Production of the film was unusual in that nobody on the crew had any experience in animation. Since animation was essentially a series of still images strung together, Myerberg hired noted fashion still photographer Martin Munkasci as director of photography. Munkasci had never used a movie camera before, and he found the lighting style required for animation to be a severe departure from what he was accustomed to. Sets were built by Latvian immigrant Evalds Dajevskis, who was likely hired for his experience as a scenographer for the Liepaja Opera and Ballet Theater and his knowledge of the European landscape. The sets were constructed from papier-mâché and were so large they required trap doors built in for the animators to access the puppets. The animators themselves had never done stop-motion before, but some of them had experience working with puppets. Don Sahlin and Teddy Shepard had apprenticed on The Howdy Doody Show, and Kermit Love had experience in puppetry, ballet, and costume design. The other animators were actors Joe Horstman and his wife Inez Anderson (who was the key animator on Gretel), ballet dancer Danny Diamond, sculptor Sky Highchief, and Roger Caras. Out of these mentioned, only Horstman, Anderson, Diamond, and Shepard received a credit on the film, along with other animators Ralph Emory, Hobart Rosen, and Nathalie Schulz. The crew of new animators was given a 3-week training period and then went straight into production, often being interrupted by knocks on the studio door from people wanting to book the synagogue for weddings and other events. The magnetic puppet feet and electrified sets caused another faux pas when a crew member shut the power down one night, and the puppets fell over while in poses for the middle of a shot. Another unusual facet of Hansel and Gretel’s production was that the entire film was shot in sequence. As the release date grew closer and money was running out, the animation in the final scenes became rushed and jerkier than earlier sequences. There were two major group scenes: one involving a choir of angel children in a dream sequence, and another with a group of children released from the witch’s spell at the end of the film. The crew ran out of time and money to create original sculpts for these puppets, so they simply re-cast copies of the character designs for Hansel and Gretel. The completed film is a strange but entertaining piece of stop-motion history, and an interesting experiment in trying to adapt classical opera into an animated film. There is something inherently creepy about the puppets and their facial expressions and some jarring cuts in the screen direction, but the film is a good showcase for the lovely detail of the sets, and the witch’s performance is a delight to watch.
[Figure 1.3] Production still from Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy. (© 1954, Michael Myerberg Productions.)
Myerberg’s showmanship continued into the publicity behind the film’s release (Figure 1.4). He continued the myths about his mysterious Kinemans, even creating a promotional film suggesting the puppets were controlled entirely by an electronic box with a series of turning dials. (In reality, a similar device was designed only for manual cable-controlled facial animation in some close-ups.) Myerberg premiered Hansel and Gretel himself in October 1954 at New York’s Broadway Theatre, and RKO, soon to be ending its contract with Disney, enthusiastically picked it up for distribution. The official release was accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign that included such items as figurines, toys, candy, and Nabisco cookies (Figure 1.5). Despite modest success and fond nostalgic memories for those who saw it, Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy did not exactly start a hot trend for stop-motion in America, but it does have a unique place in the grand history of many art forms at once, combining opera, technology, and puppet animation. Production of the Kineman puppets continued into television commercials, including the original Jolly Green Giant, which was apparently banned from the airwaves for frightening too many children. (It has since surfaced on YouTube and truly is quite disturbing.) Later, a studio break-in by vandals caused all the Kinemans to be destroyed, and Myerberg returned to Broadway, passing away in 1974.
[Figure 1.4] Newspaper ad for Hansel and Gretel:
An Opera Fantasy.
Some who had worked on various stages of Hansel and Gretel continued into other stop-motion ventures. Don Sahlin and Kermit Love tried getting a live-action/puppet feature version of Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester produced in London, with animated mice puppets. It was never realized, but Sahlin continued into more stop-motion on George Pal’s tom thumb (1958) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963) and would later become a puppet designer for Jim Henson’s Muppets. Lou Bunin, after parting ways with Myerberg, ended up producing his own stop-motion/live-action version of Alice in Wonderland in France in 1949 (Figure 1.6). Although framed by completely live-action bookend scenes, most of the film taking place in Wonderland was made in puppet animation, with actress Carol Marsh as Alice matted or cut into the scenery. The film was funded by the J. Arthur Rank Organization, directed by British radio/TV pioneer Dallas Bower, and shot by noted French cinematographer Claude Renoir. Bunin animated many of the puppet scenes himself and also had the help of former Disney animator Art Babbitt, who designed several walk cycles for the puppet animators to use for reference.
Ironically, a cartoon version of Alice was simultaneously being made by Disney. A much-publicized conflict ensued over the release of both versions throughout its production. Disney was favored for exclusive right to the use of Technicolor, which Bunin’s film was originally being shot in, so Bunin was forced to process the original negative using the Ansco color process. Ansco used a blue dye that changed the colors and muddied up the soundtrack so that it could not be heard properly without a blue-tinted exciter bulb when projected. Disney tried to delay the release of Bunin’s film in 1951, but Bunin released it anyway, 2 weeks before the release of Disney’s version. Disney went after him in court, but lost the case because of the conclusion that Alice in Wonderland was public-domain material and had been adapted to film previously.
[Figure 1.5] A sample of the Hansel and Gretel
marketing campaign with Nabisco.
Neither film fared very well at the box office originally, although Disney’s version has become the more popular version over time. However, many, including Bunin himself, felt that the stop-motion version was truer to Lewis Carroll’s original book, capturing the famous illustrations by John Tenniel and showing a clear contrast between the real world and Wonderland. The sets were wonderfully surreal and abstract, with curved shapes and open compositions similar to the cartoons of Warner Bros., likely because they were designed by Gene Fleury and Bernice Polifka, who had worked for Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. One particularly clever special effect involved a row of mirrors to re-create the Lobster Quadrille dance sequence, which made two lobster puppets reflected in the mirrors appear like a whole crowd of them on screen. Overall, the film has a strange, dreamlike quality and is certainly one of the most visually inventive film versions of the classic book. Bunin later began developing an ambitious stop-motion feature based on the book High Water at Catfish Bend that would never be realized. Despite these setbacks to his feature-length projects, Bunin made a big name for himself in New York producing stop-motion commercials and shorts, and he is still remembered as a unique contributor to the medium.