general principles regardless of subject matter. The fact that Noble was so routinely successful for the longest time gives his lessons more than enough credibility. It's impossible to imagine another animation designer, modern or otherwise, who could top this achievement.

Tod Polson was kind enough to offer prompt, eloquent replies to each of my questions about Maurice Noble, his book, and the most important takeaways from writing (and reading) it. (All of the images pictured here were taken from Tod Polson's blog.) 


Thad Komorowski: I have to start with involuntary sycophancy. I think The Noble Approach is, in spite of being narrowly focused on a single artist and unit, the best book ever written about the Warner cartoons. It's mind-bogglingly detailed but also highly accessible to the general reader. Did it ever occur to you that you were writing a tome with that distinction? 

Tod Joseph Polson: Maurice always acknowledged that one of the reasons that the Looney Tunes and his design for those films were so successful was because of the way the cartoons were made.  For The Noble Approach, Maurice thought it was important that readers understand this process. He, Chuck, and [writer Mike] Maltese had a back and forth way of working, and creative synergy that he felt was lacking in most modern studios. He taught that good "appropriate" design couldn't exist unless a designer has an intimate knowledge of the whole filmmaking process. Story, budget, and film technique all dictate the way a film is designed. If a designer doesn't understand all these elements, their designs will fail.

As for clarity. Maurice always admired Preston Blair's book, Cartoon Animation, for its information and simplicity. It was Maurice's desire to create a book that would speak to animation professionals but would be accessible enough that even young students could grasp his ideas.

TK: There obviously is great interest in a book that celebrates Noble's work and passes on his wisdom, but it's taken a while to come to be. How did you get Chronicle to finally publish it? Any advice you care to share with other potential authors of animation history/tutorials?

TJP: Putting this book together has been a LONG journey. Actually, Maurice had been formulating ideas and notes about design since the 1930s. I only started helping Maurice put his notes for The Noble Approach together in the early 1990s. By that point his eyesight had gotten so poor that he began dictating his ideas to me. As we would work on films together, I would ask him questions about a certain aspect of design, we would discuss it, then I would write down his thoughts.

The most difficult part of this journey has been collecting, and getting the rights for the images in the book. Originally Maurice had wanted to use images from his personal collection. But after his passing, it was bought by Warner Bros., who spent years cataloging the material. After much negotiation and around ten years of waiting, the studio finally gave me permission to use their images. It was only then that Chronicle Books and I could move forward and set a firm publishing date.

To be honest, I felt the audience for a Maurice textbook would be too small for a major publisher to take interest. A friend of mine who had published several books by Chronicle found out about the project and he mentioned it to his editor. I submitted a proposal and a sample chapter, and it got approved! Unknown to me, several Maurice Noble projects had been submitted to Chronicle at the same time as The Noble Approach. The editor told me they chose my proposal because it was different than most of the "art of" books on the market. Besides the fact that the spine of the material was written by Maurice himself, they liked the personal narrative told from the POV of his students. They liked the sincerity.

As far as advice to potential authors: I would say choose material you are passionate about. Readers will be moved by material that moves you! You have to LOVE what you are writing about because creating books isn't such a lucrative profession (at least for me). To be frank, with all the research and licensing fees, I will be very lucky to break even on the book. However, my motivation for this project has always been my love for Maurice.

Secondly, don't give up on something you believe in. There have been so many frustrating moments on the road to getting The Noble Approach published. In the end, it's all been worth it. 

TK: Was there anything that had to be dropped from the book? What was the hardest part about writing it? Anything you wish could've done differently with it?

TJP: The most difficult part of putting this book together was whittling the material down from nearly 500 pages to 175 and still keep the essence of Maurice's intent. Much of the material that was cut were ideas that weren't unique of Maurice's approach. For example, I cut an interesting chapter that discussed some of the background materials and methods Maurice had used at Disney and Warner's. Though I felt the subject was fascinating, you could probably pick up similar information in almost any good illustration class.

Some of the other information that was cut, such as John Burton Jr.’s camera techniques, wouldn't be as useful to most current animation designers. Many sections of the book, such as "layout", originally included much more information... but the publisher felt it became too technical for the general reader.  Again, much of this information wasn't unique to Maurice.  So we decided to make the book more of an introduction to a number of Maurice's ideas, and leave some pointers for readers who wanted to dig deeper. Perhaps one day, if there is enough interest, we will be able to publish the expanded edition of Maurice's book.

TK: If you had to pick a single work of Noble's that best represented him, which one would it be? And, speaking strictly for yourself, what's your favorite?

TJP: My favorite Maurice short is probably The Dot and the Line (1965). To me it is his most personal statement, with graphics much more akin to what he did in his personal art. In a way, I think Maurice identified with the line. 

TK: I didn't see him mentioned at all in the book, so I was curious, did Noble have anything to say about Hawley Pratt, Friz Freleng's layout man and most important collaborator? There are similarities between the two: they both became increasingly important to their respective directors, earned co-director credits around the same time, and seem to have operated under the same guiding principles. I'm probably in the minority on this, but I think Pratt was just as talented and individualistic as Noble.

TJP: It would have been great to discuss Maurice's contemporaries more... there just wasn't space. Hawley Pratt was definitely one of the more talented, and important designers in the history of animation. He designed a number of very handsome pictures for Freleng. For the last few years of his life I believe Hawley was in a nursing home. Maurice would sometimes go visit him there, though I was never invited to go along. From what I understand he was suffering from dementia. Maurice seemed to respect Hawley, and sometimes spoke tenderly about the man himself, but he never really discussed his work with me. "Dull" and "run-of-the-mill" were how Maurice described Freleng’s work. Knowing what I do about Friz, I don't think Hawley could have really taken any serious design chances under Friz's direction if he'd wanted to. With the schedule they were working on, and with Hawley doing both character and background layout, it doesn't seem likely he would have had the time to experiment much anyway. Though the man was certainly capable.

TK: There's a consensus that as the years went on, Maurice Noble became more of a star in Chuck Jones's cartoons than Chuck Jones. Reading between the lines of the book's text, it seems Noble realized this himself. I was wondering how he felt about shouldering more and more of a cartoon's burden, especially considering how much he and you emphasize the importance of collaboration in animation.

TJP: From my discussions with Maurice, Chuck would focus on a few great cartoons, and wouldn't give the same attention to many of the others. He depended on Maurice to pick up the slack. As budgets got tighter throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, design became a more important element of the Looney Tunes. There was less movement, and thus the artists had to make up for it in some other way. Many feel that the design of many of these later cartoons overpower the characters.

TK: I loved the passage about budget and deadline dictating not just design, but the entire film. It should be required reading at every animation school. Did Noble ever talk about specific incidents where his or Jones's vision was compromised because of time or money restrictions? How about when you worked with him personally?

TJP: This was one of Maurice's pet peeves. I'm aware of a few recent productions where the art director/production designers have blown the budget because they are more worried about getting pretty pictures in an "art of" book than actually designing a film. It's entirely frustrating, and completely avoidable.

In his early days in the Jones unit, Maurice got into trouble for going $500 over budget on a film. In spite of being on or under budget for all his previous films, he got a serious scolding by management. He vowed to never go over budget again. Years later Maurice got in trouble again on What's Opera, Doc? because management THOUGHT he had gone over budget. What looked like expensive double exposures, and fancy airbrushed cels were simply camera tricks Maurice had devised with cameraman John Burton Jr. Management apologized.

When we were at Jones in the 1990s, the budgets weren't really ever mentioned to us... but I got the feeling they were better than average. However, on our film The Pumpkin of Nyefar for Nobletales, we had NO budget, so designed the film to be made for pocket change... which it was. The boards were planned so that one or two animators could take care of the whole film in a relative short amount of time. If you look at it closely, characters don't move that much... but when they do, they move well. With all these hindrances we didn't want the film to feel cheap and limited. Good sound and June Foray can work wonders.  We tried to design the film for what we had available to us.

TK: What do you hope readers ultimately take away from The Noble Approach?

TJP: The biggest thing Maurice wanted readers to take away from the book is to think for themselves, and really ask questions. Why am I designing the way I am? What are the needs of my film? What is it I want to say? Is there a better way to do this? Questions lead to thoughtful design... and force good designers to come up with an answer. Equipping them so they can confidentially proclaim, "This is the world as I see it!"

That is why I think Maurice's design ideas are timeless... and still as relevant as ever.

TK: What's next for Tod Joseph Polson?

TJP: Right now we have a few short films in the works. One is called A Tale of Two Warts, and is part of the NobleTales series. The film is being co-produced by us, and Picture This! animation studios in Thailand. Warts should be finished mid-2014. The other short is a documentary called Topaz Diary, and explores issues related to the Japanese-American internment of WWII. I also have a few animation book projects that I'm pitching at the moment.


Thad Komorowski is the author of Sick Little Monkeys: The Unauthorized Ren & Stimpy Story

Editor's Note: Visit Tod Polson's blog, buy The Noble Approach, and read more writings by Thad Komorowski at What About Thad.com

Interviews
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2 Comments

  • Rod Tejada | October 23, 2013 2:09 AMReply

    I concur with Mark, excellent interview.

    Now, Mr. Polson, I can almost assure you that there is market for the expanded version of this book. Im getting it through Amazon in the near future and I bet it will stand next to Animator's Survival Kit but in the Design and Layout area.

    Thanks for writing the book!

  • Mark Mayerson | October 22, 2013 6:51 AMReply

    Excellent interview.

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