Lillian Friedman Astor

Lillian Friedman drawings

Last year, I was contacted by the person who wrote the Wikipedia entry on Lillian Friedman Astor, the first woman animator in a major American studio.  Much of the information was erroneous and she wanted to correct it.  I then realized that there was little out there that a Wikipedia author could rely on to be factually correct. (Wikipedia does not take kindly to original research and tries to rely on previously published material.) I did refer her to Shamus Culhane’s memoir, Talking Animals and Other People, a scholarly article I wrote for Film History on the 1937 Fleischer strike where she is mentioned in passing, and most importantly a program book for the May 20, 1988 tribute by ASIFA-East  (which admittedly was hard to find).

Culhane, who first discovered her talents when he was at Fleischer, interviewed her for his book and gave me her contact information. I then spoke to her for my PhD dissertation, “Popeye the Union Man,” and The Animation Guild subsequently honored her at their 1987 Golden Awards Banquet for her efforts on behalf of unionism. However, she wrote me that she never understood what all the fuss people were making over her was about until the ASIFA-East tribute, where Culhane and Myron Waldman (the two most important men in her career) were present.

I should add that on Monday, March 28th, Cartoon Research will be posting the Golden Awards video interview I did with her the morning of the banquet, at which time I will also making some more comments.

Anyway, I thought it appropriate at this time to post an Adobe Acrobat version of the ASIFA-East program book. It includes a brief biographical sketch I wrote, along with an even briefer note by Shamus Culhane. It also includes an invaluable “Filmography & Animation Index of Lillian Friedman Astor” compiled by William Lorenzo based on her meticulous personal records.

For those who don’t want to bother with the Acrobat version, below can be found my biographical sketch (with a few typographical corrections) and Culhane’s comments,  and a skeletal version of Lorenzo’s filmography, as well as some post-tribute material from the ASIFA-East Newsletter.

Lillian Friedman Self-Caricature 1936

Lillian Friedman Astor: A Brief Biographical Sketch
By Harvey Deneroff

In 1939, Lillian Friedman Astor wrote in her diary that one of the most important things that happened to her in the last few years was “my joining and working in the interests of a Union.” In fact, Lillian Friedman’s commitment to unionism was one of the main reasons for the premature termination of her career as an animator. However, despite the real difficulties this caused her, the key to her leaving animation was the fact that she was a woman.

Born in New York City on April 12, 1912, the youngest of six children born to Daniel and Ida (Beitch) Friedman, Lillian started drawing at age 12 and later studied commercial art at Wash­ington Irving High School. In July 1930 she and a classmate, Lillian Oremland, got work at a small animation studio doing inking, coloring and inbetweening on a pilot film for a series (“a lovely little fantasy to the music of Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song’”). (This was a time when women rarely got to be more than inkers and opaquers.) She and Oremland then became inbetweeners at Frank Goldman’s Audio Cinema, and through Goldman’s friendship with Max Fleis­cher, were hired as inbetweeners by Fleischer’s in July 1931.

After a few months, Shamus Culhane, “a very fussy animator,” liked her work so much that he made her his assistant in February 1932. “This required,” she recalls, “some very strong persuasion, or as he put it, yelling and screaming. Culhane taught me a great deal about anima­tion, but his greatest contribution was that he encouraged me for the first time to aspire to become an animator.” In April, Culhane’s idea of having assistant animators was abandoned and she went back to inbetweening. However, he continued to encourage Lillian’s aspirations to become an animator. In 1933, Nellie Sanborn, head of the Timing Department, gave her a chance to redo a scene in a Betty Boop film, showed it to Max and Dave Fleischer “without telling them at first that it was done by a girl inbetweener,” and, as a result, in July, she was signed to a three-year contract as an animator.

After a brief stint with Seymour Kneitel’s unit, she joined a new unit led by Myron Waldman. “This was a much happier group for me because they were all younger and newer animators and they accepted me as one of them, whereas in Kneitel’s group they were all hard-bitten and they would make these sarcastic remarks about the girl animator.” Although Culhane was her initial mentor as an animator, it is apparent in talking to her that Lillian Friedman was and is very much a Waldman protégé.

Like other animators in the 1937 Fleischer strike she crossed the picket line; however, her open stand for the Union nevertheless caused her to suffer “all sorts of abuse directly or indi­rectly at the hands of the company, from catcalls from hooligans to being told I could expect no increase in salary as long as I chose to belong to the Union.” After she failed to find ano­ther job after the Studio decided to move to Miami to break the Union, she stayed on only until her husband found work. Thus, in February 1939, she quit to become “a housewife and mommy,” and moved to Troy, New York.

After Shamus Culhane contacted her about his book, Lillian renewed some old friendships in the field. These colleagues all seemed to deplore the fact that she had dropped animation. But the deplorable fact is not that she dropped animation but that animation had dropped her.

Lillian Friedman drawing from Baby Be Good

Shamus Culhane on Lillian Friedman
If Max Fleischer could be called a Victorian boss, the staff in general was just as Victorian. So, when I decided to pick Lillian Friedman out of the inbetweener pool, and make her an assistant animator, the animators rose up in wrath. Their main complaint was that she would inhibit the raunchy language which was the lingua franca of the all-male animation department.

They adamantly refused to allow women into their domain. Obviously there was more to it than their need to use bad language. There was the fact that women were inferior artists, and should be relegated to the inbetween department forever, to do what everybody recognized as non- creative work.

When I suggested that all the inbetweeners who wanted the new job of assistant animator be given the same scene to clean up and inbetween, Lillian’s scene was selected from the group of anonymous work.

Lillian Friedman went on from assistant animator to being a full-fledged animator with a salary significantly less than the male animators were getting, but with a drawing ability that competed with their best efforts.

Shamus Culhane

Lillian Friedman Astor 1987 Golden Awards interview_002

Lillian Friedman Astor Filmography
Compiled by William Lorenzo

The 42 films which Astor animated on, based on her own notes, are listed by year of release and not necessarily when she worked on them. For instance, she did the animation for the first 2 films in 1933 and the third in both ’33 and ’34.  This, I should emphasize is only a skeletal version of Lorenzo’s original filmography, which includes descriptions and length of each scene she animated, the total footage for each film and each film’s working title.

Can You Take It (1934) (Popeye)
Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934)
Betty Boop’s Trial (1934)
Love Thy Neighbor (1934) (Screen Songs)
There’s Something About a Soldier (1934) (Betty Boop)
Betty Boop’s Little Pal (1934)
Betty Boop’s Prize Show (1934) (Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Keep In Style (1934) (Betty Boop)
When My Ship Comes In (1934) (Betty Boop)
Baby Be Good (1935) (Betty Boop)
Taking the Blame (1935) (Betty Boop)
Stop That Noise (1935) (Betty Boop)
No! No! A Thousand Times No! (1935) (Betty Boop)
A Little Soap and Water (1935) (Betty Boop)
A Language All My Own (1935) (Betty Boop)
Judge for a Day (1935) (Betty Boop)
Making Stars (1935) (Betty Boop)
Betty Boop with Henry, the Funniest Living American (1935)
Little Nobody (1936) (Betty Boop)
Betty Boop and The Little King (1936)
Not Now (1936) (Betty Boop)
Betty Boop and Little Jimmy (1936)
Hawaiian Birds (1936) (Color Classic)
You’re Not Built That Way (1936) (Betty Boop)
Training Pigeons (1936) (Betty Boop)
Be Human (1936) (Betty Boop) ((Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Making Friends (1936) (Betty Boop)
Bunny Mooning (1937) (Betty Boop)
Pudgy Takes a Bow-Wow (1937) (Betty Boop) (Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Pudgy Picks a Fight (1937) (Betty Boop)
The Candid Candidate (1937) (Betty Boop)
Peeping Penguins (1937) (Color Classic)
The New Deal Show (1937) (Betty Boop) (Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Educated Fish (1937) (Color Classic) (Academy Award Nominee)
Riding the Rails (1938) (Betty Boop)
Honest Love and True (1938) (Betty Boop) (Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Pudgy and the Lost Kitten (1938) (Betty Boop) (Lillian Friedman Screen Credit)
Hunky and Spunky 1938 (Color Classic) (Academy Award Nominee)
All’s Fair at the Fair (1938) (Color Classic)
The Playful Polar Bears (1938) (Color Classic)
Always Kickin’ (1939) (Color Classic)
Rhythm on the Reservation (1939) (Betty Boop)
Barnyard Brat (1939) (Color Classic)

The ASIFA-East Tribute
The tribute was held on May 20, 1988, at 6:00pm, at New York University’s George Barry Theatre and was hosted by Howard Beckerman, who later wrote me that,

After several months of arranging it came about last Spring. We brought Lillian and her husband [Nat] down from Albany and put them up for a night at the Gramercy Park Hotel. We had an excellent attendance at the NYU auditorium where the screening was held. We were able, through Bill Lorentz, [to] get films that she had worked on including one with screen credit. Shamus Culhane and Myron Waldman were some of the oldtimers in among many young enthusiastic fans and some people that came through an announcement in the Village Voice. It was a fine evening. After the screening we had some wine and cheese and people who had never been to an ASIFA meeting before went away all warm and excited about animation.

The Anymator: The ASIFA-East Newsletter, in its report on the evening said:

The May 20 Tribute to Lillian Friedman Astor was standing room only! A wonderful crowd greeted our special guest with great warmth as she shared her memories of the early animation studios of her time.


When accepting the award Lillian reflected: “I really must thank ASIFA for doing this. It’s been a very special occasion for me, but I feel a little as though I don’t deserve it, but, I think that, that young girl…who did work hard and try to succeed…and for both of our sakes, I gratefully thank you very much.”

Other special guests that took part in discussions were Shamus Culhane, producer, director, animator, and Lillian’s early ‘mentor’ and Myron Waldman, Director, animator and Lillian’s director.

The Anymator also published this letter:

May 25, 1988
I’ve been on CLOUD 9 since last Friday night, and I don’t know when — or if — my feet will touch ground again. But I didn’t want too much time to elapse before I thanked the Board of ASIFA EAST for arranging such a memorable evening for me.

A combination of “Queen for a Day,” “This is Your Life,” and “Oscar Night” comes close to describing it. In my wildest dreams I never expected there would be such a large turnout and such an outpouring of warmth and enthusiasm.

The beautiful certificate will find its place on what I call my WALL OF FAME. So far it consists of a couple of my own works, and a representation of each of my seven grand­children. I think they will enjoy seeing it and knowing where they come from, just as I enjoy seeing them grow up and turn out well.

Nat joins me in thanking the ASIFA Board.

All in all, it was well worth waiting 55 years for some­thing I never expected to happen………………………… to happen!

Best Regards,


The drawings are all by Astor and are taken from the ASIFA-East tribute book. The photo is a frame grab from the video interview I did the morning of the 1987 Golden Awards Banquet.

Frank Terry: An Interview at CalArts

Frank Terry at CalArts 19 September 2000

Animation producer and educator Frank Terry passed away on February 11th. I must admit to not having really known Terry, and would refer you to the Animation Scoop blog post about him here, which include comments from people who knew him, as well as the CalArts blog post here. However, I did have the pleasure of interviewing him for a story for Animatoon, the Korean animation magazine, in his role of Director of the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts.  It was one of a series of stories I did on CalArts over the years on both the Experimental and Character Animation programs. The interview was conducted on September 19, 2000 in his office. What follows is an edited version of it. I started the tape as we began talking about the school’s Community Arts Partnership program.

Frank Terry: When I took over the directorship, I was extended the opportunity over the animation side of the Community Arts Partnership CalArts has with various partners. In other words, various community and cultural affairs sites who contract with CalArts, provide the space, go out of their way to attract the community. CalArts provides the faculty, the curriculum and the training at no cost to the community members. They can receive virtually university training, for heavens sake, for free. A lot of times, the programs are tailored to the age groups and experience levels

Harvey Deneroff: Are you having a session in Canoga Park, too?

FT: We used to have a session in Encino, at the Encino Media Center; in fact, we were the ones who put the Media into the Media Center over there. Which then became the bedrock, or the guiding principal for the Los Angeles City Electronics Arts Academy that they installed all over the place. But we have well regarded programs running at Inner City right now Mondays and Wednesdays for the elementary school kids; and then on Saturday as well down at Inner City for the high school students who are …

HD: My daughter’s 11 years old and there’s very little arts training available for kids.

FT: Extraordinarily little.

HD: She takes cello lessons and has a Russian émigré teacher who used to be vice president of the Conservatory, but you can’t get that sort of quality in art teaching.

FT: Yes and on top of that it, of course, impacts us here at the university level, because the portfolios that come to us reflect that absence of very early childhood training. And the students are working doubly hard to try to catch back up. In many cases, it’s an almost insurmountable battle, simply because of the fact that a great deal of foundation needs to be laid at in their childhood.

HD: Do Europeans do better at this?

FT: Much better, much better. The students that come from Korea, the students that come from Europe, so on and so forth, they’re always far better, as far as the product they’re offering for submission for entering the department.

HD: How early should students be training?

FT: Right from day one.  From the earliest day on they should be slowly but surely simply walking … more and more discipline, more and more control. There shouldn’t be a 6th grade start, there shouldn’t be a 11th grade start, or whatever. You just simply cannot start them too soon. The arts are a part of our natural self. We pay the penalty. We get a lot of portfolios that [where] you can see the desire of the student, but they have no skill. And we have such a large demand on such few spaces that even with the best intention, we simply can’t trust ourselves to them. So those folks are suggested to go back to the community college level or find art training themselves and resubmit their portfolios the following year. It’s a big problem and it it gets more profound every year as the students are really now starting to hit us from that period of time when American education completely ignored the arts.

HD: I’m lucky, in a sense, my daughter is starting middle school this year and is in a school where they have one period a day devoted to music. But art is not a full blown program.

FT: It’s a thorny problem, because eventually it’s going to affect everything that’s done. The justification for this was that old silly nonsensical thing where you really have to concentrate on the sciences, because that’s the primary sort of export, if you will, or the primary sort of reputation that the Americans have to the rest of the globe. They completely overlook the fact that entertainment is the number two export for God’s sakes.

HD: My wife is an artist who going for her Ph.D. in Science Education, but she feels very strongly that arts are extremely important for science education.

FT: Well, they are.

HD: There’s a lot of creativity involved in science.

FT: On top of that, it is such a predominant export now, that we’re having to turn to citizens outside of the United States to provide the technical support to get the work done, and that doesn’t make sense.

HD: Yesterday, I got an email from some parent whose son or daughter is going to go to college, and his main concern is which school has the best deal in terms of recruiting, to which I wanted to say, if that’s all you really think about, then you’ve lost it.

FT: Yes. Quite honestly, our response to the students now, as they come in, is simply, If you’re thinking of a good salary, then please go back to admissions and find yourself something else to do. You have to really enjoy the art to the point of loving it to be able to survive and advance and succeed, simply because it’s not money-based, it’s not these outrageous salaries.

HD: I think it’s the parents, I hope it’s the parents.

FT: So do I.

HD: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

FT: I came to CalArts simply at the invitation of the Director who was here at the time, because I had taught her — that directly. A young woman by the name of Rebecca [Becky] Bristow. I taught her how to animate. She came to me as a very talented student in a studio I was working at at the time. I sat her down and had a lot of work that was going on, sat her down and had her start animating, and suddenly realized that she had an immense amount of talent, but that she didn’t know how to animate. I spent quite a bit of time with her trying to get the conceptual idea of what animation is all about under the belt, so that she could really bring these characters alive, and especially in doing what I had done all my life, which is short film, which is television commercial work. And she did! Boy, one day she suddenly sat back and said, “I got it!” I understand what you’re talking about.”

So, she gave me a call and said, “I’m looking for somebody to do a character design class. Would you be interested?” And at the time it was just at an odd enough period where the workload at the studio was not so profound.

HD: What studio were you working for? Was it your own?

FT: At that time, I was working on my own, Terry X2.

HD: Did Marv Newland work for you?

FT: Yep. Marv came out of the Spungbuggy days, when I was partner with Herb Stott, as did Bill Kroyer, as did, oh, a whole raft of folks:  Randy Acres, who now is teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design, Gary Katona, who the last time I touched base with him, was still down at Disney Special Events, on and on and on. I mean, there was a raft of really bright young men that came out of that period.

I’ve been in the industry since ‘64. I spent a brief amount of time exploring TV production, but found that I really preferred being a participant with a lot of the shots that use up my time and ended up with a small commercial advertising production house in the Netherlands; actually, because I had started off doing work on the old Beatles cartoon series; actually, I was a student. The studio I was working with was picking up overload material from TVC [in London]. So, there were about 6 or 8 or 10 of  ‘em that were actually produced in Holland for London and subsequently for the Americas, out of which I got my fingers into about 4 of them.

Then I came back and spent virtually all the time since then exclusively doing television advertising work, out of preference. Preference because I like the pace; I like the design challenges; I like the sense of hand-on directorship that we used to have. It doesn’t quite exist anymore. And the studios we ran really attracted a lot of good people and that was a lot of fun.

Six years ago, Becky called. I came up and started teaching. Second semester, I ended up teaching two classes. Then she left and I was offered the directorship and I thought,” Oh, well, why not?” So, I have been running the shop up here for the last four years, this is starting my fifth year. So, as a professional educator, and I must admit that it’s getting to be that, because the demand in this office is such that I’ve had to almost completely ignore the studio, far more than I would like.  Somebody had to give and I felt a moral obligation to this place, for the students’ sake, rather than going back into the studio and trying to get it back up and running. So this ended up being a full-time preoccupation for me.

So, as a professional educator, I’ve got a grand total of 6 years, but I’ve always taught. Everybody used to always say, “Oh, you should be a teacher.” Nonsense! I’m not a teacher! But I’ve found, apparently, that I can indeed do that, have the the understanding that it takes to get that abstract information across. So, it’s turned out to be a very comfortable thing to do.

HD: How old is the Character Animation program?

FT: The program actually started with Jack Hannah, the first director in 1975.

HD: And everybody had to draw …

FT: … Donald Duck. Yes, that’s right, because he was a Disney shorts guy. That was 1975 to 1984. After him came Bob McCrea, who ran the shop until ‘86. Then from ‘86 to ‘91, Robert Winquist came on board and basically turned it around from being predominantly a training ground for assistant animators into more of a traditional art school environment that he was more comfortable with. (Actually, he was  responding to what the university was asking of him.) He left in ‘91. Glen Vilppu ran it from ‘91 to ‘94, and then Becky picked it up from ‘94 to ‘96. And I’ve been here since I started in that ‘96 semester. So, it started in ‘75 as a character and traditional feature …

HD: And it was the Disney organization that …

FT: Yes. It very definitely was. There were two and continues to be two programs here at CalArts. One is Experimental and one is Character. The differentiation between us continues to be there, although narrowed substantially. We’re not primarily a training ground for feature films anymore. Feature has been under such a profound pressure from the marketplace.

There was an insightful thing that happened to me when I first took over the department. I was invited to go down to a fair that was being run at the Disney Studios. I saw the material they had on their development board, all the planned work that they had ahead for themselves. I realized that they were confronted, as advertising was, with having to come up with a different look, different feel, different image, different approach, etc., etc., that the marketplace would not tolerate. Just simply the same old product being produced. In that respect, it was a very comfortable environment for me. That’s exactly what I had spent all my life doing was finding and staying connected to what the society was doing and what it was looking at and how it would respond to certain imagery. So, taking over the directorship from that kind of a venue was an easy task for me, rather than having to come from feature and understanding what the pressures are and what the influences were. The pressures in feature is no different than in commercial work. In fact, animation is animation, period, whether you’re doing festival films or whatever, it’s identical. It really is.

So, coming up and getting started then was a fairly easy transition. The difficult thing, of course, was learning the school, the environment, the politics,  how the administrative aspect ran, and so on and so forth. But the differentiation between Experimental and ourselves really can be articulated more as to what it has evolved into for myself.

Character animation for me is not character animation so much as it is narrative theater. We really are here to help storytellers. We’re here to devise ways that stories work better. We’re here to literally have animation be not merely motion art, as perhaps Experimental would in its more traditional approaches. Experimental animation indeed comes out of the exploratory periods of experimental work, out of the ‘50s —  the whole intellectual exercise of image progression constitutes, and indeed it does, constitutes the appropriate process for the viewer. We continue to come out of the preeminent sort of reconfiguration of what it takes to tell a story.

While to tell a story, especially with a drawn image, is not just a simple thing where you just sort of write it and present it. You really do have to know what you’re writing. You do have to know how you’re going to illustrate it. You have to know the interconnectabilities of the process. In fact, we’re now getting to the point where I’m insisting that we reconceptualize where the idea of style or design comes from for narrative theater. Indeed, I’ve begun arguing that the design look for narrative theater comes out of acting, and that acting is a direct ramification of the story; and that is a direct ramification of the way you actually draw something. So, the interconnectability of these three indeed become where the style comes from. But in practical fact, it comes from acting first.

If you have a charming piece of storytelling and good acting, you could almost get away with any kind of style that goes along with it.

HD: Like reading the telephone book?

FT: Yeah. Right. So, it is indeed the energy of understanding how to make that thing come alive that is really the push this year. I have quietly challenged the students not only to stick their necks out to try different approaches, but very definitely get deeply into acting. Make the actors really come alive, so that we have an opportunity to see too much, too little, just right. As a department, we have the opportunity to explore the medium better than anybody else does. We don’t have the market pressures. We don’t have the fail/succeed pressures. This is a unique kind of lab configuration — any university is where things can be tried, so try ‘em. Get out there and help your industry along. Do some exploring. That’s really where we are at the moment.

HD: I’ve known Jules Engel [founding Director of CalArts’ Experimental Animation program] for many years and the last time I spoke to him about this, he  complained about the disparity; but he almost said the same thing as you, that the differences have become very narrow, which he thinks is for the best.

FT: Yes and they should be narrow. There really should be only one animation department. If you want to have two secondary configurations, that’s perfectly fine, and absolutely appropriate. A certain amount of festival film activity should be focused in on.

HD: It’s hard to break with a tradition that’s been around so long.

FT: Once it’s in place …

HD: I’ve seen it in so many walks of life, where somebody comes in and says, ‘”Let’s change this” and it’s institution, it’s in the bones. And you can’t break that.

FT: Too many agendas. Too many reasons. There’s too many this, that and the other thing. I’ve tried for three years now to put animation under its own roof, under its own guise, because I really have come out of a whole professional career that had been very involved with live action and animation; and quite honestly, as much as they deliver in the same medium, they are two completely opposed sides of the pole. And you can’t have one governing the other. As a matter of fact, the animation departments really need to be a school unto themselves [rather than being part of CalArts’ School of Film/Video], because they are such a profound different part in everything else.

HD: There’s too much water under the bridge.

FT: Much too much and everything else that goes along with it.

HD: What’s your enrollment these days? It’s mostly an undergraduate program, isn’t it?

FT: Character Animation is totally an undergraduate program. We have been trying to conceptualize and put together some sort of a graduate program, because we’re slowly getting to the point where it can take the Character student, as it does the Experimental student, on into a masters’ degree program.  We do have students right now in the Experimental. We do have students right now in Directing for Film, which is kind of character or narrative theater in live action. And their programs, in many respects, are live action extensions of the ones we have here. So, it is that kind of natural progression for some of our students to attempt to get their masters’ through that, rather than through Experimental.

Currently, our enrollment is very much the way it has been, the mid-150s to the very low 160s. But I must admit, and this is completely unofficial, I really would like to see the department drop down to about 120 people, 30 to a class. Simply so that we can increase the instructor-to-student ratio to the point where you do have real close one-to-one contact.

Right now, if you look at the roles, we probably have the best student-to-instructor ratio going, but to me it’s still too distant. Classes are still just a fraction too big. So, I really do want to get the size of the department down. We’re trying to do something that will take an undergraduate student and really turn them into a very valued employee when they leave here. To do that, requires us working very closely with each one, because each, as good as they may be to get in here — and the portfolios have to be exceptional — each one is different; and each one needs a different amount of focus from the faculty. And you can’t do that when you have a class of 30 or more students around. You can’t see where their weaknesses are and be able to spend the time to get them to strengthen those areas. I do really want to increase the skill level, as well as the conceptual level of the graduates. The program really is an odd mixture between the practical training as well as the conceptual; an odd configuration between the arts school and a trade school.

HD: Any art school has to do that.

FT: Yes. We cannot turn our back to the trade. At the same time, to focus only on the trade is to do the students a disservice, because then why are they spending the money when they could go to Sheridan for a fraction of the cost and get the same training and the same opportunity. We’ve had to really seriously analyze where we were, what we were structuring. So, it’s really important to us to stress both sides of it. It’s also a nightmare to do it that way. We walk away from a formalized way of doing it — this is what layout is, this is what a field chart is, this is where your margin notes go, and so on and so forth.  What are you doing with that picture? How are you telling a story? How do you get it to cross? Why are you going to cut to a close-up? You walk into a form of education that is less able to pin something up on the wall and say, Look how brilliant we are!, which a trade school can do, because everybody is following the regimen and the program, to something where you’re trying to pull out of an individual a real serious core understanding, a centrist understanding, so they can be creative. That doesn’t necessarily always lead to an easy way for the instructors or the students. I honestly believe and the majority of the instructors agree with me, it does deliver a better student to the industry. We have a few instructors who really think we ought to be stressing the trade side of it far more and ignore the rest.

HD: You can have an evening school for that.

FT: We definitely do have an evening school. We have an evening school and a day school. In fact, the curriculum here is exhausting. It starts at 9:00 in the morning and goes to 10:00 at night. And therein lies the conundrum of this department, because it really does put a strain on me trying to keep day and night school as one school, without it suddenly becoming separated. It’s real easy for the student to think in terms of the day school being the art and the night school being the trade. What I’m trying to do is get even the instructors to reinforce the conceptual, reinforce the thinking, reinforce the fact that [you] draw a square around us, but what does that square represent and how does this scene going to affect the viewer? Think about it. Don’t just simply learn the processes of story morning, noon and so on and so forth. It is a profoundly complex curriculum because of the daytime/nighttime. The nighttime is here specifically to draw the best out of the industry to teach, because I have found that when you find academicians trying to teach, they’re not necessarily aware of what’s going on in the marketplace as acutely as somebody who’s trying to survive there.

The way the first year curriculum is constructed is to try to give the student as a broad a base exposure as possible. The second year we start tightening them up a little up on skill level. By the time they get to the third year, they not only should have mastered lip synch, better acting and more profound storytelling, but they’ve also got to be able to apply that to somebody else’s character.

You take a tramp, or whatever character you want. Go to the book of character models that we’ve got, pick a character. Now you have to animate that character. The same assignment that an animator would get in a real place and make it believable, make it convincing — do the acting, do the storytelling, stay on model, etc., etc.

Michael Sporn: An Interview

Michael SpornAs 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.)

Doctor De Soto












Harvey Deneroff: Where were you born?

Michael Sporn: New York.

HD: Manhattan?

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?

MS: Right.

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 [1975], 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?

MS: Yes.

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.

HD: Locally?

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.

MS: Yes.

HD: It’s very New York, or East Coast.

MS: Right.

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.

The Red Shoes


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.].

MS: Right.

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.


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.

MS: Yes.

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?

MS: Yes.

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.

MS: Right.

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 [1992], 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 …

The Little Match Girl

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.

Ira Sleeps Over

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 [1981] 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.

MS: Yeah.

Abel's Island