One year ago, the New York animation community lost a monumental figure. Animator and director Michael Sporn made short films and TV specials, ran a prominent animation studio for over 30 years, and wrote a blog that enlightened newer generations of animators. His films are noted for using illustrative animation to bring to life not just children’s books and educational programs, but stories that covered much more serious and adult topics. Indeed, his ambitions as a filmmaker are shared with many modern animators. Michael was also a prominent member of ASIFA-East, and his untimely passing reverberated tremendously. ASIFA-East came together with The School of Visual Arts Film and Animation Department and many others on March 2, 2015 to commemorate the one year anniversary of Michael’s passing, and to share his ever-lasting influence.
This evening was attended by several of Michael’s employees from over the years.
Steering the evening along was board member Masako Kanayama. The evening started off with a screening of clips from various projects Michael Sporn has directed throughout his career. Among the clips were the title sequence from the movie Deathtrap (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1982), various Sesame Street shorts, and excerpts from multiple groundbreaking shorts. Watching these clips all together, there’s no doubt that Michael captured something special with animation. This is the work of a man who loved New York City, a man whose eyes could see the traits and quirks that make New York a city all of its own. This was the work of an artist who truly appreciated what animation could express, and even in a clip show like this, the work is still dazzling.
After the screening, the panel discussion moved forward. Moderated by ASIFA member Ray Kosarin (himself a veteran of Michael’s studio), the panelists included Michael’s longtime collaborators writer Maxine Fisher (also a co-founder of Michael’s studio), artists Bridget Thorne, Steven Parton, Stephen Macquignon, Denise Gonzalez, and editor Ed Askinazi (now a filmmaker in his own right). Before anything else, the panelists immediately started talking about legendary animator Tissa David, who was not only a regular collaborator, but a most important presence in Michael’s career. It’s clear that Tissa, who passed away in 2012, was a true mentor to Michael Sporn, and she acted as his “Godmother” of animation. Michael’s admiration for Tissa was made clear on his Splog, as well as his admiration for another great mentor, John Hubley.
From then on, the panelists discussed their different experiences working in Michael Sporn’s studio. Everyone talked about introducing themselves to Michael, getting hired, and the shared impression is while they were all nervous to meet Michael at first, Michael’s embracing personality put everyone at ease. The panelists went on to discuss how over the years, he stubbornly adhered to his agenda of making animated films that could address adult issues and be adapted from various literary sources. At least one panelist couldn’t ignore the deep connection Michael had to the work of author/illustrator William Steig. The discussion moved along, from the opening of the Michael Sporn Animation studio to the production of Lyle, Lyle Crocodile (1987), his first 30-minute short for HBO. The film proved to be a pivotal point in Sporn’s professional life.
The discussion then turned to another screening of Michael Sporn’s work, specifically the years following Lyle. Michael Sporn Animation was now producing HBO specials, all of them unique in artistic style and subject matter. The two films that seem to hit the latter chord in the reel are Whitewash (1994) and Champagne (1997). These works marked a new stage of the studio, which now included the presence of a new collaborator, Michael’s wife and stage actress, Heidi Stallings. From then on, the discussion was all over the traits that made Michael such a unique filmmaker: his concentration on color design; his love of film music (of which he was encyclopedic of); and his overall nature as a film buff.
The evening then moved right along to an audience Q & A. From these discussions, it was clear that Michael’s studio had something that is sparse in today’s animation industry: Michael Sporn trusted people. Michael would hand out assignments to different artists in areas that wasn’t their usual specialty. He took artists out of their creative comfort zones, because he trusted their talent. Some of the audience members who participated were former employees of the studio, who all attest that for 30 years, Michael’s studio was THE go-to place for art school graduates to find animation work in New York. Now these artists are inspired to start their own studios, both on the East Coast and the West Coast. There were also tears shed, as even some of his mentees still find it very emotional to talk about Michael.
The highlight of the evening was then set into motion: the Tribute Reel. Dozens of individuals submitted personalized tribute clips for Michael Sporn to ASIFA-East to be cut into this reel. Although the bulk of the tributes were from the many professionals who worked for Michael throughout his career, there were many from his closest friends, and just as many from admirers. From this reel, there were words that were repeated throughout that gave more than enough description of Michael: words such as Mentor, Enthusiast, Argumentative, Stubborn, and Family. It doesn’t seem to matter what capacity these people knew the man. The outpouring and the way it was all cut together showed tremendous love and gratitude to Michael as an artist, a mentor, and a person.
Following the Tribute Reel, Michael’s wife Heidi Stallings took the microphone to deliver her remarks. Heidi had nothing but the best impressions to share with all of us. She spoke of her first meeting Michael, and how he spontaneously cast her for a voice-over role in Lyle Lyle Crocodile. Heidi also spoke to great length on Michael’s stubborn traits, which seemed to manifest in all parts of his life.
With the end of the evening, those who never had the chance to work with Michael Sporn, or even know him, surely now had more than a well-rounded opinion of the man. Michael was a New York filmmaker, and animation was his medium. Many of us walked out of the theatre wanting to re-watch some of his films. There is still a generation of animators who grew up seeing Michael Sporn’s films through our parents, our schools, or just caught on TV. And the charm of those films remain with us.
Author’s note: I haven’t been able to give much of a tribute to Mr. Sporn, as I didn’t know him as well as others did personally. But in the year since his passing, I still find myself very saddened by his loss. I remember his films being shown in elementary school, and I remember how amused I was by the film Lyle Lyle Crocodile. This was long before I knew Michael Sporn’s name. I only had maybe three conversations with the man, but I still saw him a pillar of the NYC animation community. While studying at Pratt Institute, I discovered blogging for the first time, and his “Splog” stood out as being one of the essential authorities on animation. I read it obsessively for the next few years. Michael Sporn seemed to have two things I truly admire: artistic integrity, and a deep connection with his collaborators. I don’t think anybody is going to continue Michael’s legacy, but it seems like he’s encouraged many to instead forge their own legacies.
Readers, you are welcome to leave your remembrances of Michael in the comments section. We are also asking for any additional contributions to the tribute reel. For the tribute reel we are inviting anyone to participate and send their personal message about Michael, his work, what he means to you, his animation, whatever you feel moved to say. You can write, draw, paint, photograph, GIF, audio record or videotape your message. Please email your tribute to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 27, 2015.