Chapter 25: In And Out Of The Woods
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...
25 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, sounds, 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 sounds, 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, sounds, 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.