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Sporn's Choice: An Independent's Struggle

New York producer Michael Sporn's commitment to making films about human issues has lately led him to animated documentaries for which the children's market has been most receptive. Janet Benn reports.

Excerpt from Champagne. © Michael Sporn

Michael Sporn.

Michael Sporn is probably the hardest working and definitely the lowest paid producer in the animation industry. His studio, Michael Sporn Animation Inc. was established in New York in 1980, and has turned out more than 20 hours of animation: 30 one-half hour programs and dozens of other pieces of various lengths for film, cable, network, direct-to-video and non-theatrical distribution to the educational film market. This output (averaging more than an hour a year) proves the hard-working part. The explanation for the low pay is a little more complicated.

One would expect that a winner of two Cable Ace Awards, who had also been nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar, would be enjoying a comfortable living by this point in his career. But we know this does not always follow, especially if the person dedicates his life to the artistic exposition of worthy moral tales, eschewing the flash and the fad of the shallow attention getters in the service of the good and most true of the uses of animated films. In these cases, the funders do not pay as well. Then it becomes Sporn's choice: to make the films he wants to make with these low budgets, or to make the films that pay better. Obviously he has chosen the former, and has assembled around him the help he needs, grateful that they also will work for such pay, to make such films as few can equal anywhere. In fact, no one in this country, in my opinion.

His method is the artist's: to apply his own original ideas to the solving of a problem, which for him is always to tell a story. "In my films, the story is paramount, the most important element," says Sporn. So, all the other elements: the sound, the music, the design and the animation all must serve the story. I believe that it is in the choosing and combining of these elements that resides Sporn's genius, so that the sum exceeds the parts.

Animation with a Social Conscience

"I don't make films for animators," Sporn says, "I make films that need to be made because they have something to say about life." Two of his most recent films, Champagne and Whitewash, stand apart from the rest of American films made in these days of the "toon boom." They come at the end of a long line of films he's made in New York which are about socially conscious issues. The Red Shoes, done for HBO in 1989, moves Hans Christian Andersen's story to a black neighborhood, where a little girl learns the value of humility and true friendship; another HBO production of an Andersen tale was The Little Match Girl in 1990, where another little girl inspires compassion for the homeless (but does not die, as in the original).

The Red Shoes.

1991's Jazztime Tale tells the story of the discovery of Thomas (Fats) Waller through the encounter of two girls, one white and one black. Their circumstances reveal a gentle lesson about racial harmony. The story was written by Maxine Fisher, who went on to adapt a Creole folktale to address modern problems of lonely poor older people and young female children with too much responsibility for their age in The Talking Eggs, made in 1992 for PBS. The film's main character, Selina, is encouraged to follow her dreams in spite of her situation. Helene Angel, the little girl in Whitewash (1994) who is the victim of a racist attack, also learns to trust in her future when her family and her community rally around her. In Sporn's latest film, Champagne (1996), it is as if he's found the real-life embodiment of the positive outlook and life-affirming lessons of his own films.

Champagne, an Animated Documentary

Champagne is the story of a 14-year-old girl who lives in a foster home for children whose mothers are in prison. "It's an animated documentary," Sporn said. "In fact, I entered it in this year's Academy Award competition in the Documentary Category!" The voice track is a monologue spoken by the title character, a real girl named Champagne, who was brought to Michael's attention by Maxine Fisher, the story and screenwriter of many of has films. Maxine had volunteered for a literacy program, which brought her to the convent where Champagne lived along with several other girls in the same situation. Maxine began taking Champagne to cultural events around the city, and in time, brought her to see Michael's studio one Saturday. After seeing the place and Sporn's work, Champagne said to him "You should make a film about me!" Immediately, he set up a tape recorder and taped Champagne's answers to questions posed by Maxine and himself. The resulting 90 minutes of tape was edited down to 15, and Maxine's voice was added back as the interviewer. When Sporn brought the idea to a backer with whom he had worked successfully before, he was surprised to hear that they were not interested, in fact, could not imagine anyone being interested in such a story. Michael decided to do it himself. Over the next three years, as his time and money would allow, Champagne became a 13-minute film, designed by Sporn and Jason McDonald, and scored by Caleb Sampson.

Production Methods

The first half of the film was animated completely by Michael without a storyboard or layouts. Holding the sequence of scenes in his head, he would animate without a lot of preparation, roughing out the action as he went, and making the drawings one after the other. This straight-ahead method is one generally used by only the most experienced animators, as there are no extreme drawings to inbetween, that is, no major positions done beforehand to be connected by all the intermediate inbetween drawings later. "I'd say I do up to 75% of all the animation in my films, and I make less than the animators I hire to work with me." A heavy load for a producer who also reps himself, has no agent, and even writes most of his own contracts.


Also, since he's perfected the technique of animating in ink, he doesn't need to clean-up (redraw with a single clean line in pencil), nor is it necessary for him and his staff to ink the clean drawings onto acetate cels. In almost all of Sporn's films, including Champagne and Whitewash, the ink drawings are themselves colored with the chosen media for that film, then aligned and pasted to the cels with rubber cement. When they are cut out with a sharp knife and the excess paper is peeled away, the colored drawings remain on the cel instead of the usual inked and painted version. The advantage of this method is not economics but aesthetic, as any medium that can be applied to paper can be used, thus an endless variety of looks can be achieved with texture and shading as well as subtle color. His staff's judgement must be good. Thus, once Michael has trained of these talented individuals, he tries to keep using them (e.g., Christine O'Neill has been with Sporn since 1981).

Much of the expressive movement in these films is accomplished with less than full animation. Michael doesn't like the term "limited" when it comes to his films: he prefers to quote Howard Beckerman, veteran New York animator and historian, who says, "It's not limited animation, it's enough animation." More or less drawings are used as the action requires, directed with a practiced eye.

Collaborators in Art and Music

Jason McDonald designed and storyboarded the second half of Champagne; he also painted all the backgrounds for the film. A talented Parsons graduate, he has worked on several of Sporn's recent productions. He was responsible for the design of some of the most memorable scenes in the film, including where Champagne is visiting her mother in a maximum security jail: the look is cubist-inspired, the walls fragmented into faceted color areas, and the arrangement of characters and settings in abundant empty space conveys feelings of loneliness and isolation.

His use of color and abstract character designs to illustrate emotional states is mirrored in Sporn's scenes. Michael's use of stark islands of light in blackness serve as pointers to highlight Champagne's words, especially her recollections of her unhappy early childhood. The styles are matched well, and further enhanced by Michael's masterful use of camera moves. He gets more out of each scene this way, enlivening every shot as he underscores the emotional content and dramatic intent much as his composer, Caleb Sampson, does in creating the film score.

Caleb Sampson scored Whitewash as well as Champagne, and many other Sporn productions. In fact, his first "paying gig" in the film score business was for Sporn. He has worked with other producers and has just finished his first feature film, directed by Erroll Morris. Caleb credits Sporn for getting him started, calling him "an idealist, artistically and socially", and appreciates Michael's "poetic, gentle view" of the world.

Although the initial ideas about the music come from Sporn, this first consultation can last all of three minutes. Then, armed with an animatic (essentially a filmed storyboard with scenes roughly timed as they would be in the final animation), Sampson goes to work. For Champagne, however, the score was written to the completed final animation.

The filmmaker leaves the musician to complete the first rough version of the score without interference; eventually, they'll settle on a final form. Sporn says "Once I've got that music, I know I've got the film." He likes to give his contributors a lot of freedom, because he knows that will allow them to do their heartfelt best. Sampson says, "When I do my best, he knows it--there's no conflict in terms of artistic vision." All of his work for Sporn exhibits a tremendous range of musical styles. In Champagne there's orchestral moodiness presented simply; in Whitewash, the score's more complex and accommodates songs from other artists, done as a mix of rap and pop, gospel and jazz, as if sampled from the neighborhood streets.

John Hubley's Influence

In both films, the design of the characters is based on real people, but not the idealized, exaggerated forms of "reality"-based shows like Batman or Superman. The influence of John Hubley, for whom Michael worked for years, shows in both the design and visualizing techniques of some passages, which are reminiscent of Everybody Rides the Carousel, on which Sporn was assistant director.

"Hubley was one of my heroes. Ever since I knew about him, I wanted to work for him," Michael said simply.

The Hubleys pioneered the technique of using improvised voice tracks, presenting a situation or idea to their voice actors and recording the result: hours of their children pretending to catch a bird (Moonbird), for example, or Dizzy Gillespie's musings on the world's condition (The Hole), all edited later. Champagne's words are all her own, but, unlike Hubley, it is one of only two films for which he recorded a voice without a script. The other time is in Whitewash where a group of children are discussing how to help their classmate through the bad feelings resulting from a racially-motivated attack. The kids were asked what they thought of the incident, and their responses were recorded. The voice of one child, played by Randall Kaplan, was separated from the group as a linking device, to make it seem as if they were all talking in the same room together. This edit works very well, bringing the reality of their feelings to this delicate situation, to which they found graceful and simple solutions unforeseen by the scriptwriter, Ntozake Shange. This delicate operation was performed by editor Ed Askinazi. Michael gives him a large, early credit in the films he didd, as editing is key to the final look of Sporn's films, more so than is the norm in other animation.


Origins of Whitewash

HBO at first thought that Whitewash would be made as a live-action documentary; but when the victims' mother would not allow them to cooperate with the network, animation seemed the only way out. When HBO's Sheila Nevins brought the idea to Michael, he thought Ntozake Shange might adapt an interesting screenplay from his original treatment. He had seen her hit show, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (When the Rainbow is Enuf), and even though he didn't know if she had ever written for the small screen before, he called her. As it turned out, her script needed to be extended, and, with barely enough time to meet a three-month deadline, Sporn's ingenuity was tested. With the children's participation, the story was completed to everyone's satisfaction and to considerable critical acclaim. Whitewash has won 10 awards, including a Carnegie Medal for Best Children's Program, was nominated for an Emmy for the voice acting of Ruby Dee, as well as for two CableAce awards, including one for the screenplay.

Once again, Sporn's camera is active in the story's exposition, staying close on the main characters, except through the mugging sequence. He plans the camera framing and movement as if it were a person watching the events as they happen. He doesn't like point-of -view shots, which might have been one choice for showing the upsetting and violent attack. He took the opposite route, framing this part of the film as if the observer were all the way across the street. This was a difficult sequence for him to direct, and one he found impossible to animate. He gave the job to a new artist on his staff, Rodolfo Dammagio, who, because of his background in a much broader cartoon style, made the attackers more grotesque than any of Michael's other characters. This, along with the viewpoint, increases the impact of the violence. "I didn't want Bugs Bunny violence, I wanted the feeling of real violence, though it was difficult to find out how to show it," says Sporn.

Also, a change in the background color and lighting adds to the feeling of irrecoverable loss in the children's lives. Nothing after this would be the same. This effect is achieved throught the skills of Bridget Thorne, background painter and production designer, who was one of the first artists hired to work at Michael Sporne Animation.

At one point in the film, the grandmother, played by Ruby Dee, talks about the beginnings of the civil rights struggle. We see a very different graphic style used to show the dogs attacking the Selma marchers, Martin Luther King, and other scenes: jagged scratchy outlines enclose stark greys, blacks and whites on a blank background; the pictures pop on to the screen in a staccato rhythm, startling and flashbulb-sudden. This is tough material even for adults to watch. In the New York Daily News review of Whitewash, Kenneth M. Chanko said, "At its best, animation speaks to the heart and mind more vividly than real-life depictions. It can also interpret difficult scenes or events that kids can more readily digest. Whitewash . . . is an exceptionally knowing animated production."

Jazztime Tale.

Not Storytelling as Usual

To accentuate the differences in as-quoted passages of time in his films, Sporn will use a change in graphic style and/or camera technique to set those dream or flashback sequences apart. In addition, his story structure is often modified to incorporate deliberate changes in tense or point of view. Michael says he is "fascinated with the use of time in film," and that, although it is difficult to do in animation, he forces himself to "play around with the story structure . . . anything to change the as-usual straight-ahead telling out of the story." He then can satisfy his impulse to experiment in the context of the storytelling he loves so well.

Michael's films let kids talk; they also do not talk down to them. Words like "sophisticated", "refreshing", and "thought-provoking" are often used by reviewers to describe his work, as well as that "they're entertaining for adults as well." Does Sporn intend his films primarily for children? "No", he said, "I make all my films for myself first. It just so happens that the children's market has been the most receptive." He wants his films to be seen: the unyielding format is not a burden; in fact, he'd never think of making a film without considering the potential market, even if the distribution outlet is not always clear, as was the case with Champagne. "Nobody wanted to put it on television at first, but it's been doing very well in the nontheatrical educational market." It's a film for young girls who need the sort of confidence-building triumph over adversity that is personified by Champagne, who says, "Just because you've had a bad life, doesn't mean you're ruined forever."

And Now for Something a Little Different

Michael Sporn has always wanted to do features in New York. He's saying now that it looks very likely that he will be able to start work soon on one of the several projects he has been promoting over the last few years, an urban update of Thumbelina. He admits that the story is a bit more "commercial" than the films noted above, but with the introduction of modern elements, including the race question, it's certain that the result will be more meaningful than any fairy tale-based film to date. "How a tiny woman helps the world !," is Sporn's jocular encapsulation of the plot.

And the work will stay in New York: "My work has a lot to do with the city; it's got to be done here, where people [who will work on the film] are living their lives in the city." He'll be using those same personal production methods that have proven the most versatile and cost-effective for him over the past 17 years as an independent producer. I can't wait.

Janet Benn began her animation career in New York at The Hubley Studio in 1975 on Everybody Rides the Carousel, on which Michael Sporn was Assistant Director. Subsequently, they could sometimes be found working on the same productions and on the Executive Board of ASIFA-East; after Sporn opened his own studio he hired Janet as Production Coordinator on the titles for Sidney Lumet's Garbo Talks. Since then, they have rarely been seen together and only at public functions. Seriously, folks, Janet has been to every one of Michael's Christmas parties since 1980.

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