- Imagination and Innovation: The Story of Weston Woods
John Cech has written a superb history of Weston Woods, the innovative and influential film studio known for adapting high-quality children's picture books into films and other forms of children's media. Cech reminds readers that although children's media has always been a field that has mingled business with art, Weston Woods stands out as a company that has successfully championed art over commerce.
The story of Weston Woods is essentially the story of its founder, Mort Schindel, the first person to pursue a graduate degree from Columbia University's Teachers College with the desire to become a producer of educational films. Weston Woods was, as Cech points out, the closest equivalent to an "art film" studio for children in the United States (15). Cech makes a telling contrast with the more successful Disney Corporation and Nickelodeon, which have reshaped children's books into films for their own aims.
As Cech relates, Weston Woods began in the 1950s as "a film studio devoted to making quality films for children through a process that is not driven primarily by profit or wholly by commercial motives" (14). In a brief foreword to the book, Maurice Sendak, who worked closely with Weston Woods to adapt Where the Wild Things Are and several of his other picture books into short films, praises Schindel for having the ingenious idea of "bringing together the isolated world of children's books with the more mainstream media of television and movies" in an atmosphere that valued both writers and illustrators of children's books (7).
When Schindel began working on his first film adaptation, which was James Daugherty's Andy and the Lion in 1954, hardly anyone was interested in production rights to children's books. Since then Weston Woods has produced more than four hundred films based on children's literature. These include titles by some of the best-known authors and illustrators of picture books, including Wanda Gág, Leo Lionni, Robert McCloskey, James Marshall, Crockett Johnson, Virginia Lee Burton, Ezra Jack Keats, William Steig, Pat Hutchins, and Rosemary Wells. Weston Woods also created a series of thoughtful documentaries on noted children's authors and illustrators including short films on Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Edward Ardizzone, and Robert McCloskey. As technology has evolved so has Weston Woods. Its visual and oral adaptations have appeared as 16-mm and 35-mm films, audiocassettes, LP records, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and MP3s. While Weston Woods expanded its original goal to create literary films for children into a broader goal of [End Page 115] creating children's media, the quality of the adaptations has remained consistently high. Weston Woods has established the gold standard in producing high-quality media adaptations of children's books.
Credited with coining the term "edutainment" to describe the work he was doing at Weston Woods, Schindel developed a simple film process of panning a camera over still pictures, which he called the iconographic technique. He pioneered this technique while producing educational films as part of the Marshall Plan in Turkey the early 1950s. Returning to the United States, Schindel established his studio in Weston, Connecticut, and began using the process with children's picture books. Through his cousin, Arthur Kleiner, who composed background music for the early Weston Woods films, Schindel was able to secure a 1956 screening of his first eight films at the Museum of Modern Art with the hopes of sparking interest in showing his films on network television. It didn't happen. However, a production delay of Gene Dietch's Tom Terrific cartoons, which aired on the Captain Kangaroo program, resulted in an opportunity for Weston Woods films to be shown on Captain Kangaroo. Cech notes that the association of Weston Woods with Captain Kangaroo, which began in 1956 and continued until the 1970s, was significant for the studio. For adults of a certain age, the film versions of Make Way for Ducklings, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Stone Soup, which were frequently shown on the...