Chuck Jones and the Power of Scaffolding

I had the great pleasure the other day to see the Chuck Jones exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Chuck Jones was a legendary animator who worked on the great Warner Brothers shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Roadrunner, and many more. He also created the classic animated specials for “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and “Riki-tiki-tavi.”

The entire exhibit is remarkable, including various films, scripts, sketches, and even one of Chuck’s Oscars (it’s bigger than I thought it would be). But what really struck me were the simple sketches he made, such as the one above.

Not only are they great works of art, they are a perfect illustration of the power of scaffolding.

When we see a great work, we often think of it as springing full-grown from the creator’s mind, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Yet the real story tends to be longer, messier, and much more interesting.

Take a close look at Chuck’s sketch of Daffy Duck, and notice how carefully he scaffolds the drawing with various lines to help him maintain proportions and draw the best possible picture.

Not everything that you do needs to be a part of the final work–in fact, you may want to sketch some things very lightly as you experiment–but your final work reflects every thing you’ve put into it.

For every final stroke, ten, a hundred, or even a thousand strokes of scaffolding have preceded it.*

(*In one art school class, a professor told Chuck that every artist had 100,000 bad drawings in them they had to get past before they could draw anything worthwhile. Fortunately for Chuck, he estimated that he had already done 200,000 such drawings–his father was an unsuccessful entrepreneur who bought pencils and stationary for each new venture; when the venture inevitably failed, he would turn the materials over to his kids and ask them to use them up as quickly as possible. Several of Chuck’s siblings also went on to successful artistic careers.)

You could get a sense of Chuck’s willingness to iterate by how little store he set on his in-progress drawings. Many of these priceless historical artifacts were covered with grocery lists, appointment times, and old phone numbers…as he worked, he scribbled down the things he needed to remember on whatever was on hand–including his character sheets!

Yet it is precisely that willingness to build and discard disposable scaffolding that allowed Chuck to create timeless works of art.

How can you apply the power of scaffolding to what you do?

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