Turning Picture Books into Art House Films: The Story of Weston Woods

Geek Culture

Imagination and Innovation: The Story of Weston WoodsImagination and Innovation: The Story of Weston WoodsI’ve written before about the wonderful picture book adaptations made by a company called Weston Woods. Long before big studios began turning books like Where the Wild Things Are into big-budget CGI/live action features, Weston Woods was creating entrancing videos from classic storybooks using the original illustrations and text. The result was more art-house film than special-effects extravaganza.

I recently revisited the Weston Woods oeuvre when Scholastic, which now owns the company, sent me Imagination And Innovation:The Story Of Weston Woods by John Cech. The book, largely an homage to Weston Woods founder Morton Schindel, tells the history of the studio and how it moved from making film strips from still slides, to “iconographic” films in which the camera moved around the static page (zooming in on details that might be overlooked by a casual reader), to full-blown animated short features.

Schindel began making films for the government in post-World War II Europe, then went back to school for a teaching degree in order to make films with educational as well as entertainment value. Schindel’s headquarters was literally in the woods in the artist’s haven of Weston, Connecticut, and some illustrators like Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings) would stay at the compound there for long periods while they worked on new projects.

Around 1960, Schindel asked filmmaker Gene Deitch to go to Czechoslovakia to oversee the making of a new series of fully-animated films in that countries’ highly-accomplished studios. It was this move that gave many of the films from this time — such as The Beast of Monsieur Racine, and the very strange Smile for Auntie — the aura of sophisticated foreign films. The book also touches on the work of New York animator Michael Sporn, who directed some of Weston Woods’ most successful films, including the Academy Award-winning Doctor De Soto (which I worked on as an “in-betweener”) and The Man on Who Walked Between the Towers.

Along with films, Weston Woods also produced some of the first audiobooks. These came as sets consisting of a paperback copy of the book along with the recording so kids could follow along. (Ironically, as the book points out, it was the retail packaging Schindel developed for his book-recording sets that helped keep the film end of the business afloat.) The sets are still available today, although they now include prerecorded mp3 “playaways” instead of cassette tapes or CDs.

Animation geeks like me, who want to know how and why films are made, will enjoy reading Imagination and Innovation. A lot of the information — as well as segments of the documentary about Schindel produced by the company — are also available on the Weston Woods website. But if you’re more interested in watching movies than reading about them, be sure to check out the more than 50 years’ worth of videos still available today. Along with new releases like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Weston Woods has gathered its older classics into multi-disk collections. Many of the older stories my kids and I loved can be found in Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics DVD collection; a second collection with more modern titles came out this fall.

You can also stream many Weston Woods classics on the website of New Hampshire Public Television. Whatever the format, they are definitely films worth watching!

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