The History of Warner Bros. Animation

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and More

An animation cell showing the evolution of the popular Warner Bros. cartoon character Bugs Bunny
An animation cell showing the evolution of the popular cartoon character Bugs Bunny at the opening of the Warner Bros. Museum at Burbank.

Kim Kulish / Getty Images

Some of the most iconic animated characters in film history, like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety Bird, were created by animators who worked at Warner Bros. In addition to entertaining multiple generations of children and adults, the animated shorts have won several Academy Awards and have been incredibly influential in the animation industry.

Fun Facts

In 1997, Bugs Bunny became the first cartoon character to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Origin of Warner Bros. Cartoons: Bosko, Buddy, and Beans the Cat

Warner Bros. Animation began when producer Leon Schlesinger, who was distantly related to the Warner Brothers who founded their namesake studio, hired a pair of animators, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, veterans of Walt Disney's Kansas City cartoon studio. Schlesinger put them in charge of creating cartoon shorts for the Warner Bros.' feature releases. Harman and Ising created the character Bosko, who starred in the studio's first animated theatrical short: 1930's Sinkin' in the Bathtub. Because Walt Disney Productions had launched its Silly Symphony series of sound cartoon shorts the year before, Schlesinger dubbed his sound shorts "Looney Tunes," since these shorts initially involved music. Sinkin' in the Bathtub also included the first instance of a Warner Bros. character saying "That's all, folks!" to end a cartoon, which later became a trademark for the studio's character Porky Pig.

The following year, Warner Bros. began a second series titled Merrie Melodies that still involved music, but featured songs from previous Warner Bros. movies to help sell recordings of those songs. The first Merrie Melodies short was Lady, Play Your Mandolin! and starred Foxy, a character that distinctly resembled the much more popular Mickey Mouse, and featured the title song as a soundtrack.

After producing over 60 cartoons for Warner Bros., the Harman and Ising team split with Schlesinger over pay disputes in 1933. They took all of the characters they had created with them. Schlesinger formed Leon Schlesinger Productions to create cartoons for Warner Bros. and put together his own team of talent that worked in a small, cramped building on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank (the building was later be dubbed "Termite Terrace").

The new star of Looney Tunes was initially the Bosko-like Buddy. Buddy was replaced as the main star of the series by another Bosko clone named Beans the Cat, who first appeared in the 1935 Technicolor short I Haven't Got a Hat. However, a much more important character also appeared in that short: Porky Pig. Though Porky was far more rotund than he would be in later years, in his very first appearance he already featured his trademark stutter. By the following year, Porky became the main star of Warner Bros. cartoons and was the studio's most successful character to date.

Animator Chuck Jones at the opening of the Warner Bros. Museum
Animator Chuck Jones at the opening of the Warner Bros. Museum at Burbank. Kim Kulish / Getty Images

Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Mel Blanc

One of the major reasons why Porky was such a success was because of the influence of animation director Tex Avery, who had joined Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1935, and his team of animators that included Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Under Avery's direction, Porky was redesigned to be "softer" as opposed to fat, and Avery encouraged his animators to develop distinct personalities for the characters that would allow them to play off each other. He was also a big proponent of including fast-paced gags in every short, a style that would define Warner Bros. cartoons for decades.

Avery's team created other major Warner Bros. cartoon stars over the next several years, including Daffy Duck (in 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt), Egghead (who would later become Elmer Fudd, in 1937's Egghead Rides Again) and, after featuring several rabbit characters in previous shorts, Bugs Bunny (in 1940's A Wild Hare). These characters formed the core of Warner Bros. Studios' popular cartoon characters. Adding to their appeal was the voice work of Mel Blanc, "The Man of a Thousand Voices," who gave Porky, Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Bugs, and countless other Warner Bros. cartoon characters their distinctive voices.

Avery left Warner Bros. for MGM in 1942, and as the studio's cartoons grew in popularity in the early 1940s, Warner Bros. purchased Schlesinger's studio outright and named it "Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc." in 1944. Chuck Jones became the most influential animator at the studio, and his cartoons introduced a number of major characters, including Pepé Le Pew (in 1945's Odor-able Kitty), Marvin the Martian (in 1948's Haredevil Hare), and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner (in 1949's Fast and Furry-ous). Other major characters introduced during this period include Tweety Bird (in 1942's A Tale of Two Kitties), Sylvester (in 1945's Life with Feathers), Yosemite Sam (in 1945's Hare Trigger), and Foghorn Leghorn (in 1946's Walky Talky Hawky).

End of the Golden Age of Warner Bros. Cartoons

Like other studios, Warner Bros. began phasing out theatrically-released cartoon shorts with the increasing popularity of television in the late 1950s. During this period, the studio underwent several major changes. The studio shut down cartoon production in 1962 and instead contracted the production company DePatie–Freleng Enterprises (founded by two former Warner Bros. Cartoons executives) to produce shorts, which mostly focused on popular characters Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales (a mouse character introduced in 1953). Despite Warner Bros. briefly bringing its animation division back in-house in 1967, the production of theatrical shorts ended in 1969. The studio's final short was September 1969's Injun Trouble, which starred one of the company's last popular characters, Cool Cat. It was also the 1.000th theatrically-released cartoon short from Warner Bros. However, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts continued to enjoy great popularity in re-cut versions that aired on television, which helped familiarize the characters with millions of children worldwide.

In 1980, the studio opened Warner Bros. Animation, which was devoted to creating new animation material (mostly for advertisements and fill-in material to accompany older cartoons). Later, the division created popular television series like Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-1995), Animaniacs (1993-1998), Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), and Justice League (2001-2006), the latter two series starring characters that Warner Bros. owned after acquiring DC Comics. During this period, the studio also released the films Space Jam (1996) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) featuring the classic Looney Tunes characters. Other notable films released by Warner Bros. Animation since the return of the studio include Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The Iron Giant (1999), The Lego Movie (2014), and The Lego Batman Movie (2016).

The Warner Bros. logo outside of the Burbank studio headquarters
The Warner Bros logo outside the Warner Bros Studio lot in Burbank, California, 30th September 2008. Amy T. Zielinski / Getty Images

Legacy of Warner Bros. Cartoons

Five Warner Bros. shorts won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon): Tweetie Pie (1947), For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), Speedy Gonzales (1955), Birds Anonymous (1957), and Knighty Knight Bugs (1958). In addition, the documentary short So Much for So Little, directed by Jones for the studio, was one of two shorts to win the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1950. Four Warner Bros. cartoon shorts have been preserved by the National Film Registry: Porky in Wackyland (1938), Duck Amuck (1953), One Froggy Evening (1955), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957).