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Morton Schindel, Visionary Producer of Children's Films, Dies at 98

Aug 25, 2016

"Nowadays, it's known as the Ken Burns technique."
Paul Gagne

Filmmaker and producer Morton Schindel died last week at the age of 98. For decades, Schindel's film innovations faithfully brought to life some of the most beloved children's books of all time from his Weston, Connecticut studio.

Schindel's overriding goal was to make films that brought motion to children's books, while preserving the original illustrations. To that end he stumbled on the idea of moving a camera along a still illustration.

"Nowadays, it's known as the Ken Burns technique, where the camera is panning and zooming on still images," said Weston Woods Studios' production manager Paul Gagne, who joined Schindel in 1978.

The problem, according to Gagne, was panning the camera on a moving image caused a warping effect called "keystoning." In 1953, Schindel developed a new technique where the camera remained stationary, and the artwork moved. Schindel called it "iconography."

"He put together this very simple rig. He took an artist's easel and a couple of garage door tracks with these gears and screwdriver handles," said Gagne. "There would be somebody working the screwdriver handles to move the artwork back and forth, and there would be a camera operator. So, it was a crude but very effective technique."

Schindel's technique worked, and he brought to life such classics as Make Way for Ducklings, The Story About Ping, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. His films were broadcast on the Captain Kangaroo television show for years.

In the early 1960s Schindel took it a step further -- animating children's books, while staying resolutely faithful to the original illustrations. "It was really driven by the graphic style of the book, the artwork in the book," said Gagne. "There were a lot of books that really had artwork that was crying out to be moving." 

Early animation was done at Weston Woods, but in 1968 Schindel started a relationship with animator Gene Deitch. Deitch, an American who was based in Prague had a studio of artists that were especially adept at recreating the graphic style of any book.

Schindel and Deitch turned Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are into an instant classic.

Listen to the full interview with Paul Gagne:

Schindel produced more than 300 films and 450 recordings at Weston Woods Studios. In 1984, Schindel was nominated for an Academy Award in the best animated short category for his adaptation of the children's book Doctor De Soto.

He died on August 20 at the age of 98.