On the next page you’ll find the start of our four-page transatlantic sound and vision special.
But there’s just enough space here to tell you about two British productions, both based on two very British television programmes: Dr Who and Tiswas.
Just out is a blow by blow (or in the case of Tiswas, a fling by fling) account of how the programmes are made. Both in their different styles offer a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the screen.
Dr Who: The Making of a Television Series
Alan Road, Deutsch, 0 233 97444 X, £4.95
The book concentrates on the making of one story. The Visitation, screened earlier this year. (It’s the one about plague rats in 17th-century England.) Information about all the people who contribute to the series, filming on location and in the studio. Lots of photographs – black and white and colour
The Tiswas File
Gordon Astley, Beaver, 0 600 20666 1, £1.25
Paperback, large-size, joky layout, lots of exclamation marks and a strong feeling of ‘aren’t we funny!!’ Still the kids won’t mind that (they don’t seem to on the programme). Lots of photographs (all black and white). Minimal text but what there is is pretty fact-packed and easy to read.
Also recently re-issued:
Secrets of Films and Television,
Gordon Hill, Knight. 0 340 25496 3. 85p.
Less exciting to look at but lots of inside information about stunts and special effects.
Twenty-five years ago Morton Schindel started a company which pioneered the production of audiovisual materials based on books, and still leads the field.
In this Sound and Vision special feature we tell
The Weston Woods’ Story
Like all good American stories it begins in a log cabin. It was here in the woods of Weston, Connecticut – just sixty miles from New York – that Morton Schindel made the first Weston Woods films of children’s picture books. Reading to his two small daughters, he’d become fascinated by their involvement with the stories and in particular the close attention they gave to the pictures that accompanied them. As a film maker he was struck by the possibilities that film and television offered for bringing these stories to children who for one reason or another might never find the books.
In the early fifties there had been few attempts to turn picture books into films. Walt Disney had produced ‘shorts’ for the cinema, based on stories like Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, and Hardie Gramatky’s Little Toot but without using the original book illustrations – the stories were animated Disney-style. In 1952 an adaptation by United Productions of America of Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline kept faith with the original but it was not followed up as the demand for short films declined.
With a splendid show of lateral thinking and foresight- which might be described as genius, or at the very least as considerable business acumen- Morton Schindel turned his back on the cinema and decided instead to concentrate on producing material for schools, libraries and that infant giant, television. He set about it in a way no film producer had ever done before.
‘I consulted with specialists in the children’s book field, combed the library shelves, talked with authors and illustrators and came up with a list of time-tested books with universal appeal. I knew that for the films to be successful each adaptation must retain the artist’s intent and, as much as possible, be a “mirror image” of the book. I felt it was my responsibility to the authors and illustrators to present their work on screen just as it appeared in their books.’ Being faithful to the original book, preserving the essence of its individuality, is the philosophy that underlies all Weston Woods’ productions. No book, no matter how desirable (that is well-received by librarians, teachers and children) will be used if they feel it will not transfer successfully from page to screen.
Weston Woods’ first adaptations included Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings and Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese’s The Story about Ping. To film them Morton Schindel invented a new technique which he called ‘iconographic’. As the story is told the camera moves across the illustration, focussing on detail, capturing mood and action in its movements – much as the child’s eye might. In fact, to make the film the camera remains stationary and the illustration moves – Schindel’s effective but rather Heath Robinson original apparatus was made from a drawing board, garage door tracks and screwdriver handles. Today the whole process is automated rather than hand cranked but the effect is still the same. In the sixties Weston Woods began to experiment with animation but the iconographic technique is still used for books by artists like Ezra Jack Keats, Edward Ardizzone and Steven Kellogg where the textures, line, or brush work of the original must be preserved.
Although most of their versions of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture books are iconographic it was the desire to release the movements implied in his The Snowy Day that led to Weston Woods’ first fully animated film. Whistle for Willie followed soon after. (Both were made in New York.) Since 1968 Gene Deitch has been responsible for directing all Weston Woods’ animated films. He works in Prague with his Czech wife and a highly talented team of animators and film-makers who are also Czechoslovakian. For animation, none of the original artwork is used. Animators re-draw pictures in the style of the originals – Quentin Blake gave Gene Deitch what was left of the crayons he used for Patrick to help with the drawings for the film. Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk and Changes Changes, Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers and Gail Haley’s A Story A Story are just four books which have been carefully and faithfully re-created in the new medium, often after close collaboration with the artists.
Films of books certainly have the power to grab the attention of children brought up on cinema and television. But the medium is a law unto itself – it does all the storytelling. Librarians and teachers who enjoy storytelling didn’t want to be replaced. So Weston Woods offered them support in the form of new style filmstrips. In existing storytelling filmstrips the text was condensed to two or three lines fitted in at the bottom of each frame. A Weston Woods filmstrip concentrates on adapting the original illustrations to film and retains the text unabridged in an accompanying booklet. The booklet is designed so that each frame of the strip is shown next to the appropriate lines of text to cue the storyteller (or the storyteller’s technical assistant). Each filmstrip is a very skilful adaptation. Close-up details, parts of pages, double spreads are all carefully selected to make the best possible match between text and illustration in the service of telling the story.
Close behind the filmstrips came sound recordings (on cassette) of the texts, with original music. To complement their adaptations of picture books Weston Woods has also produced films and sound filmstrips of ‘background’ material about books and authors. And – nothing if not thorough – they have also designed some simple but efficient storage systems for audiovisual materials for schools and libraries.
What of the future? Morton Schindel is preparing to take his storytelling crusade into the video age. As well as serving schools, libraries and colleges, he hopes to ‘bring literature into the home’. ‘The art of storytelling will continue to evolve and to reach young people in new ways. We hope to share stories with expanding audiences, to stimulate the imagination of both child and adult, and to bring families together in shared voyages of discovery.’
Using Weston Woods material
There are clearly advantages in being able to project a book’s pictures onto a large screen. Suddenly even Beatrix Potter (four tales are available) becomes possible with large groups. What you lose, of course, is the closeness of the reader-book-listeners relationship. It’s even more impersonal if the reader has to stand behind the group in the dark twiddling the knobs on the machine – better to recruit an assistant and stand by the screen so that words and pictures are kept as close as possible and you can still connect with your audience.
One way to turn reading into a purposeful activity is to allow children to be the storytellers for the filmstrip. Performance requires and encourages careful preparation, reading with expression and understanding.
Tape and filmstrip together create a package which can be used with groups or by children on their own. With an individual filmstrip viewer and cassette player a child can organise his or her own looking and listening, perhaps a more attractive prospect for some than settling down with a book. The tape alone, is a talking book for listening or for following the text. (The voices are American, of course, which some may consider a disadvantage, and the tapes are not cued for the turn of pages.)
Naturally a large part of Weston Woods’ production is based on American books; but many of these like Where the Wild Things Are and Morris’s Disappearing Bag (to name but two) are well-known and loved in this country. And there’s no shortage of British artists in the catalogue. Charles Keeping, Brian Wildsmith, Pat Hutchins, Shirley Hughes (Dogger), John Burningham (Mr Gumpy’s Outing). Quentin Blake, Colin McNaughton, Edward Ardizzone and Beatrix Potter have just been joined by Faith Jaques (Tilly’s House) and Anthony Browne (Bear Hunt).
For general interest and projects the ‘background’ materials are useful. For example, in How a Picture Book is Made Steven Kellogg explains each stage in the creation of The Island of the Skog (including the four-colour printing process!). Those researching their own stories and making their own books will be interested in Making a Legend in which Gail Haley describes her researches into the Green Man, the central figure in her latest picture book for young children. Both of these are sound filmstrips. Films featuring Maurice Sendak, Edward Ardizzone, and Ezra Jack Keats talking about their work are worth a look – though the Sendak is rather out-of-date now.
Weston Woods offers a good service to its customers from its British headquarters in Henley-on-Thames. All materials and copies of most of the books (in hardback and paperback where available) are for sale. 16mm films can also be hired. Filmstrips can be converted to sets of slides: damaged or worn filmstrips or tapes will be replaced (within two years) at half-price (filmstrips at present cost £6, tapes £3). Films and sound filmstrips of books are available free for use in workshops on courses for teachers and librarians.
For catalogue and more information, ring Betty Carey on Henley-on-Thames (049 12) 77033/4. Reverse the charges. Or write to Weston Woods, 14 Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1PZ.
Look behind you Mickey! There’s another mouse on the way.
We tell how Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH became The Secret of NIMH
In the autumn of 1979 twelve animators resigned from Walt Disney Productions. This mass defection (seven more people joined later) was led by Don Bluth and within days Don Bluth Productions was born.
But you don’t create a film company overnight. Seven years before, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman had started up their own animation studio. They did it – like that old-style Hollywood movie cliche ‘let’s do the show right here!’ – In Don Bluth’s garage. The impulse behind the move was to ‘restore the glory that was classical animation’. They use the term ‘classical animation’ to mean animation in the tradition of the early Disney films involving advanced special effects, shadows, and a three-dimensional effect brought about by the use of multiplane cameras. The style and techniques currently employed by Disney they refer to as ‘limited’ animation – a trend brought about since Walt Disney’s death in 1966 under the pressure to save money by taking short-cuts.
For Don Bluth there was also a desire to get back to the strong storylines of early Disney where good qualities are tested and found triumphantly sufficient. At forty-four he looks back fondly to his own encounters with Disney films as a child. He’s grateful to Walt Disney for the suspense, the excitement and the real sense of terror he felt, and doesn’t believe in over protecting children from these experiences; to appreciate peace and happiness they have to experience the other extreme.
The garage twosome soon became three as Bluth and Goldman were joined by John Pomeroy – a very talented, young, Disney trainee animator. During the day they worked at Disney on Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon and The Fox and the Hound (the exodus of so many top animators in the middle of this film delayed its completion), and after work and at weekends they worked on their own project – a half-hour television special, Banjo the Woodpile Cat.
Over the years they were joined by a steady stream of fellow animators working beside them at Disney. People dropped in at the garage to put in a few hours whenever they could: often they worked late into the night. As well as their time and talent, the group also provided the money for the equipment and materials needed to make Banjo. By 1979 it was completed and sold (by Mel Griffin who joined them in 1977 to run the ‘non-creative’ side of the business) and the way was clear to start up on their own in earnest.
The garage was abandoned (like Disney) in favour of a two-storey modern office building which they converted into a studio. At the same time they joined up with Aurora Productions – a company itself only a year old which had also been founded by ex-executives from Disney. Together they raised enough money to get started on a film version of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
Robert C O’Brien’s story which won the Newbery award in 1972 had all the qualities Don Bluth was looking for. The courage, resource and fortitude of a little widow mouse, determined to save her family no matter the terrors, had obvious possibilities. Along the way they were encouraged by the critical acclaim which greeted their first project, a two-minute animated fantasy of a song (played by the ELO and sung by Olivia Newton John) in the feature film Xanadu. They completed that in Spring 1980.
It took the 65 employees of Don Bluth Productions two and a half years to produce The Secret of NIMH (as it is now called). Trying to find a way to illustrate their determined pursuit of quality, they point to makers of cartoons for television who ‘churn out 12,000 feet of film a year’. It takes them three years to produce 6,000 feet of film ‘because of our incredible attention to detail’.
Animation is a lengthy process. The camera can consume drawings at a rate of twenty-four per second (that’s about 152 feet of film). Each drawing is the work of at least four artists: the background painter, the animator who ‘creates’ the action, the ‘in-betweener’ who does the in-between drawings that make the movement happen and the ‘clean-up’ artist who provides the detail. The Secret of NIMH has approximately 1,000 background paintings and up to 160,000 drawings. An artist can do between two and four drawings an hour.
Responsibility for visualising the characters of Robert C O’Brien’s book and giving them personality lies with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. They hand over their original designs to the animators who are encouraged to be ‘actors’ – bringing their characters to life with paints and brushes. They work to an already recorded screenplay devised from a combination of drawings and draft script which makes up the storyboard.
The animation is essentially a process of interpreting a script which has been written and recorded with animation in mind. It’s not unusual to see animators grimacing in mirrors, mouthing the dialogue or (in the case of the medicine mouse, Mr Ages) hopping around on one crutch to get a sense of the movement. The personality given to the characters by ‘their’ voices is all important to the animators. So Don Bluth, the director, worked closely with all his voice actors (Hermione Baddeley, Dom de Luise, John Carradine and Derek Jacobi – to name but four) to give his animators the best possible material to work on.
Anything that moves that is not character animation is the responsibility of Dorse Lanpher, head of special effects. (At Disney where he had the same job he did the special effects for, among their films, The Black Hole.) Snowflakes, rain, wind, cobwebs, shadows – all of which abound in The Secret of NIMH – are given the careful attention that this company believes is necessary for a quality product’.
Mrs Frisby and Mrs Brisby
Unlike many films from books, this one remains gratifyingly faithful to the original. Perhaps the biggest surprise for anyone moving from film to book, or book to film, is to find that Mrs Frisby is Mrs Brisby – the film makers didn’t want any confusion with that well-known disc for throwing and catching!!
In spite of a few ‘adjustments’ to the plot, the film catches the spirit of Robert C O’Brien’s story of Mrs Frisby (widow of Jonathan Frisby, fieldmouse, whose winter home will be destroyed by Farmer Fitzgibbon’s plough before her youngest son, Timothy, is sufficiently recovered from pneumonia to be moved) and the amazingly intelligent rats of NIMH (escapees from the experimental laboratories of the National Institute of Mental Health, where they learned to read and write and reason, who in their highly sophisticated mechanised community beneath Farmer Fitzgibbon’s rose bush are now planning to move to a secret valley in the mountains where they can ‘live without stealing’.).
In seeking their help Mrs Frisby learns the history of the rats (and the part her husband played in it) and while they help her to save Timothy, she is able to help them escape recapture. The book is full of excitement, suspense and fascinating detail, and says much about courage and the right way to live. The film, probably finding the climaxes in the book too frequent (chapter endings) and too low-key for the screen, dramatises the issues more obviously by introducing a power struggle for leadership among the rats and putting more suspense into the moving of Mrs Frisby’s home. Mrs Frisby’s children are more developed as separate characters, as are Jeremy (the comic crow) and Shrew (Mrs Frisby’s neighbour). The rat, Jenner – described in the book as a ‘cynical pessimist’ who disagrees with the philosophy of ‘life without stealing’ – has in the book left the community to seek his own way. In the film he becomes a treacherous dissenter opposing the move who plots to murder Nicodemus, the leader rat.
But much remains: Mrs Frisby’s flight on Jeremy crow’s back, her terrifying encounters with the Owl (source of good advice but eater of mice) and with Dragon the farm cat, and her capture are all excitingly realised (if often exaggerated) in the true Disney manner. The special effects are stunning. It pretty certainly will frighten the children and earn itself an ‘A’ certificate .
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C O’Brien, is being re-issued by Puffin with a film tie-in cover (0 14 03.0725 7, £1.10).
The film is a United Artists film and opens in London on 22 July and in seaside resorts and major provincial cities on 25 July.