Back to the Mike Jittlov interview page
Taken from Fantastic Films Collectors Edition # 11, December 1980. Posted here for educational purposes only, all material copyright of the original authors/publishers. Transcribed by me, Tim Drage, with the help of the marvellous Onmipage Direct!
Mike Jittlov can do Everthing!
Director, producer, writer, actor and animation wizard Mike Jittlov shares the secret of his One-Man-Show with the viewing public in an interview that approaches the Speed of Time itself!
Article by DAVE ELLIS
Whirrr clickety, blink.
Houselights come on, the projector's stopped,the audience hasn't. They're ecstatic.
"LetMeThru!!" I'm charging into the mobs at the door, then past the conventioneers rushing down the hallways. The lobby phone's straight ahead, I pull out someone trying on a red-and-blue costume and throw a shower of change at the coin slots.
(Slinkety-ping, BING, "Operator.")
"Get me JITTLOV, 90026, USA!!"
(Gasp, "Not THE . . . ?") Sounds of circuits crackling.
Somebody shouts from the hall way, "They're showing 'em again!" Screaming Cheering. I leave the phone. They're packed at the door, a solid wall blocking. A fan rumbles a flyer table across the hallway, and ten people jump on top, with me. We stare over the heads of a thousand strong, as the film screen flickers, and glows. And once again we view:
ANIMATO: Models glide in like an ultra-slick fashion parade, easybeat enjoyment to an uptempo Petula Clark song. But who's the guy in the green jacket floating through Los Angeles? UFO's are buzzing jets, rockets lifting out of Hollywood monuments, into galloping sight/sound transcendence and a whirl wind trip to space and sheer joy!
TIME TPIPPER: A midnight janitor discovers George Pal's Time Machine. (Didn't that guy just wear a green jacket?) He beeps a button, the world oscillates, speeding. He beeps a button and he's off on a tangent to the known universe, leaving glittering skylines below, smashing through time and space and surging us into uncharted realms of lightstruck wonder. And he (you guessed it) beeps a button, and he and dozens of fabulous characters flip their machines to become their own credits!
THE INTERVIEW: Not only does the demon in the black cloak fly like a Jupiter C, but he talks like a hyper caffeinated machine gun. He never answers a question but interjects that he's not Mike Jittlov the filmmaker because that Mike Jittlov wears a green jacket; and with this crucial data imparted he thunders "I'mmmm late!!!!" and roars off into the sun, which goes nova! And condenses to a crescent moon!
AUDIENCE: Who is this guy?! What right has he got to be so talented? I gotta' talk to him!! And my shoulder's tapped, by the man in the red cape, who points to the lobby phone. I leap. Fans are haunting hallways around me, doing stirring imitations of Jittlov yelling "I'mmmm late!!!!" I reach the phone and snatch the receiver, OPERATOR!!
("I have the party to which you alluded:")
(fizzz-snap "Telephone . . .")
(Notebook opened, flip-flip-flip) I have a list of rumors-
("The nice things are true.")
[How do you talk to a guy whose first film made it to the Academy Awards finals, and who did one of the most spectacular sequences in Disney Studios' history only when they gave him complete creative control!?]
Hi, uh, yes, why do you always wear a green jacket?
(Flippety-flip) Ah, where'd you find an animation crane that could film Animato?
("Built it, $200.")
(flip-flip) You can whistle 3 1/2 octaves?
("Also do a pretty good hoot-owl.")
And you're ambidextrous, and speak seven languages‹
"They're gonna' show 'em backwards!!", someone shouts, running past.
("Who is this?")
It's Dave, I wrote to you for background on all your movies and life story.
("You get the postcard?")
Yes, I had it enlarged, four times.
"I'll do a series of four science fiction features; of adult intelligence. I think it's time, now." Mike is just completing the first screenplay of his tetralogy. The rest is contained within hundreds of handwritten note pages, which are a triumph of microminiaturization- he writes at 23 lines to the inch . . . "The films will be pure imagination from start to finish. Have to be. I want to watch them too."
How did you get into filmmaking? What inspired you?
("Mmm, lessee ... Saw Thief of Bagdad with Rex Ingram as the Genii, then built a three-story treehouse and we sent up 28-balloon space stations and UFO's over Los Angeles, with giant glowing eyeballs at Halloween. That came from hypnotizing friends at 13, and inventing magic tricks to fool all the professional magicians at IBM and SAM meetings‹")
[Writer's Note: Never call Jittlov at 4 a.m.]
("-Then changed UCLA majors every year, calculus to French to Russian to computers. During that, we went down the Colorado in wading pools, and Chris Barczak made a film of me riding around on my briefcase and hitch hiking with the giant hand, and I was hooked.")
Wha? (It was eventually clarified that Mike had built a briefcase with wheels, steering, brakes and bell, and was rather notorious for rumbling around the campus hills. The three foot sponge hand was carved for his carnival stint as Swami Rivah and His Stream of Time, said palm then taking him across the U.S. in Summer '67 then all over Europe in Summer'69.)
("-Was looking for Ripley Believe It or Nots . . . Most were Nots. Anyway, big lines in the UCLA contract, 'Can not graduate without Art,' so I took Animation 181A. Everyone else was doing pencil tests, I wanted to do a four minute story. Dan McLaughlin gave me the run of the building after the first instructor fled.")
Originally entitled Nightmare, it is a highIy stylized cartoon about a chiId's bedtime fears. Monsters lurk and noises cackle and threaten as Mike's soft-spoken narration hypnotically guides his shivering little kid and the viewer to a devastating climax. The film was renamed to the two words he uttered most often during monstrous production frustrations...Good Grief.
"Wrote all the narration, then the music, got the instruments and played 'em. Recorded all on speed learned Nagras and mixed nine tracks on three-track Magnasyncs (16mm magnetic film recorders). Designed, inked, painted thousands of cells, and went back over them when hundreds spawned a fuzzy mold. Filmed everything before the rest sprouted, with table increments that didn't exist and an animation camera that loved to click off extra frames during four level passes. And then, when I retrieved the almighty soundtrack from the metal storage cabinet which happend to have its own erasing magnetic field. Could've named the film a lot worse.")
But he surmounted the impossible ("A rack, to the fifth power.") and didn't stop until it was done on time and done completely. ("In other words, totalled.") UCLA was not merely impressed; they blew it up to 35mm for entry into the Academy Awards' Animation category. As there was then no student film section, Mike's one-man production was contending with over a hundred films from around the world, many from major studios. Nevertheless, our hero made it to the finals-one of only nine films so honored.
"My features are about the first man to graduate from the Earth. They'll carry him, and the audience, through a kind of sensory evolution . . . so by the end of each film, you'll feel like you're 20 feet tall, with the sun in your heart, and you can solve any problem in the world."
(Fizzz-crackle ... "Even direct dialing.")
After two more short films, Mike graduated ("Escaped.") with a B.A. in Motion Picture and Television Production and Direction. ("Say it five times real fast.") And with Andy Andressoo formed a company called Concept Associates- producing industrials, promotionals, and commercial delights. Agencies were im pressed with the perfection and honesty of their work; and one exec said they were the only animators in L.A. without Poppin' Fresh on their demo reel. ("And we were very idealistic, very responsible, so there were many things we just could not in any way promote ... fast foods, drugs, personal products, religions, wrist watches ... but after many hungry months-")
But did he give in? Never! ("Don't eat, anyway.") For many of the productions, costs were minimized by Mike's expertise in multiple industry classifications. For one job, he was ("Breathe deep.") Director, Writer (Story Outline, Teleplay, Rewrite, Narration, Polish, Breakdown), Researcher, Location Scout, Director of Photography, Film Loader, Projectionist, Film Librarian, Editor, Conformist, Negative Cutter, Still Photographer, Sound Man, Boom Man, Playback Operator, Sound Editor, Mixer, Director of Animation, Animation Cameraman, Animator (Stop motion, Pixilation, Kinestasis, Underlit, Rotoscope), Animation Checker, Animation Editor, Matte Artist, Ink and Painter, Storyboard Artist, Special Effects Photographer, Special Effects Man, Sculptor, Modeler, Gaffer, Grip, Electrician, Lamp Operator, Repairman, Sign Maker, Continuity, Cuer, Art Director, Set Director, Set Builder, Propmaster, Propmaker, Greensman, Wardrobe, Makeup Man, Hair Stylist, Meal Buyer, Chef, Car Driver, Truck Driver, Dispatcher, Gofer, Animal Specialist, Lawyer, Auditor, Stuntman, Narrator, Puppeteer, and Actor. ("But can he type?")
And, of course, the only credits allowed were: Stop-Motion Sequences by Mike Jittlov.
"Paradox. It's a perfect field for a renaissance person, but that's not the point. You did too much, and did it too well. And that can intimidate less understanding executives and producers, especially when your super work saves their show. They still have megawatt smiles and hearty hand shakes, as they try to hide you back with the MPAA code.
But hiding this tall, lanky Californian was becoming increasingly impossible. His films won the Broadway Cinemedia Awards three years in a row. Until the fourth year, when they asked him not to enter. Instead, could he make the promotional to lead the whole festival? Swing Shift is a "stomp-motion" hoedown for clothes in an after-hours Broadway department store. Mike and Andy built 17 full-scale aluminum armatures for the required fall fashions in the two days allowed for all pre-production work and testing. With 105 scenes of maior on-location animation, Mike asked for 21 production days, and got nine nights. ("We just worked 233% faster.") Former Mouseketeer Dan Collins played a security guard who at first tried to stop the magic, and wound up romping with the clothes through the Hollywood and Vine landmark.
Chris Barczak returned, and Broadway liason Joyce Siefker joined the gang-all renaissance of the first order-for the mammoth task of simultaneously animating dozens of garments and one live guard. At the store's closing bell, they'd all come down the freight elevators with lights and camera dollies and cast. ("-Dan, 17 suits, and two fur jackets called the Gabor sisters .. . we fought hair-trip circuit breakers, fluorescent lighting, cleanup crews in the background, record heatwaves, circadian rhythm, gravity, Murphy, and the store's dust ball-sensitive alarm system. When the LAPD assembled outside the glass doors, we just pointed to Dan in the fake guard uniform. He waved at the officers, they nodded and left.") None of this adversity shows up in the film, which is a classic of whimsy. Sparkles and titles were added on the aformentioned Jittlov Art Creation And Multi-Plane Animation Complex. An Erector Set-like contraption that can fold up into a suit case ("a very heavy suitcase") and be taken anywhere, the JACAMPAC enables Mike to duplicate most anything done on a $15,000 animation stand like the Oxberry Master. And, in fact, the device is oft referred to in hushed tones as the Jittlov-berry. ("I just call it Thing.")
While furiously editing and (after a sound lab mess-up) re-editing the film to Bernard Herrmann's Devil and Daniel Webster score ("It's fortunate that grease pencils are so blunt."), Mike recalls his state-of-mind: ("-I was 48 hours without sleep, and on my way to an all-night store. Stopped for a stop sign, signaled for a right turn. Slowly I realized two things . . . the red sign was not going to change to green, and I didn't need to signal as long as I was walking. Couple hours later, when dawn clawed open the day, Broadway called in a cheery voice and wanted an interview of my self in front of the film. I walked out onto the street and gave them an interview they would never forget.") The Interview features the Fantum, a character in the Jittlov mythos who zooms over the streets in his black cloaked glory - a manic-impressive, the type who'd blow up a refinery if he needed a little more light. The Fantum has, however, lately consented his presence to more gentle portrayals, such as the mad scientist blasting through Lawrence Starkman's Astrophant (also slated for the Intergalactic Picture Show), and the raging shade in Rick Harper's Meadowlark Lemon Presents the World (Pyramid Films).
It should be apparent that Mike Jittlov the Actor is no more submerged than Mike Jittlov the Director. ("It's part of the creative process, you need it for balance. My work's judged by its context, so I'm going to make sure the guy acting with my effects is doing it perfectly.") Which is why he insists that any project utilizing his talents must include him as an actor as well -wild to mild, court magus, explorer, scientist, sensitive. ("I enjoy these roles. I live them. The epic need an actor, might as well get one who's experienced, who never gets tired, who understands the rigors of effects work and can react perfectly to post production effects. And of course, actors get the residuals, while animators just get the-" Beep-click)
Operator!? ("I'm sorry, we are trying to reconnect you.")
When Swing Shift showcased at the L.A. FILMEX, and The Interview was chosen to head off the opening night ceremonies, Mayor Tom Bradley devoted his entire dedication speech to ". . . a few words about that first film. Mike Jittlov must've looked pretty hard to find the only crooked street sign in Los Angeles." The sign was replaced within the week. And the prestigious American Cinematographer invited him to write on the film's technical aspects, with the results appearing in a 12-page spread in the March '74 issue.
'Noooo, can't tell you what the feature effects are. That would hurt the future. But I can say that we'll use every variable in the medium, every line of dialogue and every sound and scene ... all making you aware of something fantastic inside you ... and then maybe help you across that millimeter to the rest of your mind. Humble films."
Animato is a joy film. It transcends simple physical maturity and appeals to the boy and girl in each of us. Mike originally planned a quintet of show case animation, this first to be mainly kinestasis (photo cut-out); but he also wanted it to be a visual high, and his preliminary notes look like a brain wave trace. ("Had to know the peaks and valleys for audience reactions. I was making the film for me as well-it had to be watchable, over and over.")
Each scene had to feel better than the previous, so animation speed and direction was chosen for acceleration, then test-shot through a whole range of gels from which he'd draw an emotional match to that point in the chartings. ("I know the goal, I let my emotions guide. With all our need for reason and logic, it's still our emotions that make our ultimate decisions.") So it's really not all that mysterious ... simply match the film to what it's going to be.
Animato is a masterpiece. It carries you right along with it. It's an implosion of images that draws and lifts and transports you, rather than hitting you with a shockwave. Audiences in variably vocalize sheer delight, and they did enough at last year's FILMEX to demand encore screenings of Animato four more times-the only film short besides Mike's Good Grief to be so honored at the influential exposition.
On the final night, it stole the show from the world premiere of Burt Reynolds' The End, and ABC's Regis Philbin gave Mike an incredible five minute review, closing with ". . . He is, I think, a genius."
And the Son of Luck. For a Disney producer just happened to buy a TV that day and turn it on at 6:25. But more on that story with film at 11 . . .
Making Animato took six straight months of marathon nights, after normal workdays. With more effects than most entire features, the three minute short had a total of 10,183 separate picture set-ups, and all effects were done in-camera ad on the JACAMPAC. In case you're wondering why there are more set-ups than available frames, it's because most scenes were multiply-exposed, up to 23 times. ("But who's counting.")
Anatomy of a typical Animato shot: Drive around night-lit Los Angeles scouting for the right location, clamber over abandoned buildings, find the mental image and shoot exposure tests of the buildings and traffic lights, return to the lair and shoot color exposure tests of all supered art and effects, take that to the lab at 7 a.m., pick it up at noon, check it over.
Nightfall, add special grid to camera optics and take everything to Iocation, jump the freeway fencing and shoot the scene while adjacent high security installation is calling for reinforcements, sketch the grid references, leap back over fence and peel out as police are pulling up. Return to the studio and remerge camera to JACAMPAC, backwind, shoot underlit blinking billboard from insta-made blacktape matte; backwind, shoot giant star moving out of traffic and behind the buildings shot; backwind shoot star's reflection traveling in building windows; backwind, add move on huge moon with diffusion and gel. Then go on to the next shot. ("Ad insomnium.")
Time Tripper is largely courtesy of Bob Burns, who, among many talents is the ultimate restorer-collector of SF movie memorabilia in the known universe. One freezing November night, he allowed Mike to hop aboard the original Time Machine vehicle. Kirby Timmons (Interview cameraman) came by, Mike got an idea and his camera ("And Kirb filmed me for 10 minutes of gleeful over-acting.") The small reel sat in storage for a year until Mike finished Animato, and then he had a flash on the footage. The effects animation for his senses-shattering flight took 2 l/2 months, which included Christmas time night shots on Hollywood Boulevard. ("-In the rain, and record fog banks, midnight boulevardiers cruising around. Working on the Thing for a year had temporarily creamed my back, I was using the Foba tripod as a crutch. Five drunk cycle-toughs wanted to be in the movies, and one street-grungy kept asking how much one could get for such a camera. I put on my Fantum voice, they came no closer.") The result of said determination is now a classic of motion picture mesmerization.
Okay, Jittlov, you've proven your self with film shorts. How could you possibly live up to them in a full length live-action feature?
"Effects are important, they're pure imagination, and that's the prime draw for an audience. But all the glossy ribbons and wrappings are wasted if the gift inside is stupidity . . . such a wonderful and expensive opportunity just thrown away. Mustn't waste life-times. The content, the story, has got to be solid and strong and powerful. Most important. And I know, as I show people the story treatment, and they start gasping and jumping and can't stop turning the pages ... I've got something very good."
And mid-1978, Disney wanted something very good for their jubilation, Mickey's 50th TV Special. Mike was summoned and asked to feature all the years of Mickey Mouse merchandise in moving pictures, similar to Animato. Mike said thanks, but no thanks, until (in a brilliant and unprecedented move) producers Phil May and Nick Bennion offered him complete creative control over his segment of the show. He accepted.
Now all he had to do was create something, in four months, that would stand beside the most monumental productions in the studio's 50 year history. ("I just walked up to the mount behind the Griffith Observatory and stood in the wind for a half hour.") Then he came down off the mount, and rewrote the script. Mike ruled out kinestasis as too high powered (the way he does it, anyway) for the show's center, and chose instead a live-action/animation approach on a character who's haunted by visions of a certain scurrying rodent.
With priceless treasures from the Disney Archives in Burbank and Disneyland, he built a fantasy world fora man who lives in a Mickey Mouse house, works in a Mickey Mouse steno pool, and winds up on a Mickey Mouse' psychiatrist's couch. For the total coup d'auteur, Disney chose Mike to play both of the human leading roles. ("I had to be this batty collector and also sit taking notes as the psychiatrist, and animate hundreds of toys marching around the office.") Solved, in typical Jittlov style. ("Shot the close-ups first, with simpler background animation. Then Ken Diaz make a life mask of me, Sue Forrest matched makeup, and I built a foam dummy on one of the old Swing Shift armatures, dressed it up for the double-shots.") Then they animated over 1,000 toys, most with multiple motions-including the first foam??? -armature Mickey Mouse 3-D ani mation model in history (constructed by Jerry Guerrero) scampering across the floor. Laser effects and rotoscope sparkles were supered in, when the office floor and ceiling disappeared to a star-streaming universe.
Of all the crew, Deven Chierighino and Chris Barczak were the most phenomenal, gifted, and untiring. ("After some of the 22-hour animation shots, Deven and I were the only ones still alive and aware. Disneywas going to give blanket credit 'To All The Wonderful People,' so I thought something more personalized was in order. And if you look on the sides of the toy armadas, you'll see interesting names in essential scenes.")
The three sections were separated for the special, and dubbed The Collector, Rat Race, and Mouse Mania. And when Regis Philbin previewed the NBC special on the ABC Eyewitness News, the whole newsroom exploded as they saw the sequences. Mike's main regret: no one may ever see the footage again. ("It's my film but it's Disney's mouse. That's a ton of time in negotiation, and the film needs the right music orchestrated . . . Iot of money.") Collectors are screaming.
Four times further did Disney knock on the Jittlovian door. Develop part of their Florida EPCOT project ("Wasn't what I enjoy best."). Design a new attraction at Disneyland ("A Mickey Mouse ride, no thank you . . . l was temporarily typecast."). Create the universe for The Black Hole TV documentary ("And in eight days. Somebody else did it in seven, but they couldn't get him."). And in late 1979, co-star and create his own sequence for the Disney TV special, Major Effects-where he was a special effect ("The Wizard of Speed and Time ... but that's a whole 'nother story!").
Would he ever work with Disney Studios again? "Well, truthfully, nope. Not unless it's on my features. And they've got to realize that my best works-the films that win happy audiences, and awards, and acclaim -were created and controlled by me. Not by a committee, or board of executives, but by someone who's achieved knowledge and success in every field of film production. And that means one man, one vision, one person driving. Sort of like Disney.
Of all his influences, Mike credits director-animator Jim Danforth as the most outstanding. ("Absolute genius! Boosted me out of some real ly low moods, he's been through Hollywood hell, and shrugs off the flames like a summer's breeze. Even Einstein had his down moments.")
Any words to the aspiring?
("Just to relay Jim's. It's wonderful, trying to be the best possible artist, but don't cloister yourself into a technological corner. Go out there and enjoy the entire human world- parties, business lunches, beaches in the sun. You'll be a lot better for it . . . a more complete creator.")
And what does Jim Danforth him self have to say about Mike Jittlov? ("Mike Jittlov is an artist who enriches the lives of those who see his films by giving them a glimpse into the world of his unique genuis. I am pleased to be his friend.")
An unlikely hero. Makes short films that upstage the industry's best efforts for a thousandth the cost. If he needs something special, he builds it. ("Couldn't make films without my Swiss Army Knife.") Wears blue jeans, plain white T-shirt, and a strange green jacket. ("Easy on the soul.") If this man's four feature films are even half as powerful as what he's already done, the world's audiences will never be the same . . . (Snap-crackle-phaBOOM)
Operator!! What's that sound?!!
("Sir, we can't hear you! Someone in a green jacket is flying up at the moon. ")