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I lost one of the greatest mentors of my college life and career this morning. Corny Cole was the eccentric, quintessential artist of a teacher at CalArts who entertained us with mock senility and his affection for mochas. Corny was also a well-spring of knowledge who despite working on the infamous Road Runner cartoons, kept a love of fine art alive and integrated the discipline into animation filmmaking. Corny started out as an inbetweener for Chuck Jones on the Road Runner cartoons and reached his peak in the 70’s as a production designer. He designed some of the Pink Panther and Ant and the Aardvark shorts. Corny’s style was easily distinguishable from his contemporary Gary Lund. Corny style was rougher and possessed a DaVinci influence in his characters. Corny was Da Vinci in motion on the screen.
His backgrounds reflected te intellectual painter, Cezanne. You can see Corny channel Cezanne in the Pink Panther cartoon where he was a lumber jack (?) The palette of the forest is organized to give the scene a sense of depth in light of the simple staging and the line quality added texture. Some artists including myself have tried to mimic the style and end up with a bird’s nest of undisciplined chaos for we failed the analyze the methodology that lies underneath Corny’s compositions.
Why do I know of Cezanne so well? Well, it’s not from my many college art history classes. I actually know of Cezanne from my first art history lesson depicted in an animated feature Corny was embarrassed to be part of: Gay Puree.
Gay Puree was Corny’s first feature as a production designer and he was greatly ashamed and felt he cannibalized the works of the great French Impressionists to tell the “Portrait of Mewsette” at the film’s midpoint.
I disagree. Corny, Chuck and Dorothy Jones introduced a lot kids who may never have been to art museum to those pieces and for those who have, provided a narrative for the pieces that a 4th grader can comprehend. I remember first seeing Gay Purree as a late afternoon TV matinee that aired just before the Muppet Show. Both productions were huge influences on me as an artist.
Corny taught many classes at CalArts, He was a fun life drawing workshop teacher, a less than competent layout teacher, and a marvelous animation history lecturer. However, what I felt Corny excelled at was one on one directed study and an as adviser. What I appreciate most from Corny is his advice on how to navigate through the industry. Corny said that we will work on many projects we won’t like, but the experiences will be valuable. Yet, we don’t have to stay in that rut. There will animation work you do for money and animation projects you’ll like so so much that you’ll work for free. Success is not worth the sale of your soul. I acted on this advice and worked on some B projects that paid me well and then practically starved for a summer in New York working near pro bono on a project I loved, The New Electric Company. I earned my first Emmy nomination working for the Sesame Workshop and I’ll do it again.
I think Corny knew that I would have a spotty career for we shared the same spirit. We work best in certain genres.Much like my struggles with the content of the animation industry today, Corny’s career waned in the late 80’s when the princess genre came into vogue. I personally like the princess genre, but I can appreciate how Corny felt like a fish out of water waiting for the tide of his specialty genre to return. Which never did. Bug Bunny and his talking animal trickster genre enjoyed a last gasp in television animation via Ren and Stimpy and finally faded away. My favorite genre of girl’s cartoons: Jem and the Holograms, Beverly Hills Teens and Galaxy High School and the like will never return either. It’s a new millennium with different people in power. The creators and producers who helm Hollywood today were mainly raised on Star Wars and were friendless nerds in high school. Animation tells their stories now.
Fortunately like Corny, I have found another path.
Corny spent the last 15 years of his life as teacher at CalArts. In fact my class was his first or second year at the institution. We watched him struggle, make mistakes and grow as a teacher. Having not quite reached his potential as an instructor, we saw Corny as a mascot who was full information despite his professional shortcomings and held him in our hearts.
It is never easy living without your mentors. There no one to turn to for advice and the empty space they leave behind gives a air of instability, but in all Hero’s Journey’s, the protagonist must lose his guide and fight his battle on his own. This way he can return with the elixir and live on and take his mentors place. Then again, I find that pattern too much to bear. There is more than one principle of story and I prefer Mark Twain’s structure where the hero works for the benefit of his mentor who survives and lives on to prosper. Pity, the former in more common in reality. It’s not fair. There are some people in this world who are too wonderful to die.
As I move on with my novice teaching career, I hope to be able to fill the shoes of my departed mentors and aid the development of the next generation of artists. I am 39 years old today, so it is time. When I give lectures and find myself in doubt when I am challenged by a student, I hope I can draw strength from Marsha Pannone and Corny Cole and stand firm. That student may be right, but I have the experience. One day that little heckler will be sent back to his or her desk in tears from a vicious upbraiding by a director and remember the real world advice that was given to him/her from me passed down from Corny Cole, Jules Engel and Marsha Pannone and say “Hey, there is more than one way to do something”. I’ll try another technique and see if that pleases my director. A technique is just a mutable tool, but the methodology is the constant.
Pleasant Journey, Cornelius Cole III. Thank you for sharing yourself with the world.