For the sheer amount of shining moments in cartoon history he animated, Ken Harris should be on every single fan’s list of favorite animators. How many times have all of us viewed Daffy Duck’s frustration with changing scenery, Bugs Bunny knighting the Sheriff of Nottingham, Charlie Dog’s raving of the horrors of the big city, Mama Bear’s tap dance, or the side effects Wile E. Coyote suffers from after downing a bottle of earthquake pills, with pure awe on more than one occasion?
Ken Harris was just as talented as Bill Tytla, and unfortunately he doesn’t receive nearly as much recognition. Like Tytla, Harris understood the importance of appeal and weight. Both knew how to ground their characters, without letting them get too dull and literal. Both were also masters of distortion, knowing how and, importantly, when to do it.
Yet admirers view Harris’ scenes without knowing it is his mastery they are witnessing. They, rightfully, see Chuck Jones’ wonderful layouts in motion, but do not who else to give due credit to. Thankfully, due to the Internet, more people are moving past the outstanding achievements of the Warner directors to uncredited accomplishments of the animators.
A lot of myths have been purported by people about Ken Harris’ level of skill. Feeble-minded fanboys and alleged experts tend to make him out to be ‘weak’ because he followed Jones’ layouts perfectly, or that his work can be summed up as “head rolling” at best. Chuck Jones himself felt it necessary to spread falsehoods about Harris’ working habits, making him out to be an animator who really was great at the actual process, but left a lot of the drawing and clean-up to the assistant (in the vein of other great animators like Norm Ferguson or Ed Love).
Greg Duffell, the animator who knows more about Warner cartoons than anyone alive, wrote an excellent article on Ken Harris in the amateur-press publication Apatoons awhile ago, and with his permission, I am reprinting much of what he wrote here. Greg was friends with Harris and was his assistant at Dick Williams’ studio, so if anyone is an authority on the subject, he is.
I knew Ken Harris. Ken was trained by Robert McKimson and had many of the same working techniques. Ken was extremely disciplined and focused, logical, and methodical. He was terrific with numbers and mathematics in general. His planning skills were beyond anything I have ever seen in all the years I spent as an animator. Ken Harris was my deepest inspiration and model for a working animator. I have never even scratched the surface of what Ken Harris was capable of on his worst day.
There is at least one myth about Ken that many, [Chuck Jones especially], perpetuated. One is that Ken was not a good “draughtsman”. I can only say that I was always impressed by Ken’s ability to draw dimensionally. Ken believed he was not a good artist because Chuck kept telling him that. Then Chuck started telling the general public and we were all supposed to believe it.
Ken Harris’ rough animation was not rough in any way, shape, or form. It did not require extensive clean-up work in order to move through production requiring instead minor touch ups. At Warner’s, Ken worked with Abe Levitow and Willie Ito as his assistants. Both were remarkable artists. It would be pragmatic of Ken to work as loosely as possible to allow his talented assistants to do their job while Ken could create more footage every week. Ken Harris was able to do between 40 and 60 feet of animation every week, and Chuck gave him the hardest scenes to do. The quota was 30 feet a week.
Ken Harris followed Jones’ drawings diligently not because he was incompetent, but because he was actually able to draw and animate well enough to keep up with Jones. Harris was able to provide amazing animation AND follow implicitly the intent of the director. Saying that Harris just “inbetweened” Jones’ keys shows that [certain people] have never had to animate for a strong director.
Harris told me that Jones was not a particularly good animator. [Some] suggest that Chuck actually animated the cartoons he directed and used his animators as inbetweeners! It is only in the period after 1955 that it gets somewhat difficult to tell the difference between one animator and another in the Jones unit. This is because Abe Levitow and Richad Thompson, who replaced [Lloyd Vaughan and Phil Monroe], were basically trained and influenced in animation by Harris, especially in the case of Levitow.
Also consider that as the fifties rolled ino the sixties, there was less and less room for the kind of animator that Harris was. The style of animation had changed as had the economics. Maurice Noble was more of a star artist in the sixties than any of Jones’ animators and even Jones himself.
I also asked Ken how he worked with Jones’ directorial drawings. He told me if they “worked” he used them and if they didn’t he either modified them or threw them out. Freleng’s unit had the same dynamics as the Jones’ one. Hawley Pratt complained to me that no one, except Virgil Ross, actually used his director character poses. He especially mentioned Gerry Chiniquy as being someone who just ignored what he drew.
Suffice it to say that there is no possibility that Harris “inbetweened”, for instance, the Mama and Baby Bear routine in “A Bear for Punishment” from Chuck’s drawings. That scene could only have been possible due to Harris’ amazing talent to interpret Chuck’s great illustrations.
I love cartoony animation that goes off-model, mildly (Rod Scribner) or wildly (Jim Tyer). To say that staying on model is less “creative” is subjective. To say that it is “easier” to stay on-model is idiocy. Anyone who has ever attempted to work from a model sheet professionally will be able to tell you that it is much easier to deviate from the model with your own style than to follow your supervisor’s intentions.
Touting Harris as the animator ‘par excellence’ of the Jones unit should not be taken as saying that the other animators were slouches. Certainly there were others who could draw more appealingly than him, Ben Washam in particular. But it is the maturity of the animation by the likes of Harris, Tytla, Milt Kahl, and yes, Bob McKimson that is unmatched and deserves our respect. Seeing that Harris’ sophisticated animation was being done for mere cheap warm-up acts before the feature makes it all the more amazing.
As stated by Greg, it is in Harris’ animation that we see that high level of skill, the ability to take Jones’ brilliant layouts and put them into action, unmatched by others. The show reel I put together is only a small percentage of Ken Harris’ legendary resume. I couldn’t fit in What’s Opera Doc?, One Froggy Evening, Duck Dodgers, Cheese Chasers, and dozens of others. That has to say something for his legacy.