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INTERVIEWS

Remodeling the Rabbit

A Sidebar to the Robert McKimson Interview by Michael Barrier

I wrote about all of these Bugs Bunny model sheets in my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and I'll be quoting from that book as I move from one sheet to the next, in chronological order, starting with the model sheet drawn by Charles Thorson for Hare-um Scare-um (1939). It would have been wonderful if I could have included several of these sheets in my book, since I had photos of all of them on hand—thanks to the generous people who made their sheets available for copying, including Tim Walker, Marilyn Wood Roosevelt, Virgil Ross, Steve Schneider, and Mrs. Abe Levitow—but my publisher's copyright anxieties precluded my using any of them except the last, the 1943 sheet by Bob McKimson. Leon Schlesinger Productions copyrighted that sheet, but Warner Bros. allowed that copyright, along with a number of others, to lapse.

Here is how I began discussing these model sheets in Hollywood Cartoons, after first writing about the white rabbit who was an embryonic Bugs in the 1938 Looney Tunes Porky's Hare Hunt:

After Hare Hunt, [Ben] Hardaway codirected more than a dozen cartoons, both Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, with the animator Cal Dalton. When they put the Hare Hunt rabbit into a second cartoon, it was a 1939 Merrie Melodie, Hare-um Scare-um. ... The rabbit's appearance had changed and he had a name, both thanks to Charles Thorson, a former Disney story-sketch artist who had joined the Schlesinger staff as a character designer in 1938. When Thorson made a model sheet of the rabbit character in different poses for Hare-um Scare-um, he labeled it "Bug's [sic] Bunny" because he had drawn the model sheet for Bugs Hardaway. The name was picked up and used in publicity for Hare-um Scare-um, but with a corrected spelling: Bugs Bunny. The rabbit was now gray, with white cheeks and belly. His Disney pedigree was evident in his contour, an awkward merger of the lean and streamlined Max Hare of The Tortoise and the Hare and the round, soft bunnies that Thorson ahd drawn for Little Hiawatha.

"Bug's Bunny"

The next surviving model sheet for Bugs Bunny was drawn by Robert Givens during work on Tex Avery's seminal 1940 cartoon A Wild Hare:

Bugs looks much better in Avery's cartoon; he stands more nearly straight and is sleeker and trimmer. Robert Givens, who succeeded Thorson as the Schlesinger studio's principal character designer, said [in an undated letter to me that I received in April 1980] that the directors considered Thorson's version of Bugs "too cute, so Tex asked me to do [another] one." Givens drew a model sheet—labeled "Tex's Rabbit"—that guided the animators on A Wild Hare. In the Givens design, Bugs was no longer defined by Thorson's tangle of curves. His head was now oval, rather than round. In that respect, Bugs recalled the white rabbit in Porky's Hare Hunt, but Givens's design preserved so many of Thorson's refinements—whiskers, a more naturalistic nose—and introduced so many others—cheek ruffs, less prominent teeth—that there was very little similarity between the new version of Bugs and the Hare Hunt rabbit. Instead, Bugs now resembled Max Hare much more than before. "I practically stole it," Avery said [in a February 1977 interview with Milt Gray]. "It's a wonder I wasn't sued. The construction was almost identical."

Givens prepared at least two other model sheets for A Wild Hare, one of a redesigned Elmer Fudd and the other a size-comparison sheet of Bugs and Elmer.

Wild Hare model sheet

Curiously, when I sent a copy of the "Tex's Rabbit" sheet to Chuck Jones in 1979—we talked about it by phone on September 13—he recognized the hand-printing on the sheet as Avery's, but he did not identify the drawings as Givens's. Avery himself had told me, in a letter dated August 13, 1979, that he did not use Givens's model sheet in work on A Wild Hare but (quoting from an endnote in Hollywood Cartoons)

instead used one that he roughed out and that Bob McKimson cleaned up. It seems likely, though, that Avery was thinking of ... two model sheets that McKimson drew after A Wild Hare was released. The Bugs of A Wild Hare—even in those scenes animated by McKimson—looks much more like the "Tex's Rabbit" of the Givens model sheet than like the Bugs on the two McKimson sheets. The Givens sheet that that Avery remembered not using was probably "Bugs Bunny Sheet #1," [which] Givens never finished.

It's that unfinished sheet that I've reproduced below. At some point it passed into Bob Clampett's hands, and, as the inscription indicates, he gave it to the son of a friend, Roy Seawright (and ultimately retrieved it). Here again, Chuck Jones identified the hand-printing as Avery's but not the drawings as Givens's, although there's no reason to doubt Givens's authoriship.

Wild Hare followup

The two sheets below, which I've already mentioned, were unquestionably drawn by Bob McKimson

soon after A Wild Hare was released; he adopted many of Givens's poses, but rendered them far more crisply and sharpened the rabbit's appearance overall. He gave Bugs a distinctly triangular shape, so that the mouth and eyes no longer seemed cramped by Givens's narrow oval, and he added high cheek ruffs that extended beyond the line of Bugs's jaw, as they did not on Givens's model sheet. The latter change made Bugs's face brighter and more alert, and it eliminated a disturbing impression in some Wild Hare animation based on the Givens model that Bugs's cranium and jaw did not form a single unit.

Clampett—who was not aware that Givens had drawn model sheets for A Wild Hare—mistakenly identified the top sheet below as Givens's work, an error compounded in in the caption for the photograph of the sheet that I reproduced with the Clampett interview in Funnyworld No. 12. Bob McKimson corrects Clampett's error in his own interview—the relevant passage is at this link—but makes an error of his own when he suggests that Givens's involvement did not begin until well into the 1940s.

The photo of the top sheet reproduced in Funnyworld has hand-printing above the words "Rabbit Model" identifying that "Rabbit Model" as "Bob Clampett's," but that attribution must have been added by Clampett himself, before he had his copy of the sheet photographed to send to me; it's not present on the printed copy of the model sheet that Tim Walker subsequently lent me for copying, and that is reproduced below. (The same is true for the words "directed by—Bob Clampett" on the version of the 1943 Bugs Bunny model sheet in Funnyworld.)

First McKimson sheet

First McKimson, heads

 

For a couple of years, the studio worked with the model sheets of Bugs drawn by Bob McKimson shortly after A Wild Hare was made. By 1942, though, the Bugs in Clampett's cartoons [on which McKimson animated] looked better than the Bugs on McKimson's 1940 sheets, and the Bugses in Jones's and [Friz] Freleng's cartoons looked worse. A new model sheet that would eliminate such inconsistencies was in order. McKimson drew one in October 1942. On that model sheet, Bugs was a reasonably good caricature of a rabbit, but, as Clampett said, the "face was 'pinched.' Too small. The head was a trifle too small. And his chin was weak. McKimson re worked the model sheet, accepting suggestions from Clampett and other members of the unit, and "from this process," Clampett said, "we ended up with the 1943 model sheet." The 1942 sheet is just below.

1942 McKimson sheet

On [the 1943] model sheet, Bugs's cheeks were broader, his chin stronger, his teeth a little more prominent, his eyes larger and slanted a little outward instead of in. The most expressive element of the rabbit's face had all been strengthened and drawn much more precisely than in the 1942 sheet, but because the triangular shape of Bugs's head had been subtly accentuated, Bugs was, if anything, futher removed from cuteness than ever before. McKimson's model sheet must be given some of the credit for the marked improvement in Bugs's looks in all the directors' cartoons starting in 1943. Not that everyone drew Bugs to match the model sheet, but the awkwardness and uncertainy of the early forties were gone; it was if everyone had suddenly figured out what Bugs really looked like.

1943 McKimson sheet

[Posted February 16, 2011]

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