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Moving Pictures: bringing children's books to life 

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Animator Michael Sporn remembers the problem with Abel's Island: "There were maybe 50 little black-and-white sketches in the book," he says, "but we had to make the film feel like William Steig. So we got all of his books and tried to figure out how he would draw a winter scene, and how he would draw summer." Sporn was making a half-hour animated movie from Steig's story about a shipwrecked mouse, and he needed the books as references for the things Steig wrote about but didn't illustrate.

Filmmaker Dirk Wales had a similar problem with Ben's Dream, the animated film he made from Chris Van Allsburg's story of the same name. "All you do to make the continuity work in a book is turn the pages," Wales says. "In a film, all those things have to be connected together." So he photocopied the drawings in the book, put them in order, and spent three days making a storyboard that filled in the missing pieces.

"You try to be true to the spirit of the book," Wales says, "but you need to do some adding and subtracting of details to make it work for motion." In Ben's Dream, about a boy who dreams he's traveling around the world, he added a segment at the end that identifies the places he goes, which go unnamed in the book. "I wanted to give the movie additional sense and make it a little more of a geography lesson."

Only a handful of people in this country make animation based on children's books. But Wales, who works out of an office on Fullerton, and Sporn, who works in New York, have earned lists of awards and love-letter reviews for doing exactly that. Both men have films in this year's International Festival of Children's Films, which runs through Sunday at Facets Multimedia Center.

Wales made his first animated children's film nine years ago. His company, Rainbow Productions, had been making corporate films for eight years, and he wanted to start doing something a little more creative. So he started a second company, Made-to-Order Library Productions, with the idea of making children's films.

"I recruited a national advisory council of school librarians and asked them what they needed," he says. A film librarian in Minneapolis suggested he make a film based on Howard, a children's story by New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson. Wales talked to Stevenson, bought the rights to the book, and made a short film out of it called New Friends. A year later he made Ben's Dream.

Sporn got his start working for Weston Woods, a company in Connecticut that makes films for schools and libraries only. When Dr. DeSoto--a film he made based on another William Steig story--earned an Oscar nomination, Sporn's reputation started to grow. In the past seven years, he's made about a dozen animated films based on children's books.

In Wales's films--and most of Sporn's--the animation imitates the book's original illustrations. "A really good animator should be able to duplicate anybody's style," says Wales.

That isn't always easy. In the case of New Friends, Stevenson's watercolor illustrations presented a problem: how to move transparent pastel characters across transparent pastel backgrounds without having the backgrounds show through. The animator Wales hired, Diane Goodrich, solved the problem without violating Stevenson's style.

Sometimes duplicating the book's style exactly is impossible. Despite all his research, Sporn added to Abel's Island at least one element he says Steig would never use: red streaks in the sky during a fight scene that were used for dramatic tension. For The Hunting of the Snark--based on the Lewis Carroll poem, which had been illustrated many times by many people--he decided to design original animation.

Voices, which obviously don't exist in books, are another problem. "I hear a voice in my head that I gear the character around," Sporn says. In New Friends, Patti Deutsch's quiet, occasionally quivering voice is a good match for the washed-out backgrounds and the lead character's timid personality. In The Hunting of the Snark, James Earl Jones's narration makes a spooky poem even spookier.

Translating children's books into animation is expensive and time-consuming, Sporn says, but it's worth it. "We have great literature here. These stories deserve justice."

If the animation is really good, even adults will like it, Wales says. He remembers the reaction to an animated children's film he saw at a film festival a while back: "An audience full of adults stood up and cheered. Not because they're elite film people, but because the child in them responded to a wonderful story." His own two animated films--"made from children's books for the children's market"--play constantly on HBO, which is not a children's market.

Wales hasn't made an animated children's film since Ben's Dream. He can't afford to make very many of them, he says, and he hasn't been able to get the rights to the few books he's been willing to lose money on.

Part of the problem is that there's not much of a market for children's films that don't fit into TV's time slots. Sporn's The Hunting of the Snark, for instance, is 19 minutes long--"a completely unsalable length." To make it more marketable, he's also made a two-minute short from Jabberwocky and a six-minute documentary on Lewis Carroll, and hopes to sell the three as a half-hour package.

Sporn has been a little luckier than Wales; he has three films in the works right now. But he does mostly TV work these days; he can only afford to make films for Weston Woods once a year. Even then, he says, the budgets are so low that he sometimes has to put in his own money.

Wales, meanwhile, has put what he's learned into a workshop on how to make animated films from children's books. He put it together four years ago for a film festival in New York and has given it at a few other festivals since. He'll give it here starting at 10 AM Saturday at Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton; admission is $10, free with a pro-pass. New Friends will show in the second theater at the same time. At 4 Saturday, Sporn will introduce five of his films including Abel's Island, The Hunting of the Snark, and Dr. DeSoto--and answer questions about them afterward. For a complete schedule of festival films, see the Reader's Guide to the Silver Screen in Section Two; for more info call 281-9075.

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