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The Animation Community Remembers Michael Sporn: 1946-2013

Tributes from the animation community to director and producer Michael Sporn, whose impact on a generation of animators goes far beyond his work.

Here at AWN we are truly saddened by the news of Michael Sporn’s passing this past Sunday, January 19, 2014. His impact on a generation of animators goes far beyond his work, and his loving but honest perspective on the field, on animation history as well as the most recent work, was a steady, sure and important voice in our community.

Michael’s tremendously influential blog, or “splog” can be found at http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/.

We thank everyone who contributed their thoughts on his passing.

Candy Kugel and Michael in 1991 at the 4th Annual LA International Animation Festival.

Candy Kugel and Michael in 1991 at the 4th Annual LA International Animation Festival. Image courtesy of Candy.

I met Michael in the 1970’s.  It might have been an ASIFA-East meeting, after I had been hired full-time by Perpetual Motion Pictures -- he suggested I become shop steward at the IATSE Union Local 841 (screen cartoonists) so I could have my dues reimbursed.  Very helpful advice and because he was shop steward at the Hubley Studio, it gave me the pleasure of sitting with him once a month--  both of us decades younger than the others in the room.  And we were more liberal than most.

We had similar taste in movies and the same motivation for learning what we could about this craft and making “art.”  We both straddled the divide of indie vs. industry animation and felt the suspicions of the fully invested souls of both camps.

Over the years we had studios close to each other (both on 40th Street and Bleecker).  We exchanged hints and supplies.  War stories.  Personnel.  We sat together at movies and argued the merits of the pictures.

These last couple of years were bittersweet.  Michael lost his studio—I lost my longtime creative partner, Vincent Cafarelli.  Michael moved into our space and we had the opportunity for more conversation than we’d had in years.  I will always be grateful for his placing most of Vinny’s extensive animation collection on his Splog.  And his presence made the void less formidable.

I will miss hearing his dry wit, a chuckle, then looking over and seeing his face. Rest in peace, dear friend.

-- Candy Kugel
Animation Director
Buzzzco Associates

He was generous with knowledge.

He gave opportunities to young artists and kept alive the work of those who came before them.

He was tasteful and opinionated and didn’t mind when someone disagreed with him.

He built a legacy of beautiful, intelligent films and encouraged us all to do the same.

His friendship made me feel like I belonged in this world, like I had something to contribute.

I hope to contribute a small fraction of the good he brought to us all.

-- Richard O’Connor
Animation Producer
Ace & Son Moving Picture Company
From his post on Michael Sporn

Very sad to hear of Michael Sporn's passing. He was there for me when I had chemo, frequently reassuring me that things would be ok. He was already in the midst of a heavy schedule of chemo treatments. He was very secretive about it. He always continued to work and exercise. He didn't want anyone to think anything was up. I was astonished at his strength. We've lost a giant of an animator and a human being.

-- Chris Robinson
Artistic Director, Ottawa International Animation Festival

Michael Sporn's passing will be something that none of us will fully process for quite a while. His place in animation history and his presence as a force in NY is unique. He was a tried and true independent who did special work and as a result attracted special people to work for and with him. He launched many talented students into the professional world by taking them into his studio and showing them options for how to work and approach their careers that they wouldn't have been able to find anywhere else. He loved animation and that came through in his work.

I didn't know Michael anywhere near as well as I would've liked to.

I first met him while working at The Ink Tank, but was well acquainted with his reputation and influence on so many people I'd crossed paths with early in my career. We'd cross paths at ASIFA, Ottawa, and other related events and he graciously contributed wonderful vintage animation memorabilia to an exhibit that Howard Beckerman and I did on NY animation history. I was truly thrilled to be able to sit with him, Emily Hubley and Jerry Beck on a panel at BAM last year. We all knew there was something he was physically struggling with but also figured that if he wanted us to know, we'd know.

There is an interesting gap in the animation industry that exists with people of Michael's age and generation. Not as many folks were flooding the ranks and schools weren't teaching the craft as they later did. Michael almost single handedly filled this gap with his passion for animation and its heritage. His "Splog" is unparalleled and I'm gratified to hear that his wife Heidi Stallings intends to keep it online.

All I can say is that he was too young to go, and this void will never be filled by anyone - nor should it be. We can all revel in what he gave us and what he's left behind, and I encourage everyone that was fortunate enough to have crossed his path to continue passing along whatever he shared with you.

-- J.J. Sedelmaier
Animation Director and Producer
J.J. Sedelmaier Productions

From Michael’s Oscar-nominated short Doctor DeSoto (1984)

From Michael’s Oscar-nominated short 'Doctor DeSoto' (1984)

Oscar-nominated animation director Michael Sporn was many things to many people - a giant of New York independent animation, a champion of the art form through his daily blog, and a vital bridge spanning from the Hubleys into the modern digital era.

But, for me, Michael Sporn was also my first boss, an important mentor, and a good friend. He didn't just give me a career, he showed me through example: how to conduct myself, how to lead a team, and that the people you worked with were as important as the work itself.

How did he do all that? First off, everybody, from seasoned veterans to newbies like me, all experienced frequent bouts of work related panic and flop sweat. “Why,” you may ask? The reason was that Michael often challenged his employees by handing out assignments that stretched them well beyond their comfort zone; background painters and designers might be asked to work for a few weeks as animators, animators might be assigned storyboards, the production manager might be asked to figure out a new color technique or to tackle layouts, and a recent studio assistant might be asked to run an entire job as a production manager. Not only did the projects change every couple of months, so did the hats we were all wearing. This was true from the most senior member of the studio all the way down to little ol’ me. Even though this was my first job in animation, I suspected that this was truly a special place to work. 

Michael placed an amazing amount of trust in his staff. Some years back, at an ASIFA-East event held in honor of his latest DVD release, I asked Michael how he chose the scenes he animated himself. He answered that he assigned himself the most boring scenes, the ones where a character might simply have to walk from A to B. Therefore, one can presume that part of Michael’s joy in running a studio must have been in how he assigned the work to his staff. Each scene or task was a special bond of trust between Michael and his artists. Although Michael encouraged a large degree of self-direction from his animators, the resulting films emerged with every frame bearing Mr. Sporn’s fingerprints. 

Still, animation is not all art, and even small independent studios like Michael’s couldn't escape the factory side of animation work. When I worked for Michael, the studio was still shooting on film and preparing artwork on cell or paper. There was lots of mechanical handwork involved with paints, glue, and exacto blades. At some point of production, most of the studio would be reassigned to work a few days or weeks at these tasks. At Michael’s, we were so often working to the peak of our abilities that switching over to a more mundane part of production felt like sweet relief! Yet, whatever the relief factor was, we still had piles of artwork to prep or check for camera. Whenever one person ended up with too much work, the rest of us pitched in and redistributed out the scenes. I naively imagined that all animation studios functioned this way. There was never a day with one person working into the middle of the night with everyone else going home. 

As a studio boss, Michael had a gentle way of teaching by example. He might fix your drawing and then walk over and explain what he did and why. He’d invite you over to look at dailies and was open to input on the entire process. But, to me, the best part of the day was getting to the studio early and sitting down with Michael and talking “animation” over a cup of tea. Between 9:00 and 10:00 AM the studio slowly came to life, each employee trickling in and taking their seat at the back table. Sometimes we all chatted for a long time, maybe not getting up until close to 11! Such are the pleasures of a family environment. It was truly like an animation home away from home. 

Bless you, Michael. And, rest in peace. 

--David Levy
Animation Director
Manager, Animation, Disney Publishing Worldwide

Michael’s death leaves a large void in the animation community both here in New York and in the international world of our shared art form. There are so many aspects of his life and career that could be described: producer/director/animator of an enormous body of classic short films, all with a humanistic message for children and adults alike; a link in the chain from the great directors John and Faith Hubley, and Richard Williams, the filmmakers who lifted our art to something more than entertainment. Michael carried that tradition forth both in his films and prodigious, generous conversation found on his blog, which appeared with such delightful regularity.

The Michael I knew for forty years was above all an artist committed to beauty. This may seem either an obvious truism or out of step with the ironies of modernism. But Michael’s taste, his passion, his mission arose from a personal, non-ideological source, independent from academic fashion. He successfully translated the designs of leading cartoonists, preserving their particular beauty with inventive narrative structure and above all through delightful choreography of character movement and acting. At the same time, Michael designed and animated his personal vision of quirky classics like The Hunting of the Snark. He also reached beyond esthetics to animation’s potential for moral and emotional depth, as in his appealing portrait, Champagne.

I remember waiting for a screening to start, years ago. Michael was nervously clutching a stack of drawings he had just finished. Finally Tissa David arrived. The show could begin. But first, Michael had to flip the scene for the mentor he worshipped, another link in the chain to the pantheon of animators such as Grim Natwick. It was the Marzipan Pig. And the breathless delight in Michael’s face as Tissa nodded approvingly, that private teaching moment (she did make a minor suggestion), embodies his thirst for beauty. And Michael followed this time-honored practice by passing along the depth of his knowledge to the numerous apprentices who came through his studio. He was that special kind of teacher who didn’t need a school or a degree. He lived and breathed animation, and those of us fortunate to have been around him were affected by his commitment and enthusiasm for craft and for the evolving nature of animation art. His life was a great gift to us all.

-- George Griffin
Animation Director and Producer

It was Michael who introduced me to John Canemaker, way back in 1980, when we all were beginners. I am sad, sad, sad. I'm sad we lost him and I never had the opportunity to tell him how much I admired him.

-- Giannalberto Bendazzi
Animation Author and Historian

It's hard to write about Michael in the past tense, as he is still here, influencing all of us. He wasn't just a greatly talented animator who made amazing films. Kind and generous, Michael gave his community - us, animators - a lot of food for thought and inspiration with his blog. His blog was a unifying force between animators of different generations and cultures. I had invited Michael to come to a test screening in November 2012 of my feature film, thinking he wouldn't have time or energy. But he came and was generous with his encouragement and support. He is an amazing person and I admire and love him.

-- Signe Baumane
Animation Director

When you hear someone close to you has died, someone you laughed with, argued and drank with, shared successes and failures, grew up and grew old with, dozens of feelings and images flood your mind. It’s hard to know where to begin.

I remember our last meeting last Sept when he came out to my book signing at SVA. He looked so painfully thin; his handshake was weak. Yet his big eyes smiled in their old way, as if to say “ Well done. Wish we could talk more.” I was so happy he came.

Adieu for now, Mike. When you get to Animation Valhalla, have Hubley and Babbitt introduce you to Tytla and Freddy Moore.

-- Tom Sito
Animation Director and Historian
From his post on Michael Sporn

What a sad day this is. I may once have thought that reaching an advanced age would provide some sort of immunization against the worst of grief. Not so; I cried earlier this month when my sweet mother-in-law died, and I cried when Heidi told me soon afterwards that Michael was very close to death. Tears insisted on barging into my life again today. Michael was a wonderful friend, a dedicated artist, and one of the very best people in a field of animation that he loved with a consuming passion. Michael's genius, and his curse, was that he could do so much with such tiny budgets. I will never cease to wonder what he might have accomplished with the money that always seems to be available to people with only a fraction of his talent and none of his integrity.

-- Michael Barrier
Animation Author and Historian
From his post on Michael Sporn