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The Olympiad of Animation: An Interview With Fini Littlejohn

In 1984, ASIFA-Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences put on a unique mini-animation festival as part of Los Angeles' Olympic Arts Festival. Harvey Deneroff profiles the woman behind the Olympiad of Animation, along with listings of films, including the landmark poll of the 50 greatest animated films of all time.

olympiad12.gif 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.

Littlejohn1.gif Bill 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."

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, Canada2. Olympia--La Linea 114, Oswaldo Cavandoli, Italy3. Sigmund, Bruno Bozzetto, Italy4. Olympic Fire, V. Jiranek & Josef Hekrdla, Czechoslovakia5. Games, Hans Bacher, West Germany6. Olympia, Anna Maria Zoltan, Hungary7. It's Not Whether You Win or Lose, Rastko iri , Yugoslavia8. Olympiad I, Marija Dail, USA9. Olympic Boulevard, Mark Hubley, USA10. Victoria, Lehotay Zoltan, Hungary11. The Spirit, Stephan Boeder, West Germany12. Torch, Wendy Vanguard, USA13. Hors-Jeu, Georges Schwisgebel, Switzerland14. The Imagination of the Marathon Runners, Yuji Kuri, Japan15. The Spirit of the Olympics, John Amitay, Canada16. Animarathon, Raul Garcia-Sanz, Spain17. Spitzensport, Any Coray, Switzerland18. Blind Olympics, Nancy Bens, Belgium19. My Olympic Heroes, Talent Barli, USA20. Quitagulation, Gregory Burns, USA21. Road to the Olympics, Rejean Bourdages & Shane Doyle, Canada22. Olympics, Gert Vergauwe, Belgium23. Breth of Seth, Melinda Littlejohn, USA24. Olimpia Los Angeles 1984, Csaba Szorady, Hungary25. Running In, Lesley Keen, Scotland26. Alber-10, Anders Holt, Sweden27. The Flight, Clara Basca & Gloria Canestrini, Italy28. Rupert's Olympic Feet, Larry Luria, USA29. The Gallop, Sandor Bekesi, Hungary30. Torch Mural, Tom Lapsley, USA31. Muybridge in Motion, Kenji Theil, USA32. The Spirit of the Olympics, Miguel A. Fuertes, Spain

The Champions Of Animation

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.

The Tale of Tales, Yuri Norstein, 1980.

1. Skazka Skazok (Tale of Tales), Yuri Norstein, USSR, 19802. The Street, Caroline Leaf, Canada, 19763. The Yellow Submarine, George Dunning, UK, 19684. Ruka (The Hand), Jiri Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 19655. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, David Hand, 19376. Crac!, Frédéric Back, Canada, 19817. Une Nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on Bald Mountain), Alexander Alexeieff & Claire Parker, 19338. Ubu, Geoff Dunbar, UK, 19809. Moonbird, John Hubley, USA, 195910. Satiemania, Zdenko Gasparavic, Yugoslavia, 197811. Fantasia, Walt Disney, USA, 194012. Neighbors, Norman McLaren, Canada, 195213. Paysagiste (Mindscape), Jacques Drouin, Canada, 197714. Duck Amuck, Chuck Jones, USA, 195315. Premiere jours (Beginnings), Clorinda Warny, Lina Gagnon & Suzanne Gervaise16. Allegro non troppo, Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 197617. Dojoji Temple, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Japan, 197618. King Size Canary, Tex Avery, USA, 194719. Motion Painting No. 1, Oscar Fischinger, USA, 194920. Tango, Zbigniev Rybczynski, Poland, 198220. La Joie de vivre (Joy of Life), Anthony Gross & Hector Hoppin, France, 193422. Harpya, Raoul Servais, Belgium, 197922. Allegretto, Oscar Fischinger, USA, 193622. Bad Luck Blackie, Tex Avery, USA, 194925. Frank Film, Frank Mouris, USA, 197226. L'Idée (The Idea), Berthold Bartosch, France, 193226. What's Opera Doc?, Chuck Jones, USA, 195726. Blinkety Blank, Norman McLaren, Canada, 195529. Au bout du fil (The Cat's Cradle), Paul Driessen, Canada, 197430. Les Jeux des anges (Game of Angels), Walerian Boroczyck, France, 196431. Band Concert, Walt Disney, USA, 193532. Minnie the Moocher, Dave Fleischer & Willard Bowsky, USA, 193233. Dumbo, Walt Disney, USA, 194234. Une Vielle boite (An Old Box), Paul Driessen, Canada, 197535. Pas de Deux, Norman McLaren, Canada, 196736. Le Chateau de sable (Sandcastle), Co Hoedeman, Canada, 197737. Great-I.K.B., Bob Godfrey, UK, 197438. La Faim (Hunger), Peter Foldes, Canada, 197439. A Bogar (The Fly), Ferenc Rofusz, Hungary, 198040. Damon the Mower, George Dunning, UK, 197141. Lapis, James Whitney, USA, 196642. La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la Rame, Jean-François Laguionie, 197843. Gerald McBoing Boing, Robert Cannon, USA, 195144. Jeu de coudes (Elbow Game), Paul Driessen, Canada, 197944. Steamboat Willie, Ub Iwerks, USA, 192844. Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay, 191448. Dnevnik (Diary), Nedjelko Dragic, Yugoslavia, 197349. Feholofia (Son of the White Mare), Marcell Jankovics, Hungary, 198150. La Vita in scatola (Life in a Garbage Can), Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 1967

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