HomeCOMICSThere’s art hidden in LOONEY TUNES

There’s art hidden in LOONEY TUNES

Looney Tunes is total mayhem. And it’s great, but smack in the middle of all this pandemonium, there’s something hidden that you don’t usually notice: the background art. Beautiful images that are little artworks in and of themselves. In this video I’ll explain why background art is so important, who the artists are behind this art, and why Maurice Noble is a key figure in all this.

Its hidden in plain sight

Looney Tunes is total mayhem. The cartoons are filled with crazy characters…”Okay, so I laid an egg? “iconic quotes…”I thought I thaw a puddy cat.””I did! I did thaw a puddy cat! “And violence. Lots…of…violence. “Oh no! “It’s madness, and it’s great. But smack in the middle of all this pandemonium there’s something hidden that we don’t usually notice, even though it’s responsible for Looney Tunes’ great look and vibe. You can only see it if you hit pause at the exact right moment.

The art of looney tune

There it is. I’m talking about the background art. it’s hidden in plain sight. Beautiful stills like this house in the woods, a wonky ladder, or a big moon floating in space. When you strip Looney Tunes from all its characters and movement and music, you discover this hidden dimension filled with beautiful images that are abandoned, silent, and kind of creepy sometimes. It’s the complete opposite of what Looney Tunes is. Filled with life and very loud. These background images are liminal spaces. Spaces that are usually filled with life, but are now dead silent. I’m absolutely fascinated by these little works of art. They seem unimportant, something in the background to make the cartoon look good, but they are so much more than that. And I’m gonna tell you why. Okay, first take a look at this background from a Looney Tunes cartoon. And now look at this painting by Edward Hopper. Here’s a De Chirico and a Looney Tunes background. Looney Tunes, Rockwell Kent. Salvador Dali, Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes, David Hockney. You just cannot look at these backgrounds without noticing some art references. In fact the images are little works of art themselves. They don’t need the Looney Tunes characters and the music and all that jazz to be complete. They can be perfectly appreciated and interpreted without having seen the cartoon in which they featured.

The Artist behind the Art

And all this art is of course created by artists. Layout designers and background artists. Layout designers come up with the designs and the lighting and the camera angles for each shot of the cartoon, and those initial designs are then used by the background artists to create the actual backdrops. These artists are the unsung heroes of the golden age of American animation. An age that ran from the 1930s up until the early 70s. It was the age in which many of the most iconic and critically acclaimed films and cartoons were released.

The genius of Maurice Nobel

One of the most significant background artists of that golden age was Maurice Noble. He was responsible for the look and feel of some of the most famous Looney Tunes shorts. But he started his career at Disney, where he worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He also created the beautiful Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia and helped create that crazy pink elephant scene in Dumbo. But then he went to Warner Brothers, and that’s where his style changed. Noble got hired at Warner by Chuck Jones. He was basically the godfather of Looney Tune. He was a writer, a producer and a director, and he encouraged a culture of experimentation at the studio. And this culture allowed Noble to develop his own style and methods.

The wonky style of Looney tune

One of the things he quickly threw out the door was a style of realism that was often used at Disney. The Disney backgrounds were full of life and fancy shadows and details and Noble thought that this didn’t really fit the characters in those movies. He said that if you have characters that are mainly lines and flat color, you should follow the same approach in your backgrounds. And if your characters are caricatures of reality, your background art should be a caricature as well. For instance by adding lots of exaggerated imperfections or by using stretched out and distorted perspectives. These design elements give Looney Tunes their typical wonky style. It’s a style that adds personality to the cartoon. The settings have character and they’re fun, just like the characters that live inside them.

Characters and story shape the art

Just look at Bugs Bunny’s house designed by Noble. It’s a perfect match for Bugs’ character. There’s a cubist artwork with carrots in his living room, which reflects his love for carrots, but also his love for fine art. Because bugs is a sophisticated and smart bunny. So Noble’s backdrops fit perfectly with the characters of the cartoons, but those characters are of course part of something bigger. The story. And story was the single most important element in Noble’s design process. It affected everything. The colors, the shapes, the lighting: it should all serve the story. And to create those stories of Looney Tunes the people at Warner never used written scripts. There were of course story outlines that served as a backbone, but that was it. Drawing was the writing. The writers at Looney Tunes, you know, were really artists. When they drew up a script, they did it like a comic book. It was done with storyboard panels. They even put word balloons and things on it, and the whole point when it’s comic strip form, is to be extremely visual. And the reason for that is simple: because cartoons are driven by visual gags, and the settings and background art enable those gags. The backdrops stage the action. They fit the story perfectly.

The best cartoon of all time

Okay so Noble comes up with all these great design principles that shape the visual Vibe of Looney Tunes, and they all come together in his Masterpiece from 1957: What’s Opera, Doc? It’s considered to be one of the best cartoons in animation history. It’s grand, and cinematic and the background art is the perfect stage for all the great drama in this story. It’s filled with beautiful details and wild color schemes that fit the dark and somewhat bizarre mood of the film. The background art is this cartoon. It’s at the heart of everything. ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ is Maurice Noble firing on all cylinders.And in the following years Noble’s artwork and style kept evolving. He created the background art for gems like Boyhood Daze, Hare-away to the Stars, Robin Hood Daffy and maybe the biggest classic of them all: the Road Runner cartoons. But of course he wasn’t alone.

Never forget the Artist

There were many more artists like him at Warner. People like Hawley Pratt, Robert Gribbroek, Paul Julian, Richard Thomas and many more. They all contributed to the beauty of Looney Tunes. But Maurice Noble was a key figure in creating that unique visual style of the Warner Brother cartoons. Without his input Looney Tunes would still be great, but visually less interesting, I think. Noble once said that when working in animation you cannot take any credit. You can only say you participated. Which is kind of true, because filmmaking is almost always a group effort, but still we should give all those background artists at Warner the credit they deserve. Because they created the heart of every cartoon. The colorful and fun places where the characters live and where every gag takes place. The background art is the beautiful support structure for every cartoon. And what’s even more, they are little artworks in and of themselves. Because the cartoon needs the background art, but the background art definitely does not need the cartoon.

Hi, I'm Hajira Bibi. A comics article writer an apprising blogger with an obsession for all things related to comics. This blog is dedicated to helping people to refresh their mood after reading our articles about funny comics.


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