Jen Myers is a Chicago-area technologist and writer, and a local hero to us at Chicago Camps. She’s a leader and a role model and she’s brought us wonderful things like Code and Cupcakes where she teaches mothers and daughters how to code and serves cupcakes, too. She’s a champion for diversity in the tech community and she also really likes otters.
We hope you enjoy Jen’s presentation, “Cartoon Creativity: What I Learned from Chuck Jones” and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!
Director of Open Source Curriculum, Pluralsight
Jen Myers is a web designer/developer, speaker, writer and teacher in Chicago, and the Director of Open Source Curriculum at online training course provider Pluralsight. She founded Code and Cupcakes, a series of mother/daughter coding workshops she leads regularly, and has been involved with Girl Develop It, an organization that provides introductory programming classes for women, as a chapter leader, instructor and advisor since 2011. She speaks extensively about design, development and diversity, and focuses on finding new ways to make both technology and technology education accessible to everyone.
For more, keep up with Jen at jenmyers.net or on Twitter as @antiheroine.
Cartoon Creativity: What I Learned from Chuck Jones
Lessons sometimes come from unlikely sources, which is why one of modern history’s richest sources of inspiration for creativity, leadership and culture-building often goes overlooked: the mid-twentieth-century animator Chuck Jones, otherwise known as one of the fathers of Bugs Bunny and a myriad of other Warner Brothers cartoon characters. The environment he worked in grew out of an unique mix of talent, philosophy and pragmatism that all industries and artists alike can learn from. Plus: cartoons. So who wouldn’t want to learn how to work like he did? Let’s find out how.
That was probably better than my talk. I don’t know how I’m going to follow that up. But thank you very much. I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m going to talk about cartoons. I am not actually going to show you any cartoons, which is kind of a bummer. But maybe it will inspire you to want to go watch cartoons. So I really love cartoons and in fact when I was a teenager I had decided that when I grew up I wanted to be an animated cartoonist. It was a really big deal. I was really into it. I drew all the time. I watched a lot of films, I read a lot of books. I’m a grown up now, more or less, and I did not even become close to becoming an animated cartoonist at all. As Russ alluded to, I stumbled into doing tech stuff. I’m not even quite sure how that happened. I did that in design, development, now I work in education. Mixing all those things together. It’s not cartoons. I’m not making cartoons.
The older I got, I got a little disappointed on that because I really wanted to do this thing and it didn’t happen. Was thinking about the things that I had learned and all the time I spent learning these things and putting them in the perspective of the things I had now. And most of the stuff when I kind of went back to relearn it and go over it again, it came from one guy. Does anybody know who Chuck Jones is?
Okay, one guy. This is a good crowd. Some people don’t. If you don’t know who Chuck Jones is, you probably know who he is. He was an animator in the ’30s, ’40,s ’50s, and ’60s he worked at Warner Brothers and did a lot of Bugs Bunny cartoons. He also wrote two great books that are half memoire and half instructional books about his time as an artist and all the stuff he learned. That’s where I got my inspiration and context. What I found recently, though, re‑reading them with this disappointment in mind, I never got there, but I was reading and realized that there’s a lot of great stuff in there that’s really relevant to me even though I didn’t end up being an animated cartoonist. I distilled the less sons that I learned from him.
He told us a really great story about the first time he walked into art school. And his instructor came in to his brand new class of art students and said all of you here have 100,000 bad drawings. The sooner you get rid of them the better it will be for everybody. That completely defused any tension or any bad feelings as it should. This is something that I repeat to myself a lot. I have a point in my career where I ran into doing a lot of management and leadership stuff. And I am constantly remind that had I don’t have any idea what I’m doing with this. But I can just say these are bad drawings that I need to get out. There’s no way better to get into than to just doing it. I think about this a lot. Getting rid of my bad drawings.
Speaking of where I’m moving into, I’ve kind of moved into management. There’s a very, very clear lesson in Chuck Jones’ work which is question management. He said this because when they were making cartoons at Warner Brothers in the mid century, they were not this beloved cultural artifact that they are today. They were making cartoons for a specific purpose, which was a package with a film. The studios would get a news reel and a cartoon. The cartoons didn’t care about them. They were overseen by managers who were not creative, who were not artists, who didn’t even seem to like laughter. They didn’t care at all.
All of the artist who is were working on these cartoons were in a constant battle with management. Chuck Jones said at one point this is the rule. Always touch management in reverse. When I was younger, I was totally on board with this. I’m the whole rebel style and I like this. But the interesting thing happened that I got into management. Oh, do I have to throw out this lesson now? And the thing is you don’t actually, which is what I learned. It’s still very good to be questioning management even if you are management. Because the whole point of management is to create an environment where people can do the work that they need to do.
And that usually works a lot better if it’s an encouraging environment, a happy environment. If you’re making cartoons, you need to stop some point and realize are we still having fun doing this. Even if you’re not making cartoons, you need to do that, too. Constantly questioning management helps keep that management going. It’s something that I have to remind myself a lot.
Going along with that, too, is there’s this idea of surrounding yourself with talent. This may seem really straightforward. Of course we want to have really cool people around us. One of the things I really like when I read Chuck Jones’ books are when he talks about all the people he got to work with Tex. He worked with the guy from iWorks, and another guy who helped Walt Disney make cartoons. He spent a lot of time talking about everybody who worked there. All the writers. The people he makes mention of are people who just worked in the office.
There’s a really touching story about one of the janitors who works in there. He talks about everybody and he found what they all contributed to creating the environment that they worked in, and that produced really great stuff.
So I was thinking about this. Talent. I feel like talent, we get that. I feel like everybody gets that. We don’t need to say that. But there’s another lesson in there, which is surround yourself with enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter exactly what somebody has to contribute. There is talent in that, I don’t want to dismiss it. Talent isn’t as much as what you want to worry about. We are being paid to associate every day with people who we loved and respected and people who were eager and excited to try almost anything. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like that?
So when we’re thinking about where we want to create things and the type of people we want to have around, talent is important, enthusiasm might be even more important.
And connecting with those you influence is something I’ve been thinking a lot recently. I thought about this in connection with Chuck Jones of another story that he tells. He kind of tells it from a different perspective. So I mentioned earlier he was connected in some ways with this guy named Walt Disney. And in the 30s, Disney put out this animated short. It’s kind of this watershed of animation history. Three Little Pigs. It was one of the first times in animation that they were characters. Not just these bobbing, two‑dimensional animals. They were individuals. And Chuck Jones realize that that was really important. He wrote to Walt Disney and said thank you for doing this. Walt Disney wrote bag to him. And Chuck Jones thought that was really cool. And every single time he wrote to Walt Disney, Walt Disney wrote back to him. And in the 60s, Chuck Jones was at a hospital near where Walt, it was near the end of his life. He said I wrote to you several times. He said thank you for answering the letters. Walt Disney said it wasn’t difficult. You were the only animator who ever wrote to me.
It’s a crazy story. Thinking about Walt Disney really loved animators. And he wasn’t necessarily the best artist himself. But he loved what animators did. But nobody really connected with him over it. It’s an interesting thing there. Not only from the perspective of please go tell the people who are inspiring you that you’re inspiring them. But if you’re on the other side, if you’re going into a leadership position and thinking about what it’s kind of like to be receiving that, sometimes it’s a little overwhelming because you can’t quite interact with everybody. But if you find the people that are really worthwhile closing that loop, that really reflect what you wanted to put out in the world that they really get it, it really does you a lot of good to be able to close that loop. So like write them back and make those connections and make sure you’re connecting with the people that are really representing what you want them to do in the first place, because it gives you a lot at the same time.
As I move on and thinking about like going into new, new realms of management or leadership or if I start branching off into different areas of learning that I want to do, I like this idea of forging a new path. This is not what I got out of the Chuck Jones book. But it’s more of what I got from his example. Let’s look at a cartoon picture, because that’s more interesting. The whole lesson in here is I had no idea that I would ever do the things that I’m doing now. Because when I was a teenager, web design didn’t exist as a career. I didn’t know I could be a web developer, because nobody really talked about that. It didn’t exist. I couldn’t have said that. Fundamentally enough, what I did want to do hand‑drawn 2D animation doesn’t entirely exist now either. It kind of got switched around. But the whole point of that it’s not about the specific thing that we’re doing. Focusing on the creativity, focusing on the principles, and doing it with enthusiasm, and meeting the right people, and making the right connections. And all these things about trying new things and not worrying about mistakes, somehow doing those things, the other details work themselves out. And we’re going to go into new territory. Chuck Jones talks about the fact that he went to a traditional art school and came out in the ’30s, and animation barely existed.
He didn’t try to be an animator. He was just doing art and they ended up producing these things that still endure.
So as I move forward, I realize that even though I ended up not making cartoons, there’s all these lessons that I picked up in learning how to do that or how somebody else did it that I can translate into what I’m doing now and take those forward into the future and see what places it takes me. So that’s all I’ve got for you. So thank you.
Am I done?
She can take a question.
I wasn’t sure. I heard they have a giant hook. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I can take one question. It has to be really good because there’s only one. Now everybody is going to be too intimidated. All right!
Do you have an example of questioning management when you are management?
(Laughing) Um. Well I’m still figuring out a little bit. I don’t know if I have a concrete example.
It’s a really good question.
Okay, never mind. Next question.
Maybe I will in a year or so. I think now it’s a little bit more of a process of just kind of making sure that I never be like “We have to do it that way because those are the rules.” Things like that. It’s this internal monologue. If I have an example, that might be a bad thing. But it’s probably going to happen at some point. So ask me again in a year.
First off I want to say I completely relate to the management thing, especially when you said you realized you were in a completely new position. You’re like wow this is different. A lot of people would be like you’re vice president! How did I do that? I have no idea. One of my questions is you said you didn’t know you were going to end up here today with the job you have. I found out that’s a common story among a lot of people. Did it scare you as soon as you saw yourself wandering off the path that you foresaw yourself going down?
In a word, yes. It’s not past tense. It’s still scary. I never really wanted to. I wanted to go do something. And for a lot of reasons it just never worked out that way. And in some ways, also as Russ alluded to, I tend to spend more time in if development side of things and more heavy tech. There’s a reason I do a lot of the stuff to get women in coding and everything because the environment isn’t as friendly. It’s really frustrating that I feel like there are certain things I backed off of because I wasn’t planning the environment I wanted to be into. It had nothing to do with the work itself. It’s frustrating because I found the work I want to do, but not the right place to do it. It’s definitely been this weird mix of trying to figure out what to do. It’s scary. I still have no idea where I’m going. I can’t answer the question if I have a sense if I’m heading in this direction. I don’t know. I’m very much, like you said, I understand that I don’t know where it’s going. But really, I’m just working on being comfortable with that and just being you know what, that’s the way it is so let’s just kind of keep going and see what we discover.
Thank you Jen.