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Moving Pictures: Morton Schindel Revisited

By Terri Payne Butler

mort-schindelImagine Winnie the Pooh without Disney: the silly old bear and his friends translated to film without ever looking or sounding silly themselves. That’s the way it would have been had Weston Woods Studio’s Morton Schindel been the one to turn loose his artists and animators on the cherished children’s classic.

“I got a telephone call from Curtis Brown, the U.S. agency, saying the rights to the Pooh books were going to be released in this country,” Schindel says. “They asked me if before they went ahead with someone else, was there any chance that Weston Woods could do the films. I thought for a minute and said, I’d love to, but I can just imagine who else you’ve been talking to, and there’s no way we can compete with him.”

The story of that near-miss is just one of many tales Morton Schindel can pluck from a lifetime immersed in children’s books. Over nearly fifty years he has built a film collection so acclaimed you’d be hard pressed to find a children’s librarian, publisher, or illustrator who doesn’t know Weston Woods. Through some five hundred films and filmstrips based on books as classic as 1942’s Caldecott Medal winner Make Way for Ducklings or as contemporary as the 1996 winner, Officer Buckle and Gloria, Weston Woods’s credo has always been devotion to the original. Schindel’s Winnie the Pooh would have been as faithful to A. A. Milne and Ernest H. Shepard as his Where the Wild Things Are is to Maurice Sendak.

It’s been nearly a decade since John Cech first profiled Morton Schindel’s work for readers of the Horn Book (see September/October 1989 issue). With Weston Woods nearing the half-century mark and Schindel himself cruising easily into his ninth decade, there’s no sign that either will slow down any time soon.

Schindel is the first to admit that there’s little in his early years to foreshadow a career spent poring over picture books. “I wasn’t ever much of a reader,” he says. “My main recollection of our library at home is that it was a big bookcase with three glass doors and a bottom shelf high enough off the floor that I could take a leaf from the dining room table, prop it against that bottom shelf and make a runway for my toy cars. One day the board slipped and my fingers were under it and I’ll never forget it because it hurt like hell!”

In 1939 Schindel graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, fully expecting to follow his father into the retail trade. “I started out in a piece goods department,” he says. “A lot of women were making their own clothes then, and each morning my boss would give me some little swatches of fabric and say that Mrs. Smith in Australia had bought four yards of this cloth to make a dress, but she’d grown and now needed a fifth yard. So I had to comb the market to find another yard of that fabric. It worked well at first because I’d go to these companies and they’d do their best to help me. But after about three weeks I’d go in and they’d all be hiding because they knew I was going to take a lot of their time and buy just one yard of cloth.”

But a quirky form of luck was with the young piece goods buyer, as Schindel noted in a speech he gave upon being awarded the 1979 Regina Medal by the Catholic Library Association. “My first big break came when I contracted tuberculosis. Luckily, too, my illness occurred before the discovery of all the drugs they have today for curing it. Years ago you languished, and I give a share of the credit for my getting into the children’s book field to the doctor who said to me as I was showing signs of recovery, ‘The only way you’ll keep well is if you don’t work.’ Then what do I do with myself? I asked. ‘Be an artist,’ he replied.”

Deciding that filmmaking would fill the doctor’s prescription, Schindel looked for work in educational films, only to find that his lack of both experience and a union card blocked his way. He enrolled in Columbia University’s Teachers’ College instead, earning a degree in curriculum in 1949, before the days of a major in media studies. His first professional filmmaking job was editing case histories for a psychoanalyst, his second making curricular films for a new company in the educational market. This soon held so little challenge that he responded to a radio ad seeking people to work for the U.S. government abroad. He landed in Turkey, where for two years he made films on pure water, raising chickens, and other subjects that under generator power flickered across screens in the country’s thousands of unelectrified villages. The U.S. government elected to replicate Schindel’s audiovisual innovations in Greece, but he returned to the States, hoping to interest a foundation in continuing his work in Turkey.

“I was just very unrealistic. I remember getting a letter from the Ford Foundation saying that they had only praise for my fine proposal. No money, only praise,” he laughs. “It made me very depressed, and I’d wake up some mornings and just sit on the side of my bed and weep. But about that time I began to hear that there was nothing good on television for kids, and that sounded like a problem I could get excited about.”

He canvassed librarians, early-childhood organizations, and the staff at Bank Street College to see what they thought would be good TV fare. “They said that if I wanted to see what was good for children I should go to the Central Children’s Room at the New York Public Library. There I met Maria Cimino. I asked her to show me some good books, and she brought out a stack of them. I sat there and looked through them, picked a few just arbitrarily, and took them home to read to my kids.”

In that stack were some of the most successful Weston Woods films-to-be of all time, books like Make Way for Ducklings and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. With a television show still in mind and little confidence in his own ability to pick out a good book, Schindel graphed his way through several lists of recommended books for children, writing book titles down one side of the graph and the names of the organizations making the recommendations across the top. He filled in a square each time a book was mentioned, and when he was finished the density of the squares told him what was the best literature for children. Graph in hand, Schindel set out to obtain film rights at a time when book-based children’s films were a rarity and the winds of the future carried not a whiff of the videos, CD-ROMs, and computer games to come. One of his first stops was Coward-McCann, publisher of Millions of Cats since 1928.

“It was the granddaddy of picture books, if you will, and every time someone asked me what kind of books I was adapting, I’d say books like Millions of Cats,” he says. “So I went to see Tim Coward, told him what I wanted to do and he said, ‘I’ll tell you, we don’t feel that the rights to Millions of Cats belong to us.’ Well, I figured I was in the wrong place, so I asked who they did belong to. He said, ‘The rights to Millions of Cats belong to children.’ When that sank in, I was deeply impressed. I’d never heard a book talked about like that.” Coward-McCann agreed to the contract Schindel proposed, one based upon check points with the children’s book editor during the production. As in the book field, a royalty would be paid on the sale of copies of the film. It set a pattern for the industry that Weston Woods initiated and followed in all its dealings with publishers, authors, and illustrators for nearly fifty years.

In the early fifties, Schindel began work on the first nine films to bear the Weston Woods logo: Millions of Cats, Georgie, The Red Carpet, Hercules, Stone Soup, Andy and the Lion, Make Way for Ducklings,
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Story about Ping. It took him fourteen months to finish these first productions, and by the time he was done, he had invented a new film technique.

Knowing the books he’d chosen called for something other than standard animation techniques, he first tried mounting pictures on a flat background, only to discover that as his camera panned, the picture would become distorted, with the far side taking a larger area of the picture than the near side, producing a “keystoning” effect. His solution was to move the pictures while keeping the camera stationary, a shooting style he labeled “iconographic.” Each production became a voyage of challenge and discovery as the classic picture books made their way onto film.

“I learned that the direction of movement had to be just the way the illustrator suggested it in his drawings. I found out that if I panned across a picture of a character and stayed above the knees, it looked better because you implied the legs, but you didn’t see that they weren’t moving. I learned that sound effects had to be very subtle, that you only put them in if you would miss them if they weren’t there. I’d think one film was finished and then I would learn so much from the next one that I would go back and re-do the first one. Some scenes were done over and over six times as I discovered new things.”

Each nearly finished film — a complex choreography of closeups, pans, dissolves, and cuts that brought to life the mood and action that the illustrator had implied on the pages of the book — was screened for Schindel’s guiding lights at the New York Public Library. “The head of the children’s department at that time was Frances Lander Spain, and Augusta Baker was in charge of storytelling. I remember carting a projector into the city to show them Andy and the Lion. I knew it was a favorite at the Library because it was dedicated to the library lions Lady Astor and Lord Lenox, so I took it with some trepidation. When Mrs. Spain looked at it, she asked how did I get Mr. Daugherty to draw so many new pictures. There were no new pictures, only details that are often overlooked. All I could think of was I must be doing something! Augusta Baker offered to help me with the soundtrack. She taught me the difference between narration and storytelling — a critical distinction that helped me become a director rather than simply a sound engineer.”

Mort Schindel in 1956, practicing storytelling with daughters Jean and Cathy.

Mort Schindel in 1956, practicing storytelling with daughters Jean and
Cathy.

Schindel knew that there wasn’t a ready market for the films he was creating, but he believed he had something television would want and was sure that “Captain Kangaroo,” then a brand-new series, would jump at the opportunity. But “Kangaroo” was already committed to its own series of Tom Terrific films. Next Encyclopaedia Britannica Films offered a deal Schindel found unacceptable. Then the distributor of his classroom films concluded that since the books were not being used in schools, there would be no market for the films.

Undaunted, Schindel sent his iconographic films to the forty libraries in the country that had circulating film collections, even though none of the collections were for children. “I said that if they didn’t want the films, to send them back. We had a rural mailbox and I’d look in it every morning for films coming back. And there wouldn’t be any. So one day I went to the post office and said, ‘Look, you’ve got a whole bunch of packages here for me, don’t you know where I live?’ They looked around and said, ‘We don’t have any.’ So I phoned the libraries and they said they were keeping them, that they needed films for children and these fit with their collections. Seldom were any sent back.”

Schindel relied on the sagacity of publishers and librarians to lead him to high-quality books likely to make good films. “May Massee, children’s book editor at the Viking Press, pointed me to The Story about Ping, saying that it was one of the great nursery classics, that there’s not a word in it that’s unnecessary and every word that’s necessary is there. That’s how I learned about what’s called artistic economy.

“It was also the first book I adapted where you couldn’t just film page by page. There were only about twenty pictures in the book, so I had to use a number of the pictures and details over and over again. It was the first time I took liberties like that with a book. It also turned out to be the first film that was a big success, financially and otherwise, because all children’s librarians loved Ping. Millions of kids eventually saw it over and over when ‘Captain Kangaroo’ did pick up a dozen of the films for a long run in the early sixties.”

From The Story about Ping, Schindel also learned firsthand how deeply the nearly mythical images woven into a deceptively simple children’s book could resonate. “There was one picture where Ping didn’t want to get smacked. So he hid on an island near the shore and as the sun set, Ping watched the wise-eyed boat slowly sail away down the Yangtze River. Now, to make that boat sail away, I had to move my camera way back from the picture. As I was looking through the viewfinder, watching the boat receding from Ping, I was so overcome that I had to leave the room. I must have seen that film maybe fifty times over the years, and every time that scene gives me an emotional turn.

“I didn’t know why then, but later, after my mother died, an image came into my head. There I was, a very young child, standing on the porch of our home in New Jersey holding the hand of a uniformed nanny as my parents backed out of the driveway to take off on a holiday. I didn’t know until that moment that I harbored deep feelings of abandonment. That whole experience also revalidated what I was doing, because I’ve had similar experiences with other titles and I’ve come to believe that all artists, consciously or unconsciously, are dredging these kinds of memories.”

In 1962 Schindel confronted a new challenge. Annis Duff, May Massee’s successor at Viking, led him to a book that at first fiercely resisted his efforts to film it. “She called me and said, ‘I have a book in my hands that is one of the most exciting things that I’ve had anything to do with.’ I can remember there was a real tingle down my spine when I read it,” he says. “I immediately recalled being maybe ten years old, hitting a friend of my sister on the head with a snowball. I could hardly wait to send it to my son in California, because it so strongly evoked the whole sensation of snow.”

The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Medal in 1963 and won Schindel’s filmmaker’s heart as well. But when he looked through his camera at the book’s hard-edged, flatly colored collages, he knew something wasn’t working. The iconographic technique, so well suited to the soft sepia lines of a book like Make Way for Ducklings, was wrong for The Snowy Day. It had to be animated.

“I found an animator I could work with, and we consulted with Ezra Jack Keats,” says Schindel. “Characters that moved, like Peter, had to be re-created, but most of the background was the original artwork. The music was improvised by a guitar soloist while he was looking at the pictures on the screen, and the narrator was a woman who was a folksinger. She had a very high, light voice that cracked as we were recording, but we left that in because it just fit the pictures, like crusty snow.” The Snowy Day, Weston Woods’s first fully animated production, won the award for best children’s film of 1965 at the Venice Film Festival, presaging a future of award-winning films like Doctor De Soto, The Beast of Monsieur Racine, and Strega Nona.

Business boomed with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the mid-sixties, and the name Weston Woods became as recognized inside the school and library market as the name Disney was in the world outside it. The film collection swelled as Schindel’s staff sifted through new publications, judging the film potential of each book by its desirability, adaptability, and availability.

“We looked for timeless subjects that appealed to kids, and real values that were beautifully articulated,” says Schindel. “We wanted books where the pictures and the text supported each other, rather than simply duplicating one another. In fact, where the text described the action, we usually deleted that part of the text and nobody ever missed it. The best example is Patrick, which I still think is a dandy film. The book is so full of text describing action that when we blue-penciled out the text we didn’t need, there was no text left. So we called Quentin Blake in England and asked what he thought of making it a nonverbal production. He said he’d designed Patrick as a nonverbal book and the publisher had made him put text in!”

The next criteria was adaptability, and Schindel passed on some good books he felt wouldn’t successfully make the journey from print to film. A fine line didn’t reproduce as well on the screen; a book illustrated with a lot of close-ups, almost as if it were a film, left little for the filmmakers to work with, and stories from the oral tradition, while sometimes profusely illustrated, often were not, in fact, picture books. Finally, because Weston Woods’s burgeoning success begat competitors, Schindel had to keep in mind a book’s availability. If he didn’t grab something the minute it came off the press, there was a good chance that someone else might.

As the company flourished, Schindel stepped from behind the camera and in 1967 began to work with Gene Deitch, whom he’d met when he first proposed his films to “Captain Kangaroo.” Deitch, who’d won an Oscar for his animated Munro, a Jules Feiffer story about a four-year-old boy drafted into the army, was now living in Czechoslovakia. “Gene’s contribution to the success of Weston Woods’s films was second to none,” says Schindel. “It wasn’t always easy working with him. He was an artist, too, and saw things in his own way. Sometimes, there were the things in a film I just couldn’t live with, like movements that were too fast or too broad, too much like ‘Popeye’ or ‘Tom and Jerry.’ At other times, there were things that were neither right nor wrong, they were just differences in taste. Some of those probably came from the fact that Gene was used to an adult audience for his work, while I was more attuned to kids. But for the most part Gene’s direction was always just dandy. And through our negotiations I learned that it was much easier to recognize where a production could be improved if someone else was going to do the work. If I knew I’d be the one spending a week or two re-doing something, I would be less likely to judge acutely, more likely to settle for what should really be changed.”

Schindel has always said that a good film is not made, but remade, and his willingness to spend the time and money to get each one right is unusual in a business generally driven by the bottom line. It’s a characteristic he credits to a personal need not to wince each time he sees a film that’s less than he envisioned. “Every one of these films is like a member of the family. You can’t have a child and decide you don’t like it and get rid of it and get another one. Every child is still going to be around, even if you have ten more. It would drive me crazy sometimes when I saw something that I’d let go and now I had to look at it for the rest of my life.”

Though Weston Woods has always been lauded for its faithfulness to the books it adapts, Schindel readily admits that does not mean that changes are never made, even in the earliest films. In Make Way for Ducklings, when Mrs. Mallard steps off her nest to count her eggs, the audible counting in the film is a departure from the book that gives youngsters time to count the eggs for themselves. It’s a change Schindel says author-illustrator Bob McCloskey not only welcomed, but wished he’d made himself. Not every author, however, greeted change with such equanimity.

Changes, Changes is a book full of children’s wooden blocks and two wooden figures,” says Schindel. “In the illustrations the blocks are reorganized into a house, a fire engine, a boat — all to resolve problems that the book presents. For example, the man and the woman change their house into a boat because the house is on fire and is flooded by the water that puts out the fire. The book is designed that way all the way through — something happens and the blocks change into something new. But in the beginning you don’t know why the house caught on fire. And in the end the man and the woman are back in their house again, but the only way you know the story is over is because you come to the last page.”

In designing the film, Deitch introduced a sun, made up of two half-round blocks, whose rays set the house afire. In the end the man turns one of the half round blocks into the moon and makes the other a cradle the couple holds between them. Both Schindel and Deitch felt the film now had a perfect beginning and end, and took it off to show author Pat Hutchins.

“She was livid,” says Schindel. “She said, ‘I don’t want my work to be changed. I want a kid to be able to go back to my work and have the film be exactly like it.’ Well, Gene and I left with our tails between our legs, but early the next morning we got a call from Pat. She said, ‘I never should have gone off like that. It was just new to me and I think I was angry because I hadn’t thought of doing it myself.’”

Ask Schindel who was the most fun to work with and he has trouble settling on one name, though Tomi Ungerer is near the top of the list. Five of Ungerer’s films — The Three Robbers, The Beast of Monsieur Racine, Crictor, Moon Man, and The Hat — are in the Weston Woods library, four of them as fully animated productions.

“Tomi was fun because he’s a little kooky,” says Schindel. “Gene and Tomi are sort of soulmates, and that’s why the Ungerer pictures that we made are so good. If Gene could have written and illustrated children’s books, they would have been very close to the kind of offbeat books that Tomi did. Tomi never looked at a film until it was finished, and he always liked everything he saw. Those films were Gene’s meat — they were flawless.”

Among the many author-illustrators he’s worked with over the years, Schindel cites Robert McCloskey as having perhaps the greatest influence on him. “People not only respected him; they really loved this guy,” he says. “If he was at a convention he’d have to stand up two or three times for standing ovations, even if he was introduced just as part of the audience. I guess I always felt like a newcomer to the business, a bit like an impostor trying to find my way in, and Bob became my model. I was in Maine when he finished Time of Wonder. In his studio there were stacks of watercolors of Maine seascapes that Bob had drawn and discarded. They wound up in his potbelly stove. It never occurred to him that they’d be worth anything. It would sometimes take him three years to do a book — he worked on things until they were right, and that’s a lesson I learned from him.”

McCloskey was also the first author-illustrator Schindel profiled in a biographical film. When first approached, McCloskey was hesitant, but decided he’d like to have a film he could send to schools and libraries instead of making the visits himself. “I knew he labored over the talks he gave because he was afraid he was going to waste people’s time,” says Schindel. “So I asked him, ‘You’re a writer, and an illustrator, but you’re not an orator. Why do you suppose they invite you?’ He thought about it a long time, then said, ‘To tell you the truth, Mort, I think they like to touch me and smell me!’”

No tale of Weston Woods would be complete without the story of perhaps the most challenging production of all, the five-year journey from page to screen of Where the Wild Things Are. At the start, two hurdles confronted Schindel — artwork that might be impossible to successfully emulate and animate, and author-illustrator Maurice Sendak’s own reluctance. Sendak relented only after a trip to Prague to meet Deitch, coupled with Schindel’s assurance that if Sendak didn’t like the way the film turned out, it would never see the light of day. With one hurdle overcome, Schindel and Deitch began their climb of what Deitch later would call “the Mount Everest of children’s books,” the one they had to do because it was there.

“First we had to prove to Maurice that we could redraw the pictures to suit him,” says Schindel. “So we drew three pictures and put them on slides; we didn’t want Sendak to know from seeing the drawings on paper whether one of them was his. One was a re-drawing from the book, exactly as he had done it. The other two were slightly different from the ones Sendak had drawn in the book. He identified the first picture as his own, and only the others as new. That proved to him that he wasn’t going to have a problem with the quality of the artwork.”

Sendak approved the sample drawings, but Schindel and Deitch were still stumped by what kind of soundtrack to use with a book that had such a contemporary feel, and final animation couldn’t begin without one. Deitch finally decided to try to “score” the film with sound effects alone. “I listened to the tape Gene sent over and I could really hear it with those pictures,” says Schindel. “I thought it had qualities that complemented Sendak’s pictures, but I knew that if Maurice heard that soundtrack without the pictures he wouldn’t like it and we’d never get started. So I commissioned Gene to go ahead. Many months later, when Maurice finally heard  the sound along with the finished pictures, he not only approved it, he described it as genius.”

Long before that day, Deitch came to the United States to meet with Schindel and Sendak. Together Deitch and Sendak pantomimed all the action of the film, including a new scene that was needed as a transition between Max’s mother calling him a wild thing and his banishment to his bedroom.

“It was a critical scene,” says Schindel. “Gene acted it out and Maurice approved it. The next time Gene came back, it was with a good part of the animated film. We watched that scene together and Maurice said, ‘That’s not how it is at all; I thought it was right at the time, but now that I see it on the big screen, it’s not right.’ We asked him what would be right and he got up and stomped around the room. I remember him saying that Max’s movement should be like Hitler staccato. So we redid the scene. I’d say our relationship with Sendak was something like a wild thing itself. It took us five years to get it all just right.”

That was not the end of the story, however. Years passed, media evolved, and when Schindel wanted to put Where the Wild Things Are onto video, Sendak refused to relinquish the rights. Schindel talked with Sendak’s agent, who revealed that Sendak didn’t like the soundtrack. “I asked him how long Maurice had not liked it, since he and I talked often and he had never said anything about it. He said, ’For years,’” laughs Schindel. “The whole thing got resolved as we were completing In the Night Kitchen. That film was scored and narrated by Peter Schickele, and we were all so pleased with it that I suggested to Maurice that Peter might be able to redo Wild Things to his satisfaction. Peter could, he did, and that meant we could put into distribution around the world a library of films adapted from Sendak’s books.”

In 1995 Schindel agreed to merge Weston Woods with Scholastic, deciding that as he neared eighty himself, it was time to ensure the future of his company. Scholastic’s mammoth global distribution network promised an even wider reach for the company’s film collection, and several Weston Woods personnel, including Schindel’s wife, editorial director Cari Best, have joined the Scholastic staff. Schindel is fully aware that when a company that has been guided for many years by a single hand passes to the leadership of others, vision sometimes dims and quality suffers. His hope is that by merging Scholastic’s acumen with that of staff members like Best, Weston Woods will avoid that fate.

But Morton Schindel declines to retire to a life strolling the twenty-two Connecticut acres that have been his home, as well as his company’s, all these years. He consults regularly with Weston Woods under its new Scholastic umbrella; his Weston Woods Institute works to improve communications for kids, especially in television and video; the Cinemobile he prototyped in the sixties is still alive and well. Nor has he given up on the dream that started it all, a television showcase that would bring Weston Woods’s treasury of stories to family living rooms throughout the world.

It’s been a long way and a long time since he made that first prophetic trip to the New York Public Library, but when Schindel looks back, he can’t spot a single reason for regret. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “We were the first company to make storytelling films to the exclusion of everything else and to base them on quality children’s books. We were the first to buy rights to books on a royalty basis. We invented the iconographic technique. Our Homer Price film The Doughnuts was the first short live action film made for kids in this country.

“My timing couldn’t have been better. If I had started Weston Woods five years before I did, it wouldn’t exist today. I couldn’t have held out financially for the five or seven years it would have taken for it to find its way. And if I had started five years later, somebody else might have bought the rights to all the books.

“I’ve been lucky and I’ve always loved what I do. I’ve loved working with a team of people to make good films. Without the help of animators and directors like Paul Gagne, Michael Sporn, and Virginia Wilkos, an editor like my wife Cari, and the indispensable support of people like Linda Lee, Elisabeth Rommel, Mabel Burke, and Danny Toth, all of these films would never have been made. Together they put in about a hundred years! I’ve spent a lifetime working with wonderful authors and illustrators and publishers, superbly talented directors, musicians, and camera-people. And when the films were finished I got to work with parents, teachers, and librarians to see that they got to all the kids who keep right on seeing them. How can you have it better?”

From the September/October 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

*   *    *

Terri Payne Butler, a former producer of public television for children, is a writer who reviews children’s videos and covers the use of video, broadcast, and cable programming for the classroom.

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