Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chuck Menville, Len Janson and the Joys of Stop Motion

Cartoon Brew and YouTube featured the terrific tomfooleries of Leonard Janson and Chuck Menville last month, and I thought it might be useful to give a little background about Chuck, Len and the work they created...

Chuck Menville, longtime animation story writer and artist, started in the animation biz in his early twenties. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on New Year's Day, 1941, he moved to Los Angeles in the late fifties and started work at Disney's as an apprentice animator and inbetweener in the middle of 1965 (when he would have been 24 and Disney would have had Jungle Book in production).

Chuck worked as a breakdown artist at Disney and an assistant animator at De-Patie Freleng. Within a couple of years he was a writer at Hanna-Barbera -- partnered with Len -- and shortly thereafter, at Filmation.

Dave Brain -- who worked as cameraman on two of the first three pictures, recounts how Chuck and Len started the "pixalation thing" at Chouinards in the early sixties:

We were in T. Hee's classes, and T. said a good way to learn about animation timing was to move small objects around -- toy cars, small boxes -- and shoot them with a movie camera one frame at a time.

T. Hee brought us a 16mm camera and said "you guys can check your timing with this." Chuck and Len started with little cars, graduated to shooting people doing imitation driving sitting on the ground out in the alley next to Chouinard's. When we all got to Disney a few years later, they decided to make their stop-motion film over again.

We all went out on weekends and shot that first picture. We shot straight ahead, and it was pretty hit and miss. You had to develop a feel for it. We would get the film back and sometimes the scenes would look great, and sometimes they wouldn't. One weekend's work was ruined because light leaked onto the film roll.

Ward Kimball saw what Chuck and Len were doing, and helped them get an editing room at Disney's to put the film together. Ward went to Walt and Walt okayed it The sound effects are all from the Disney sound library.

After the first film was done (Stop, Look and Listen), Len ran into Dick Van Dyke in the Disney commissary, told Van Dyke about the film and asked if he would take a look at it. Van Dyke did, and liked it. He wanted Len and Chuck to do something like it for a t.v. special he was making. Len pitched Vicious Cycles to him, and Van Dyke said "go ahead." I think he got us $6,000 to make the second film.

After that second film, Chuck and Len started shooting in 35 mmm, and I stopped being the cameraman.

After I talked to Dave, I got Len Janson on the phone. Here's what the co-creator of Stop, Look and Listen, Vicious Cycles, Blazed Glory and Sergeant Swell had this to say about the films he created, and his partnership with Chuck Menville:

Chuck and I were partners for more than twenty years. He was like my brother. It was Chuck's idea to make that first pixalated first film, and as soon as I heard him say it, I said "Yeah, that's terrifc. Let's do that."

We filmed a version of Stop, Look and Listen while we were at Chouinard. We shot it down around MacArthur Park where Chouinard was at the time, and the winos and homess people down there looked at us funny.

But that first version wasn't very good. I don't know if I have a version of it anymore or not. When we got to Disney, we decided to do the film over. We met and became friends with John Kimball, and he introduced us to his father Ward, who became our mentor. Ward helped us get an editing room and Disney sound effects.

We shot the new version of Stop, Look and Listen all over. We shot it on weekends, and our friends worked gratis. The places we shot on weekends were pretty quiet without much traffic. We would sit down on the street, get our arms in position, click the shutter twice, then stand up, walk two paces, and sit down again. Shoot another two frames. We start early in the morning and work all day.

I remember we were shooting on Larchmont, near where I lived, and a black guy in a car drove up while I was sitting down on the ground with my arms out. He didn't notice the camera. He looked down at me and said: "Get up off the ground, you fool!" And then drove off."

Besides the four pixalated films we did, we made a fifth about a cowardly super hero, but there wasn't much stop-action in it. We also did commercials for Gulf oil and Kellogg's, working for Filmfair. Making these films was one of the great experiences of our lives.

Chuck Menville passed away from lymphoma June 15, 1992 at age 51. Len Janson is today retired from animation and now writing novels. He and Chuck had long stints as a writing team at Filmation, Hanna-Barbera, and other studios. Len also wrote live-action.

Beyond Stop, Look and Listen, Vicious Cycles, UnBridled Glory and Sergeant Swell, there is -- as Len mentions -- that Janson-Menville production of a skittish Super Hero who's afraid of heights, and so flies just three feet off the ground. It had little "pixalation" and never got a wide distribution.

Hopefully, with the other Janson-Menville films out there on the internets, the fifth and final creation of the team will find a bigger audience.


Anonymous said...

Chuck and Len were amazing talents. I remember them coming to visit our studio when they were still kids in school.

We hooked up again at Disney in the sixties when the Dick Van Dyke thing happened. Their first big break. Of course, they went on to have a great career in television. While at DIC in the eighties, they actually hired me to write for them.

But, I still remember those early days with John Kimball, Dave Brain and others. What incredible fun days.

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