The Olympiad of Animation:
An Interview With Fini Littlejohn

by Harvey Deneroff

Olympiad of Animation
Original Poster created for the Olympiad of Animation by Emanuele Luzzati

I first came to know Fini Littlejohn in 1982, when I took over as editor of Graffiti, the ASIFA-Hollywood newsletter. While not the celebrity her husband Bill was and is, I soon came to see that she was an important presence in the local and international animation scene. It was also around that time, that Fini started her campaign for what would become the Olympiad of Animation, which was held in conjunction with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. A sort of pocket film festival, with many of the trappings of more established events like the Annecy, it briefly brought animation and the Olympics together in a unique gathering which, unfortunately, has for many faded into memory.

In a professional sense, Fini's involvement with animation has always been peripheral at best, but remains no less passionate about the medium. Born in Vienna, Josephine (Fini) Rudiger attended the Institute of Arts & Crafts there, initially studying fashion design, then illustration, publicity and stage design. However, it was as an actress that her talents first came into demand. She appeared in a number of stage productions, participated in the city's "literary cabaret" and had a part in Wily Forst's classic film, Maskerade, starring Anton Walbrook.

In 1937, at age 22, she realized that, as a Jew, her career options in Austria were limited and managed to get to the United States, where she had a uncle. She left rather suddenly and afterwards always felt awkward about leaving in the midst of a stage production. She recalls that, "It took me a long time to get over that, because in the theater [everyone was] very friendly and warm." It wasn't until she was invited back with other emigree artists to participate in the 1993 Viennale that she learned that, "They fired everybody two months [after I left], including the director. So, I wouldn't have had much hope for a future there. I didn't know that. If I did, I would have been less homesick for Vienna."

Handicapped by language in New York, she fell back on her art training, got an assignment as a book illustrator, but mostly painted window backgrounds for major New York department stores. She moved to Los Angeles in 1938, where she briefly wound up working at Disney's, doing incidental character design for Pinocchio, as well as "design, research and story for Cinderella, Dumbo and other future projects." (In this, she was probably one of the first women the studio used in any sort of official creative capacity.) However, she again mostly earned her living as a commercial artist for department stores, as well as doing two other children's books.

Bill and Fini Littlejohn, Freida Moch and Terry SandersBill and Fini Littlejohn (in center), at their home earlier this year, flanked by documentary filmmakers Freida Moch and Terry Sanders.
Courtesy of Fini Littlejohn
An Interest in Animation
She married Bill in 1943 and it was through him that she continued to develop her interest in animation. When he became active in ASIFA-International and attending various international festivals, Fini tagged along. Soon, their Malibu home became a favorite stopover for animation artists from around the world.

Her idea for the Olympiad of Animation, she says, was inspired by producer Les Goldman (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) who always "had great visions for animation." And it was his ideas that came to mind "when there was so much talk about the Olympic Arts Festival" in anticipation of the 1984 Los Angeles games.

Around this time, Fini broke her arm and was forced to largely get around by bus, something which is not easy in an autocentric town like Los Angeles. This did not stop her, and only "a day or two after my accident," she recalls that "I bumped into Paul Ziffern's wife, who said, 'Oh, I'm sorry for you.' (He was a big animal in the Olympics.) I said, You could really help me. I would like to have an animation festival" and asked if Paul could help. Initially he couldn't, but did eventually point her in the right direction.

Fini's initial idea was to have a program of "all these wonderful films we had seen for the past 30 some years we've been going to festivals and that you never see here." ASIFA-Hollywood, headed by animation writer-voice artist Bill Scott, took the event under its wing; subsequently, through voice actor June Foray, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science agreed to play host at its Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. (It helped that Foray was on the Academy's Board of Governors.)

The project now fell under the aegis of the Academy's Douglas Edwards. Eventually, Prescott Wright, a distributor and experienced film festival hand, was brought in to manage the actual event. (Critic and historian Charles Solomon was brought in to help with the final programming.) In addition to Fini's idea for a retrospective, there came the idea to have "new films made especially for the Olympics." She felt that "was a problem," but it really did not seem to phase her.

I Will Make a Film For You
Fini then set out to personally go out and recruit people to make films especially for the event dealing with the Olympics. Thus, she took the occasion of her and Bill's travels to festivals like Lucca and Annecy to recruit filmmakers to the cause. "The first one that said I will make a film for you," she recalls, "was Bruno Bozzetto. The second was [Osvaldo] Cavandoli. Those were the two biggies."

In the process of soliciting films, she learned first hand some of the political realities of the day. Thus, she was initially taken aback by "the cool reception" she got from people in places like the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. "Even Feodor Khitruk," she notes, "who was really a good friend, said 'I cannot make a film.' Finally one of the East Germans said to me, 'You cannot approach the artists, you have to go to the studio and ask them for permission to approach the artists. I had not known that."

She also did not realize the fallout from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the US boycotted, which eventually led to a reciprocal boycott of the L.A. games by the USSR, which certainly did not help Fini in her mission.

Nevertheless, some 140 new short films on "The Spirit of the Olympics" from 18 countries were submitted, of which 32 were selected. In addition to Italy's Bozzetto and Cavandoli, there were films by such world-class animators as Japan's Yoji Kuri, Canada's Graeme Ross and Hungary's Sándor Bekesi. Due to an unexpected interest from schools around the world, 28 films were picked from films made by students of high school age and younger. (All but one, an Italian film, L'Importante e partecipare (The Importance is to Participate), which turned out to be an audience favorite, were screened separately.)

Champions of Animation?
At the time, Fini expressed some disappointment with the way the event turned out. For instance, she did not really approve of the final selection of the 50 greatest animated films of all time selected (the "Champions of Animation")by an international committee of journalists, scholars, festival directors and scholars. She still dissents, feeling that the program lacked the balance and scope she originally envisioned. She recalled that, "We had two Fischingers and two by Alexeieff and Parker. [Most] were films that had recently been in the minds of people and not what we had considered the best films." She also disliked the addition of a special program, featuring "Walt Disney's Tribute to Sports Goofy."

SigmundOlympiad of Animation film, Sigmund, Bruno Bozetto, 1984.

Nevertheless, as I wrote at the time, the Olympiad was "a real morale booster for the local animation community, giving its members a chance, once again, to be proud of being called animation artists." (Remember, this was at a time when the industry seemed to be in a state of collapse, with great amounts of work being shipped off to studios in East Asia.) I further noted that, "The event's widespread publicity and critical acclaim seemed to carry over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Enchanted Drawings" series; this history of Hollywood animation shorts has been consistently sold out, including the opening evening of silent films. ... After the opening night, a background man from Filmation came up to me glowing with pride, and said, 'Isn't it great, first the Olympiad and now this!' It was a comment that seemed to make the Olympiad worthwhile." And now, 12 years later, one must say that despite her misgivings, her effort was certainly very worthwhile.

The Spirit of the Olympics
The following is a list of the 32 finalists of films made for the Olympiad of Animation in "The Spirit of the Olympics." In retrospect, the film most people remember seems to be Bruno Bozzetto's Sigmund, which shows how a little Viennese boy is affected by watching the Olympics on television. At the time, I also commended Graeme Ross' 1...2...3, whose portrayal of what goes on in a high jumper's mind as he gets ready to do his stuff, had a funky wit all its own.

1. 1...2...3, Graeme Ross, Canada
2. Olympia--La Linea 114, Oswaldo Cavandoli, Italy
3. Sigmund, Bruno Bozzetto, Italy
4. Olympic Fire, V. Jiranek & Josef Hekrdla, Czechoslovakia
5. Games, Hans Bacher, West Germany
6. Olympia, Anna Maria Zoltan, Hungary
7. It's Not Whether You Win or Lose, Rastko iri , Yugoslavia
8. Olympiad I, Marija Dail, USA
9. Olympic Boulevard, Mark Hubley, USA
10. Victoria, Lehotay Zoltan, Hungary
11. The Spirit, Stephan Boeder, West Germany
12. Torch, Wendy Vanguard, USA
13. Hors-Jeu, Georges Schwisgebel, Switzerland
14. The Imagination of the Marathon Runners, Yuji Kuri, Japan
15. The Spirit of the Olympics, John Amitay, Canada
16. Animarathon, Raul Garcia-Sanz, Spain
17. Spitzensport, Any Coray, Switzerland
18. Blind Olympics, Nancy Bens, Belgium
19. My Olympic Heroes, Talent Barli, USA
20. Quitagulation, Gregory Burns, USA
21. Road to the Olympics, Rejean Bourdages & Shane Doyle, Canada
22. Olympics, Gert Vergauwe, Belgium
23. Breth of Seth, Melinda Littlejohn, USA
24. Olimpia Los Angeles 1984, Csaba Szorady, Hungary
25. Running In, Lesley Keen, Scotland
26. Alber-10, Anders Holt, Sweden
27. The Flight, Clara Basca & Gloria Canestrini, Italy
28. Rupert's Olympic Feet, Larry Luria, USA
29. The Gallop, Sandor Bekesi, Hungary
30. Torch Mural, Tom Lapsley, USA
31. Muybridge in Motion, Kenji Theil, USA
32. The Spirit of the Olympics, Miguel A. Fuertes, Spain

The Champions Of Animation

The Tale of TalesThe Tale of Tales, Yuri Norstein, 1980.

The following is the list of the 50 highest scoring films in the Olympiad's poll of international journalists, scholars, festival directors and animation programmers. (Some 100 were actually asked to participate, but only 35 responded.) The results were tabulated on a weighted scale and only 32 films were actually screened (in whole or in part) during the event itself. Films with identical ratings indicate a tie.

1. Skazka Skazok (Tale of Tales), Yuri Norstein, USSR, 1980
2. The Street, Caroline Leaf, Canada, 1976
3. The Yellow Submarine, George Dunning, UK, 1968
4. Ruka (The Hand), Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 1965
5. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, David Hand, 1937
6. Crac!, Frédéric Back, Canada, 1981
7. Une Nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on Bald Mountain), Alexander Alexeieff & Claire Parker, 1933
8. Ubu, Geoff Dunbar, UK, 1980
9. Moonbird, John Hubley, USA, 1959
10. Satiemania, Zdenko Gasparavic, Yugoslavia, 1978
11. Fantasia, Walt Disney, USA, 1940
12. Neighbors, Norman McLaren, Canada, 1952
13. Paysagiste (Mindscape), Jacques Drouin, Canada, 1977
14. Duck Amuck, Chuck Jones, USA, 1953
15. Premiere jours (Beginnings), Clorinda Warny, Lina Gagnon
& Suzanne Gervaise
16. Allegro non troppo, Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 1976
17. Dojoji Temple, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Japan, 1976
18. King Size Canary, Tex Avery, USA, 1947
19. Motion Painting No. 1, Oscar Fischinger, USA, 1949
20. Tango, Zbigniev Rybczynski, Poland, 1982
20. La Joie de vivre (Joy of Life), Anthony Gross & Hector Hoppin,
France, 1934
22. Harpya, Raoul Servais, Belgium, 1979
22. Allegretto, Oscar Fischinger, USA, 1936
22. Bad Luck Blackie, Tex Avery, USA, 1949
25. Frank Film, Frank Mouris, USA, 1972
26. L'Idée (The Idea), Berthold Bartosch, France, 1932
26. What's Opera Doc?, Chuck Jones, USA, 1957
26. Blinkety Blank, Norman McLaren, Canada, 1955
29. Au bout du fil (The Cat's Cradle), Paul Driessen, Canada, 1974
30. Les Jeux des anges (Game of Angels), Walerian Boroczyck, France, 1964
31. Band Concert, Walt Disney, USA, 1935
32. Minnie the Moocher, Dave Fleischer & Willard Bowsky, USA, 1932
33. Dumbo, Walt Disney, USA, 1942
34. Une Vielle boite (An Old Box), Paul Driessen, Canada, 1975
35. Pas de Deux, Norman McLaren, Canada, 1967
36. Le Chateau de sable (Sandcastle), Co Hoedeman, Canada, 1977
37. Great-I.K.B., Bob Godfrey, UK, 1974
38. La Faim (Hunger), Peter Foldes, Canada, 1974
39. A Bogar (The Fly), Ferenc Rofusz, Hungary, 1980
40. Damon the Mower, George Dunning, UK, 1971
41. Lapis, James Whitney, USA, 1966
42. La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la Rame, Jean-François Laguionie, 1978
43. Gerald McBoing Boing, Robert Cannon, USA, 1951
44. Jeu de coudes (Elbow Game), Paul Driessen, Canada, 1979
44. Steamboat Willie, Ub Iwerks, USA, 1928
44. Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay, 1914
48. Dnevnik (Diary), Nedjelko Dragic, Yugoslavia, 1973
49. Feholofia (Son of the White Mare), Marcell Jankovics, Hungary, 1981
50. La Vita in scatola (Life in a Garbage Can), Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 1967

Olympiad of Animation
Bill Hurtz' Logo Film for Olympiad of Animation based on Luzzati's poster.

Harvey Deneroff, in addition to his duties as Editor of Animation World Magazine, edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter.

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