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Friday, November 29, 2013

Mike Giaimo on Maurice Noble

Art director Mike Giaimo (Frozen, Pocahontas) was one of my early design instructors at Cal/Arts. Though I had enjoyed Maurice's work for many years on TV, I had no idea who the man was. It was Mike who first introduced my class to the wonders of Maurice, and many of Maurice's ideas. 

Mike first met Maurice on March 12, 1974 at the Brand Library in Glendale, CA. At the library Maurice went through his work history, showed a few of his films, then discussed his thoughts about design in the Q and A session. In many ways his talk was basically a condensed draft of what would become The Noble Approach The chat made a huge impression on a young Mike; who recently said of the event, "I can remember it like it was yesterday. Maurice had the small gallery filled with easels on which he displayed bg's, layouts, etc. I distinctly remember a very long pan bg of the planets X, Y, and Z from DUCK DODGERS, as well as some practice watercolor bg's he'd done on SNOW WHITE."

Several years ago, Mike generously shared his feelings about Maurice and his art for "The Noble Approach." Unfortunately because of space issues I was only able to include a small portion of his essay in the book. (pg 47) I am pleased to present the text here in it's entirety.  


"What is the “Noble Style”? What makes Maurice’s work so distinctive, unique and appealing? The key to understanding his work lies in the world of opposites: his touch is light and easy, yet sure handed. It is fanciful and whimsical on the one hand, dramatic and bold on the other. It is decorative without being fussy, and solid without being overbearing. . It is never strained or overwrought.
In his work there are both masculine and feminine traits-a perfect design synthesis of yin and yang.

Maurice was a true modernist, and it’s no surprise that his work came into full flower during the mid 20th Century where a refined, minimalist aesthetic prevailed in architecture, painting, advertising, and applied arts. Maurice’s design sense folded nicely into this movement, and like all great modernists, his work remains fresh and contemporary today.

Above: A background set-up from Boyhood Daze (1957) Courtesy of Mike Giaimo.

It is hard to imagine a Witch Hazel cartoon without his subversive visual wit, where staircases, tables, sofas and curtains seem to defy gravity, and multi- point perspectives abound. Under Maurice’s deft touch, Witch Hazel’s quirky world seems right and reasonable.
In DUCK DODGERS, could anyone but Maurice have transported us so dramatically (and humorously) to the 21st ½ Century with such a keen sense of cinematic scale and endless technological invention?
In the Ralph Phillips short BOYHOOD DAZE, Maurice proves his versatility segueing from the darkest depths of the jungle to the wide open reaches of space to the dank confines of a prison cell with ease. Indeed, the visual locales of the Ralphs Phillips shorts are stunning not because we see them as identifiable places, but because they are flights of Ralphs’ (and Maurice’s) vivid imagination.

As director John Ford found his visual muse in Monument Valley, Maurice found his particular brand of cinema language through the ROADRUNNER series, where his sense of staging and camera perspective came into full play. One senses in this series that not only is Maurice a master with camera direction and design, he’s having a heck of a good time as well.
It is interesting to follow the evolution of Maurice’s style thru the ROAD RUNNER cartoons. In the earlier entries of this series the desert landscapes are caricatured, but they pale by comparison to the more surreal and whimsical heights he would achieve with these environments by the mid-fifties. The visuals would evolve to reflect more and more the precarious relationship between the Coyote and Roadrunner, with huge boulders that rest unsettlingly upon the top of pin-point buttes, desert plant life that looks more like spiky specimens from another planet, and strange cloud formations that anticipate and punctuate the Coyote’s eventual demise.

Maurice’s ethos at Warner Bros. hit a high water mark in 1957 with WHAT’S OPERA DOC? Here his skills in layout, design and color came to its fullest fruition. Visual invention seems to burst from every frame. With grand, cinematic scale, expressionistic fauvist-like color, and decorative detailing, this is truly Maurice’s’ magnum opus. What’s truly surprising in WHAT’S OPERA? is how we are transported to a realm far beyond the common Looney Tunes world. Visually WHAT”S OPERA? seems to bridge the gap between fine and commercial art. It is a masterful piece of work with Maurice firing on all cylinders. Indeed, looking at Maurice’s output during his Warner years one could say that if it weren’t for his sly graphic wit, there would never have been a distinctive stand out style at Warner Bros. Without his touch, the Looney Tunes are polished and serviceable but visually unremarkable.

Perhaps Maurice’s most sublime effort was his styling for THE DOT AND THE LINE. The abstraction of the lead characters (literally a dot and a line) called for a non-representational approach to the production styling. This is Noble styling at its minimalist best; a modernist tone poem where line and shape and color are exploited to their fullest. Abstract, angular shapes visually support the rigid line character, while the frivolous dot is enhanced by graceful and decorative curves. Bold color blocks give mood and atmosphere, and though the shapes are simple, the world Maurice creates for THE DOT AND THE LINE is rich and full.

In the1966 television special HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, Maurice’s styling proved to be a beautiful compliment to the very popular Dr. Seuss book and illustrations. Maurice achieved a distinctive, whimsical look in GRINCH without treading upon the familiar Seuss style. Indeed, watching the film and then referring back to the book’s illustrations one feels that Maurice managed to further resolve and define the look of Whoville and its environs with his graceful use of curves, dramatic camera angles, and Noble “decorative touches” which are found on everything from snow capped peaks to garlands, bows, and stocking wire.

Smart cinema language and a confident use of line, shape and color all contribute greatly to the Noble style, but perhaps the most defining (and less tangible) key to understanding Maurice’s sensibilities lies at the inner core of the man himself-his integrity.
Though we see on the surface of Maurice’s work charm, sophistication and playfulness, there is an underlying sincerity and truthfulness that holds all the design elements together. This is why his work is so honest and engaging. With Maurice there is never a visual false note or misstep.

What is the noble style? It is artistic authenticity , which is timeless."

m. giaimo

Jan. 2011

all text © tod polson and Mike Giaimo

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