“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.

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