Working With Picture Book Artists in Adapting Their Work . . . From Page to Screen
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Working With Picture Book Artists in Adapting Their Work . . . From Page to Screen

"From the very beginning, Morton Schindel, founder of Weston Woods, wisely realized that much of the appeal of picture books lies in their illustrations and the interdependence of their art work and texts. The unique Weston Woods films and filmstrips, phenomenally successful in schools and libraries all over the world, have demonstrated the feasibility of producing book-based audiovisual materials scrupulously faithful to the original."

Ethel Heins, Editor–The Horn Book

Fidelity to the original has been the philosophical underpinning of Weston Woods since I first embarked on filming children's books in 1953. My early efforts deeply concerned authors, illustrators, and publishers. More often than not, children's books had been mishandled in the transposition from page to screen. I thought of books like The Story about Ping and Make Way for Ducklings as an untapped resource of story material waiting on library shelves to be noticed by a producer. I learned differently early in my filmmaking career when I approached the publisher of Millions of Cats to buy audiovisual rights.

I explained to Mr. Tim Coward, president of Coward McCann, that my intention was to use the original pictures and text from the book, that my film would be a mirror image of the book itself, and that I had developed a technique for creating an illusion of motion by camera movement upon the pictures from the book in order to preserve the original.

Mr. Coward replied that that was all very commendable, but they had never granted rights to Millions of Cats to a film producer. He felt that the rights to the book did not belong to Coward McCann. Surprised, I said, "Then who does own the rights? Perhaps I've come to the wrong place."

"We feel that by now the rights to Millions of Cats belong to children," he replied.

Mr. Coward's message made an indelible impression on me. I proposed to him that I would film the book with the understanding that if at any stage my work was not acceptable to his children's book editor, the project would be abandoned. Alice Torrey came to Weston Woods at certain predetermined stages in the development of the film and approved the work before we proceeded to the next phase. During my pre-production study of Wanda Gag's pictures, I discovered tiny details which gave me a vicarious sense of communication with the artist, though she had died many years before.

My first acquaintances among children's book illustrators were James Daugherty, Hardie Gramatky, and Robert McCloskey. All lived in proximity to Weston Woods. They were intrigued with the work I was doing and followed the development of their books (Andy and the Lion, Hercules, Make Way for Duckings, respectively) with great interest. After seeing the film Andy and the Lion, James Daugherty arranged for me to show it to the staff of the children's department at the New York Public Library. Frances Landers Spain, who was then the children's coordinator, asked how I had gotten Daugherty to make so many new pictures for the film. The fact was that there were no new pictures. I had focused my camera lens on details that she herself had never before observed. Augusta Baker, too, was part of my small audience that day. The comments and reactions of this group gave me reassurance, at a time when I desperately needed it, that my work gave a new dimension to storytelling rather than being a simple restatement of what had already been communicated on the printed page.

Hardie Gramatky once told me that he was surprised to see on the screen images from Hercules that he himself had not been aware of drawing.

While studying books for adaptation, I read the text aloud to myself, many times, until the words rolled off my tongue with the flavor and cadence that I felt the author intended. While reading Make Way for Ducklings, where the text said that Mrs. Mallard "moved off the nest only to get a drink of water, or to have her lunch, or to count...