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In and Out of the Woods

Weston Woods, that is. I feel that my best films are the least known. My greatest fans still are teachers and librarians, and I spent 25 years of creative fulfillment in pleasing them.

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's How to Succeed in Animation (Don't Let a Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Where the Wild Things Are was one of our most successful films adapted from childrens picture books, produced for Weston Woods. © Maurice Sendak.

Where the Wild Things Are was one of our most successful films adapted from childrens picture books, produced for Weston Woods. © Maurice Sendak.

The "giant" step for me was the arrival in Prague of Morton Schindel of Weston Woods. My second meeting with Mort, 10 years after Terrytoons, was another crossroad in my career. It was the beginning of a 25-year collaboration. Mort was a thinker, and he had built something terrific from what had seemed hopeless to me when, in 1957, he first called on me at Terrytoons.

He was able to build his modest productions into a thriving business because of the policies of Lyndon Johnson! Yes, the very man who destroyed his presidency by escalating the Vietnam War had begun his administration with a generous policy to upgrade audio-visual usage in the nation's schools. His program granted schools two dollars for every one dollar they spent on audio-visual equipment and materials. Overnight Weston Woods sales tripled!

To take full advantage of this windfall, and to attract the highest quality of talent to contribute to his film library, Schindel offered gross income participation to people making key contributions. Once our production had become untangled from the Snyder stranglehold, Mort offered me 5% of the gross income of the films I would adapt and direct for Weston Woods, after basic production costs were recouped. When my films proved to be the stars of his catalog, he granted me that percentage from the first dollar and it was in perpetuity, to me and to my heirs. After 25 years of producing films for Weston Woods, even in this tiny market, compared to the "big time" of network TV, syndication, or feature film production, this annuity has become my financial bedrock.

Tiny this market may be, but remember, there are always new children. Films carefully made, adapted from carefully chosen books, do not fade from fashion. They are perpetually new. When Mort finally was ready to retire, he sold Weston Woods to Scholastic, the huge distributor of educational publications to schools, and my commissions carry over. I had been working personally with Mort, and had no wish to continue with the corporate substitutes, yet my sales commissions continue.

In my further work, I have used my Weston Woods deal as my basic model, and am now in a position to accept nothing less. A 5% share of the gross from the first dollar. I also write songs for many of my films, and that too is a solid additional source of royalty income.

Schindel was the first producer I worked with who voluntarily proposed this concept of a continuing sharing in the financial results of my work. I can say that my small good deed eventually came back to me in spades.

But the money involved in making Weston Woods films was actually very small in the short run. The school market is not a rich commercial market far from it. What worked out for me was that being in "the low-rent district," and not having to make a lot of money immediately, meant that I could afford to work on the kind of films I had always dreamed of making: honest story films for children, from the greatest author/illustrators in the world!

I had made some children's films before, but only sporadically, and never with the assurance that the films would actually be distributed and appreciated. Mort fed me one great children's book after another to adapt, and he had the distribution system in place, which assured that the films would actually reach children in their schools and libraries. I was now into something several notches more meaningful than kiddie films; I was expected to understand and project children's literature!

I immersed myself in this work, and developed conceptual approaches to it that brought me rich rewards of acceptance and appreciation, and more than 100 top awards in all the world's film festivals with categories for children's films. So the satisfaction was there. After all, how many are lucky enough to have schoolteachers and librarians fawning over them?

In 1967, Weston Woods commissioned a documentary film about my work, in which I explained how I went about my work. I was also invited to speak at schools, libraries, universities and other rarified venues in America and Europe. Those who invited me rarely knew anything about my Popeyes, Tom & Jerrys or Tom Terrifics they expected me to expound on the glories of children's literature. Here is a typical talk I would give to groups of teachers, book illustrators, and students of film animation especially in reference to adapting picture books to animation:

"It is said that prostitution is the world's oldest profession. Well I have reason to believe that our profession, illustrated storytelling, is even older, and I hope, more socially useful!

It's a very old story: Humans have always told stories, and have always had the urge to illustrate them in the most dramatic way possible within their technical means: A tribal storyteller would use dramatic gestures, and perhaps firelight to cast hand shadows. Dancing and acting out of stories has gone on from our earliest beginnings, and to me the most dramatic of all were those magnificent cave paintings, made as early or perhaps earlier than 35,000 years ago, deep inside the blackest of darkness in European caves. What a thrilling ambiance for effective and unforgettable storytelling!

I believe that those cave paintings were surely used to illustrate tribal stories by the light of flickering oil lamps within the pervasive darkness of the caverns; basically the same idea as our own modern movie theaters! There is much evidence that this was the real purpose of those cave paintings.

An expert on the origins of art and writing, archeologist Alexander Marshack agrees with me on this. To my mind, such dramatically illustrated storytelling has ultimately found expression in exactly what I am trying to do with my films: using light, motion, color and sound to illustrate stories in the most arresting and dramatic way.

Most of my years in the former Czechoslovakia I was mainly occupied with adapting the best children's picture books as animated films. In this work I have had the pleasure of working with many of the world's finest illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Quentin Blake, Tomie de Paola, Crockett Johnson, James Marshall, Robert McCloskey, Gail E.Haley, Pat Hutchins

Twenty-five years after I made the documentary film, Gene Deitch: The Picture Book Animated, I am still doing the same thing that the film shows adapting children's picture books into animated films

What my documentary film illustrates is the great variety of problems this work presents me with. No two films are the same, and all the elements of the films' construction, the animation, music, sound and voice, have to grow out of the stories to be told, and of course out of the style of the illustrations. Obviously, the book illustrators chose a drawing or painting style they felt best enhanced the meaning and atmosphere of the story being told. Just as obviously, I must use a style of film construction, movement, camera effects, music, voice and sound, which best bring life to those particular illustrations.

What I am doing is illustrating illustrations! I can do what perhaps the illustrators might have hoped to do, but in book format could only suggest; movement, life, sound, atmosphere.

There are many who might say that what we are doing, and even what book illustrators are doing, stifles the imagination of the child readers, that the ideal would be to allow readers or listeners to imagine the characters and settings of stories for themselves. But I believe that high quality illustrations and filmic dramatization of stories can in fact stimulate imagination, increase the perception of graphic design, color, music, play-acting; can inspire children to create their own books and films.

Recently I participated in a seminar in Budapest where children from many countries came together, and in a few days wrote, illustrated and bound their own picture books. Some then went on to record their illustrations with video cameras and to speak their stories, thus experimenting with timing, dramatic reading, and the basics of filmmaking. Underneath it all, they were learning how to best create and convey stories.

My specific job for Weston Woods, was to carry out the slogan, which is the title of my film, The Picture Book Animated, and the motto of Weston Woods, The Picture Book Projected. Our entire purpose was to illuminate books. Books are still the permanent medium of literature. A book can be held and felt, as well as read. A child can turn the pages either forwards or backwards; can linger over a page or illustration, can read or look at a personal pace. Our purpose is not to replace books, but to reinforce them.

I know that in our technological age we can't stop the audio-visual flood. What we tried to do is to provide a channel that flows toward books rather than away from them.

When I look at a book I am going to adapt, I have to imagine it coming to life. I have to look at the illustrations, and try to imagine how those specific illustrations would move, how I imagine the book illustrator would have wanted them to move. In the first place, we undertake to adapt only those books, which seem to "want" to be animated. Certainly, some illustrations in books are so perfect in their composition and in the complete statement they make, that they should be left alone. But I know from my experience, and working with many, many book illustrators, that they very often wished their pictures could move; they often use graphic devices to strongly suggest movement. Those are the illustrations and the books we choose to animate.

In my documentary film I showed that one of my first Weston Woods films, Drummer Hoff, was adapted from a book with woodcut illustrations. That suggested a stiff, wooden kind of movement. Later, I adapted a book by the German artist Helme Heine, who works in watercolors, a totally different problem, suggesting a more fluid type of motion... Leon & Diane Dillon's illustrations for Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears were painted with an airbrush. Those two styles were immensely difficult to animate with fidelity in the era before computer imaging.

I am in effect a translator, translating a story and illustrations from book language into film language!

Every little book takes us a very long time to transform into a film. I usually work on each one for an average of one-and-a-half years. It is also quite likely that the illustrators took a long time to make the books. We are working in a very rarefied art and craft that is difficult to maintain economically, so we have to be sure that what we are doing will be good enough to last long enough to recoup the expense and effort involved. We can only afford to adapt the very best children's books published the books that will stay in print.

The basic market for our Weston Woods films has been schools and libraries. Our goal is always to be as faithful to the books as possible, and as I said in my movie, to draw children to the books, to guide them to see more in the books, and to love them more. Since I made that documentary film a potentially very large new market has been opened to us, in the form of videocassettes for the home. We hope to give enlightened parents something of higher quality for their children's home story hours.

I said it was a potentially large new market. The market is huge, but we have to face the fact that it is not huge for us. We are a great long way from our competition, the virtual Niagara of jazzily animated junk available at cheap prices in supermarkets and video stores everywhere in the west. We cannot compete with the prices they sell the stuff for, nor with the physical amount of it, mainly ground out in Southeast Asia.

I think there is a parallel in contrasting the high quality books we adapt, and the cheap kiddie books that fill those same supermarket shelves. We are not likely to reach the mass audiences we might dream of with our carefully crafted work, which takes such a long time and much effort and care to produce. That's why I used the phrase "enlightened parents."

There are parents out there who can distinguish between junk and worthwhile material for their children, but unfortunately they are still in the minority. We have to start with those people; find ways to directly reach them as well as the teachers and librarians we have depended upon so far to present this material to children.

Modern merchandising methods can help us. We would like to package book and video versions together as units. From this base we may be able to raise the standards, to "enlighten" more parents, and thus to raise the demand for children's literature of genuine value."

G.D. FILMS PRODUCED FOR WESTON WOODS
FROM 1968 TO 1993

SIM series (Stimulation, Imagination, Motivation):

Mr. Koumal, series of nine short ironic vignettesMime Over Matter, live-action pantomime with Ladislav FialkaThe Giants, black comedy; the futility of revenge.

The Beast of Monsieur Racine Burt Dow, Deep Water Man Changes, Changes Charlie Needs a Cloak Drummer Hoff The Emperor’s New Clothes The Foolish Frog Goldilocks and the Three Bears The Happy Owls Harold’s Fairy Tale The Hat In the Night Kitchen Leopold, The See-through Crumbpicker Moon Man Patrick A Picture for Harold’s Room The Pigs’ Wedding Rosie’s Walk Smile for Auntie A Story-A Story Strega Nonna The Swineherd Sylvester and the Magic Pebble Teeny-tiny and the Witch-woman The Three Robbers The Ugly Duckling Where the Wild Things Are Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears Wings, A Story of Two Chickens Zlaeth the Goat

Tomi Ungerer Robert McCloskey Pat Hutchins Tomi de Paola Ed Emberley Nadine Westcott Pete Seeger James Marshall Celestino Piatti Crockett Johnson Tomi Ungerer Maurice Sendak James Flora Tomi Ungerer Quentin Blake Crockett Johnson Helme Heine Pat Hutchins Diane Paterson Gail E. Haley Tomi de Paola Bjorn Wiinblad William Steig Barbara K. Walker Tomi Ungerer Svend Otto S. Maurice Sendak Leo and Diane Dillon James Marshall Isaac Bashevis Singer

(Each film faithful to the graphic and philosophic character of the original book from which it was adapted, but each also freely enhanced with cinematic techniques.)

PS: In case I've given the impression that my work with Weston Woods was uninterrupted creative bliss and in accord with the subtitle of this book, I cannot fail to reveal the fate of my final film for WW. It was adapted from the great classic by William Steig, Sylvester & The Magic Pebble.

I was warned at the outset of the production that Steig, already in his eighties, was suffering from a deep guilt complex in relation to his son. He insisted that his son must compose the music. He was quoted to me as having said, "I didn't pay enough attention to my son when he was growing up, so this is the least I can do for him!" This totally irrational and self-destructive dictum was from one of the great storytellers of our time, the creator of an array of glorious children's books including Shrek from which the blockbuster movie was developed. (His son did not do the score for Shrek.)

Weston Woods films by Gene Deitch are available from Weston Woods Studios, 265 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06880.

To read more about Gene's adventures in the animation world, visit Genes online book.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: animation department chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization; 1949-1951, creative chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954; director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc., New York, 1955; president of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., New York, 1958-1960; creative director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968; and star director for Weston Woods Studios Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.

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