55. Crockett Johnson

“Never underestimate the seemingly simple!”

David Johnson Leisk, like many American kids of a certain era named Dave, was dubbed “Davy Crockett’ by schoolmates. It transmuted into his professional name, “Crockett Johnson.”  Personally he was still “Dave.”

I met with Crockett Johnson only once, but I may have learned more insight from him than from any other on my credits list since John Hubley. I’d been a fan of his “Barnaby” comic strip since its inception, so when Mort Schindel put me to the Weston Woods test by assigning me one of Johnson’s HAROLD  books as my first to adapt, I thought: “Piece of cake!” Right?  Simple line drawings,. No elaborate backgrounds.  No complex effects needed….  I figured that I’d nabbed him…  but I had only scratched his surface!  I’d already noticed how he’d given the impression of Harold’s head at different angles, when in fact his head outline was always in profile!  Johnson simply shifted the position of Harold’s ear and eye, which in conjunction with his body position made you believe you were seeing his head from three-quarter-front, or three-quarter rear as well as from the side. It was Crockett Johnson’s version of the illusion of shifting of Mickey Mouse’s ears as his head turned!

An animated film of the first Harold book, HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, had already been made. It actually violated Dave’s graphic concept of perpetual profile.  He hated that film! Mort bought the film anyway, so he’d have the complete Harold franchise,  As you might guess, that first film still sells the best of the series, simply because it is the original title.  It’s highly unlikely that any of the teachers or the kids watching it are at all aware of its graphic deviations. Purity doesn’t always pay! Nevertheless, when I was assigned the second book, A PICTURE FOR HAROLD’S ROOM, I was determined to get it right.

So I plunged right into building my storyboard, being ultra careful to avoid a full frontal view of Harold’s face!

I don’t have to tell you reading this that just about every movie ever made is an assembly of many individual shots, carefully contrived to cut together into a story-telling continuity.  So I made my continuity of long-shots, medium shots, pans, zooms.. just as I’d learned up to that time, to direct the viewer’s eyes to what I wanted them to see.  Clever, what?  I thought my storyboard was pretty neat, and sent it to Dave and waited for his expected enthusiastic approval. In due course I received what he called a “penny postcard.”. Even in those days it was no longer a penny but it was Dave Johnson’s habitual means of postal communication. There was plenty of room on the postcard for Dave’s appraisal.

“This is worst thing I’ve ever seen!” Concise; and a terrible shock.

I’ve had my share of rejections, but this was no cement-head Madison Avenue ad exec, this was the brilliant Crockett Johnson, who’s analytical mind led him to labor over large techno-paintings aimed at solving the quest to square the circle. (He claimed to have succeeded, but it was beyond my geometry-deprived brain to get it).

I went back to the book and looked at it with new eyes.  Why hadn’t I seen the obvious?  This was not a book that could be filmed as a series of shots!  It could only work as one continuous shot! – and only at one immovable camera position! Uncinematic!  The entire joke of the film is that Harold is shown to be variously the size of a little boy, the size of a tiny flower, and the size of an immense giant, but in the book the drawing of him is always exactly the same size.  Only the backgrounds he draws with his purple crayon range widely in scale. To get this across in a film, we had to do exactly the same thing! Any cut at all would spoil the effect and the very point of the book; a subtle lesson in perspective and size relationships.  But that would be devilishly difficult to do in a film.  One continuous six minute scene as a cartoon film?

In my fresh look at the book I imagined that if I took apart all of the pages and taped them together, they would be segments of one large drawing. I hadn’t asked him, but it’s likely that he worked out the book in that way.

The figure of Harold had to be fully animated, but what he drew never moved; it was a drawing. So we made one huge drawing, necessary for the relative size to Harold, who had to be large enough for precise animation. Scaling up from Harold, we created a background that was over six feet wide and three feet high. Speaking in the technical language of the time, it had to be a “scratch-off” or “wipe-off” technique, to be shot entirely in reverse.   It meant that Harold’s complete purple crayon drawing had to be complete on the one large sheet of cel, and scratched off frame by frame as we moved backwards.  The purple paint itself had to be retro-formulated to come off easily without leaving a trace.  Otherwise, when projected forward a faint remainder or even an impression of the line would “telegraph” forward where the line was going.  It was the exact opposite of our usual need for paint NOT to chip off!  When we finished, the BG would be gone!

Matting was not possible for this type of image, the frame-by frame Harold animation and the wiping off of the background lines had to be shot at once, one camera pass, one camera assistant changing the animation cels, another wiping off the background lines. The camera door was locked.  This was go-for-broke to be able to shoot the entire film just once.  Needless to say, what was once wiped off could not be precisely restored under the camera.  It was a tribute to the skill, patience, and precision of our camera operator, Zdenka Hajdova, that the film was shot perfectly in one go. All were aware that if there was even one error, the entire thing would have to be reconstructed and completely re-shot.

In one place in our film, you see that Harold appears to be a giant!

Later in the film he looks tinier than a flower or a sparrow…..
But please note that in each frame he is exactly the same size!

In honesty I have to tell you that we did find one place where a cut could be made without violating our principle.  See if you can spot it!

In the end, Dave praised us as creating the first film true to his concept. We did one more, HAROLD’S FAIRY TALE.  But I swore never to push our luck again with Harold. It would have been easier to do a six-minute version of WAR & PEACE!  I remembered another statement Dave had written on his fateful postcard, “Never underestimate the seemingly simple!”

The only photo of Dave I could find. On my visit, I only managed to get long shots!

It’s interesting how much Harold looked like Dave himself!

“Squaring the Circle.” Crockett Johnson’s painting only he could understand…

Crockett Johnson’s living room. In my photo he’s showing Zdenka and Mort his geometric paintings. Early 1970's.

Dave Johnson’s type of logical thinking inspired me to rethink our long-held concept of what I call “THE FOOTAGE/METRAGE/TIMING, ANIMATION CONUNDRUM.”

UPA animators were expected to produce around twenty-five feet per week. I thought that was one of the great hang-ups in the history of cinema, and especially cinema animation.  As I was the only member of the creative echelon, who had no previous employment in an any other studio, and thus the only person not burdened  with the “footage” fallacy.

24 frames of film equaled one second. That was useful, but 1 foot was 16 frames, or two-thirds of a second! What the hell is that? I learned to tell time as a little kid, but never gave a single thought to two-thirds of a second!

I could never adapt to thinking of animation timing in terms of “feet.”  What the hell meaning is there to a one-foot-long strip of perforated plastic, to acting and movement, or story-telling?  I have always thought in terms of seconds and minutes.  That’s what really matters.  When I came to Prague, I encountered another variation of the footage delusion: meters!   Footage-meters!   By that time, I was in a position to lay down some new rules.

“Look,” I said to my new Czech colleagues, “You are thinking in terms of metrage, and I have been under the influence of footage, What we actually have in common are seconds and minutes!  We work in a medium constructed in the dimension of time!  So I designed and had printed new exposure sheets.  Instead of a heavy line every 16 frames, I put the heavy line every 24 frames.  We never looked back!

Time, and the march of technology, I believe, have proved me right.  We are no longer making our movies on long reels of perforated plastic film, but on computers. What guides us now are seconds and minutes of running time. Even calling what we do as “filmmaking” is maintaining an obsolete reference.  The only early terms that still more-or-less apply, are “moviemaking,” or “cinema.” “Cinema” is the best and most precise.term for what we do.

The damnable British had it right all the time!

Dunno if these thoughts put be on a brainy level with Crockett Johnson, but I just thought

I could stick it in here.  Any challenges?

11 thoughts on “55. Crockett Johnson

  1. Hi,

    I enjoyed reading this article. I’ve been playing the Harold videos for my son, and he really likes them. Just wondering if there’s anywhere to watch “Animating Harold” in its entirety? The short on the video is very interesting!

    • I realized very early in my work with Weston Woods that it would have been wonderful if i had a video camera mounted on my head to document what we were witnessing and doing. But I had no budget or staff to follow me around and document what was going on. My mandate was to get the job done – the films mad. I tried to write down and occasionally photograph the people and our progress. Now, years later, I have to rely on my memory, more strain in my 90th year! Ask me specific questions. and I could fill in details of “the making of” HAROLD and my interaction with the complex Dave Crockett Leisk Johnson!

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond! After reading your response, I viewed the snippet on my son’s VHS copy of the Purple Crayon trilogy again, and I see that I read it wrong the first time! The snippet wasn’t from an entire documentary about the Harold animations – it was from “The Picture Book Animated”. Now I’ll go see if I can find that! I wasn’t looking for anything specific, I was just curious about the process in general.

  2. Just checked: the photo must be from early in the summer of 1973, and it’s definitely their Westport place. They had just moved there when you and Zdenka visited.

      • I appreciate you sharing the story with me — oh, must be nearly a decade ago now. Also, if you have the time or inclination, I’d love to see other photos from that visit — maybe in your Extra Photos & Videos section? (And if you don’t have the time, I would of course understand.) Thanks again for posting this!

      • I’m planning to have a photo album in the up-coming “Deitch Dungeon” which I’m still working on. Scanning and restoring old photos seems to be my current life’s work! I didn’t want to act like an intrusive photo journalist when visiting Ruth and Dave in the 1970s, so I missed the opportunity of taking more photos. It was the conversation that I was most interested in. I got my first computer in 1984, but it didn’t hold photos, so what I have until recent times are just boxes and heaps of old faded prints, needing to be scanned and restored! But I can remember that the Johnson/Kraus household decor and furnishings were as spare as Dave’s drawings, and similarly well organized!

  3. Thanks for posting this! Great photograph of (I think) their Westport place. And THANK YOU again for your help with the biography. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature will be out in September of this year.

  4. Visiting Crockett Johnson’s house was quite an experience for me! He was such a nice man and I was transfixed by his paintings. I was convinced they amounted to some sort of calculator! When I mentioned it, he agreed. I don’t know if he was just humoring me or if that was really the answer.

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