In a year when American voters from coast to coast have been grousing about the sorry line-up of presidential prospects, one candidate is rapidly emerging as an attractive choice with truly impressive credentials
He's young, good-looking, even cuddly. He's run for the presidency twice, in 1952 and 1956. He's level-headed, philosophical, humble, loved by millions. And, unlike those who claimed to have been born in a log cabin, he was born in a log. Which ought to make him good presdential timber.
Our man -- rather, our marsupial -- is none other than Pogo Possum, favorite son of Okefenokee Swamp and star of the Walt Kelly comic strip for 27 years.
And now, in a small studio at the back of a Crystal City shopping mall, his 1980 campaign film, "I Go Pogo," is being shot -- in fact, it may even be out before the election, according to the local animation studio producing the 82-minute, $2 million film.
Though the strip's golden age was the '50s, when Pogo and his cronies took turns lampooning the scoundrels of the day, its humor "is timeless," according to Stowmar co-founder Kerry Stowell. "Today, as always, it has something valid to say."
But pogo's humor and political content weren't the only reasons the four-year-old firm decided to make a Pogo movie. A few years ago, she says, the other founder, animator Marc Chinoy, had developed a new system of working with malleable models for animation. "One evening, he and I were having dinner with some friends, and we were trying to come up with the first big project for flexiform. Suddenly, it hit us like a shot out of the blue: 'Let's do Pogo!'"
"Kelly's strip and Flexiform perfectly complement each other," says Chinoy, who's done animated TV commercials and letter films for "Sesame Street." "if you look closely at Pogo, you'll see that it has a definite three-dimensional quality to it. We decided that with this new technique, we could capture that quality better than any other type of animation could -- and I think we've succeeded."
As he leads visitors on a tour through Stowmar's studio, Chinoy, who wrote the script and directed, points to the four-inch models of Pogo and his pals with all the joy and pride of a child showing off his toys on christmas morning. The models, made of plasticene, clay and magnetic metal, repose on tables or in cabinets -- relaxing, as it were, after a hectic four-month shooting schedule that ended just weeks ago.
Also scattered about the studio are tiny pinball machines, amusement-park rides, boats, cars (all based exactly on the ones Kelly drew) and, perhaps most impressive of all, an intricate 300-square-foot model of the Okefenokee itself, complete with trees, bogs and a plastic background that can be shifted for high noon or twilight.
"This is all illusion," Chinoy says as he unlocks the door to the room and hits a row of light switches. "If you just walk in and look down onto the set, it seems to be nothing but a bunch of sculpted models of trees, plus other fabricated bits and pieces. See, the tops of the trees are just flat and colorless, and they all have these little written marks on them. But if you bend over and look at the set from the camera's point of view, then it all comes to life. It becomes the swamp."
Making the tiny characters come to life was entirely different and much more difficult: The film was shot one frame at a time, with the animators making minute adjustments of the models' limbs and faces for each exposure. For example, to make a character mouth the letter "a," five frames had to be shot. Twenty-four fames yielded one second of action. "We had 55 technicians and animators working on the film, and we averaged about 50 seconds of action a day," says Chinoy. "If we did 60 seconds, well, then that was tremendous progress."
Another behind-the-scenes contributor to the movie was Selby Kelly, the cartoonist's widow. During production, she met regularly with Stowell and Chinoy, approving the models and suggesting changes.
Mr. Kelly, who went to work as an animator with Disney in 1936 and now draws for a Manhattan studio, was approached two summers ago by Stowmar's lawyer.
At the time, MGM was working on an animated Pogo cartoon for television, but Mrs. Kelly halted that project after that lunch: "The artists at MGM just didn't have the drawings of the Pogo characters right. I thought the Flexiform method was much better suited to the look and feel of the strip." She has viewed only a few clips from the film, but says what little she's seen is "gorgeous. The colors and those sculpted models -- you know, Miz Beaver is my favorite character, and when I saw the model of her, it just gave me goosebumps."
Meanwhile, Stowell and Chinoy are guarding the plot of the movie as if it were a state secret. The only leak so far is that Pogo gives in reluctantly to a third run for the Rose Garden. Does he win this time? Or does he do the smart thing, quit and go back to his fishin'? No comment, says Chinoy.
"But I will tell you this," he offers. "In writing the script, I used the strips as a guideline. The words are primarily Kelly's. And we didn't invent any new situations, as you often see in animated films based on comic strip characters. In other words, you won't see Pogo in a disco."
Perhaps Pogo himself offers the best clue: As he commented at an Okefenokee picnic on Labor Day, "If nominated, I will not be elected, and if elected, I will not run."
On that basis, he's bound to go far.