Roses Among the Sporns
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by Michael Sporn." I've known Michael Sporn for thirty years.
We began corresponding in 1974, when he was only about two years
into his career as an animator, and we first met in 1975, in New
York. In January 1976, Michael and his friend Maxine Fisher picked
me up at John Benson's apartment on Manhattan's West Side, and we
drove to New Jersey for a long interview with Otto Messmer, the
writer/animator/director of the Felix the Cat cartoons of the twenties.
Michael and I went together on other interviews in the New York
area in the years after that, visiting people like John Fitzsimmons,
who was Winsor McCay's assistant, and the animators Johnny Gentilella
and Myron Waldman.
has made dozens of short films at his own New York studio since
1980. As he has said, he makes "commercial films"for
the most part, films commissioned by other organizations"but
they have to have an artistic bent to them, or there's no reason
for me to have done them." Even his self-financed films have
clearly been made with an audience in mind. They are not the self-indulgent
exercises so often associated with the phrase "independent
Many of the earliest Sporn films were faithful adaptations of children's
books for the Weston Woods company. More recently, he has made TV
specialssome fluffy, some remarkably seriousfor cable
and broadcast networks. Always, he has worked with budgets microscopic
compared with the wasteful extravagance of the big Hollywood studios.
In a sense, Michael peaked early, in 1981, when he made rear-projected
animation for a Broadway musical with Lauren Bacall, Woman of
the Year, and again in 1985, when Dr. DeSoto, a charming
Weston Woods film adapted from a book by William Steig, was nominated
for an Academy Award. I taped that year's awards presentation, in
the hope that Michael would win, and there's a glimpse of him on
the tape; he was seated near Jon Minnis, who won for Charade,
and Minnis passed in front of him on the way to accept the Oscar.
In the most important sense, though, Michael, who is now in his
mid-fifties, has never peaked at all. I have never known him to
surrender to the bitterness and cynicism that always threaten struggling
artists, or to the self-deception so common among the sad hacks
who don't want to admit they've given up on themselves and their
art. Michael is now, as he was when I first knew him, intensely
self-critical and wholly devoted to animation as an art form. When
he says, "I think animation has the potential of being the
greatest of all the arts," he means it, and he lives it.
speaks those words in the "making of" documentaries on
two new DVDs, "The Films of Michael Sporn," Volumes 1
and 2, which collect four of his films. Volume
1 has Whitewash, an HBO production from 1994, and Champagne,
an independent film from 1996. Volume
2 has The Hunting of the Snark, an independent film whose
production spanned most of the 1980s (it was first shown publicly
in 1989), and The Talking Eggs, a PBS show from 1992.
In many circlesat many publicationsthe idea of reviewing
the films of a friend of so many years would be instantly rejected,
but the animation world (like the comic-art world) is too small
for such priggishness to be of much use, whether it is films or
books that are under review. I don't think there would be a measurable
gain in my objectivity were I to shun the company of Michael Spornor
John Canemaker or John Benson, to cite just two writers whose company
I have long enjoyed and whose writings I can review without qualms.
Such people take their work seriously, and do their work well,
and so a review can become not just an evaluation of a specific
performance but also a consideration of the larger questions a book
or film raises. Canemaker's recent book The Art and Flair of
Mary Blair is a good example. Because John states the case for
that artist cogently, I was stimulated, in my Commentary elsewhere
on the site, to articulate what I find lacking in her work.
Similarly, I'm lying in wait for Romance
Without Tears, a Benson-edited anthology of romance comics.
I don't know that I will share John's enthusiasm for the stories
in the book, but if I don't, I will have no choice but to try to
make my case as persuasively as I know that John will make his.
In other words, reviewing the work of friends need not be an exercise
in mutual back-scratching. It can instead be part of a sort of lively
extended conversation about subjects on which both reviewer and
reviewed have strong, well-considered, and sometimes opposing opinions.
The disagreements that arise in such circumstances are, or should
be, one of life's pleasures, rather than one of life's burdens.
I haven't liked all of the Sporn films that I've seen, but I've
enjoyed most of them, and I don't think I've been as critical of
any of them as Michael has been. And I've been pleased to find in
the best of them, including The Hunting of the Snark and
Champagne, the two independently produced films on the new
DVDs, qualities that will keep me coming back to them.
Michael worked for John and Faith Hubley in the mid-seventies (he
also worked for Richard Williams, on Raggedy Ann and Andy),
and I think he has always looked to John Hubley as an inspiration
and an example. Hubley's photo is visible over his shoulder at one
point in a shot included in both documentaries. Like Hubley, who
was a layout artist before he became a director, Michael attaches
great importance to the design of his films; he says in the documentaries
that he has tried to bring into his films "twentieth century
graphics," as opposed to the "nineteenth century graphics"
that he sees in the typical television cartoon.
That may sound like an echo of the snobbery that prevailed at UPA
a half century ago, but Michael is an animator, too, and I don't
find in his films the unthinking subordination of animation to design
that made so many UPA cartoons smug and boring. Certainly there
is no evidence of that in Snark and Champagne. As
different as those two films are, they grew out of very similar
impulses. In both cases, Michael responded to material that engaged
him intensely by making a film almost entirely on his own.
Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark had
intrigued him since he was a teenager, when he made an 8mm home
animated cartoon based on it. The grownup Spornsqueezing work
on his new version in between paying projectshired the famous
actor James Earl Jones to record the poem, knowing, as he says in
his audio commentary, that having such a resource at hand would
goad him to finish the film. After Maxine Fisher skillfully reduced
Carroll's very long poem to a manageable size, cutting the number
of stanzas by more than two-thirds, Michael storyboarded the film
himself and then animated it and drew the backgrounds. Almost everything
on the screen in this nineteen-minute film, including the coloring
of the characters, is his work, except for a couple of dream sequences
made up of drawings by his longtime collaborator, the gifted Bridget
Champagne's genesis lay in two hours of tape-recorded interviews
by Maxine Fisher with the immensely likable Champagne Saltes, an
African American girl, fourteen years old at the time, who was living
at a convent while her mother was imprisoned. Thirteen minutes from
those interviews became the soundtrack for the film. Michael began
animating without a storyboard, although midway into his work on
the film he started using a storyboard by another longtime collaborator,
Neither film owes its success solely or even primarily to Michael's
doing most of the work himself. With rare exceptions (most notably
among abstract films like Oskar Fischinger's), even the most personal
of animated films will of necessity be a collaborative effort. What
really sets Champagne and Snark apart is their wholeness
of vision. Michael's response to the material in both cases was
to make an animated film from itnot to animate it, not to
interpret it through "twentieth century graphics," but
to make an animated film.
It's this same impulse that lies behind all the best animated films,
of whatever kind. Dumbo, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery,
Rooty Toot Toot, Motion
Painting No. 1go down the list, and however different
the films, the common element is that their principal creators saw
each film as a whole, and saw it as an animated film. If that wholeness
of vision is present, the elements that make up a film can vary
greatly in the weight assigned to them, so that in some cases the
strongest single element may be an involving narrative (as in Dumbo),
risk-taking character animation (Piggy Bank Robbery), or
design that ranges from witty (Rooty Toot Toot) to
majestic (Motion Painting No. 1). All that matters is that
the film's elements cohere.
When they do, as in Michael Sporn's Snark and Champagne,
the result on the screen is fluidity, the seemingly effortless and
instantaneous translation of thought into action. Michael's audio
commentary for Snark and Champagne is especially valuable
in this regard because it illuminates how his engagement with his
material flowered in the making the filmsthere's a powerful
sense, in the commentary as in the films themselves, of an unfolding,
a spontaneous grasping of the possibilities that animated films
Listening to Michael talk about the expedients he employed in making
Snark, in particular, reminded me of listening to people
who worked at Disney's in the thirties talk about how they generated
and solved problems, sometimes almost simultaneously. Michael's
painted cels illuminated from below, the tiny fields he used for
his animation of a turbulent oceansuch things are not gimmicks,
but rather improvisations that almost invariably serve to move the
At one point, Michael invokes the words "nightmare" and
"fun" in talking about one complex scene in Snark,
and it seems clear that it was the latter because it was also the
former. He remarks once or twice that a particular effect could
be achieved much more easily today with a computer, but clearly
his heart is in making hand-drawn cartoons, which still have greater
potential for subtlety and fine shadings of many kinds. Typically,
the animation in his films is drawn and colored on paper, and then
cut out and pasted on cels, a procedure about as far removed from
computer animation as possible.
As a character animator, Michael will never be confused with his
Disney contemporaries Glen Keane and Andreas Deja, but what's most
important is that his all-embracing approach means that each character
emerges as an individualChampagne Saltes above all, but there's
also no confusing the members of the motley crew that hunts the
When there is no such wholeness of vision, and a film's makers
approach their work piecemeal, the result is not simply that the
film as a whole is diminished, but that any elements given unnatural
prominence are diminished, too. This is true of those UPA films
whose supposedly innovative design reduced them to twitching wallpaper,
and of the shambling Disney features that showcased "personality
animation" in the seventies and eighties.
In Michael's two sponsored films, Whitewash and The Talking
Eggs, the elements also tend to splinter apart, so that design
calls attention to itself as distinct from the animation, and both
seem clumsier as a resulta particular problem when the animation
already has a scrawny, bare-bones look. The sponsored films too
often lapse into conventionality, as in Whitewash, when a
white gang has viciously attacked a young black girlmaking
her "white" by spraying her face with white shoe polishand
one member of the gang shows some altogether unconvincing reluctance
to take part.
Curiously, three of the four films on these DVDs have casts dominated
by African American characters, even though most Sporn films do
not. In The Talking Eggs, the racial element is muted, but
Whitewash's racially charged subject matter (based on a real
incident) is a drag on that film. I think it is extraordinarily
difficult for white artists to deal with such hate crimes without
becoming awkward and self-conscious, and Whitewash is no
exception to that rule.
But Michael Sporn, like any artist, should be measured by his best
work, and I think that Champagne and The Hunting of the
Snark are very good indeed.
As much as I like those two films, I don't want to claim too much
for them. Although they're longer than the short cartoons of the
"golden age," they seem smaller in scale, a stature I
think is all but guaranteed by the importance Michael assigns to
design. I still think that animation's greatest achievements are
reserved for films with fully developed characters at their center,
and the characters in Michael's films, as well-defined as they are,
are certainly not as compelling as those in many short cartoons
of the past. (His characters, like their settings, are design-oriented,
frequently echoing the work of New Yorker cartoonists.) The
attractions that Champagne and Snark do offer, though,
are more than sufficient to repay watching them multiple times.
I wonder sometimes what would happen if Michael finally had adequate
budgets and could escape the madness that lets a Ralph Bakshi or
a Don Bluth command millions while a Michael Sporn scratches for
thousands. Would bigger and better films result, or would the inventiveness
now demanded by his circumstances diminish? I'd certainly like to
find out. In the meantime, I think that the beauty and artistic
integrity of Michael's best work demand that it be seen.
Even if he is my friend.
[Posted February 15, 2004; updated March 10, 2004]