As a number of my readers know by now, Michael Sporn, a long-time fixture of New York animation passed away on January 19th. I recall him describing himself (I believe it was at a Walter Lantz Animation conference in Los Angeles) as something like an independent animator working in a commercial environment. That spirit of independence and his love of good filmmaking infused not only his many wonderful short films and TV specials, but also his invaluable Splog.
I don’t think I met Michael more than once or twice, and then only in passing. However, I did occasionally exchange emails and he was always supportive of my own blogging efforts. I feel rather helpless in trying to evaluate him with the same authority of many of his friends and colleagues; for now, I strongly recommend Mark Mayerson’s remembrance. What I can do is post a slightly edited transcript of a phone interview I did in preparation for my profile of his studio, Michael Sporn Animation, Inc., for the September 1993 issue of The Animation Report, an industry newsletter I published in the ‘90s.
The interview was designed to fill in the blanks for information I needed on his studio, how he ran it and his production philosophy beyond what he had sent me, and was not meant to stand by itself. However, I thought it might be of some interest. It was done on Monday, 19 July 1993 starting about 1:00 pm. (The images are taken from Sporn’s website and Splog.)
Harvey Deneroff: Where were you born?
Michael Sporn: New York.
MS: Manhattan. I was raised in Manhattan and The Bronx, and I’ve lived here all my life, except during the service, I guess, I was everywhere but New York. [Laughs]
HD: What high school did you go to?
MS: Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School for Boys.
HD: And you went to the New York Institute of Technology?
HD: Is that the only college you went to?
MS: Yes, it was the only school at the time in New York that offered a degree with animation courses. Other schools offered animation courses, but no degree connected with it.
HD: When did you graduate?
MS: I graduated in ‘67. There were no animation courses, as it turned out, when I went there, but I liked the Fine Art teachers, so I stayed in Fine Arts.
HD: That’s before they started developing their computer [animation] program?
MS: Right. I ended up going back there to work, I guess, when they produced Tubby the Tuba , an animated feature. And I worked for the first six weeks on that until I decided they were so incompetent I walked.
HD: Johnny Gent [John Gentilella] was there?
HD: Johnny worked at Fleischer with my father.
MS: Yeah, I had actually interviewed him with Mike Barrier quite a while ago and he spent all his time talking about the Van Buren Studio, which was kind of fun.
HD: Has the studio always been at your current address?
MS: No, in fact, we moved quite a bit. It keeps getting larger. It started out on 30th Street and 5th Avenue and I always stayed within the 30s, right off 5th Avenue. So, the other three locations were there, and then found that by moving downtown I could double the space for about half the rent.
HD: How much space do you have now?
MS: I have 2,500 square feet.
HD: Do you own the studio by yourself?
MS: Yes. I did have a partner [Maxine Fisher], who was the writer and an officer of the company. She still does all the scriptwriting, or predominantly. She had 30% of the company.
HD: She still does?
MS: No, up until April of this year, then I took over the whole thing.
HD: How much of a staff do you have on a full-time basis?
MS: I usually keep about 12 people on staff and it’s gotten up, if I have like 2 films going, it’s about 25 people.
HD: Do you do everything in-house?
MS: Everything except camera. I have a service I’ve worked with since 1980.
HD: Is the company a corporation?
MS: Yes, Michael Sporn Animation Inc.
HD: What sort of equipment do you have in-house?
MS: We have complete editing facilities for both 16mm and 35mm film. We have a Lyon Lamb, of course, and a lot of drawing tables mostly art production.
HD: Do you use computers at all?
MS: Not at all, except for word processing and office, financial aspects, projecting costs and that type of thing
HD: What kind of computers do you use?
MS: IBM. We’ll probably be going into using Macs, because I just want to play with it for a bit — more visual graphics ability.
HD: So the only thing you subcontract out is camera, then?
MS: Camera generally. There were a couple of films we’ve subcontracted ink and paint, two half-hours.
MS: Yes. The company has moved down to Virginia, though, Chelsea Animation. She did Santabear’s High Flying Adventures [CBS, 1987] she did while she was in New York and she did Earthday Birthday [HBO, 1990].
HD: I wanted to ask you about your techniques. Traditional cel animation is not the common thing you do. How would you describe your animation?
MS: Well, I describe it as cel animation, but it’s more illustrator-oriented. So that, where you’re trying to get more of a graphic look to it, with textures, a lot of textures involved in the final look. And we do this with any medium available to us. So, from film to film, we’ll change from watercolor to colored pencil to colored chalks or oil paint.
HD: Do you use it all eventually on cels?
MS: It’s all done on paper and then cut out and pasted to cel, predominantly, yes.
HD: It looks like cut outs, a lot of it.
HD: It’s very New York, or East Coast.
HD: I could guess that you worked for the Hubleys before even reading your bio?
MS: I worked with them from 1971 through ‘76, I guess, through John’s last film. I was sort of a production manager, animator, assistant, whatever they needed at the time. I coordinated their studio, pretty much, for those years.
HD: I must say, seeing The Red Shoes [HBO, 1989] over and over again, you really do have a New York … I mean, it makes me nostalgic for New York.
MS: Well, I mean, I actually try to blend the urban landscape, and since I live in New York, I feature New York; I blend it into my films. So, The Red Shoes became an urban film, just because I did it, I guess.
HD: Well, Hans Christian Anderson lived in Copenhagen?
MS: Yes, Copenhagen. But the original story is more in a village. But, I mean, I try to bring New York into a lot of the films, though.
HD: There’s also, the sort of approach to animation which is the sort of distinctly New York , which is developed I guess, by the Hubleys, who were the key in that respect.
MS: John was an enormous influence on my life.
HD: Even [R.O.] Blechman, in a sense, has that sort of very graphic, illustrator look. That’s a really good way of putting it. There’s also an approach to your use of Broadway-style music and songs, which is different from the musicals that are written out here [in L.A.].
HD: There are other aspects, you know, John Canemaker has this sort of feel too, and a lot of others. You’ve never made a co-production with any studio before, have you?
MS: No, I guess not. I can’t think of any offhand.
HD: I assume, in terms of animation, you’re nonunion.
MS: Correct. I started out, actually, sort of bordering on the union fence, and it ended up my just staying nonunion.
HD: I assume you use SAG for your actors?
MS: Yes, SAG or AFTRA, depending on the project.
HD: AFTRA for TV?
MS: Yes, HBO has the AFTRA contract, I guess. In New York, you can get away with that more than in California. I mean, we’re a signatory of all acting unions, anyway.
HD: What are your budgets on your films? I mean, they’re obviously not high end.
MS: Yes, they varied from about $135,000 to maybe $300,000. I don’t think you’ve seen anything for $300,000. Santabear’s High Flying Adventure was up there. But The Red Shoes was $135,000.
HD: These are for half hour films?
MS: Yes, yes. They vary. They’ve increased now. We just did The Country Mouse [and the City Mouse: A Christmas Tale (Random House/HBO, 1993)], that was $265,000, I think.
HD: OK. So, you’re sort of middle, somewhat low middle.
HD: I usually ask nonunion places how their salaries compare to union shops, but they’re not many union shops left in New York.
MS: Mine are actually comparable to minimum wages in the union. I obviously don’t offer the pension and welfare benefits, but the salaries are equal to the union minimums in New York.
HD: But they haven’t gone up in five years.
MS: Yes, I know, right! But we have a 35-hour week.
HD: . You still maintain that?
HD: That’s interesting. The 35-hour week came about because of all the overtime that was going on during the heyday of commercials, when overtime would go on forever.
MS: Right. I’m not even sure the union still maintains the 35-hour week, but, I sort of like it.
HD: Well, if you work in any job in New York, you sort of expect a 35-hour work week, anyway.
HD: Are you doing anything right now?
MS: We’re doing one half hour for HBO, which is a docudrama based on an actual incident of two children that were whitewashed, they’re black children who are painted white by a gang and how they adapt to this horrible situation. [Whitewash, 1995.] And we just started five 6-minute films for UNICEF [A Time Of Adventure] and scripting six half-hours for HBO.
HD: So, you’re really busy?
MS: We will be once the six half-hours go into production; they are actually going into production in ‘94. I’m hoping to do the voices prior to that. But there are other things which are going to probably bury us.
HD: I know you have a small studio, but do you have any sort of particular approach to managing it and working with the artists?
MS: Yes. The studio, overall, is very tightly run. I mean, the people, Masako Kanayama is a production coordinator, so every drawing is used; because the budgets are tight, we have to very closely, closely control every aspect of it. The people have been here awhile, so they know how we do everything. I tightly watch how the animation is done, but at the same time, I give the animators a lot of freedom. They get very loose layouts, for the most part, so that they can act their way out of the paper bag that I give them. And they have as much control as they want, really, given the restrictions of the storyboard.
HD: You’re obviously not organized along department lines in the studio.
MS: Not really, I mean, it’s very personal, because it’s small. It’s a big open space, too, so, everybody knows what everybody else is doing, rather than have rooms or partitioned off.
HD: You were mentioning how much Weston Wood was giving you per minute on a film. It doesn’t seem to be enough to cover your production costs, is it?
MS: No, it’s not.
HD: So, what do you do?
MS: I’ll feed my own money into it. The thing with the Weston Woods projects is that I have as much time as I need to make them. So, I’ll put them into between the half-hours; so whenever things are quite in the studio, people will work on those. Since they’ve been paying so little, I’ve actually, with the last film I did, Monty , I just bought the rights to the book myself, and just did it myself, and then offered it to them, and got a better percentage, a residual from them, to distribute it. So, I’m hoping to ultimately make more money from that than I would on the other films.
HD: In one of the stories, you said you wanted to make features. Is that still an ambition for you?
MS: Oh, yes, yes, very much so. I feel like I started in shorts and keep getting longer, so that hopefully, I’ll just make a feature, whether I finance it myself or have other people do it.
HD: How much do you think you would need to make a feature?
MS: I certainly can do it for a million.
HD: You and John Matthews should get together, another the million dollar name.
MS: Well Paul Fierlinger, in Philadelphia, is actually doing one for American Playhouse [Drawn from Memory.] His studio is actually somewhat similar to mine.
HD: How much did Blechman spend on his one hour special, A Soldier’s Tale?
MS: He spent about $1.25 million; that’s a guess, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate. And I think he had like $550,000.
HD: It’s hard for some studios in Los Angeles to do it all in Los Angeles.
MS: I think if they wanted to do it, they could do it. They don’t want to do it. And that’s why it has to go overseas.
HD: Well, some of it is going overseas to places like A-Film in Denmark, which is not necessarily cheaper.
MS: Right. I had a talk with a number of the Hanna-Barbera people. They came to my studio a little while ago. I just think there’s too much fat in a company like that. They just waste the money, more than… they can keep it tightly run.
HD: You’re comparing it to yourself?
MS: Yes, of course. But at the same time, I think if you’re talking about $12 million, you’re talking about a lot of that $12 million being wasted. I mean, you certainly could do it in California for that.
HD: What is it. Michael Jackson and David Kirschner are partnered to make films for Turner Films, it’s sort of an adjunct to Hanna-Barbera, and their budgets are $40 million.
MS: Apparently, they’re talking about involving computer animation and all this stuff. I mean, as soon as you mention the word computer, you’re talking about …
HD: I know, it’s very fashionable.
MS: I mean, they just did the first season of Beavis and Butthead for MTV and they computer-colored it. I mean, the whole thing is two drawing cycles. What the hell do you have to color that by computer? It’s fashionable. That’s the only reason they wanted it. I prefer noncomputer stuff. It’s just my…
HD: I can see computer ink and paint coming on eventually. It offers more advantages than just inking and painting.
MS: Sure. I mean, at the moment, I don’t think they’ve got it down pricewise, anyway. Unless you’re doing shading and airbrushing and whatever, I mean the way Disney has been doing it on their features, and if it’s part of the look.
HD: The advantage I see, initially, is that once you feed you’re animation in their, you build up sort of a data bank of animation, which you can then modify or change, which, especially, on a series, can be very time …
MS: Also, the camera move ins and you have the multiplane look that was really nice.
HD: Do you have any particular project in mind for a feature?
MS: I’ve had a couple. The stuff I’m interested in is more adult. I did a modern version of Thumbelina, which I was trying to sell through WGBH for awhile, called Thumbelina Potts, which is her last name in the show. And I guess we sort of abandoned it when Don Bluth finally got back together.
HD: At one time there were actually three different versions being planned.
MS: I know, that was sort of what led me away from it.
HD: I saw some of the sketches for the Hyperion version, which wasn’t too bad, actually.
MS: I know, and they had William Finn, who had already done Ira Sleeps Over [HBO, 1992] for me and was doing The Puppy [The Poky Little Puppy’s First Christmas (Showtime/Western Publishing, 1992)], he was writing the songs. He was trying to talk me into teasing one of his songs from Thumbelina that he had written and had been dropped from the film.
For years, I tried to get the John Gardner novel, Grendel made into a feature, and then that was taken by some Australians, I think, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel and destroyed that book. I stayed friends with John Gardner and we were pushing In The Suicide Mountains for awhile, another novel of his which was actually getting very close with United Artists, until they split up. It was The Heaven’s Gate period and everything. So, I mean, you just try and develop these things. You have to ride with the film business, I suppose.
HD: So, you want to make a feature for theatrical release?
MS: Yes, of course. I mean, the most likely way I can see doing it is by doing it for television somehow. Right now, we’re doing these six shows for HBO that are taken from great American literature: an Edgar Alan Poe story, a Nathaniel Hawthorne, for six different authors, and adapting these for half hour shows. I actually thought of taking one of them and building it, so that maybe doing a half hour version of Moby Dick, which for theaters could be a feature and sort of finance it myself.
My prime interest, I think, when I do these things, because they are low budget, is to concentrate on the story. And that is where the problems have been on every feature I think done in the last 10 years.
HD: Nobody knows how to write. There’s very little teaching of it in animation schools.
MS: Well, to me, the problem is that most people writing for animation are either sitcom writers or they are animators who really aren’t writers, they’re cartoonists.
HD: Steve Hulett, who’s the business agent of the union in L.A., used to be a writer for Disney. When he went over to work at Filmation, he says he used to sneak into to see the layout people and some others, so he could get an idea of what the visuals were, because the writers there were just compartmentalized and most of the writers didn’t know what they were doing. As a result, he said his scripts were better. Now there’s a tendency with people like John Kricfalusi to try to get storyboard artists, at least, team up with writers from the very beginning.
MS: I know Disney was doing that with the jungle feature they’re doing now.
HD: Although, Michael Eisner still doesn’t like to look at storyboards.