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Hobbit-alized: The First Attempt At Animating The Hobbit

We were first with this, but it became our most ignominious and unnecessary failure. Please weep with me as you read this. I coulda bin a contendah...

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Bill Snyder, my producer, did come up with some amazing things. In 1964, before anyone but a few obscure Brit kids ever heard of it, Bill handed me a faded little 1937 children's book named, The Hobbit. He recognized it was a great story, and he obtained the film rights to it and the other works by a fusty old English philologist, named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Snyder's rights extended to June 30, 1966. Just enough time. He set me to the task of making The Hobbit into a feature-length animated movie.

After reading the book, I caught the fever, and intensively began working up a screenplay. My dear old friend Bill Bernal, the same man who led me to UPA, and who later came to The Jam Handy Organization with me, flew to Prague to collaborate. The great sweep of the adventure, the fabled landscapes, and the treasury of fantasy characters, made the story a natural for animation. Although the first book of the later trilogy, The Lord of The Rings, was published in 1954, we did not yet know of it. The Tolkien craze was still a few years in the future. Snyder had happened onto something of major value, and he had gotten the rights for peanuts!

We were well into The Hobbit screenplay when The Lord of The Rings came out in paperback editions. Having assumed there was only The Hobbit to contend with, and following Snyder's wish, we had taken some liberties with the story that a few years later would be grounds for burning at the stake. For example, I had introduced a series of songs, changed some of the characters' names, played loosely with the plot, and even created a girl character, a Princess no less, to go along on the quest, and to eventually overcome Bilbo Baggins' bachelorhood! I could Hollywoodize as well as the next man...

When I did manage to get and read The Lord, I realized I was dealing with something far more magnificent than what appeared in The Hobbit alone, and I then back-spaced elements from The Lord of The Rings into my script so as to logically allow for a sequel. First Bill Bernal, and then I, worked on the script for most of a year.

In January 1966, Snyder asked Zdenka and me to come to America to do a presentation to 20th Century-Fox. It would be Zdenka's first trip to America, and I wanted her to get the feel of the distance, so I decided we should go by ship. The six-day crossing would also give me time to do the last-minute rewrites. There were only typewriters in those days, but I did achieve a sort of high-tech breakthrough: The rocking of the ship gave me automatic carriage returns on almost every line!

Before the time of CGI, I had proposed an impressive visual effect, combining cel-animated figures over elaborate 3D model backgrounds. I know that Max Fleisher had once tried something like it, but I intended to take the idea to greater heights and atmosphere. I even attached a special name to the technique: "ImagiMation!" I was thinking big!

By the time we arrived in New York, however, Snyder had already blown the deal by asking 20th for too much money. Tolkien's name hadn't yet reached them either. I had a fat script, but no other film companies were then interested. It was crushing. Even today, when I flip through my screenplay, and can almost see the fabulous scenes I had imagined, I feel a heavy regret.

But the worst was yet to come. Months later, when I was back in Prague working on some other filler projects, Snyder managed to get a phone call through to Zdenka's office. (Phoning to Prague in those days was like trying to contact Uranus.) He had a preposterous order for me: Make a one-reel version of The Hobbit, and bring it to New York within 30 days! I thought he had been smoking something wilder than his contraband Cuban cigars. Not possible!

What had happened was that in the meantime, the Tolkien craze had exploded, and the value of the film rights reached outer space. Suddenly Bill had the possibility of getting a huge profit without having to finance and produce a feature film at all. Why invest money, plus a year-and-a-half of work, when you can make money without all that sweat? Not only had the Tolkien estate lawyers given Snyder the rights for peanuts, but in their ignorance of film terminology, they had left a hundred-thousand-dollar loop-hole in the contract: It merely stated that in order to hold his option for The Lord of The Rings, Snyder had to "produce a full-color motion picture version" of The Hobbit by June 30, 1966. Please note: It did not say it had to be an animated movie, and it did not say how long the film had to be!

The Tolkien estate had now been offered a fabulous sum for the rights, and Snyder's rights would expire in one month. They were already rubbing their hands together. But Snyder played his ace: to fulfill just the letter of the contract -- to deliver a " full-color film" of The Hobbit by June 30th. All he had to do was to order me to destroy my own screenplay -- all my previous year's work -- hoke up a super-condensed scenario on the order of a movie preview (but still tell the entire basic story from beginning to end), and all within 12 minutes running time -- one 35mm reel of film. Cheap. I had to get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room on or before June 30, 1966!

I should have told him to shove it, but I was basically his slave at the time...and it suddenly became a sort of insane challenge.

I knew my screen story line by heart, so I just had to put it through a mind-shredder, and write a sort of synopsis, with a few key lines of dialog scattered throughout. I called on close friend, brilliant Czech illustrator, Adolf Born, well known even then, and now the premier book illustrator of the Czech Republic. We managed to work out a simple storyboard. Adolf came up with a paper cutout scheme, and I worked out some multiple-exposure visual effects and scene continuity. We worked directly under the camera to shoot it. I got an American friend here, Herb Lass, who worked as a broadcaster for the Czechoslovak Radio's foreign cultural transmissions, to come up to our apartment and record the narration on my own recording machine.

I borrowed a tape of dramatic movie music from a composer friend, Václav Lidl, which I quickly extracted and cut together, also at home. It was no problem with music rights, as I could assure him that the film would never actually be distributed, but would be -- sadly -- a mere decoy.

I love to see my name as director on the screen credits of my films, but I modestly refrained this time. I did not want my name on such a chopped down version of my script, even though, thanks to Born, the film looked amazingly good.

We actually managed to get it shot and out of the lab in time (without bribes, but with Zdenka's usual brand of irresistible-object techniques), and I arranged for my New York air ticket. I arrived with the rough answer print on June 29th. Snyder had already booked a small projection room in midtown Manhattan. After a quick test screening -- and Snyder was duly impressed -- I ran downstairs and stopped people on the sidewalk, asking them if they would like to see a preview of a new animated film, for only 10¢ admission. I handed each willing customer a dime, which they handed back. After the screening, the few, puzzled audience members were asked to sign a paper stating that on this day of June 31, 1966, they had paid admission to see the full-color animated film, The Hobbit.

Thus Snyder's film rights to the entire J.R.R. Tolkien library were legally extended, and he was immediately able to sell them back for nearly $100,000. (Remember, this was 1966.) My share of this weazled boodle was -- you guessed it -- zip.

The final blow came some years later, when an animated feature version of The Hobbit appeared, starring the timid voice of Orson Bean. That film to my mind in no way approached the magnificence I had originally envisioned. I had obtained the greatest Czech artist of the time, illustrator, painter, sculptor, and director of the most famous Czech puppet films of all time, Jirí Trnka, to be the designer of my projected version. Sadly, we never got beyond his model sketches. They have never before been published, and I present them to you here, brilliant souvenirs of one of my more magnificent failures!

Want to hear more about Gene's foray into the feature film world? In How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!), he also discusses Charlotte's Web...another fabulous disaster. Exclusively on AWN.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946, the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958, Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, 1956-1958, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993, and has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."