Weston Woods, the Norwalk, Conn., company synonymous with high-quality video adaptations of children's picture books, celebrates its golden anniversary this year. Artist, photographer and filmmaker Morton Schindel founded Weston Woods in 1953. He embarked on this creative outlet after contracting tuberculosis in the early 1940s; his physician suggested a less stressful career than his original plan to enter the retail trade as a piece goods buyer.
Armed with advice from several New York City librarians and various review journals, Schindel began acquiring film rights (then a rare request) to such classics as Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey and Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. His first films were in the "iconographic" style, in which "original artwork from an open book glides in front of a motion picture camera, giving the still imagery cinematic life." according to Schindel's description in a recent interview. Appropriate sound effects and original music rounded out the productions. Those early titles were a hit with librarians and teachers, and by 1956, the short films were airing on Captain Kangaroo.
In 1963, Schindel began work on his first fully animated production, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The book had just won the Caldecott Medal and, later, the Weston Woods adaptation won the award for best children's film at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Over the next 30 years, Schindel went on to create numerous animated works including Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Doctor De Soto by William Steig, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984.
Over the years, Weston Woods films have routinely featured the work of noted animation artists and top-notch musicians as well as narration by such popular actors as James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep and John Lithgow. Weston Woods adaptations have become a staple in libraries and classrooms; currently they are used in more than 50,000 U.S. schools and libraries and have been translated into more than 15 languages, for distribution in more than 20 countries. Not resting on its laurels, the company continues to produce new film titles for the school and library markets.
In 1996, Weston Woods was acquired by Scholastic Inc., a partnership that Schindel has said "afforded Weston Woods the opportunity to reach far greater audiences." To that end, Scholastic Entertainment brought Weston Woods titles into the retail arena for the first time last year with the release of its Scholastic Video Collection line of VHS and DVD titles. Each collection—as of March 25 there are seven titles available, including Chicka Chicka Boom Boom... and lots of learning fun! and Harold and the Purple Crayon... and Other Harold Stories—contains a compilation of Weston Woods programs. New York City-based New Video (firstname.lastname@example.org) distributes the Scholastic Video Collection to bookstores and other retailers; Scholastic maintains distribution through its proprietary channels (book clubs and book fairs).
These days, as Weston Woods Studios hums along under the Scholastic umbrella, Schindel focuses his creative energies on serving as president of the board of directors of the Weston Woods Institute, a nonprofit group that supports innovative techniques in educational and cultural communications with children.