The return of classic-style Warner Bros. animation with “Looney Tunes Cartoons” for this week’s launch of HBO Max took some persuading at the studio: Would kids under 10 get the slapstick humor and find the legendary Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, and the rest of the gang relatable? That’s when showrunner Pete Browngardt (“Uncle Grandpa”) suggested group testing some of the old cartoons for families to see how they played.
“There was a concern about the familiarity of the characters and how violent they could be,” Browngardt said. “And they worked perfectly. They’re perfect capsules of comedy.” Among the cartoons they tested were “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” (1946) with Daffy at his loony best, and “Easter Yeggs” (1947) with Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Unfortunately, the gag with a revolver as a pacifier didn’t go over well given the preponderance of elementary school shootings, so they learned a valuable lesson: No weaponry but lots of dynamite.
However, the surreal jokes about defying gravity were enthusiastically embraced. “It’s funny how very literal-minded they were,” added Browngardt. “I don’t remember ever thinking that way. But that’s because contemporary animation has become more grounded.”
Warner Bros. subsequently greenlit an initial order of 1,000 minutes (to be completed in September). In the meantime, HBO Max began streaming a package of 80 11-minute episodes on May 27. Among the highlights: Daffy and Porky look for mysterious treasure in a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” riff (“Curse of the Monkeybird”), Bugs deflates arm-wrestling champion Yosemite Sam (“Harm Wrestling”), and a “Frankenstein” delight with Bugs and Gossamer.
Browngardt and the team decided early on to tap into “the irreverent Tex Avery school of cartooning [from the 1940s], where you play with the art of the unexpected humor.” The choice of that iconic design style coupled with the snap of slapstick at its most elastic was the easiest route to reintroducing Warner Bros. cartoons to a new generation. “We watched a lot of the directors’ work from that era [Bob Clampett, Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson, among others],” he said. “I knew a handful of artists who were craving to do a classic ’40s style. And I always had the feeling that I could be a taste maker and curator of talent.”
The showrunner assembled a new incarnation of the “Termite Terrace,” led by story editor Johnny Ryan (“Angry Youth Comix”) and art director Aaron Spurgeon (the “Mickey Mouse” TV series). The mandate was a throwback to cartoon-driven shorts with writers and board artists coming up with crazy gags and drawings and building the stories around the mayhem. The team includes vets Dan Haskett (“The Simpsons”) and Bill Waldman (“Tarzan”) along with new talents such as board artist Catherine Dinner (“Unikitty!”) and assistant art director Keika Yamaguchi (“The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” from 2018).
But, regardless of age and experience, recreating the classic Warner Bros. style, with its over-the-top physicality and snappy timing, isn’t easy. “It’s challenging because…it takes a lot of energy and a lot of patience to draw that well,” Browngardt said. “We found a good balance of young and veteran artists, with some good millennial voices coming through.”
And working during the pandemic hasn’t been too difficult with their Zoom story meetings — animators tend to be socially distanced anyway. “Some people are more prolific than ever and some are struggling more than ever,” added Browngardt. “I always notice even when we’re in the room together, the shyer guys always kill you with better artwork. But now, if you push that headphone louder, it makes everyone pay attention to you more.”
Thankfully, the animation software Harmony by Toon Boom (“Flash on steroids,” Browngardt calls it) came in handy for achieving that snappy animation by running animatics over and over again and by manipulating frames. The quality 2D animation is handled primarily by Toronto-based Yowza Animation, Montreal-based Tonic DNA, and Snipple in the Philippines.
The big revelation for Browngardt, though, was how great Daffy turned out to be. They went with the innocent and zany version of the popular duck, and did quite well in teaming him up with Porky as the veritable “Odd Couple.” The vaudevillian cross-dressing and gender bending was cause for concern early on, but it too went over well in the group testing. “But, even in the old cartoons, it was never out of malice or making fun of that,” he said. “It was always a [funny] disguise.”
And, when it came to seeking a worthy rival for Bugs, they didn’t have to look any further than Cecil the turtle (“Tortoise Beats Hare”) and the gremlin (“Falling Hare”). But the hardest challenge proved to be the mastering of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. So much destruction has been achieved by the rivals throughout the decades that it was just plain difficult to breathe fresh life into their choreographed dance.
“I always say, ‘Looney Tunes’ animation is a language of cinema, it’s a language of art,” Browngardt said.