51. Morton Schindel

Don’t miss the newly discovered videos at the end!

“The Picture Book Projected”

Many of my delightful fans like to dwell on and pontificate over my Tom & Jerry films, which were thrust upon me.  I did my best with them, though they were not a part of my animation pantheon, T&J took up just one single year of my 65-year animation career. But for 40 years my best work was with Mort Schindel’s Weston Woods organization. Yet my Weston Woods films are of minimal interest to ani-mavens, critics, and animation history authors.

What I didn’t immediately catch onto when I saw Mort’s first films, was that he had come up with a truly original concept for movies intended for children: faithfully adapted from the best children’s picture books – not “illustrated story books,” but the kind of thin books in which the story is told with large pictures and integrated text – much like a “storyboard” we in animation use to plot out our film continuities.  But yet they seemed to me at our first meeting to be just small-time stuff.

Mort’s concept was not to make films that substituted for the books, but rather to “illuminate” the books with storyteller voices, sounds and music; to make the books come “alive” and bring the kids back to the books themselves.  They can hold books in their hands, look through them at their own pace, smell them and even sleep with them, none of which can be done with a film, which moves forward at a set pace.  So Weston Woods films did not compete with books but complemented them!

Schindel was selling his little Weston Woods kiddie films to schools and libraries, a glamorless, minor-grade enterprise. But years later, when he recruited me, he was the only producer I ever worked with who voluntarily offered me a healthy percentage of the gross revenue of the films I made for him. Today, I am able to live very nicely on the income from my many Weston Woods films. [listed below] How come?  Well, there are always new kids, and films made on carefully selected stories, avoiding fads, have proven to have a 50-year shelf life and counting!  It’s a modest, but perpetual business, where sales of the old films finance the production of new ones!  Mort Schindel managed to create an animated perpetual motion machine!

Mort had built a market that no one else seemed to have taken seriously, and he became its unassailable king.  But when he had visited me back in 1956, in my nifty Knoll furnished office when I was Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, I had never heard of him.  He was not exactly poor then, having inherited some money from his family, which ran the largest department store in New Jersey, but he was trying to make something worthwhile on his own.  As with Bill Snyder, he was filled with the idea of movies. The difference was that Mort made his first movies all by himself!

Well, OK, they weren’t exactly movies. Mort had put together a rig that allowed him to use a 16mm camera to scan and zoom in and out on still illustrations from classic children’s picture books.  To make the simple, non-animation process seem a bit more elegant, he called his films, “iconographic.” He brought six prints of those films to show me.

I took him upstairs to the Terrytoons projection theater, and tried to react as politely as I could to his brave effort to film stories in a simple and pure way.  But hey! We were CBS-Terrytoons! producing CinemaScope theatrical cartoons for 20th Century-Fox! And right at that moment had in production our landmark series of Tom Terrific episodes for CBS network prime time.  What could we possibly do with Mort’s poor but honest simple filmies?  I figured I’d have to just wish him “Good Bye and Good Luck!” His idea that he could get such quiet little films on network television seemed totally remote in the era of Hanna-Barberra horrid hits…

Mort had somehow heard that I was attempting a revolution at Terrytoons, and with our CBS connection I’d be able to get his stuff on television.  That was his primary goal.  As he was about to walk out, it suddenly occurred to me that there was something I could do for him. That very morning I’d had a call from Bob Keeshan’s office at the Captain Kangaroo Show, asking me when TOM TERRIFIC would be ready for them.  I had to truthfully tell them that we were still six-months away from delivery.   Then I realized that Captain Kangaroo was the one show on TV within our reach at that could possibly go for Mort’s films.

In fact, they did!  For the first time, all of Mort’s “iconographic” story films were on CBS-TV.  He got enough money to carry on, and even more importantly, got feedback and tips that led him to the true market for his kind of films: schools and libraries!   While being on national TV can mean big money, it can also mean fast burn-out, as trends come and go.   At schools, with a constantly renewing audience, his films are always new. There are conditions to focus attention, to discuss the films with the children; the films become more than mere entertainment. They become attractively packaged teaching tools! Mort developed a market for animated films that had barely previously existed!

So with Good Deed satisfaction, I deleted Morton Schindel from my internal memory.  But 12 years later, when I was in Prague and confronted by a fateful crossroad, he suddenly reappeared. It was 1968, the year that Soviet tanks and Mort Schindel simultaneously rolled into Prague. During those 12 years I had forgotten about him, Mort had built a solid company, and our roles had become reversed.  Now, he was no longer an applicant for my help, but a powerful potential client for me!

The fact that he came to Prague to find me at the same moment that we had just experienced a dismaying invasion by Soviet and other East bloc tanks, set off a tsunami of conflicting feelings.  All signs indicated that it was time for us to get out of here.  Yet we were assured that we could continue production in Prague. Once the communist hardliners were reinstalled in government, the Soviet troops left Prague for “temporary” camps in distant towns., and all seemed again “normal.”  At any rate, there was nothing here to alarm Mort, who kept his cool, sensing a financially advantageous production situation. He was ready to assign us two films as a test. It was an exciting a chance to do something of real quality, too exciting to turn down.  From my experience about how things actually worked here, I saw that our greatest threat was not from Soviet troops or communism, but once again an intervention from William L. Snyder, who preceded Mort’s visit, and immediately began muddying the waters.

Bill Snyder never missed an opportunity to intervene into anything that came my way, even after our contractual relationship ended. His antennae were always out, and Mort Schindel flew right into his radar. Mort had not forgotten how I helped him get onto the Captain Kangaroo Show, and all that grew from it. In the following ten years his Weston Woods Studio had grown to the point where he was ready to go beyond “iconographic,” to real animation, and he began asking for me. Anyone looking for me in New York in the 1950s would find someone who would say, “Gene works for William L. Snyder on East 54th Street.”

Did Bill Snyder kindly give Mort my address and phone number? No. What he gave Mort was his usual deception:

“Of course,” he wrote Mort, “Gene is under exclusive contract to me, and I have exclusive rights to animation production in Prague. I will be happy to arrange production for you at a very good price!” In fact, Snyder had hastily ducked out of Prague in heavy debt to Czechoslovak Filmexport, and had no exclusive rights whatever. He no longer had any contract with me, and the ”very good price” he offered Mort was exactly double the true costs! Good money to him for doing nothing but horning in. As usual, he co-opted anyone who inquired about me, and he immediately signed Mort to a contract for the production of the first two films.

I wouldn’t have known anything about any of that if Bill Snyder hadn’t shown up sooner than Mort, and offered me a contract to adapt and direct the two new films.  He inadvertently left a book in our apartment.  Folded and forgotten between the pages was a letter to Czechoslovak Filmexport which revealed the inflated deal!

Then came Mort to Prague, happy to see me again, eager to have me produce the two films, and completely unaware that he was being cheated – charged double.   It still seemed like a reasonable price to him.  What should I tell him?  Should I ruin my chance to work with him?  He was talking long-term, four to six films a year! I couldn’t go on with anything like that, with the financing from Mort being skimmed before it even reached the production staff! But Mort was so high on the arrangement that my becoming a whistle-blower would clearly look like I was the one who wanted to steal the project!  Somehow, Mort had to discover the scam for himself. All I could do was to introduce Mort to the managers of Filmexport, so he could get to know them for himself.

Snyder however, was intent on keeping Mort so busy that he’d have no time to meet them.  But Mort wanted to, and he did. He perceived enough to prompt him to ask questions.  When he found out how much it would cost him to make some other films, it all came out.   The interesting result was that even knowing that Bill was ripping him off, Mort agreed to go ahead with him on the first two films; he’d signed a contract with Bill, and he would honor it.  But Mort offered me a direct deal on all future films, sans Snyder, with a 5% perpetual share of gross receipts, in addition to my adaption and direction up-front fees. There was nothing like that in it for me on the first two films!

Zoom forward 30 years.  Bill’s son Adam is now running his father’s company, Rembrandt Films. He voluntarily reinstated my royalties on the first two Weston Woods films. Adam is a fine and honest person, and we have been colleagues on several happy productions, a DVD containing most of my Rembrandt productions from the 1960s, the syndicated Nudnik show, and the Nudnik book now in work for Fantagraphics.

The clouds had parted after the 1989 overthrow of communism, and I remained in Prague, which ultimately was transformed into a free and connected environment. I worked happily and successfully with Mort from the last years of the 1960s until he sold Weston Woods to Scholastic Books, and beyond, right up to 2010, when I finally felt it was time to do something else; notably to write this blog/book, which I feel is important to fill out the record.  I hope you agree!

I learned a whole set of new ideas working with Mort, who assigned me to adapt some of the greatest children’s picture books ever created, including, Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, Tomi Ungerer’s THE THREE ROBBERS, MOON MAN, THE HAT, and THE BEAST OF MONSIUR RACINE, Tomie de Paola’s STREGA NONA….up to Doreen Cronin’s DIARY OF A SPIDER….

Working with Mort, I was able to conform to his Weston Woods mantra,“The Picture Book Projected,” meaning that the illustration style, author’s text, and especially what I called “The Core of Meaning,” must be essentially maintained, while simultaneously be inspired by Maurice Sendak’s thought that a film must go “beyond the book.”   The most obvious way we go beyond the books is that we add voice acting/narration, music, and sound effects. But more essentially, the deft use of cinematic scene continuity; close-ups, camera moves, transitions, and timing that direct attention and create the emphasis and atmosphere that support the meaning that we intend to bring out. We use all the cinematic tools at our disposal. Our guidelines in this discipline are not so much restrictions as challenges. As in all branches of filmmaking, we must be entertaining, we must be interesting, we must hold attention, and we must bring something of value to our viewers.  Pro-fun and anti-boredom is also our mantra!

Above all, we had to convince librarians and teachers that it was not our intention to replace books, but to call attention to them.  I contributed a new slogan to Weston Woods that stated what I understood we were doing.  I wrote, “We cannot stem the audio-visual flood, but perhaps we can create a channel that flows toward books rather than away from them.”  I felt that we should not assume our films to be substitutes for books, but should rather have the role of illuminating the books, shining a light on what I perceived to be the “core of meaning” in each book that we adapted – attempting to lead the child viewer back to the book, hoping that after seeing our film adaptation, the child would love the book even more!  In our present culture, there was and is the idea that anything that appears on a screen – movie, TV, (and now computer and tablet monitors), is somehow famous!  So perhaps after seeing the book on a screen, the child will see the book as “famous”, and thus treasure and love it more.

I feel sure that this actually works; Teachers, librarians, and former children have assured me that it works!  I can tell you for sure that it was my constant goal in the films that Zdenka and I produced for Weston Woods over a period of 40 years.  From 1968 to 2008 were golden and exciting years in our careers.  Each book we adapted presented us with new conceptual, artistic, and technical challenges. I had to divine the thinking and graphic “handwriting” of each author/illustrator, conforming to the Weston Woods credo, “The Picture Book Projected.”  We had to literally become the authors’ interpreters, translating their stories from the language of books to the language of cinema, being careful not to subvert or trivialize their intent, or alter in any way the essence of the books.

The language of cinema and the language of a printed book vary in important ways. The inherent movement of a film, the application of music, voices. sounds, and cinematic construction, and paying constant attention to the fact that a film, like music and dance, exists in the dimension of time, and are usually viewed in one sitting. The possibilities as well as the restrictions of filmmaking required some finagling to be both faithful to the books, and cinematic at the same time!

In the heavily commercial world of American animation in the 1950s, there was little – almost no – chance to do any of the above.  So when Morton Schindel presented me with the opportunity to do exactly that, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse! It led to the most satisfying 40 years of my career.  And like just about everything in life, it all came about in a completely unexpected way.

Another device I often used was to find and focus on small details in the illustrations, bring them up large in the screen, to thus encourage the child to seek and find things in the books, previously unnoticed.   I always point out that whereas our filming technology inevitably forces us to present the book at a fixed pace, from beginning to end, a child can look at a book at his or her own pace, linger at any point, or even go from back to front. Neither format rules out or dominates the other!  I have found this special filmmaking discipline both instructive and rewarding to myself, and I am grateful to Mort for bringing me into it.  He had virtually invented a new and eminently worthy entertainment format!

I didn’t immediately get the drift of all this. The first book we did was Crockett Johnson’s, A PICTURE FOR HAROLD’S ROOM, one of his “Harold & His Purple Crayon” stories.  Johnson wrote that my first storyboard for it was “the worst thing I have ever seen.”  I had made a basic mistake by indicating a variety of long-shots and close-ups, thinking that the unvarying format of the book illustrations would be boring.  I had missed the graphic point of the book, which was that Harold just seemed to be larger and smaller as he used his magic purple crayon to draw his various locations. It was important that Harold always be the same size on he screen in order for the illusion – and the lesson of size relationship – to work. So I learned right away how to find the core point of each book I adapted, and to use my medium to bring it out.

We quickly became close friends with Mort. We were guests many times at the magical Schindel manse in Weston, Connecticut, and doing a lot of talking together, as well as a constant stream of written communication when we were apart. I immersed myself in his mantra of fidelity to picture books. We didn’t always agree, on some details, but both of us have gone beyond our previous sureties, and have produced a body of work we are both proud of.

Mort was, and thankfully still is, in his 90s as I write this, a man of total dedication to his goals. If he has a fault, it is that total absorption. It’s difficult to talk with him about anything else. Whatever subject I may interject, Mort will quickly lead the conversation back to his latest project with books and films!  He has made his property at Weston into his own museum. It has a room-size fireproof security locker with everything he created perfectly filed. And of course festival prize trophies and framed pictures displayed everywhere. There are several rooms completely dedicated to displaying my own personal work for Weston Woods!

Mort also has a huge collection of historic imaging and sound devices, cameras, projectors, magic lanterns, kinetascopes, music boxes. He’s mad for unique packaging systems, new ways of combining books with filmstrips and digital discs.  He absolutely loves gadgets, and so do I. We have much in common. He has the wherewithal and space to flaunt it.

When Mort ultimately sold the Weston Woods production studio to Scholastic publishers, his longtime production chief, Paul Gagne has maintained the quality and the purity of goals. We continued to happily work together until recently. But nothing, and none of us can go on forever.

Mort and I reviewing the animation reel of Tomie de Paola’s story, STREGA NONA, in the Prague studio, about the mid 1970s.

With Zdenka, 2010.

Mort showing Zdenka around in the permanent
“Deitch Exhibit” at Weston Woods.

Room after room full of our work for Weston Woods – over 40 years!

Inside the fireproof vault where our animation drawings are stored.

Just one of the magical nooks where guests can sleep!

Mort and I talk over our old times while Zdenka snaps a photo.

 

Near his 95th birthday, Mort Schindel gave us a surpise Skype call  April, 2013

Near his 95th birthday, Mort Schindel gave us a surpise Skype call April, 2013

“The Mystery Voice.’

One added note for the record of my 40-years with Weston Woods is that Mort let me spread my wings – er – vocal chords as the voice (un-credited), on several of our productions.  It came about from the way I communicated my adaptation concepts from my distance in Prague. When I mailed my storyboards for approval to Mort in Weston, Connecticut, not being able to pitch my storyboard live, as was the long-time traditional way, I always included a compact cassette in the package, so that Mort could listen to my descriptions and voicings as he turned the pages of the storyboards.  Quite often, Mort would get excited, and wrote to me: “Just put that cassette on the soundtrack!”  I was pleased of course, to be able to add voice acting to my CV! I was also regularly called upon to do English language narration and even bit parts in a few Czech movies.  For Weston Woods, even when professional actors – some well-known movie stars were used, and the recordings had to be made in America, they followed my demo tapes for direction.  And even though I was never credited, (or paid!), my voice acting remains in the final released versions of these Weston Woods films:

ROSIES WALK, THE THREE ROBBERS, CHARLIE NEEDS A CLOAK, TEENY-TINY & THE WITCH-WOMAN, (both the Witch and the “old woman” narrator!), WINGS, A TALE OF TWO CHICKENS. (several characters.)

And now THREE special new discoveries!

In 1980 and 1982, Weston Woods sent us on a series of lecture tours in Britain and America, speaking to large groups in library, grade school, and university auditoriums.

In several of the towns in America we visited, Zdenka and I were booked on TV interview shows, where we appeared together. Three tapes were sent to us, but on cassette systems no longer in use. With Hary Jordanov’s help, I finally have the shows in a (somewhat) playable format.

One is from a TV interview in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city that happens to have a large Czech population. The interviewer, Danny Frery, also has a Czech wife! The second, longer and more informative interview, is not great video quality, but it was on  “Straight Talk,” an important nationwide CBS television show, broadcast at the time from New York, where we had the rare chance to get across what our children’s film were all about…

The third is from Lubbock, Texas, a place where we had never been before, and where we had to explain how come we were making cartoons in a then Communist country!  Here are the videos, and you will now have a rare chance to see the Proof Positive that Zdenka and I were once YOUNG!

*Here is my complete Weston Woods Filmography:

BARK GEORGE

THE BEAST OF MONSIEUR RACINE

BURT DOW, DEEP WATER MAN

CHANGES, CHANGES

CHARLIE NEEDS A CLOAK

DRUMMER HOFF

DIARY OF A WORM

DIARY OF A FLY

DIARY OF A SPIDER

EMILY’S FIRST 100 DAYS OF SCHOOL

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

THE FOOLISH FROG (Pete Seeger)

GENE DEITCH: THE PICTURE BOOK ANIMATED

THE GIANTS

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

THE HAPPY OWLS

HAROLD’S FAIRY TALE

THE HAT

I LOST MY BEAR

IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN

MOON MAN

PATRICK

A PICTURE FOR HAROLD’S ROOM

THE PIGS’ WEDDING

ROSIE’S WALK

SMILE FOR AUNTIE

A STORY, A STORY (ANANSI THE SPIDER MAN)

STREGA NONA

SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE

TEENY-TINY & THE WITCH WOMAN

TOMI UNGERER, STORYTELLER

THE THREE ROBBERS

VOYAGE TO THE BUNNY PLANET

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

WHY MOSQUITOES BUZZ IN PEOPLE’S EARS

WINGS, A TALE OF TWO CHICKENS

ZLATEH THE GOAT

12 thoughts on “51. Morton Schindel

    • What????? I’ve heard nothing about Maurice! Tell me! Gene Read it all, no-holds-barred, on “Roll The Credits!” atgenedeitchcredits.com

      “The SmartPhone is today’s Swiss Army Knife!”

      .

      >________________________________

    • Steve, the instant I sent my shocked memo to you, my inbox was flooded with the terrible news that Maurice had died. My shock was not just the fact, but that somehow I had not heard it sooner. However, I had a busy day yesterday, away from home, and had just returned. i hadn’t even yet watched any TV. I well knew that Maurice was in decline, not only recent strokes, but a sense of melancholia about him. So the realization is now more sadness than surprise. I was just preparing a blog chapter about him and our relationship. I have an important video of us together, a real-time recording of us discussing our then upcoming production of NIGHT KITCHEN. I’ll now try to get this chapter together as soon as possible. sadly, Gene

      >________________________________

      • Gene, I’m sorry for your loss. In every interview and every quote I read from him there came forth such a profound engagement with life that I have always envied those who knew him. He was a genius – indeed, he could not have helped himself. It was in his nature, if that is how such things come about. I was born in 1963, the year Where the Wild Things Are came out, so I cannot imagine the world before his name was on everyone’s lips.
        I’m also sorry that I was the person to bring that bad news to you. I took for granted the instantaneousness of the Internet and assumed the whole world knew.
        Peace,
        Stephen

  1. Sadly, most of the people I’m remembering on this blog are no longer living, so I am especially happy that Morton Schindel, my very greatest benefactor, at age 94 is still thinking about what he will do next! I was delighted to receive this message from him just yesterday (25 April 2012)

    Gene: Your Chapter 51 is the best extant description of what WW is all about. You’ve got a real knack for expression in writing to add to your other credits. As the main character, you also had the facts that you were documenting.

    Do you mind if I run off perhaps 10 copies to share with people who are really interested in knowing what we were all about in the most productive years of WW’s existence. You know from the book that you were identified as the real creative genius behind the whole operation.

    Anyway, with about 17,000 cels sitting in the vault (for starters) and what’s in my 94 year old head, I’m trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do both with that and my 20 acre conclave (sometimes referred to as the back yard) that’s too good as a unit to allow it to be busted up into pieces.

    Got any good ideas?

    Anyway, this comes with much, much appreciation for the contribution you made to my life and much, much love to Z & U.

    Mort

  2. Being a “former child” and fan, I have enjoyed countless hours of your and Zdenka’s wonderful “illuminated” books. And of course another great thing Mort brought to you was the friendships you gained with some of the authors of these treasured books.
    We would have never met if the Dodds librarians had not asked you to speak to the teachers overseas at a conference on the subject of these WW books, and thus another avenue opened to an endearing friendship.

    Is Mort’s museum open to the public ever?

  3. I’ve seen a lot of your Westin Woods films and I like them a great deal. I admire the way you tailored the filmmaking itself (staging/timing/editing) to fit each story.

    • Be patient, Steve, this will take all year. I’m now scanning all of my production drawings. The book will be the complete Nudnik back story, 100% never published before; only seen by the production staff in the mid 1960s. G

      Sent from my iPad

      • Well, this oughta be great. Looking forward to it.

        Will all the cartoons be released on DVD as well at some point?

  4. Of course I remember Mort Schindel quite well. A wonderful guy. Even as a kid I totally understood and appreciated his mission. He had an amazing house out in (what seemed to me) the middle of nowhere in Connecticut. This was the first place I got to see how movies were really made. The first time I was there was at the time you were working on Rosie’s Walk and were reviewing the music for it, Turkey in the Straw performed by a Czech outfit called “The Greenhorns” if I recall correctly. I remember that I was excited by the process and made a pain in the ass of myself by not shutting up. I did get to see it synched with the film on a movieola and at the time it was about the coolest thing I had ever seen.
    I agree with you that your work for WW is your best and deserves more attention. Nontheatrical films do not get seen by as many adults, but the films you made for WW have many fans among those who saw them in schools or libraries.

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