The Looney Tunes Brand, Rebranded Again


Slowish TV news day (particularly for those of us who are a bit Lost-ed out), so the article that caught my eye was this New York Times piece on one of my favourite topics, Warner Brothers’ attempts to re-introduce the Looney Tunes brand to a generation of children that has largely forgotten who the characters are. Because I’ve talked about this subject a lot, I don’t need to talk at length about the background; suffice it to say that the company benefited tremendously from all the years when their cartoons were available on network TV every Saturday morning, and has never figured out what to do once they weren’t.

The idea of 3-D Road Runner shorts is… well, it’s inevitable, and 3-D animation has made enough advances in its ability to do “cartoony” animation and movement (thanks more to Dreamworks than Pixar; Kung Fu Panda was probably a more important movie, in terms of advancing the art of computer animation, than most of the recent Pixars) that they can support this kind of storytelling. The Road Runner and Coyote concept seems fairly well suited to computer animation, since the gags rely on speed, timing, and the Coyote’s broad facial reactions to the stuff that’s about to fall on him. All of these things can be done effectively on a computer.

What is more of a problem is re-creating the kind of animation that relies on squash-and-stretch distortion of characters’ bodies, or uses exaggerated movements that bear no relationship to real-life movements. The basic solidity and lifelike-ness of computer animation makes it (still) poorly suited to squash-and-stretch, and the budgets of 2-D animation (especially on TV) aren’t enough to allow for that kind of animation. So some of the problem with making new Bugs n’ Daffy cartoons is just that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to make these characters appealing without first-class animation. They don’t have inherent lovability or appeal to kids; the animators have to add that.

Here are a few clips of animation by WB’s most famous exponent of the art of squash-n’-stretch body distortion, Rod Scribner.

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The Looney Tunes Brand, Rebranded Again

  1. "Warner Brothers' attempts to re-introduce the Looney Tunes brand to a generation of children that has largely forgotten … "

    Children should read Coyne's twitter comments. I read Coyne post yesterday about Noah/Whale – Shape of My Heart – and in the middle of song there is section with horns that makes me want to wear sombrero and talk like speedy gonzales. Which made me go to youtube and watch a couple of speedy clips, which were awesome of course.

    Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!

  2. I thought Chuck Jones did well by _not_ doing 3-D animation. Go back to "The Dover Boys," or "What's Opera, Doc?" Funny and visually memorable, because they are imagined within the rectangle of the movie screen.

  3. I remember reading discussions about 20 years ago about 'fuzzy logic' in computers, which permitted a certain randomness that didn't just automatically go in a straight line from Point A to Point B. That's pretty much what a successful GCI program for Warners cartoons is going to have to create to get a similar feeling to what the hand-drawn artists achieved 50-60 years ago in the wildest reaction shots.

    At the same time, the CGI Road Runner cartoons are going to have to maintain a certain sense of 'unreality' if they're to use similar gags to what Jones worked with. There aren't very many failed gags in the Road Runner series, but the ones that were (at least to me) were the ones like the fork gag in "Fastest With the Mostest", when instead of laughing, you felt the coyote's pain. The characters and the backgrounds' flat designs helped ease the pain of the gags to where you could laugh at Wile E's embarrassment and frustration; GCI tends to give up more of a feel of reality, but you don't want the gags to feel too real, or the audience may stop laughing and start thinking about how painful the same thing happening in real life would be.

  4. In regards to the cartoons not on network TV, I've wondered how long they'd have stuck around had Warner Bros. not made the ill-advised decision around 1999 or so to pull all its cartoons from anything that wasn't Cartoon Network. This forced ABC to drop Bugs Bunny and Tweety in 2000. (It also meant Nick had to remove Looney Tunes, and while it's not network TV, Nickelodeon was a more-widely-seen channel than CN.) BB&T had remained on ABC's Saturday morning lineup even after Disney bought the network; at the time, it was the only non-Disney show on that lineup, for the simple reason that it still pulled in the ratings. Now, ratings may have eventually gone south, so I'm not saying BB&T would definitely still be around today (just like Nick probably would have ended Looney Tunes on their own eventually anyway; with the exception of anime, I don't think there's anything on Nick anymore that isn't Nick-produced), but it'd be interesting to see how long it would have remained on ABC, and what impact that might have had on the characters' popularity (or lack thereof) today.