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Animator walks own path through CGI world

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

For many people, animation is broken into nice little categories. There are the big feature films that are much heralded from Disney or Dreamworks. There's the stuff for kids and television that always seems to be searching for something innovative to copy. There are the anime productions from Japan and those non-Japanese productions that clearly try to imitate them.

And then there are animators like Michael Sporn. Sporn is one of a relatively small group of independent American animation producers whose subject matter and techniques put this productions in afar different category: art.

Now by saying that I don't want to scare anyone off. Two new DVDs released by First Run Features have two half-hour productions each that are truly memorable and accessible to all nearly members of the family. "The Marzipan Pig" is coupled with "Jazztime Tale," while "Abel's Island" is double-billed with "The Story of the Dancing Frog."

For anyone who enjoys animation, these two DVDs are a must for one's collection. Of the four films, the one that challenges you the most and has the lushest look is "The Marzipan Pig." With its oddly linear story, and its introduction from a candy pig that has fallen behind a sofa, the film has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. I was really intrigued with what was going to happen next.

"Abel's Island," adapted from the book by acclaimed illustrator William Steig, was a treat. A Robinson Crusoe-style tale of an urbane mouse on a desert island, it was the kind of story that, in other hands, would surely have been turned into a bloated musical of some sort. Sporn preserved the story's purity and the film is better for it.

Within animation circles, Sporn is well known. He is a two-time Emmy winner, a two-time CableAce winner and has been nominated for an Academy Award. Carefully adapting children's books to animation as well as presenting stories of social relevance in animation has distinguished his work. He was honored with a retrospective program last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Sporn also has one of the best blogs on animation on the Internet today. It can be read at

I visited Sporn in his Greenwich Village studio earlier this summer where, among other things, he discussed his first feature film, an animated biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Originally, Sporn thought he would do six half-hour productions for HBO, but that concept didn't pan out. Instead, he is planning a theatrically released feature.

Sporn is using four of Poe's celebrated short stories to illustrate parts of his life. He said that "The Black Cat," in which a murderer is revealed by his own guilty feelings, is being used to show how Poe became guilty that he couldn't prevent the death his young wife from tuberculosis.

Poe's life and reputation has been hurt for years with false impressions and assumptions, much of which came from a biography written by a man who swore to get revenge on Poe, Sporn noted.

As is the case with any independent film, the production's pace has been dictated by the availability of funding. One of Sporn's animation mentors, Tissa David, has worked on the film and there is a 10 to 15 minute demo reel.

Sporn cast up and coming British actor Hugh Dancy as the voice of Poe and said the actor did a "brilliant turn."

Sporn admitted he was concerned about the end of the film, which uses one of Poe's lesser-known books that critics have dubbed as one of the first science fiction novels. The book addresses what Poe thinks God is and Sporn described it as "almost an epic poem." He said it is very positive and uplifting.

"I wasn't sure it was going to work," he said. With Dancy's reading of the piece, though, Sporn added, "I knew I had a perfect ending."

Other cast members include Alfred Molina and Dianne Weist, both of whom perform multiple roles.

One point of interest in Poe's life that fascinates Sporn is how the author died. Poe had gone to the train station to travel from Baltimore to Philadelphia, but never made it to his destination. Instead he was found in a coma in Baltimore in clothes that didn't belong to him. Sporn said there is one theory that Poe had been involved in a common voter fraud scam at the time of voting multiple times in different polling places. This part of Poe's life might make it into the finished film, he said, with Weist as Poe's mother-in-law telling the story.

With financing in hand, Sporn said the film should take a team of three animators about 14 months to complete.

While computer technology will play a hand in the production, Sporn is not rushing to embrace the latest trend in animation: computer generated images (CGI).

He cited "Kung Fu Panda" as a CGI film that could have been "graphically more interesting" than what it was if it had been done with traditional animation forms.

Of the legion of CGI animated features, he said, "Everything looks like a Viewmaster."

He admitted he is rarely impressed by animation today and said that CGI is great for special effects animation such as fields of grass waving in the wind.

While he said the career he has chosen "is really hard at times," he noted that both PBS and HBO have been great supporters of his work.

He added with a laugh, "I've nothing to complain about."