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Russian-American Collaboration 'People' Celebrates Differences and Global Unity

October 24, 1995|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if we were all alike? Would that put a stop to quarrels and fights? A new animated family adventure, "People," explores the tricky question of diversity with some global diversity of its own: The film, four years in the making, is a collaboration between an American production company and a Russian animation studio.

Based on Peter Spier's best-selling illustrated book, the ambitious full-length cartoon from New York-based Lightyear Entertainment features animation by Klassika Studio Moscow, narration by Hume Cronyn and James Earl Jones and musical performances by Peabo Bryson, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Grover Washington Jr., Lea Salonga, Vanessa Williams, Dave Koz and Heavy D.

"People" airs at 7 tonight on the Disney Channel and will be available on home video from WarnerVision on Nov. 14.

Endorsed by the United Nations as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the film combines animation, music and message. It presented an enormous challenge, according to Joshua M. Greene, vice president of Lightyear.

"Peter Spier makes this eloquent statement in the book about people around the world," Greene said. " 'We're all different and isn't that a wonderful thing?'

"There is a deeper statement being made, however, which had to come out--namely, that diversity is crucial to our survival. You talk about helping the planet, you're talking about biodiversity. You talk about growing a business, you're talking about diversification. We humans depend on differences and variety for our growth as well. The animation had to reflect that."

The film is conceived as a magical world tour taken by a girl named Cara and her grandfather, who wrestle with differences that often cause strife.

Unlike Lightyear's literature-based films and videos done in the style of a book's illustrator, "People" uses several different animation styles to reflect the many themes.

"There are 50 minutes of animation," Greene said, "and more than 100,000 drawings, and that's not counting clay animation, puppet animation, 3-D model animation and pencil and paper animation."

"People" was worked on at Klassika by "hundreds of artists from all over Russia," he said.

"We scoured Moscow for art students to come and learn the system. By the end, they were working 24 hours a day, sleeping under their animation tables, to finish the show on time for the premiere screening at the United Nations [on Sept. 18]."

"People" is the latest in a series of joint projects for Lightyear and Klassika. Although Lightyear has no financial interest in the Moscow studio, the company helped establish it in 1990 with a group of artists, including "People" director Vladlen Barbe. The effort was fed by Greene's admiration for Russian animation, with its "extremely fluid movement" and reputation for excellence.

"They wanted to start a studio, and I wanted to do some great films for kids," Greene said. Lightyear contributed "huge containers of pencils, tracing paper, inks, erasers, registration bars, the cel colors, a fax machine, brushes, markers. . . ."

Greene doesn't let the language barrier get in his way. "You learn to communicate in other ways--act it out, sing it, jump up and down."

Composer-musician Jason Miles faced a different kind of challenge in trying to produce the soundtrack.

Miles said: "I had to merge American pop music with world rhythms, but also make sure the melodies were very, very strong."

The songwriters he recruited "immediately got it."

"We tried to figure out what the essence of human life was," Miles said. That led to songs about the human body, food, sports, religion and celebrations.

"Emotions tie us all together," Greene said. "The suggestion in the film is that to find the place where people are alike, you have to go to non-material definitions of self. We can change nationalities, beliefs, political affiliations--even our hair color and our bodies change biologically every seven years. Who is the person who doesn't change?"

Cara has seen her parents divorce, so she thinks the world might be better if people were more alike. Viewers are meant to see otherwise.

"What 'People' suggests," Greene said, "is that if we are to achieve that enlightened state where we know ourselves on that deeper spiritual level, it has to begin with the humility to honor other people."

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