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Kids' Films by the Book

Weston Woods' movies, soon to be available to the public, remain true to the titles on which they are based, despite the expense or time needed

October 10, 2002|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do you translate beloved children's books to film? Disney famously, some say infamously, uses them as a springboard to its own flights of fancy. For Weston Woods Studios, little known to the general public but a Disney-like giant in the world of libraries and schools, the book is sacrosanct.

For nearly 50 years, this modest film company has taken time--three or more years on a single project--to ensure that animation, narration and music are true to authors, illustrators and readers.

Now Weston Woods' treasure trove of living books is about to become widely available for the first time to the general public. In late September, Scholastic Entertainment began rolling out the Weston Woods library as the Scholastic Video Collection, distributed by New Video, with four titles: Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," Kevin Henkes' "Chrysanthemum," "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and "The Night Before Christmas." Other titles will be released annually.

Varied Animation Styles

Weston Woods founder Morton Schindel, who started the company on a borrowed shoestring in 1953 in Weston, Conn., had one guiding principle: "The book was always our director," he said.

He maintained that philosophy as his company became a multimillion-dollar business earning numerous education and film awards for excellence, including an Oscar nomination for William Steig's "Doctor De Soto" and the American Library Assn.'s recent lifetime achievement award for the 86-year-old Schindel.

"Mort had it written in the contracts that he would work with the editor, or the author and illustrator, and at any point, if they didn't like the production, he would throw it out and start over," said Linda Lee, Weston Woods Studios vice president. "That's what we do today."

Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," with its intricate cross-hatching, is the "Mt. Everest of children's books," according to its director, Gene Deitch, and it took five years to finish.

"When an artist puts paint on a canvas, it can be painted over till he's satisfied that it's just right," Schindel said. "That's the way our films were made. Once we made a commitment to a project, we threw away the budget and the time schedule."

The films' varied animation styles, matched to the books, include paper puppets and collage, fine line drawings and watercolor brush strokes. Until 1964, however, the films were produced--as some still are today--using the iconographic method that Schindel invented.

With this technique, widely used by filmmakers since, still pictures are moved in front of a stationary camera, with zooms, pans and cross-dissolves adding to the illusion of movement.

From the beginning, wherever possible, the books' creators were involved throughout the process. They even suggested a composer or narrator.

"They care passionately about maintaining the integrity of the book, and for an author and an illustrator, you couldn't ask for anything more," Henkes said.

Keeping the Vision Alive

Will Scholastic Inc., which acquired Weston Woods as a separate division in 1996, continue to support this maverick, noncorporate, artisan-like approach to children's filmmaking?

"Absolutely," said Linda Kahn, Scholastic Entertainment's senior vice president of programming and distribution. "Weston Woods decides what they're going to produce, and it's completely up to them how [the films] are made. What we're doing is reaching the consumer."

Meanwhile, at an age when most have retired from the daily work grind, Schindel is still working to keep his vision alive, developing the nonprofit Weston Woods Institute, "where we're hoping more people can be induced to make this kind of thing and do it well."

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