Independent Animation Director Michael Sporn Dies at 67

Animation director and Academy Award nominee Michael Sporn is dead at the age of 67 following illness due to pancreatic cancer.

Michael Sporn 1946-2014

Michael Sporn, an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film and the director of more than thirty television specials for broadcast outlets such as HBO, PBS, Showtime and CBS died on January 19, 2014 in New York City.  He was 67.

The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, his wife, actress and director Heidi Stallings said.

Long a mainstay of New York independent animation filmmakers, Michael Sporn earned a 1984 Academy Award nomination for the short film Doctor DeSoto, adapted from William Steig’s children’s book.  It was one of fifteen short children’s films Sporn produced and directed for distributor Weston Woods, including Steig’s Abel’s Island (1988), which was nominated for an Emmy Award; The Amazing Bone (1985), winner of a CINE Golden Eagle; and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2005), winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video and Best Short Children’s Film award from the Ottawa International Animation Festival. 

Sporn’s animated HBO specials adapted from children’s books and tales include: Lyle Lyle Crocodile (1987); The Red Shoes (1989); Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel (1990); The Marzipan Pig (1990); Ira Sleeps Over (1992, CableACE Award winner); Goodnight Moon and Other Stories (1999, Emmy winner); Happy to Be Nappy and Other Tales (2006); Whitewash (1995, Emmy winner); I Can Be President (2011).

He also created animated titles and inserts for live-action features, such as Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) and Garbo Talks (1984), and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). 

On Broadway, Sporn’s animation appeared as interactive elements in two musicals:  Meet Me in St. Louis (1989) and Woman of the Year (1981).

For a 2007 exhibition of his films at the Museum of Modern Art (November 9-12, 2007), MoMA described Sporn as “a vital creative force in New York animation.”

Michael Sporn was born in New York City on April 23, 1946, the second child of William and Amelia Young Sporn, and grew up in Jackson Heights.  His father abandoned the family when Michael was two, and his mother subsequently had three more children with her second husband, Mario Rosco.

Sporn drew cartoons “right from the beginning,” he told animation historian John Canemaker in an unpublished 2010 interview, and, encouraged by his stepfather, made 8mm films at age seven. A self-taught animator, he gathered advice from the few how-to-animate books available in the late 1950s and from two television series, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Walter Lantz’s The Woody Woodpecker Show.

He attended the New York Institute of Technology  from 1963 to 1967, then enlisted in the US Navy serving as a Russian language decoder in Alaska.  

In 1972, he began working professionally in animation under several noted producers and directors.  For John and Faith Hubley, he worked on the short film Cockaboody (1973); The Adventures of Letterman series for the 1971-77 PBS series The Electric Company; and the TV special Everybody Rides the Carousel (1975).  He was an animator on the 1977 feature film Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure directed by Richard Williams; and at R.O. Blechman’s The Ink Tank studio, he supervised numerous TV commercials and the PBS special Simple Gifts (1977).

Sporn formed his own production company, Michael Sporn Animation, Inc., in 1980.  At the time of his death, was producing and directing Poe, an animated feature based the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

Michael Sporn gave a running start to many a young animator’s career.  He was not merely an employer, but a mentor, offering on-the-job lessons in the techniques and principles of animation and an appreciation of the art’s history.

On December 5, 2005, not coincidentally Walt Disney’s birthday, Sporn launched a blog called Splog, which made him a teacher in the larger sense. Splog ran continuously almost every day for eight years, encompassing nearly 3,000 posts.  His detailed analysis of films, their sequences, discussions and promotions of artist’s careers and new work, and his often emotional and sulfurous reviews attracted a wide international audience.  The site was a tribute to Michael Sporn’s energy, imagination, and dedication to the art of animation in all its forms.  “I think,” he once said, “animation has the potential of being the greatest of all the arts.”  

In addition to Ms. Stallings, he is survived by his sisters Patricia Sherf and Christine O’Neill, and brothers Jerry Rosco and John Rosco.

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Here at AWN we are truly saddened by the news of Michael Sporn’s passing. 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.

A tribute to Sporn and his work from family and colleagues is being compiled, and will be posted in the coming days. 

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