Animation Art Brings Characters to Interior Decor


Of all the sticky situations Wile E. Coyote (Carnivorus vulgaris) has found himself in over the years--falling off cliff after cliff, blasted and singed by batch upon batch of mail-order TNT, betrayed by malfunctioning catapults, rockets and guns--even his creator never dreamed of this one.

But there he is, trapped in a picture frame on a bathroom wall in Orange, frozen forever motionless just inches away from his ever-elusive quarry, the Road Runner (Accelerati incredibilus).

His captor, a mild-mannered psychiatrist and father of three, never intended to cramp the Coyote's style. He just wanted a piece of the action.

Pieces of animated action are everywhere in Glen McFerren's sprawling hillside home in Orange Park Acres. Mickey and Minnie Mouse hang out with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny on one wall of the rec room, while Roger Rabbit and his sultry wife, Jessica, brighten up the walls at the bottom of the stairs. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan live in the children's bedrooms, and every Christmas, the Grinch comes out of the closet.

The same artwork that once brought those cartoon characters to life now add color and a sense of motion to the walls of the home, carrying the cartoon theme from room to room. In McFerren's home office, for example, Mickey Mouse struggles with desk drawers on the wall just above a set of real-life drawers, and an image of Minnie Mouse cooking highlights the kitchen decor.

Most of the art, like the image of Coyote and the Road Runner, is in the form of cels--paintings on clear plastic that are photographed in sequence to create the illusion of motion in an animated cartoon. Hundreds of cels are necessary to produce even a few minutes of animation.

But cels are only one part of the animation process. The McFerrens also have a hallway display of colored pencil drawings, on which the cels are based, as well as some of the painted backgrounds that serve as the setting for the characters' actions.

The demand for animation art has become so great that some artists--such as Chuck Jones of Corona del Mar, creator of Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew as well as director of many classic Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers cartoons--are producing limited-edition cels expressly for sale to collectors. Six months ago, Jones' daughter Linda, one of the nation's foremost animation art dealers, opened the Chuck Jones Show-Room in Corona del Mar to showcase the work of her father and other cartoon artists.

On Thursday at 7 p.m., the famed animator and author will be at the Show-Room to meet guests at a champagne reception commemorating the opening of a new exhibit.

Some buy cels strictly as an investment, one that has paid off well in the past several years. Cels that were sold for little more than $1 as Disneyland souvenirs in the '50s are now worth hundreds, and a few key images from such classic films as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" have been auctioned by fine arts dealers for more than $100,000.

But to many collectors, the true value of animation art is simply the joy of having it around the house. For aging baby boomers, it's a way to hold on to enjoyable moments from childhood. For young parents, it's a colorful way to set a theme in a child's room or family room.

"A lot of people say they're getting it for the kids, but really it's for them," McFerren says.

Jones sees nothing wrong with that.

"Adults shouldn't make excuses for enjoying cartoons," he says. "We made them originally as short features to be shown in the theaters before a full-length movie. They were always intended to be entertaining for adults. Nobody even thought of it as being for kids until Saturday morning TV came along."

What Jones still has trouble understanding, however, is why anyone would be interested in an individual cel in the first place.

"The whole thing seems kind of foolish to me," he says, not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

"What if a live-action director suddenly found out that the individual frames of his picture were valuable?" Jones says. "We seldom thought about the cels themselves, any more than a musician would have thought about an individual note.

"But I suppose it's like a picture of a favorite uncle. It has meaning to you , and that's what's important. You can look at the cel and remember the things that were funny about the character. I doubt that anybody who had never seen our work in film would have any interest in them," Jones says.

Animation art was once considered nothing more than recyclable garbage, Jones recalls.

"I started out as a cel washer," he says. "When you finished a picture, you washed the cels off so they could be reused. Obviously, nobody put much importance on them."

Both Warner Bros. and Disney once gave cels away to studio visitors. Disney sold a few cels from "Snow White" through art galleries after the film was released in 1937, but most were destroyed. And at Warner Bros., a warehouse full of cels from several decades of cartoons was bulldozed and burned in the early '60s to make room for a new building.

Then in the late '70s, representatives from a gallery in Iowa asked Jones and other animators if they'd be willing to sell some of their art.

"My father had a lot of (cels) that he had saved, not from the '50s, but from the films he did in the '70s," Linda Jones says. "I'd always thought the things were wonderful, and I thought it would be great if there was some way we could get them out into peoples' homes so they could enjoy them."

Because few people were familiar with the actual process of making animated cartoons, Jones made sure that all her father's art, both production cels and limited editions, was sold in galleries where sales consultants could explain to customers exactly what they were buying. "That isn't so much a problem anymore, because of the renewed interest in animation through films like 'Roger Rabbit' and 'The Little Mermaid,' " she says.

McFerren, a psychiatrist who is chief of staff of Charter Hospital in Long Beach, says animation art is not only visually striking, but "people have a real visceral response to it. It just rips you back to when you first saw the show as a child."

Melanie Torti and her husband, Steve, who live in Chino, traded their Southwestern decor for a cartoon theme two months ago. Their most treasured piece, a cel from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," is autographed by Jones, who directed the TV film.

They've since added other cels from Warner Bros. and Disney to fill up a wall in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment.

"The cartoon theme is definitely predominant," she says. "We wanted to put them where everyone could see them and enjoy them. And people definitely notice them. It's impossible not to."

McFerren says he and his wife, Robynn, have collected "a lot of different kinds of art. But this has the most meaning for us."

Decorating with cartoon art is so new that "there aren't really any rules yet," McFerren says. "You can do what you want. We probably have a tendency to overkill, but it works for us.

"About the only restrictions are that you can't put cels in a place that gets a lot of sunlight, because that will destroy them. We put the pencils in close places, such as hallways, because the details show up better there," he says.

"We try to fit the cel to the room, rather than the other way around. But that's a matter of preference. I don't work really hard to match colors or anything. Cartoon colors kind of write their own rules. I've never had anyone look at a cel and say, 'Oh, it really clashes.' But maybe they're just being polite.

"They can be kind of overwhelming at first," McFerren says. "After awhile, you get used to them, but not so used to them that you ignore them. I still can't walk past the pencil drawings in the hallway without stopping to look at them. And I see something new every time."

Jones says he sees something new every time he looks at his own animation art, too: "All I can see are my mistakes."

But he does have some of his own oil paintings of his characters hanging in his home, along with a Picasso etching, a Miro print, and other favorites he's collected over the years.

And ultimately, he confesses that he does understand the appeal of animation art after all: "Most pictures that are hung up become part of the wallpaper after awhile. But I defy anybody to walk past the Coyote and Road Runner every day and ignore it. You just can't. It's kind of a reminder of something that's brought laughter to your life. And, hey, what more could you ask of a painting?"

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