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“The Story of Weston Woods”

I’ve been watching Weston Woods productions all my life and I never really realized it – and you probably haven’t either. I don’t know how many times I saw Caps For Sale, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and Curious George Rides A Bike on the Captain Kangaroo Show as a kid, but I have to admit they influenced my early reading choices. The company behind those films have been been making children’s book adaptations – initially as filmed still pictures, called “iconographic” films – since 1955. The story of the studio, which intertwines the work of producer Morton Schindel with animators no less than Gene Deitch and Michael Sporn (who’s delightful Weston Woods production of Doctor Desoto was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 – see embed below), was just published in a lavishly illustrated book by Scholastic Press.

I recently asked Gene Deitch why he so enjoys making these films for Weston Woods. Here is his response:

“When I was presented with the challenge of adapting WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Maurice Sendak told me that it makes no sense to make it into an animated film unless I “go beyond the book,” which I did, while at the same time holding precisely to it’s look and rhythm. Just now, Maurice himself has agreed to have his perfectly distilled 100-word story stretched to a feature length live version. But what essentially has been added? With Weston Woods adaptations we would never go that far “beyond the books!”

“I often tell audiences that we are translators; we translate the stories from the language of books to the language of film. A good translation never feels like a translation, but creates the feeling that we are reading what the author wrote. In our process of course, we add all of components of cinema, adding voice acting/story-telling, cinematic continuity, animation acting, music, sounds, mood, atmosphere… all the tools of our craft. It’s a special brand of art.

“As the director of these little films, often only 6-12 minutes long, I do have to stay in the background. I don’t attempt to be the auteur, but I put much more into each film than easily meets the eye. In actual fact, the films must stand on their own, even though our professed aim is to “bring the child back to the book,” to promote reading. It’s a special shtick that many animators would not enjoy, but I do, as each book is a fresh challenge, and I have a chance to work in a wide variety of styles. It’s still the creation of cinema. It’s only when you would take a book in your hands while viewing my film adaptation that you would see what I’ve done. It’s actually quite rewarding to work within these parameters. And oh yes, one of the things I most enjoy about this work is that when I first asked Mort about how long he wanted the films to be, he said, “As long as it takes to tell the story!” That, I truly enjoy!”

For more about the studio behind these films, I highly recommend reading Imagination and Innovation: the Story of Weston Woods by John Cech.

  • Stephen

    Is that Peter Schikele narrating Where the Wild Things Are?

  • diego c

    I don’t agree with Gene Deitch at all, in fact, you could say that the entire film history goes against his opinion. Film is a medium different to literature: trying to recreate the literary experience is not enough. You need to create something different, something that stands on its own. Not a “please read the book” advertising. And by the way, Spike Jonze is Maurice Sendak’s FRIEND, and as far as I know, he was quite respectful to the author and the book anyway.

  • Paul

    I do believe that is indeed Peter Schikele; both the narration and the music. He also narrated the animated “In the Night Kitchen.”

  • This book is wonderful news. I spent a few years working for a company called DMI Productions. Weston Woods kept the company going because we did quite a few productions like Brave Irene, Joey Runs Away and Danny The Dinosaur. My boss, Dan Ivanik had nothing but nice things to say about the staff at Weston Woods, and about the talent they provided, especially Ernest Troost who did much of their music.

    I will certainly order this book immediately!

  • squirrel

    Wow. Weston Woods was local to me even when I never realized it. I used to check the videos out of the library every week. Weston is the name of my hometown!

    Now they’re under Scholastic and they’re probably making vastly different kinds of work, and the production are probably dispersed in other parts of the world. *sigh* But I’m so glad Gene provided this bit of info!

  • Adam VM

    My three year old loves these, and so do I, particularly Mr. Deitch’s Where The Wild Things Are adaptation.

  • I’ve animated on four short film projects for Scholastic/Weston Woods, through director Galen Fott at BigFott Studios. I’m glad to have played a small part…they certainly have a strong legacy for adapting children’s books into animation. My daughter sure loves it.

  • Mr. Beck,

    I want to thank you for the book recommendations. I work at the library at the Ringling College of Art and Design–your recommendations have helped enormously in building up our animation section.The books you recommend (in addition, of course, to the books you’ve written yourself) are greatly appreciated by our students here.

  • Brian Kidd

    Scholastic has a box set of DVDs of the Weston Woods productions. The whole set is pricey, but I’ve bought a few of them for my son. There’s a Maurice Sendak disc that has WILD THINGS, NIGHT KITCHEN, and the song segments from REALLY ROSIE. Sadly, it doesn’t have the entire film, for some odd reason. I loved REALLY ROSIE as a kid and even own the Carole King soundtrack album. The library where I work recently got rid of their VHS copy of the entire film, so I was able to snag that. Still, I wish I had a nice DVD of it. It’s no classic, story-wise, but the songs are great and the whole thing has a nice feel to it. It was even directed by Sendak, himself.

    I have yet to see a bad Weston Woods production.

  • Greg Ehrbar

    I too have loved the Weston Woods films since I watched CAPS FOR SALE and THE STORY OF PING. One of the other frequent narrators was an actor named Darrell Sandeen, who also did a lot of Golden Records in the early 60s and played the title role in an Off-Broadway show called “Young Mr. Lincoln.”

    Our family had almost every one of the DVDs and I can’t wait to see the book.

    Thanks for recommending the book and other such books. You are our Oprah.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Though not animated, one Weston Woods film of my childhood I loved a lot was a live-action adaptation of Robert McClosky’s Homer Price story, “The Doughnuts” involving the kid’s uncle setting up a doughnut-making machine that goes haywire and kept churning out doughnuts constantly. Don’t quite remember too many animated films besides “Really Rosie” myself, but I have watched these in later years and enjoyed them all. This should be quite an interesting book indeed.