Filmmaker Arnold Leibovit remembers the man who has changed his life and work forever, the great George Pal.
I am an unabashed fan of George Pal. My initiation to the works of this sweet Hungarian gentleman stems from my father’s (who is also Hungarian) pride at Pal’s success in Hollywood, a sort of “local boy does good.” Once I saw the films, however, I did not need to take my father’s word for admiring Mr. Pal.
His films ran the gamut of everything grand and large about the universe we inhabit. Through Pal’s imaginative eyes, the skies could be filled with menace, as in “War Of The Worlds” or with the promise of space travel as in “Destination Moon.” Technology could be a savior of mankind, like the space ark in “When Worlds Collide” or it could bring an inventor to near ruin as “The Time Machine” almost destroyed its creator. Pal understood that magic could bear a childless couple a son no bigger than their thumb and, in the same breath, whisper recriminations of wasted lives through the mythological creatures of a traveling circus.
His first success in Europe was as the purveyor of exotic short subjects known as “Puppetoons.” Requiring a highly detailed and time-consuming process known as “replacement animation,” the films usually revolved around a musical revue or a love story. Each film required the creation of complex miniature sets and thousands of crafted parts for the figures, using inanimate wood to simulate the range and liquidity of motion as called for in each story. Well received and widely distributed, the films eventually caught the eye of stateside movie moguls. The success proved a most fortuitous calling card as Pal and his family left for America just as Hitler’s hordes were swallowing Holland, home to his studio.
Pal shaped and molded my worldview, as he did countless others. Many of those he influenced went on to create their visions of that middle realm between Heaven and Earth. Spielberg, Lucas, Roddenberry, Gilliam, Cameron all owe Pal a big thank you, as does anyone who dreamed eyes wide open in a movie theater.
Filmmaker Arnold Leibovit has spent the last 20 years keeping the legacy of George Pal alive. His 1985 documentary “The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal” was the first (and so far only) filmed examination of the life and works of a man who should be considered a seminal figure in American film. To Leibovit’s credit and an example of Pal’s influence and standing among his peers, the documentary managed to get on-camera just about every major star and talent who ever worked with Pal. Two years later, Leibovit compiled “The Puppetoon Movie.” The anthology represented the first real attempt at reintroducing some of the most intricate three-dimensional animation ever produced to a wide audience that only knew the Pal name from “War of the Worlds” or “The Time Machine.”
Perhaps it is serendipity or part of a cosmic plan, but Leibovit may now find himself at the beachhead of a Pal renaissance. Not only have “The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal” and “The Puppetoon Movie” been released as special edition DVDs from Image Entertainment, but also most of Pal’s films are finding their way onto the digital formationt. The big three of Pal’s catalog—”tom thumb,” “The Time Machine” and “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao”—are available in remastered form for their respective disc releases, as well as “The Great Rupert” and “War of the Worlds.”
I recently had a chance to talk with Arnold about the release of his films on DVD, his reminiscences about George and how his efforts to revitalize Pal’s memory within the popular consciousness includes some new visits to previously Pal-charted territory.
Ed Peters: How did you first meet George Pal?
Arnold Leibovit: I first met George when I was developing another picture in L.A. I was referred to him by some friends who had worked with George. Jim Danforth, who did the dragon in “The Wonderful World of Brothers Grimm” and “Seven Faces of Dr. Lao,” and I think it was Dan O’Bannon as well, who referred me. I remember them saying to me, “George Pal would be interested in this project,” and I said, “Is he still alive?” This was around 1978. I met with George finally and, of course, that’s a story in itself. I was so impressed by him and he was such a sweet man. When I was growing up, I always had the impression that George Pal was this big, impressive guy with a booming voice. There’s something about the name George Pal that concocted something very big in my mind. He was a big man, but he turned out to be this little elfin guy with a Hungarian accent, a sweet, cherub-faced fellow.
Ed Peters: How did the documentary come into being?
Arnold Leibovit: When he died in 1980, I was really taken by it. It was a very emotional thing for me. I guess I had a connection to him. I was nine years old when I saw “The Time Machine.” My imagination soared when I saw it. From then on, I was a George Pal fan. Anything he did, I was interested in. I remember calling up Mrs. Pal up and saying how terrible I felt about his death and I would really like to do something, a tribute to him. I was actually surprised that nothing had been done. I told her I was gonna do it. She didn’t believe it because a lot of people say things the never follow through with. And I had a very hard time, actually, getting the money for it. I went to the AFI and they turned me down.
Ed Peters: I find that incredible. Why was that?
Arnold Leibovit: Nobody felt that George Pal was important enough to do. Either they didn’t think it [Pal’s career] was important or they just don’t finance things like that. I didn’t have an easy time of it. I had to raise the money myself. Mrs. Pal was very cooperative and surprised that I was actually doing it. She helped me with getting in touch with so many of the people. All I had to do was mention George Pal and all the doors opened. The only thing done prior was a book. It was an out of print book, and there really wasn’t anything else.
Ed Peters: How long did it take you to complete the documentary?
Arnold Leibovit: It was an unusually long schedule for a film of that type. First of all, because I did it independently, I was very concerned with films like this, where they just kind of rush it, and they get who they get, and then they just go with it. It was very important to me that I got every single person, every single star. So I waited an inordinate amount of time, until their schedules permitted because I didn’t have the budget to pay everybody. I had to get a lot of waivers to make it, and they were kind enough to let me do that. The other thing I was also very concerned about the quality of the clips. I made a very meticulous effort to get the best quality prints and sound I could. Except for one case, everything is from 35-millimeter prints. The studios provided me pristine prints of the films. In the case of MGM, they actually struck two prints for me [because] they didn’t even have good prints. I think part of the reason is they were thinking of doing video releases. But part of it I kind of helped inspire by getting their attention to the films. So the quality of the tape, the quality of the transfers of everything is very high, because I pushed for that. That’s not something you normally see on these kinds of shows.
Ed Peters: Aside from the time frame, was everyone willing to put themselves on camera and give their reminiscences about George Pal?
Arnold Leibovit: Oh, it was amazing. I mean, it was just unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The outpouring of emotion, the feeling of love, respect, and admiration for George was so enormous that you could write volumes about it. First of all, George was a gem. He was, as Tony [Randall] called him [in the documentary] a gentle man. He was so kind to people, and he always made people feel like they were coming up with the idea themselves. He always deferred the credit to somebody else. If you asked him about something, he would immediately say, “Oh, it was this editor or designer” or, “There was a lot of other great people working on it.” He would never take credit for himself. And I think it’s the humility of the man, in combination with his amazing artistry and genius.
He was behind the scenes doing everything, but in a nice, gentle way, and I think people respected that
He was a renaissance man. He did everything, the drawings, did this, did that, created it. He was behind the scenes doing everything, but in a nice, gentle way, and I think people respected that. So mention “George Pal,” and they have wonderful, fond, tremendous memories of the guy. That was the response I got. It was quite extraordinary.
Ed Peters: That’s fantastic. One of the nice touches in the documentary was that you got Paul Frees, a long time Pal contributor, to add his distinct vocal presence as narrator. How did his participation come about?
Arnold Leibovit: That’s an interesting story. Originally, and it was recommended by a lot of people, that maybe I should use Rod Taylor, maybe I should use William Shatner. In fact, I met with William Shatner about it, as well as talked to other people. But it just came to me, the realization like a light bulb: Paul Frees was the voice of George Pal’s movies. What would “War of the Worlds” be like without that incredible opening with Paul Frees, or “When Worlds Collide” or “The Talking Rings” [from “The Time Machine”]? So I said, “Yeah. It’s got to be Paul Frees.” It works so much better to have Paul do it. And, of course, it was his last, second to last effort. He did “The Puppetoon Movie” as well. Paul was the voice of one of my characters. That was actually the last film he ever did. But it was great just to be with him and to do that recording, and he was such a great guy. I loved him.
Ed Peters: What I liked about it is that it gave a sense of continuity to Pal’s career overall. Because Paul had been in so many projects, it just felt like it really added something, aside from the fact that his voice is so distinct. For anyone who grew up on the fantasy movies of the fifties and sixties, even if it wasn’t a George Pal film, Paul Frees seemed to have his voice in there somewhere.
Arnold Leibovit: Yeah. He did everything. He was so many voices. Not just George Pal movies, Walt Disney movies, and God knows how many other movies that he was the voice of.
He also acted on-camera in “War of the Worlds” as well as the original “Thing.” He did the narration very straightforward. He just sat down and did it almost straight through. I even had to stop him. I needed a couple pickups afterwards, but he was very kind about it. I really enjoyed being with him. I have a great slide of me with him that I took that I don’t think has really ever been seen. It might be on “The Puppetoon Movie.” (It is, in the Production Photo Gallery—Ed.). But he was a great guy and, as you say, I love the fact that he did it. I was really happy about that. If you look at the dinosaur [in “Puppetoon Movie”], it’s Paul Frees. I mean, he had kind of a little rolly quality. It’s really Paul. I should have called him Paul. I remember telling him, “This is a dinosaur. He’s kind of a big, sweet dinosaur. And he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re gonna get a dinosaur. You’re not gonna get a chicken.” I guess it wouldn’t quite have the same impact being confronted by a giant, talking chicken.
Ed Peters: Pal’s first claim to fame was his mastery of a particular type of dimensional animation. Could you just tell us a little bit about it, and what made Pal’s use of the process unique?
Arnold Leibovit: Pal invented a particular kind of stop motion animation, what he called the replacement figure puppet. And the replacement figure puppet was very simple. I mean, he actually created a separate puppet for every frame of film. So for films like “Aladdin” or “The Philips Broadcast of 1938” or “Philips Cavalcade,” they would create four or five thousand puppets. And they were all hand carved individually, frame-registered, with moving arms that would move a fraction of a second. If the head would squash, there would be several heads that would squash, squash, squash smaller, and then raise, raise, raise bigger. And he was ridiculously meticulous. By today’s standards, you’d have to spend millions and millions of dollars for each short. You couldn’t possibly do it today. Everything that’s done with computers now was all done by hand, just an unbelievable amount of work. He had hundreds of people from all over Europe, these European puppet makers and woodworkers who were in these studios and doing these things. And when he came to America, he got a lot of it here, too. And everyone got their start there, everyone.
Ed Peters: Yes. The documentary touches on how Ray Harryhausen had worked at his studio. I remember the part where Gene Warren talks about the painstaking charts George would make for each short, where it would show how the eyes move, how the hand or head. And he talked about the amount of work that went into creating the graphs for each character.
Arnold Leibovit: The whole idea was that everything was pre-drawn and pre-constructed, so that he actually had the film completely done in his head before the film was made. So you’d go and you’d get your sheets and go to work. One of the reasons he did it was that it was a way that you could get somebody off the street, a 17- or 18-year-old kid, like some of these animators were, who had very little experience, and he could actually show them how to animate, because all you’d have to do was basically follow the numbers. He would be able to do that using these incredible pre-drawings and graphs that he created. That was one of the reasons for it. It was a very interesting system, but it was unbelievably time-consuming from the part of either he’d created it or mastered this technique. I don’t think you could really compare it to anything that’s done today, because it had its own style. It’s indescribably beautiful, graceful, well-conceived stuff. Plus the sets for everything were built and I mean everything. If you needed a piano, let’s say, or a street, every aspect of the street was fully conceived and built in miniature, even though you might not even see it on the finished film. You might not see every angle. But that piano had strings in it, or the keys were on it. It was a fully working miniature piano. It was just meticulous. Absolutely amazing stuff.
Ed Peters: Going from “The Puppetoons” to his films that he produced in the ’50s, he really gave science fiction cinema probably its biggest shot in the arm in terms of how he approached these stories, like the use of scientific extrapolation.
Arnold Leibovit: Well, the best example of that is “Destination Moon.” Pal compared to Disney in a lot of ways. People of animation or people that do animation tend to have scientific minds. There’s a bit of a visionary quality about animation people, in general. At that time, in that period, you can see a very interesting similarity between Walt Disney and George Pal in terms of where they went in their films and how they realized their three-dimensional view of life in animation, then in real life. And I think Pal did that in his films. He went from 3-D animation to 3-D science fiction. He called “Destination Moon” a documentary of the near future. It was not science fiction in George Pal’s mind. It was fact and, of course, it turned out to be just that. It predated man’s landing on the moon by 20 years. There’s the line in the film, “claiming the moon for all mankind,” similar to the actual Neil Armstrong speech. It’s chilling. It’s hard to put your finger on how that came about. But remember he had great people. He had Robert Heinlein, he had Willy Ley, he had Chesley Bonestell. Pal surrounded himself with these incredible minds.
George Pal was as much of a showman as Cecil B. De Mille or Walt Disney
Ed Peters: Looking at the films made at Paramount and some of the MGM films, like “Atlantis, The Lost Continent” or “The Time Machine,” it’s very interesting that the threat of annihilation looms large, sometimes even challenging Pal’s characteristic optimism. Do you think that there was a conscious examination of those themes?
Arnold Leibovit: I think it just comes from the war. As I mention in the documentary, it’s ingrained. If you look at “Tulips Shall Grow,” which was an anti-war statement, if you look at that Puppetoon, you see “War of the Worlds.” It looks like “War of the Worlds.” Pal had a very dynamic sense of good versus evil in his thinking, no more or no less than, say, a Disney view of good versus evil. I know what you’re saying. It seems much more apocalyptic in some respect, because it’s the end of the world, the destruction of things. But he always tried to come through with a message of optimism, that man can overcome incredible odds. And, of course, you realize that he was a showman. I mean, George Pal was as much of a showman as Cecil B. De Mille or Walt Disney or any of the great producer/director artists. I think he was more original, but he always tried to find material that is going to appeal to a mass audience. How better to appeal to a mass audience than the earth being blown up? Not all of his films did that, of course.
Ed Peters: When Pal took over the directorial reins himself, it seemed that it was a little bit of a shift in terms of A) the material he was taking, and, B) the approach to it, too. In looking at the three films, “tom thumb,” “The Time Machine,” and “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” it struck me that there might be a common thread between them, similar to the Terry Gilliam fantasies from the 1980s, charting the life of a dreamer, through childhood, adulthood and old age. Was that Pal’s intent or are we looking at the films from a post “auteur” perspective?”
Arnold Leibovit: It’d be great to analyze it. You may be right from a psychological point of view, but I don’t think Pal had any predetermined strategy for what he was doing. First of all, “tom thumb” was originally supposed to be a “Puppetoon.” He was going to make it in the 1940s as a full length, animated film, not a live action film. And it took him years, many years, to do the film. George got to direct only after going to MGM. He was never happy with his deal at Paramount. And when MGM said, “You can do your pictures here,” they said, “You can also direct ’em.” They gave him what he wanted. And the first thing he did was “tom thumb,” because he was trying to do that for so many years. Yes, it does show the sweet, innocent side of life, kind of funny and quirky, but also has a beautiful quality, and that was George. I mean, that was part of his sweet side of life, his view of things. And Russ Tamblyn said it so beautifully of the things that we lose in life George retained. He kept that youthful innocence. We become jaded as we get older. And he went from “tom thumb” to “The Time Machine.” I mean, is there a greater leap? I can’t name a single filmmaker who you could say they did a movie like “tom thumb” one year and a movie like “The Time Machine” the next year. He directed five films altogether. He directed “tom thumb.” He directed “The Time Machine.” He directed “Atlantis, the Lost Continent.” He directed “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.” He directed the fairy tale sequences of “The Wonderful World of Brothers Grimm,” which was a big film, and a wonderful, beautiful film. Plus all the “Puppetoons.”
Ed Peters: “The Fantasy Film World” ends with “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” from 1964, yet Pal produced two more movies, 1968’s “The Power” and 1975’s “Doc Savage,” both of which aren’t covered in the documentary. What was the reasoning behind that?
Arnold Leibovit: It was a tough decision. I really like “The Power” a lot. It’s a great film. Sometimes you make a film and it just kind of flows. It was a little bit anticlimactic to include it, although I really would have liked to have figured out a way to do it. I had the footage from MGM. I had everything ready to go. But I just didn’t cover it. And mistake or otherwise, the film ends on a positive note. “The Power” was not a successful film and “Doc Savage” was a complete disaster. I didn’t want to leave the film on a sour note because of that. I think “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” is Pal’s crown of where he was and the best way to remember him, and that’s what I did.
“The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” is Pal’s crown of where he was and the best way to remember him
Ed Peters: The “Fantasy Film Worlds” DVD in both content and execution, is a wonderful Pal primer. Can you tell us a little bit in terms of what was involved in creating the DVD?
Arnold Leibovit: We went back to the original tape to do the transfer. We tried to get the best quality we could for an older video. I think it comes through pretty well. I insisted they try to get as much new material as possible. I thought Image Entertainment did a good job. There’s a lot of interesting material there. I came up with the idea to have the Martian war machine, the rocket blasting off and the dragon coming into frame and using the music and then I worked with their guys on the menus. Originally, we didn’t have “The Time Machine” there, and I said, “Oh, we can’t do that without ‘The Time Machine.’ It has to be there.” So we actually redid it to come up with the miniature, using that as the portal to the various sections. I then used many the elements from the documentary that I wasn’t able to include, kinescopes and interviews and other material I have. I tried to put in as much viable stuff as I could find. There’s a lot of great new stuff. We’ve got Ward Kimble’s interview and Bob Baker’s, and new clips. A lot of neat stuff, I think.
Ed Peters: We’ve got “Fantasy” and “Puppetoon Movie” now out on DVD, as well as new releases of “tom thumb,” “The Time Machine,” and “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.” Are we seeing the start of a George Pal resurgence?
Arnold Leibovit: I hope so. As Alan Young says [in the documentary], we need him. It is possible. You know, every film that George Pal has been redone or is being redone in one form or another. I think people are finally recognizing the fact that George Pal was one of the great innovators and pioneers of this genre, which has become the most successful genre in the history of motion pictures. At the time that Pal was doing them, they were “B” films. They were stepchildren to musicals and Westerns and other movies. They were never considered anything important. Pal was always fighting [that perception] his whole career. Now they’ve become “A” movies. Every picture Pal did has been redone. “Independence Day” is “War of the Worlds.” “Deep Impact” is “When Worlds Collide.” “Atlantis” is being done by Disney. It’s coming out next summer as a big, animated movie called “Atlantis.” “tom thumb” is being redone. I’m doing a remake of “The Time Machine” with Dreamworks and Warner Bros. I’m executive producing that.
Ed Peters: Is there a chance for a remake of “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?”
Arnold Leibovit: I’m producing it. Right now, Jackie Chan is interested in playing Dr. Lao. The treatment has been finished and we’re going into further development on it. It uses the mythological characters and some of the basic ideas. It’s a much broader, bigger effects kind of an idea, though, but still based on a human story with characters that are changed by the coming of Dr. Lao. That’s the essence of the story, the idea that Dr. Lao changes the lives of different people. I’m just working on it now, and Jackie Chan has been very interested in the project, and we’re trying to develop it for him.
Ed Peters: Just prior to Pal’s passing in 1980, Cinefantastique magazine published an article that he was in pre-production of another Philip Wylie novel called “The Disappearance.”
Arnold Leibovit: Right.
“The Disappearance” has been in development for the last 30 years and it’s being developed now
Ed Peters: I remember the thing that struck me about it is that in addition to the article, it had some rather provocative pre-production sketches. The story itself is rather provocative, detailing a world where men and women have become isolated from one another.Is that something that may be in the pipeline for an eventual green light?
Arnold Leibovit: Yes. It’s being developed now. The fact is “The Disappearance” has been in development for the last 30 years. The project has had great difficulty because the script is a difficult script. No one has been able to lick it yet. But they’re working on it again. I’m not involved in that one. If it is done, it’ll probably be a TV film. Several others are being contemplated as well. Every script that Pal ever developed or wanted to do is being put out there by the agent that represents the estate. In one form or another, almost everything that he was working on in his life is gonna get made. That’s the odd thing about it. They’re still going back to George Pal. It’s unbelievable.
Ed Peters: Then maybe the documentary’s purpose is now being fulfilled 15 years later.
Arnold Leibovit: Yes. That’s a great way of putting it. George did not have an easy time of it toward the end. He was losing the interest of the studios. He was getting older. “Star Wars” came out, and “Close Encounters” came out, which he was very impressed with. He saw those films before he died and people asked him, “Why don’t you make ‘Star Wars’? Why don’t you do ‘Close Encounters’?” and he said, “Well, they’ve already been done.” He was always trying to do something different, something unique, something that was special for him. He was not a copycat. He did his films and he was usually the first to do it in most cases. He was an original thinker. When he saw those other films, he said, “Well, they’ve been done. Great.” I tell you, I can’t think of anyone today who parallels George Pal.
Ed Peters: I think Terry Gilliam is the closest antecedent to Pal. They both started as animators and went on to become filmmakers that tackled fantasy themes.
Arnold Leibovit: It’s a good comparison. But then, of course, Terry Gilliam was not the pioneer of the genre. George Pal pioneered a specific genre, did a specific kind of movie. George didn’t do a Western one year, a drama the next year, or a comedy the next year. He didn’t try to make the next deal like everyone does today, trying to make whatever movie. There’s a lot of filmmakers who try to reinvent themselves by trying to do a lot of different types of films. George was dedicated to his genre. He was dedicated to the movies that he wanted to do in the fantasy/ science fiction field. That was his thing. He didn’t veer away from it, really.
Ed Peters: Were would you place Pal as a filmmaker?
Arnold Leibovit: As far as I’m concerned, he’s as great as Walt Disney. That’s the plateau I put him on. I think everyone coming after George Pal, whether it be George Lucas or Steven [Spielberg], or Gene Rodenberry were tremendously influenced by Pal. He’s in his own place. He’s right up there with Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and George Stevens and William Wyler and Cecil B. De Mille. He’s a very important contributor to 20th century movies. I just don’t know if we’ll ever see another George Pal. I really find it hard to imagine that we’ll see another George Pal, not just in terms of his output, his creative output, but in terms of his humanity as a person.
Ed Peters: Finally, how do you see yourself influenced by George Pal?
Arnold Leibovit: He was a person that you could talk to. He didn’t put upon you. You felt open with him. You felt—just a bond. I had the privilege of actually meeting George Pal and people of his kind. A lot of people out there don’t have the respect or have the knowledge or have the background. They think they do. There’s no comparison to someone like Pal. We can learn from him. I look at myself in the mirror every day and I think about George, think about how to be a better person, how to view things differently, and how to view other people. He’s a role model. And there’s not too many of them.