What I Liked About Mike

I would never call Michael Sporn that -“Mike”. Other people did, and he seemed to have no problem with it but to me its like calling a high school teacher by their first name after graduation.

Last month I bought a new guitar tuner. Now, I’m worse at guitar playing than I am at drawing or animation but at least I try to stay in tune. The shop only carried one brand -“The Snark”. “Like the Lewis Carroll poem,” I said, and went into a lecture on doggerel which concluded with “and there’s an absolutely fantastic film of it by Michael Sporn.”
The next week I showed the film in class at University of the Arts.

It is a magnificent film.

Michael animated it himself and produced it over the course of several years. His cannon is full of excellent work but even amongst them “The Hunting of the Snark” stands out. The artist’s lyricism pervades the film, its lighthearted and whimsical but smart and emotional. It testifies to the power of a singular vision.

From my first encounters with him, I thought he was a cold guy -and I wasn’t crazy about some of the stuff he was doing at the time. We were both working on the same specials for the great Amy Schatz at HBO and I thought our stuff (directed by Maciek Albrecht and Santiago Cohen) was much better. And then I saw some of the work he did with Tissa David -“The Red Shoes”, “The Marzipan Pig” -and discovered that he was one heck of a filmmaker. Then I began to speak with him socially -not just about Letterman and John Hubley but film and literature -and learned that his coldness was shyness and that he was an unusually open and generous person.

He read more than anyone in animation. There’s no doubt in my mind to that. A book a night he once confessed, largely due to insomnia.

He was generous with knowledge.

He gave opportunities to young artists and kept alive the work of those who came before them.

He was tasteful and opinionated and didn’t mind when someone disagreed with him.

He built a legacy of beautiful, intelligent films and encouraged us all to do the same.

His friendship made me feel like I belonged in this world, like I had something to contribute.

I hope to contribute a small fraction of the good he brought to us all.


The Fantagraphics website looks like it crashed -or slowed to a slug’s pace, at best -around 4:15 Eastern Time on June 19.  People across the globe checking to see if it was true, and it’s undoubtably true, that the founder and frontman for the great publisher has passed.

I didn’t know Kim Thompson, never even spoke with him.  I’ve had dealings, both passing and substantial with other members of the Fantagraphics team over the years, but never the boss.  Here’s a link to the press release announcing his death.

Even so, Mr. Thompson’s work, more accurately, the work that he published (work that no one else would have put in print, let alone printed so beautifully, 25 years ago) had an impact on me equal to Superman’s fist on Lex Luthor’s face or some other hack metaphor from the spandex cartoon lexicon.

I never read comics as a child.  I actively disliked them.  The first comic I saw was a Richie Rich comic in which the eponymous hero lorded his wealth over his neighbors.  The second I saw was Scrooge McDuck.  It’s hardly worth explaining how the latent Marxian in my seven year old body responded to this corporatist propaganda.

eightballDeep in the recesses of my mind I thought: “this is a format to celebrate the wealthy.” Even R. Crumb comics which I first saw late in high school were too hippie-bourgeois for me.  Then I saw Dan Clowes’ “Eightball”.  This was something that spoke to me -pissed off, mysterious, poetic, irreverent.  Right next to it was “Love & Rockets”.  I may have been a little late to the game on that -the saga was entering its second decade by the time I first read it -but that only cemented my growing interest in the artform.

Fantagraphics books were my introduction to comics, and I truly doubt I would have ever cracked one open if not for Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn.  And I probably would have never met very many great people and dear friends if not for Fantagraphics.

A few years back they even began reprinting Carl Barks’ Disney comics, so I’ve now come to terms with the despicable Scrooge McDuck.

So thanks, Mr. Thompson.

Tissa David

Tissa David lived a life -was a person -worth eulogizing in heartiest way.

Her fans would create opportunities to sing her praises, as we have for the past few decades.

From “The Great Frost” based on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Design by Seymour Chwast

The canon of work bears repeating. The first woman to direct a hand drawn animated feature, “Bonjour Paris” for Grimault (Lotte Reininger’s cut out films preceded it). A string of marvels with the Hubley Studio: “Eggs”, “Cockaboody”, “Dig”. Her sequence in “Everybody Rides the Carousel” will bring a man to tears. The titular heroine of Richard Williams’ “Raggedy Ann & Andy”. Michael Sporn’s “The Red Shoes” and “The Marzipan Pig”. Her elegant take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

I knew her from working together at R. O. Blechman’s The Ink Tank. There she did stellar work with his delicate line, “The Soldier’s Tale” being a stand out.

Self Portrait as Fossil from Hubley’s “Dig”

At The Ink Tank, as with Hubley, she animated commercial after commercial.

She easily could have been a journeyman animator. There are dozens of highly skilled men who knocked out commercials of quality for everything from Apples to Zebras. These are artist who should be celebrated for the skill they brought to the craft. Tissa, though, she brought artistry. To the corniest bank commercial, she infused the stuff with soul.

Her artistry, that’s what we’ve raved about for ages. Her life, that’s what is truly amazing.

She could tell stories of walking (WALKING) from Budapest to Paris at the height of the Cold War, sneaking past the borders without papers or passport. She could tell you how her first job, her dream job, in New York at UPA came in part due to her lack of English. When Grim Natwick asked her, “What is animation?” She responded in pigeon, “Animation is animation.” The Swede laughed, “I’ve been asking people that question for 30 years and that’s the best answer I’ve heard.”

The events are something, to be sure, they are the result of the way she chose to live her life.

When I first started work with R. O. Blechman, he was somewhat paralyzed. A commercial was coming in and he needed Tissa to animate it. Tissa was on vacation. In Hungary maybe, or Paris, or Holland. Or maybe just Virginia. Or some other far flung corner of the globe.

She would take maybe four months out of the year to travel. Visit family. Visit friends. Live a life away from the lightbox and the pencil test screenings.

Upon her return to work she was fully dedicated in a way unlike anything I’ve seen. She could create a complete and vital film from an exposure sheet and a stack of paper. Then she would explain to you how she did it.
Classroom notes
I doubt there has been any greater teacher of the art in the past 30 years.

Her primary attribute, in my opinion, is devotion. Just as she would attend morning service daily (my Jesuit upbringing bridged an immediate connection), she was fully devoted to her craft. She was fully devoted to her family. And she was fully devoted to living a fruitful and productive life.

Even twenty years ago, Tissa would talk with an Old Transylvanian weariness about how she would soon be dead. First I’d say, “You animators live to be 100”. And she would reply something like, “Why would you curse me with such a thing?”. Soon I’d say, “So when you die, can I have your apartment?”

“I would love for you to have my apartment. But you know, it’s not that simple.”

From John Canemaker’s book on Raggedy Ann and Andy

Tissa left this world last night. The treasures she has given us.

Yomo Toro Sounds

One of my favorite projects from the Asterisk days is this short film we did for Nickelodeon.

The film is the largely the work of Matthew Stoddart who conceived it, storyboarded and designed it.

He also made the single most important decision leading to the film’s success.

“Origami” from Ace & Son MPC, LLC on Vimeo.

He called Yomo Toro and asked him to create the music track.

If this is a good little film -and I’ll contend that it is a very good one -it’s because of Yomo’s beautiful and haunting soundtrack.

He passed away over the weekend. Here’s the New York Times obituary.

The recording session was a little tricky. We consented to record at his friend’s place in Jersey City. They had a nice home set up, but it wasn’t really state of the art. Fortunately, JZ Barrell, who did the mix and the sound edit, came along. He’s pretty familiar with old school recording techniques and was able to ensure we got what we needed from technical standard.

The track was an original composition by Yomo and each instrument was laid down in separate takes to the same 1/4 inch tape master.

The session started in the evening and went late into the night. The later it got, the better the guys played. Looser, more playful.

He was a terrific musician and that was a fun recording session.

The animation on this film was done by Ed Smith. Winnie Tom did the 3D animation of the origami

Mr. Sorry

Yesterday I learned of the passing of my favorite college teacher, Jean Le Courbeiller.  He was, ostensibly, a science and mathematics teacher at a college which didn’t even have a science section in the library (one could concentrate in “Mind, Nature and Values” if they wanted to try bucking the system).

I still recount his story of growing up on Isle de la Cite in the middle of the Seine.

One day, when he 8 or 9, he bicycled in the rain to his girlfriend’s apartment.  There was often a man standing in lobby and today the man asked him about the rain. “It’s raining, yes.”  “Oh yes, it’s raining.”  “It’s raining hard, isn’t it?”  “Very.”   The conversation was interrupted by the girl’s mother who came yelling at him for coming out in such foul weather.

The man was asking about the rain because he was blind.  A few years later young Jean learned that the man was not just blind, but his young sweetheart’s neighbor was James Joyce.

You can master language, and still lose something we all take for granted.

In one of his classes he remarked that Isaac Newton was the last man on earth who could possibly know all there was to know.  Newton, being the smartest man of his age, might well have known all the science and math and history and literature that [Western] Civilization contained at that moment.

Even in a field as limited as animation, I’m learning new things all the time.  Things other people already know.

I didn’t know, for instance, that the Korean Academy of Film Arts produced a feature length collaborative project as a senior thesis.  Actually, I may have heard that and forgot -which goes to another point from Jean: learning is re-learning.

It’s questionable to put students to work on such an endeavor.  The school is there to further the progress of the students, not the other way around.   There are benefits to the students, sure, but that doesn’t ameliorate the lapse of ethics on the part of the school.

The Korean Cultural Society presented a screening of The Story of Mr. Sorry last night at the Tribeca Film Center.  This collaborative graduation effort kicks off a series of four free screenings of animated Korean features.

The film itself is interesting and hangs together very well for a work with five credited directors.  We’re not privy to the actual hierarchy of artists, so I suspect there was one lead voice with vocal contributions from the others.

Watch The Story of Mr. Sorry Korean Movie Trailer in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

The animation isn’t particularly special. It’s primarily the sophisticated cutouts we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

The design is sometimes nice.

The narrative, based on novel, is just slightly off in that Korean Cinema way to keep it from being completely fulfilling. It’s as though they’ve digested American film, try to recreate it, but come up with something strangely similar but vastly different.

In his course “Four Ways of Doing Astronomy”, I learned from Jean le Corbeiller that the Sumerians looked to the horizon for their astronomy. All their science, all their mathematics -like the 360 degrees in a circle -derived from calculating the relationship of the stars to the visible edge of the earth.

These days our astronomy is almost completely mathematical. There’s little observation with the human eye. Data is collected through non-ocular telescopes, decoded and translated into information we can understand.

Neither method is better than the other.  They just respond to the differing needs of the cultures that support them.