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Morton Schindel: From Page to Screen

Nestled in Weston Woods, in Westport, Connecticut, Morton Schindel's log cabin office is filled with items that would make children's book enthusiasts swoon. "Corduroy," from Don Freeman's famous picture book of the same name, smiles from his perch atop a gramophone. Characters from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are peer from corners and into Schindel's picture book world.

A graduate of the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania in 1939, Schindel originally set out to follow in his father's footsteps in business by selling cloth to women. When he got Tuberculosis, his life and the lives of many others were changed forever.

"This chap had put himself in the hands of a psychiatrist who thought that TB was in part psychogenetic," Schindel said, referring to himself, "My doctor said I shouldn't work, but I'm a workaholic."

After resting at Saranac Lake, the lesions on his lungs healed and he was ready to get back to a normal life. Schindel's doctor said the best way to keep well was to have a career in art.

"I didn't draw-not even a straight line-and I hadn't written anything," Schindel recalled. "But film interested me because it was also my father's hobby."
He decided that it would be fun to create a film with a friend. He wrote a script and tried to get the Department of Health to help him fund a film about "Rehabilitation with TB." However when World War II hit, it became increasingly harder to get film.

So, Schindel and his friend decided to give a film criticism course for the people rehabilitating at Saranac Lake. He borrowed old films from the Museum of Modern Art, made many contacts for the future, and acquired a camera all through a budget provided for rehabilitation through the government. This experience spurred his interest in educational films and he then got a job in New York making them.

"The educational films in those days were 'industrial films' with belching smoke stacks and the owner explaining what he made and how he made it." Schindel realized at this point that formal training in education could help him further his career.

Schindel came to Teachers College to do just that. He enrolled in the Curriculum department because there was not a media studies program. There were six students studying media as Schindel was-some of who were sent by the French government and some from the City of New York to start an educational films division.

About five years after he graduated from TC in 1949, Schindel started Weston Woods, where he created movies that brought children's books to life via animation. With nearly 300 movies in all and 450 sound film strips, his films are used in more than 50,000 schools and libraries nationwide, have been translated into 20 languages, and shown in many other countries. Some examples of his films are Where the Wild Things Are, Chrysanthemum and Doctor de Soto.

Part of Schindel's success stems from pure passion for children and literature. Another reason-that also makes him less commercial-is creating films that stick to the original author and illustrator's vision.

His first big break came when the producers of a new series called "Captain Kangaroo" were looking for films to run on the show. For the next 15 years, "Captain Kangaroo" featured Weston Woods films such as Millions of Cats and Make Way for Ducklings. "In England, on 'Flicks,' the Weston Woods films were the central part of the show, rather than a supplemental portion, for five years," said Schindel.

When he spoke of working with Robert McClosky, the author of Make Way for Ducklings, Schindel commented, "Robert McCloskey has made only a few books in his lifetime, and every one is still in print. He just works on things until there is no way to make them better. I decided I was going to do the same thing with the film. I owed it to the book and the people who created it. And if no one wanted to invest money, I would finance them all myself."

In 1974, Schindel hired Paul Gagne as director of production and they have been collecting awards ever since. An Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short (Doctor de Soto, 1984), the 1996 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children's Video from the American Library Association for Owen and two Golden Eagle Awards from the Council on International Non-Theatrical Events for Chrysanthemum and Officer Buckle and Gloria are showcased near Schindel's dining room.

Schindel, 81, has been the recipient of many awards during his career. Most recently he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) at the Newberry Caldecott Banquet at the ALA Annual Conference 2000. He was shocked when they presented him with a framed poem that delineated all his contributions to children's literature.

In his impromptu speech, he noted "that none of this success would have been possible without the kids, librarians, teachers, musicians, publishers, authors and illustrators in this very room and all over the country-a little piece of this award belongs to each of us."

"Most of the awards that we've received-and we've received a lot-are because we are the middle ground between books and book technology and education and education technology," commented Schindel.

Schindel continues to consult with Weston Woods although Scholastic bought the company in 1995. Rumor has it that there may be a television series in the works, which was one of his original ideas for the company.

Schindel fondly remembers many events that have taken place near his storybook log cabin including seminars, meetings and Teachers College class field trips. Once when Schindel was asked during one of these events, "What does Weston Woods do?" A librarian stood up and said, "Don't you know that Weston Woods has done for children's books what the Colonel has done for chicken?" This question-answer was met by roaring laughter from everyone, including Schindel who later used it in one of his films.

Past a wild turkey ambling into the bushes and other wildlife on his 22 acres, the road in front of Schindel's home leads to an interactive museum and production studios where many of his famous films were born. The history of animation is explained from its early stages of manually spun viewers right up through computer graphics. There are examples of how human models are used to make cartoon characters and how a new cell is created for each movement of a character. Whereas in most museums the pieces are only to look at, kids are expected to touch the items on display.

Next door to this building is the one of the studios where most of the filming took place. Audio and visual machines dating back to what looks like an ancient ViewMaster chronicle the evolution of educational technology.

Schindel has several different kinds of movie cameras, film projectors, film strip machines, and a video disc machine. A few of the machines were prototypes and never actually sold in stores.

Some rooms in this building are dedicated to archiving materials such as the backgrounds for animated films and the actual camera that is used to take the photographs of each cell for animation. The animation camera is so large that it cannot be moved. Schindel pointed out how the shots taken of each cell by the camera are now timed by computer, but were formerly done manually.

There is also an office containing prototypes and information about the Media Mobiles that originated from Weston Woods and are now all over the country. The Media Mobile, which visited Teachers College on Founders Day last fall, the brainchild of Schindel, is a vehicle containing a unique multimedia environment. Media Mobiles are customized to meet the special needs of schools, libraries, community organizations and industries. The Connecticut Audubon Society, the Museum of New Mexico, the South Norwalk Public Library in Connecticut and the New York City School District have used the Media Mobile to provide scientific, literary and cultural experiences on wheels to children and parents.

"I've been lucky and I've always loved what I do ... I've spent a lifetime working with wonderful authors and illustrators and publishers, superbly talented directors, musicians, and camerapeople," said Schindel. "And when the films were finished I got to work with parents, teachers, and librarians to see that they got to all the kids who keep right on seeing them. How can you have it any better?"

With a twinkle in his eye and a laugh, he said, "I never set out to do innovative things, and somehow everything I've done has blazed a new trail." And, he is still busy blazing trails at Weston Woods and beyond to keep the surprises coming.

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