“Stop, Look & Listen”: The Pixelated 60s Genius Of Menville & Janson

By on April 11, 2015

In the mid-60s, two good friends, Chuck Menville and Len Janson, both in their 20s, began experimenting with a somewhat forgotten stop-motion animation technique called pixelation (the animation of living beings). They began spending their weekends making their first short live-action pixelation film, resulting in the hilarious Stop, Look and Listen, which was later nominated for an Academy Award under the category of “Short Subjects, Live Action Subjects” (now called “Live Action Shorts”).

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Menville — born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on April 17, 1940 — had moved to Los Angeles with his parents in the 1950s, and by age 19 knew he wanted to work in animation. He began taking animation classes at the Chouinard Art Institute, and that’s where he first met Len Janson, and cameraman David Brain.

Their instructor was the legendary T. Hee (Thornton Hee), who was teaching character design and caricature at Chouinard, which ultimately was merged during 60s with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to establish the California Institute of the Arts, or Cal-Arts; T. Hee and animation teacher Jack Hannah had started the Character Animation program there.

In order to understand about how much animated characters needed to move to look realistic, T. Hee taught his students how to shoot pixelation scenes (sometimes spelled pixilation) with a 16mm camera, and he probably even showed them Norman McLaren’s 1952 Oscar-winning short film, Neighbors. McLaren is likely to have been one of the first to use the pixelation stop-motion process in short films, which was also used in the 1950s on Art Clokey’s Gumby cartoons, but by the mid-60s the pixelation process felt dated, and interest in it had waned. Disney and other Hollywood studios saw little use for the technique, and so the pixelation technique became largely forgotten after McLaren moved on to using other animation techniques for later films. It was Menville, and Janson, who revived it.

Soon, Menville and Janson began experimenting with the camera in an alley next to Chouinard, and made their first attempt at Stop, Look and Listen, shooting at nearby MacArthur Park, where Chouinard was located at the time. Brain later remembered that “the winos and homeless people down there looked at us funny.” Their first attempts weren’t always successful, but Menville and Janson never gave up on their ideas.

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By 1965, Menville was working as an apprentice animator at Disney and just a few years later, now age 26, he was working as a breakdown artist at Disney’s animation studios, and even served as an assistant on Disney’s 1967 animated film Jungle Book. Janson and Brain were both working at Disney too, and they hadn’t forgotten how much fun they had had working on the pixelation films. They’d certainly developed a feel for it, and soon were working on them again, spending their weekends perfecting their ideas.

At Disney, they became friends with co-worker John Kimball, who introduced them to his father, Ward Kimball, another legendary figure in the world of animation, who saw what they were doing, and what mistakes they were making, and he helped them get an editing room at Disney to better work on putting the film together. Then Ward went to Walt Disney himself to get the top man’s okay to use sound effects from the Disney sound library.

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They shot a new version of Stop, Look and Listen on weekends, mostly shooting in the Larchmont section of Los Angeles, and getting their friends — including production assistant/ cameraman David Brain and cameraman David McMillan — to work for free. The results were much better this time, and ostensibly Stop, Look and Listen became a public safety film that informed the audience of the merits of following the rules of the road.

The film began to get them some notice, as you might expect, which led to the dynamic animation duo making commercials for Gulf Oil — who hired them to do a series of pixelation commercials for its “No-Nox” gasoline, which allowed them to increase the production value of their films — and the also made a commercial for Kellogg’s cereals, and began working for Filmfair.

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Around the same time that Stop Look and Listen was being nominated for that 1967 Academy Award (they lost), Janson ran into Dick Van Dyke in the Disney commissary, and they began talking about the stop-motion filmmaking that Janson had been doing with Menville, and he asked Van Dyke if the comedy legend would take a look at their film, which Van Dyke did, and that lead to their next project.

Janson pitched the concept of Vicious Cycles to Van Dyke, who loved the concept. He arranged to get them a budget of $6,000, with plans to show it on one of Dick Van Dyke’s TV specials, airing in 1968.

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Vicious Cycles features Len Janson in the role of Leader of the Vicious Cycles, while Chuck Menville is the Leader of the Mild Ones. Clips from the film were featured in a 1970 summer television series on ABC, The New Communicators, which brought them an even wider audience and led to more work.

For their next pixelation film, Menville and Janson graduated to 35mm, and really stepped up the production values, too. 1970’s Blaze Glory was a spoof of cliché western movies in which heroes and villains rode around the Old West, without horses.

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Menville played the title character, TV commercial director Bob Kurtz as co-writer, and Warner Bros. animator Ken Champin appeared in the role of the Indian. It was an ambitious and elaborate short film, a ribald burlesque western where everyone rides invisible horses and where the Purple Sage Stage runs on invisible wheels. Blaze is an intrepid champion of justice and purity, fighting off evil men and adorning ladies with equal vigor and always riding into the sunset alone.

A theatrical short print was released to theaters by United Artists, and occasionally you can still see this one on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, airing in between films they’re showing. Pyramid Films/Pyramid Media also distribute the film now for audience screenings.

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Menville and Janson followed up Blaze Glory with two more 35mm short films, Sergeant Swell (1972) and Captain Mom (also 1972), both spoofs of superheroes. The later film was mostly live-action with a minimum of their now-trademark pixelation animation technique, and failed to garner a large audience, but by then Menville and Janson had established themselves as a creative force within Hollywood animation production circles.

As the 70s continued on, the dynamic duo began moving around to new jobs, and the pixelated genius of their early films was soon left behind. Menville became an assistant animator at De-Patie Freleng, before moving on to become a writer at Hanna-Barbera, where once again he was partnered with fellow animator Len Janson. From there, they both ended up at Filmation, working on Star Trek: The Animated Series. They wrote two episodes for that series — “Once Upon A Planet” and “The Practical Joker” (the “rec room” in the later episode is now seen by many within Star Trek fandom to have been the genesis of the holodeck).

In the 1980s, Menville contributed to a number of Saturday morning series, including The Smurfs, The Real Ghostbusters, and Kissyfur. Among his last projects before his death in 1992 was the episode “Opah” of the live-action Land of the Lost, for which he was nominated for the Humanitas Prize in Live-Action Children’s Programming. His final project was writing an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but Menville died — from non-Hodgkin lymphoma on June 15, 1992 at age 51, in Malibu, California — before the episode could be written. Brynne Stephens wrote the teleplay for the 1993 Batman episode “Birds Of A Feather” based on Menville’s story, for which he received a story credit on the completed episode. Menville was also the author of The Harlem Globetrotters: Fifty Years of Fun and Games, a history of the famed basketball team. It was published by the D. McKay Company in 1978.

Len Janson is today retired from animation and the last we heard, he was writing novels.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    Still seems pretty sad Chuck died pretty young like that. I often his and Len’s later efforts in the Saturday morning grind seems pale in comparison to their earlier efforts with these shorts. I didn’t even know he was involved in Batman: TAS like that. That was such a great show, though a shame he couldn’t finish that episode otherwise. Hearing of Len being retired doesn’t surprise me, of course the animation industry has already been on the ups and downs in recent years, the sort of things he and his pal did probably wouldn’t work well with today’s somewhat flicked audience expecting something new.

    Thinking of that for a while, and animators who did interesting things as independents or for something else, I’m reminded of this short from the NFB by one Ernie Schmidt from 1975 called “TV Sale”. Watching it today, it’s kinda fascinating how rather ahead-of-its-time it could be on the subject of TV and the society it affects. The look and aesthetics of it would make one think Ernie Schmidt was the Mike Judge of his day. Very biting satire of the mid 70’s TV wasteland…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EifHfXYiEE

    Looking up Ernie’s IMDB after watching this, shows his was practically a mere speck among a sea of cartoons he otherwise worked on for all the usual Hollywood cartoon mills of the 1980’s and 90’s including Filmation, Hanna-Barbera, Disney TVA, etc. The last thing he did was exposure sheet timing on a few DIC TV movies in 2002, then I guess he hanged it up after that. It’s rather something when one film or work gets you interesting in what else someone did and either feel impressed or dismayed it wasn’t quite what you expect. I suppose that’s just how the business is.