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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 27: Krazy Klients

Peeing in the soup continues. The bladders of producers seem as continuous fountains. Here are a few hairy tales.

Sometimes you just have to go along with the gag. Although Weston Woods kept me in steady production for 25 years, there were a string of projects offering money substantially higher than what Weston Woods could pay up front - and some were also very attractive. For example, when Reader's Digest Television offered me a chance to do a half-hour version of "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," when a production unit at Warner Brothers offered me a feature film project called "Nicolas Jingle, " the life story of Santa Claus, and especially when Saggitarius Pictures offered me the chance to do a feature film version of E.B.White's "Charlotte's Web"... all at Hollywood-sized fees... well, those were hard to turn down. They were all financial windfalls, yet they each turned out to be creative disasters.

In each case I insisted on and got double script fee for non-production. I didn't want to invest the tremendous work involved in developing screenplays for projects, each of which seemed to be just too good to be true.

Take "Piper" for example. There have been many animated versions of this story, most based on the famous poem by Robert Browning. When Readers Digest came to me with the project, I suggested that this could be an opportunity to get to the roots of the story. The ancient town of Hamlin, Hamelin, was nearby in Germany, and I suggested I drive there and try to find the historic background to the tale. I found that there were two distinct actual historic events that somehow got fused together to make the legend. In the year 1284 there was a plague of rats that infested Europe, and travelling Gypsy musicians claimed to be able to lure the rats away from the grain storage in the Hanseatic villages of northern Germany. Gypsies were OK to be cheated of payment, because, well... they were "just Gypsies." So that fit. Browning described the Piper as "swarthy," so I assumed he was a Gypsy.

Also during that period, children were being kidnapped en masse by agents of Hungarian landowners, and marched off to slavery.

So those two stories meshed, and I found what I thought was an original framing of the story, that could fuse it to the historical facts. I got one of the best Czech graphic artists to work with me, and we developed a dramatic version of the tale that I was proud of. The client, Readers Digest, was delighted, and immediately set off to woo their prime sponsor of the series my film was to be a part of. The client was General Mills, a fact they hadn't mentioned to me before. General Mills was intrigued by my story and by the visual design. But they turned it down. A frantic letter from my Krazy Klient told me why:

"Our client makes breakfast cereals. They told us they can't sponsor a film with rats in it. If you can revise your story to eliminate the rats, they would go for it!"

The actual name of this story in German is "Rattenfänger." The Czech title is"Krysář." Both names mean the same thing: "The Rat Catcher." In the town of Hamelin today you can buy bread rolls in the form of rats. The story is a tourist attraction for the town. The story is about rats.

Well, I told this Krazy Klient that I did consider myself a reasonably clever fellow, but there was no way I could think of to tell the story of "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," "The Rat Catcher," without rats.

Wouldn't you think that an organization with the stature of Reader's Digest Television, having General Mills their target sponsor, would have given some thought to the question of rats before they launched me into months of research and work to produce the script and storyboard? They paid me double for their error.

And how about this one? A production unit in the Warner Brothers studio came to me with a more or less finished script on the early life of Santa Claus! Not St. Nicholas,Santa Claus, the paunchy gift-giver with the long white beard, ruddy cheeks, and the "ho-ho-ho" laugh. But this story was about Santa when he was still a sexy teen-ager, a socially positive lad named "Nicholas Jingle." He got that name when a necromancer in touch with the original saint put a tiny bell on a golden chain around baby Nick's neck, and predicted he would be the gift-giver to humanity. The bell jingled, so what else could they name him? Clever? I assumed it was a non-starter, but this was Hollywood money. They flew me out there, and put me up at the Beverly-Wilshire hotel, and laid on some impressive meetings. The best thing about it was that I got to roam around the Warners lot, coming upon the original set of Shangri-la, all overgrown with weeds. Quite symbolic. The production of "Nicholas Jingle" was one of those 99 percenters. I did my best. We produced some beautiful color production sketches, some song demos, and a workable storyboard. There have been more absurd stories that made it, but it wasn't a good Christmas that year for the producers. It was OK for me, as they paid with the enthusiasm that 99% certainty engenders.

The greatest project, the greatest hope, the greatest man, and the greatest failure, came to me towards the end of 1970. While communist Czechoslovakia was plunged into retro "normalization," as the hardliners took full control after the Soviet-led invasion and the expulsion of Dubček, my own spirits were sent soaring with the prospect of the most endearing project ever offered to me: E.B.White's "Charlotte's Web." That will need a chapter all its own.

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