When I was a starry-eyed little sprocket, we had one television in our house. If I wanted to watch something, I was going to be watching it with my parents. If I wanted to play a video game, I was going to be playing it on that same TV. From cartoons to “Star Trek” to “The Simpsons”, I was going to be watching whatever it was I wanted to watch with my mom and dad.
My dad was pretty much instrumental in getting me started watching Looney Tunes cartoons. On Saturday mornings, Looney Tunes aired early enough that he could sit on the couch with me and we’d eat our bowls of cereal while we watched Bugs and Daffy and all the rest zipping through their madcap adventures.
Our American culture dismisses cartoons easily. They’re “for kids.” They’re not art. They have no intrinsic value beyond cheap, mindless entertainment. It’s all meant to be a throwaway bit of pop culture that maybe holds a person’s attention for half an hour or less. They’re usually short, therefore, that makes them even more unworthy of notice.
That attitude is shifting, albeit slowly. When you’re watching physics defying characters in candy-colored hues flitting across a screen, it’s easy to forget, if you ever knew at all, that those characters had to be drawn in stages to make them move. If it’s hand-drawn animation, which I will freely admit is what I’m partial to, then that illusion of movement, that screen magic, is transpiring at twenty-four frames a second. Twenty-four. That’s the minimum number of drawings that it takes to make the motion appear fluid. If you want to read what it really takes to actually create hand-drawn animation, take a look at The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams. You will be stunned at the amount of artistry that goes into a single second of that film.
And, if, for some weird reason, you want to do the math, an average animated short lasts around six minutes. In order to create a hand-drawn animated short, you’re looking at 8,640 drawings just to move one single character through the entire film. It gets more complicated the more characters that you add. Suddenly, that stupid lamp on that side table that was in pretty much every episode of “Scooby-Doo” makes absolutely perfect sense. So does the stock footage that goes into so many chase sequences.
This is, of course, all information that my love of animation has led me to collect over the years. I didn’t know that when I was a tiny starry-eyed little sprocket sitting on the couch with my bowl of cereal. At that time, I didn’t have any concept of what made art or that someone was drawing pictures to make them move or, even, that there were actually real people standing in recording booths somewhere recording dialog so that those characters would have a voice. The idea of a film was completely foreign to me. It didn’t matter anyway. It was a cartoon, I could watch it, and it was a bit of everyday magic that I could experience almost every week.
Dad and I would watch those cartoons and, more importantly, Dad and I would talk about them. I understood that Wile E. Coyote didn’t look like a real coyote. I had seen tons of the real thing in our backyard and in neighboring fields. They weren’t that cute and they didn’t seem even one-tenth so clever as that poor idiot coyote wasting his genius and his resources in pursuit of a Road Runner he was never going to be able to eat.
Some of the first real, solid scientific discussions that I ever had with anyone were on that couch with my dad as I tried to establish why, exactly, the coyote’s latest contraption wouldn’t work. Dad explained to me about springs and why the spring, once compressed, would have actually propelled Wile E. not only forward but into the ground (the spring was actually too long and the steel it was made from was too flexible). Because of Looney Tunes, I know what a leaf spring is. This is not because Wile E. ever actually used one, but because my dad was telling me that not all springs were the stereotypical coiled ones like the one in the cartoon or in a ball-point pen. Yeah, not surprisingly, I was that kind of little kid. I had questions all the time.
Did Dad and I actually talk about Newtonian physics and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? Not in so many words, but I was certainly a little more familiar with that concept when it came to that physical science class when I was a kid. We weren’t discussing conservation of energy or mathematics (which probably would have made me get glassy-eyed and become bored really easily), but we were talking about real world, science things and how something like a spring can help make the world work a whole lot better.
I was very fortunate growing up in the house that I did when I was little. Mom had this splendiferous wonderland of art supplies which never, ever seemed to be strictly off-limits and Dad had a shop and tools. This was, quite possibly, the best of both worlds for an insanely curious starry-eyed little sprocket to explore.
I saw the Coyote using pulleys and rope and an anvil. Dad had an anvil. Could you really lift it like that? Of course I asked and, of course, Dad informed me that you could, in fact, do just that. You didn’t want to just drop the anvil on something with your pulley system, though, because you could end up ruining your pulleys beyond all usefulness and recognition. The purpose of pulleys, Dad explained, was so that you could raise and lower something gently instead of banging it around all the time. Because of cartoons, I found out what a block and tackle was before I was even ten years old and got to see one in use. I’m not so sure that I was actually all that enthusiastic about it being used, but it was a quick and interesting introduction into the idea of efficiency in mechanical terms.
Wile E. Coyote in his green bat flight suit sparked questions, too. So, Dad told me a little bit about how an airplane wing worked and that, at best, the Coyote might be able to glide with a contraption like that. Later that day, we were in the car and Dad showed me how to stick my hand out the window and tilt it just so to create lift. That was how an airplane wing worked, he said. I still think about that every time I’m riding in a car and tip my hand just enough to get it to rise in the wind.
It wasn’t just science that we talked about, though, when we watched Looney Tunes. I credit both Looney Tunes cartoons and my dad for my interest in history. “How come Granny is dressed like that?” became a discussion about the Civil War. I was very little and all I knew was that I didn’t see any women dressed that way now. Dad did not go into a whole lot of detail, he knew that I wasn’t going to be all that interested in it anyway, but he did tell me that there was a time when our country was at war with itself. There was a little bit about North and South, a little bit about the flags, and some odds and ends.
It was through Looney Tunes that I made the connection between Bugs Bunny dealing with a gremlin on a plane and “Black Sheep Squadron” being set during a time period where a war was actually going on. It was a shock to understand that you could make something as purely fictional as the gremlin, who did not exist, and put it into a story that took place at the same time as “Black Sheep Squadron” which was based on people who really did exist. Dad even told me about the whole thing with World War II pilots blaming seemingly inexplicable malfunctions in their planes’ equipment on gremlins. That’s why the gremlin was doing all of those horrible things to Bugs Bunny.
While I didn’t think I liked the whole concept of war, because it seemed like it would be really loud (at the time I wasn’t real fond of fireworks for that particular reason), I was starting to understand that wars really did happen, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad reasons and that real people actually experience those things, but sometimes, they made stories that weren’t real about those events, too. That was, I think, the initial spark of the idea that people could make stories to help them understand and feel better about what was happening in the world around them. It was a heady bit of knowledge to have as a kid.
It was through Looney Tunes that I discovered that Robin Hood may have been a real guy. He certainly wouldn’t have been the “Yoinks and away!” kind of outlaw that Daffy Duck was, but he may not have been the brilliant tactician and beloved figure in the legends, either. Dad and I talked about other Robin Hood movies and how the fox in Disney’s version was so smart and kind, but Daffy was just a clumsy idiot. This is where I started to understand the concept of parody. I can also point, fairly solidly, to this being the start of a lifelong dabbling in stories of Robin Hood. I’ve got more than two dozen versions in book form and another twelve or so in video form. The stories have changed, over time and that’s one of those things that I find endlessly fascinating. Elements of those stories cycle through pop culture and percolate, eventually becoming accepted in the general cannon in many cases.
Yosemite Sam was my introduction to Westerns. His rootin’ tootin’ gunslingin’ varmit chasin’ ways were a staple of my childhood. I still like watching Westerns, probably in part due to the happy hours spent watching Sam shoot his way into trouble and pretty much never manage to talk himself back out of it. And, of course, Dad told me about some of the things that had happened fairly close to where we live that counted as actual, major historical events in terms of American History. Yosemite Sam’s hijinx opened up a way for Dad and I to talk about the Cavalry (Porky Pig was in fact in a Cavalry uniform and hadn’t we seen one of those in a museum) and Native Americans and Cowboys. I knew, in my starry-eyed little sprocket mind that it must have been a very important period in history because they made a Bugs Bunny cartoon about it.
As I got older, Dad and I could use Looney Tunes cartoons as a frame of reference for how times have changed. A cartoon created during a specific time is a moving, brightly colored time-capsule. If you pay just a little bit more attention and watch just a little bit more closely, you’ll see what popular attitudes were towards every class of people. It’s a roughly six-minute long mirror reflecting who we were as a country during the year that it was made. That’s definitely something worth discussing and Dad and I did. Sometimes, Dad would even tell me, “You know, that was wrong. We know better now.” That’s how Looney Tunes gave me an understanding of the power of words and imagery. Sometimes, what we say or create lasts much longer than we’d ever expect it to, which is reason enough to be a little more careful.
It wasn’t just Looney Tunes, obviously, that made me the person that I am today. My mom and dad had a whole lot to do with that. Bonding over watching those Looney Tunes together, though, paved a way for Dad and I to talk about so much stuff. Dad could see where the questions were coming from and why I was asking them and, I’m not sure, but I think that made it just that much easier for him to answer them for me.
Now, I see collections of Looney Tunes labeled “For Collectors Only. Not Intended for Children” and it makes me feel sad. They don’t show Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV like they used to and I wonder how many starry-eyed little sprockets there are out there who aren’t going to get the chance to ask their parents about pulleys and gravity and Robin Hood because they’ll never see those six-minute segments of magic on a Saturday morning perched on a couch with a bowl of cereal on their laps with their parents just inches away.