- In trying to put together yesterday’s links to the Oscar contenders, I consulted a lot with the Ottawa Animation Festival catalogue for info. In looking at that magazine, again, I came upon the piece about me, my studio and our work.
Written by Richard O’Connor, a principal in the Asterisk Pictures animation studio, the piece is one of my favorites of anything I’ve seen about me. So, with all lack of humility, I’m going to post that here. I hope you don’t mind this seeming self-promotion, but I like the writing and enjoy seeing it out there. (I guess I could be railing about politics, instead. Would that be worse or better?)
Sunday, Sept. 21, 11:00 am
(Museum of Civilization)
The Man Who Walked Between
__the Towers  10:17
The Marzipan Pig (1990] 26:23
Doctor DeSoto  10:15
The Hunting of the Snark  18:54
Reel of miscellaneous works 8:00
Turning off Seventh Avenue onto a tiny street, then another even tinier street, the New York of now – of the Real Housewives and the Gossip Girls, of the luxury condos and highrise hotels – recedes. The crassness of reality draws back, pulling forward thoughts of New York as we want it to exist In our imagination, Audrey Hepburn is sipping coffee at the corner cafe and Gene Kelly swings from every lamppost; Bob Dylan is busking in the subway and Joey Ramone incites teenaged riots down the street On this storyboard storybook street an innocuous, easily missed sign in a passageway next to a fortune teller – where a psychic fat cat suns in the window, tail snuggling a crystal ball with a deck of tarot cards as a pillow – marks the way: “Michael Sporn Animation”.
A short tunnel leads to a garden — maybe Audrey Hepburn will drop a serenade from the surrounding fire escapes. At the end of the garden is (knock loudly) Michael Sporn’s studio. Conspicuously absent its own cat to match stripes the gatekeeper’s (his previous space had an amiable feline resident), the large semi-subterranean space has a comfort, a warmth that fits with the films made there. The previous space on Broadway, now most likely a bank or an American Apparel outlet, had the practical, efficient feel of a Henry Ford operation. As a producer, Michael is practical and efficient, but here, here in this low-lit grotto, in this bustling part of the city that real estate speculation and corporate claptrap seem to have forgotten, he has found himself in a sort of Bauhaus in which the hand hewn careful construction of his work is matched with an urban rusticity that has also disappeared from our landscape.
Michael walks through the studio filled with a mixture of moviolas, Macintosh computers and lighiboxes. He’s all bushy, unruly hair. He’s all still eyes and lips that turn unexpectedly warm and smile with ease – looking every bit the part of an animator. Not surprisingly, a little like the Unabomber too, another solitary spirit out of place in the Walmart economy.
With such a ranging intellect, I would prefer to talk with Michael about anything instead of the mundane simplicity of animation. Our first ever conversation was at a dinner following a tribute to Tissa David at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He confessed that he read several books a week, usually devouring the work of a single author in the matter of a month. He modestly attributed this to insomnia. Other insomniacs are pros at Grand Theft Auto and channel changing. At that time he was burning through John Updike. Updike, inspired by James Thurber, had wanted to be a cartoonist; writing novels, it turns out, was easier.
At that first conversation, just like now sitting across from the studio’s picnic style lunch table, Michael’s mind ranged the arts and sciences, always pulling back to animation -politics and animation, literary adaptations, Flash as a production tool (to be avoided, in his opinion), motion capture and its shortcomings. No matter how you try to avoid it, animation is inextricably tied up in his thought system.
Intelligence – book learning – is simple to relate to. Anybody can pick up a second hand “Rabbit, Run” and a study guide and join the book club conversation. Experience is a sharper fanged monster, What librarian, even one who knows every decimal of Dewey’s system, can claim to have stood side by side with Tolstoy as he plotted “War and Peace” or Dickens rhapsodizing on the French Revolution?
There’s no way to phrase this, other than to just say it: I’m slightly (…just a little…) jealous of Michael’s career. That dinnertime conversation took place a few years after we were first introduced. There was something daunting, slightly intimidating about his resume, something so cool in his demeanor that made him seem unapproachable. In the early 70s, John Hubley hired him as an intern. In short order he graduated (or was demoted) to production manager, taking large responsibilities for the films from “Everybody Rides the Carousel” to the Letter Man series for Children’s Television Workshop’s “Electric Company”. Letter Man, along with several shorts produced by Hubley and animated byTissa David rank with the most compelling and charming short films.
After Hubley’s passing he moved on to New York’s next legendary production, Richard Williams’ “Raggedy Ann and Andy”. Several years with John Hubley would teach anybody how to make films, and several months woodshedding with Williams and his assembled team of masters could teach anyone a few things about how to animate.
Michael often claims that he primarily does “work for hire” -making films for other people on other people’s dime. While that may be true in an economic sense – in much the same way that Richard Williams’ best work, it could be argued, is his commercial work, or that without CBS, Hubley never would have produced “Everybody Rides the Carousel” – Michael’s works for hire all bear his personal touches and are as “independent” as animation gets with regard to style and substance.
Amongst these notable commissions are two adaptations of William Steig books, the Academy Award nominated “Doctor Desoto” and 1988′s “Abel’s Island”. Adapting a complex and ironic artist like William Steig can be particularly difficult. The story and the illustration all have to make sense on different levels of intellectual engagement. These pieces demonstrate a rare ability to understand inner tonalities of an illustrated story and translate that feeling to film.
The credit list of “Abel’s Island” is a snapshot of influential East Coast animators. Rob Marianetti, John Dilworth, Doug Compton, Lisa Crafts, Tissa David, Steve Dovas all contributed to this (and other) films, thus perpetuating the cycle of influence and education that has made animation in New York an easily identifiable yet qualitatively indescribable art form.
Two centerpieces of this program, “The Marzipan Pig”, and “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” share the same softness and stylistic integrity demonstrated in Michael’s two William Steig films. Much of that can be attributed to the touch of Tissa David who has worked closely with Michael since his time with Hubley. Levity, respect, inquisitiveness -a space opens in these films, as though the artists are in communion with the material and we are all brought privy to their understanding of the world.
“The Hunting of the Snark” also anchors the Festival’s program selections. This film was completed over the span of several years and was animated entirely by Michael in between projects. A Lewis Carroll poem recited by James Earl Jones, the film leaves off with a looming question, its characters teetering on the verge of new age. It’s almost certain they’ll all be devoured, a fate the film’s director has managed to avoid as the brighter-than-neon signs of “progress” encroach.
Richard O’Connor is a producing partner of Asterisk in New York. He hopes that he is intimidating.