Author Tod Polson Discusses Maurice Noble and “The Noble Approach”

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

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
, What’s Opera Doc?, Duck Amuck, Claws for Alarm, Robin Hood
, 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

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