What’s up, Doc?
Why not ask the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, where Elmer Fudd will ask you to be vewy, vewy quiet, because he’s hunting wabbits.
The 1940 cartoon, “A Wild Hare,” greets visitors to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s summer exhibit, “The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons,” which runs through July 24. It not only plays continuously but is significant in its placement. The show was created by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“This is the cartoon where Bugs Bunny makes his debut,” says Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum’s director of art interpretation and curator. “He says, ‘What’s up Doc,’ but you’ll see that he doesn’t look exactly like Bugs Bunny as we know him. He evolved over time.”
And that evolution is part of what this exhibit explores through its original drawings and film cels (short for celluloid) of such classic Warner Bros. characters as Daffy Duck, the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Porky Pig, Pepe Le Pew and, of course, Bugs Bunny.
The show will bring back memories for many adults and may introduce Warner Bros.’ world to some children.
And though the museum wants Bugs Bunny to entertain its patrons, its purpose for showing this exhibit is much bigger.
“Animation is the illusion of movement through a sequence of images,” Weinstein says. “We’re familiar with the expediency and the effects of digital animation today, but it took strong drafting skills and patience to create these cartoons at Warner Bros.”
So, animation is both art and science, which combine to match the mission in the museum’s title.
“This show takes a look at the development of many of these beloved characters, their history and their step-by-step process of their development,” Weinstein says. “It starts off with Bosko, the oldest Warner Bros. character in 1930.”
Warner Bros. Studios was founded by brothers Albert, Sam, Harry and Jack L. Warner, who incorporated their fledgling movie company in 1923. Short film reels often augmented theater screenings, containing either the news of the day or animation. Warner Bros. cartoons dominated those animated reels.
“The first Warner cartoons were made in 1930, and soon led to the successful series, ‘Looney Tunes,’ followed by ‘Merrie Melodies,’” according to the museum’s information. “The Warner shop won six Academy Awards and created more cartoon stars than any other studio, among them Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.
Although the ‘classic’ Hollywood shop closed in 1963, it was not before Warner had developed and perfected the kind of antic, irreverent, street-smart humor that has characterized much of short-subject animation ever since.”
The shop employed a staff of artists who drew the characters’ every movement for each animated frame. Backgrounds, as seen in original film cels later in the exhibit, were elaborately painted and used as the frames’ foundation.
“Following a traditional process called ‘cel’ animation, each frame of a scene was drawn and painted by hand on sheets of celluloid,” the museum label continues. “Thousands of individual drawings were required to complete a single six-minute cartoon.”
The process in this show begins with the drawings on paper, showing not only the characters but their many movements. All of Bugs Bunny’s familiar characteristics are found first in these line drawings.
Then there’s a movie timeline, which would be mapped out digitally these days. But early- to mid-20th century animators didn’t have that luxury, so they wrote out the timeline on a long sheet of paper, marking where every movement would happen in the animation.
The timeline appears tedious at first glance but rapidly becomes impressive as it becomes clear how this manual process produced the three cartoons showing on the gallery’s center wall, all chosen as “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The three films were directed by Chuck Jones and, like “A Wild Hare,” are continuously looped in the gallery. The 1953 “Duck Amuck” is an animator’s manipulation of Daffy Duck. Stay to the end of this one for the surprise revelation of the animator’s identification. The 1957 “What’s Opera Doc?” and the 1955 “One Froggy Evening” also are in this loop.
Jones was the only director to have more than one title recognized for this honor.
But it doesn’t stop there as the upstairs gallery breaks the cartoons down even more by exploring individual characters and ending in the Soupcon Gallery, which has been transformed into a mini movie theater, where visitors can view another continuous loop of six-minute cartoons selected from Warner Bros.’ library of 1,000 titles.
Bugs, Daffy and Yosemite Sam — they’re all here, and visitors can stay as long as they like, watching some or all.
And if that isn’t enough, the museum also offers a related display exploring additional historical and current animation methods, from the Zoetrope to digital mediums, including a shelf of local artists’ own creations through flip box animation.
“The longtime Warner story man Michael Maltese said they wrote cartoons for grownups,” Weinstein says. “That’s was the secret of their cartoons’ success. Disney was more story bookish and for children, but Warner Bros. made cartoons that were brash and reckless and filled with topical references. That’s what made them different.”