NEW YORK — After 15 years in the animation business, Michael Sporn is an overnight success. He received an Oscar nomination for his short film, "Dr. De Soto" (1985), and directed "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile," which screens on HBO today (8 a.m.) and again Sunday (9 a.m.).
Tony Randall narrates "Lyle," a half-hour special based on "The House on East 88th Street," the first book in Bernard Waber's popular children's series about Lyle the Crocodile. Composer Charles Strouse ("Annie") wrote four songs for the program.
With three other films in production, Sporn is revitalizing the stagnant New York animation industry almost single-handedly.
Like many artists of his generation, the 41-year-old producer/director can't remember when he wasn't interested in animation.
"My mother claims I said cartoon a special way when I was 4," he says. "I was drawing an imitation of Popeye at 7. I started my own version of every animated feature I saw, and began filming my animation in 8-millimeter when I was 12."
Sporn majored in fine arts at the New York Institute of Technology, then spent five years in the Navy, working as a Russian translator and studying art and animation by mail. In 1972, he got the break he'd been waiting for: a chance to work for his hero, the celebrated independent animator John Hubley.
Initially hired for two days, Sporn spent almost six years with Hubley, doubling as an animator and production manager. He worked on the critically acclaimed films "Cockaboody," "Voyage to Next," "People, People, People" and "Everybody Rides the Carousel." In 1976, London-based animation director Richard Williams ("another hero") came to New York and put Sporn in charge of the assistant animators for the lavish feature, "Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy."
His next job was with designer R. O. Blechman, doing animation for the PBS special "Simple Gifts" and numerous commercials. After a full day at Blechman's Ink Tank studio (New York), Sporn would do animation for the Hubleys' "A Doonesbury Special" at night.
"The experience at Blechman's taught me it was time to open my own studio," he explains. "I didn't want to do commercials anymore. When I was unemployed I did some animation of 'Plastic Man' for TV, but it was ruining me--I just thought about the money while I was grinding it out."
He opened Michael Sporn Animation Inc. in January, 1980 in New York. While his first adaptations of children's books were well received in the educational market, it was his work for theatrical designer Tony Walton that attracted the attention of larger audiences. Sporn animated Katz, Harry Guardino's cartoon character for the "So What Else Is New?" number in the musical "Woman of the Year," and did titles for "Prince of the City" and other features.
The Weston Woods Studio contracted Sporn to film "Dr. De Soto," a children's book by cartoonist William Steig about a subtle mouse-dentist who outwits an underhanded fox. To Sporn's surprise, the film won awards at several festivals and received an Oscar nomination.
"The nomination was exciting, but totally unexpected," he says. "I couldn't imagine a film done in such limited animation ever being nominated. When I showed the finished film at our wrap party, nobody laughed. So I was shocked a few months later at the audience's reaction to it at a festival in Toronto, where it won first prize."
He followed "Dr. De Soto" with "The Amazing Bone," another prize-winning film based on a Steig story. Sporn is currently at work on a third Steig project, "Abel's Island," a half-hour program scheduled for Swiss television and American cassette release.
Sporn is also working on the debut film of another popular children's character, "Santabear," which will feature the voices of John Malkovich, Kelly McGillis and jazz musician Bobby McFerrin. He has only three minutes of animation left to do on a personal film based on Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark." James Earl Jones reads the classic nonsense poem, and Sporn is negotiating with avant-garde composer John Adams ("Nixon in China") to write the music.
No one has produced this volume of animation in New York in decades: The U.S. animation industry is centered in Los Angeles. But despite his desire to expand production further, Sporn has no intention of moving to the West Coast.
"There's a large pool of really fine artists in New York," he says. "Many of the assistants from 'Raggedy Ann' are now famous animators, and it's nice to be working with them again. There's a lot of enthusiasm among these young artists. And I have an affinity for the work that's done here; it has a different feel, somehow. I hope to do features here. That's my life's goal, and I think I've reached the point where I'm ready to do one."