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Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, The

Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, The(1985)


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teaser Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, The (1985)

George Pal was one of the most influential filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood, but his name is not so widely known today beyond the filmmaking and sci-fi-fan communities. An architect, animator, and visionary special effects artist, he began his career with his beloved "Puppetoons," for which he invented a technique called replacement animation. Unlike regular stop-motion, in which figures are manipulated slightly for each successive frame of footage, in replacement animation entirely new figures are constructed for each frame. The result is unique and still striking, even for these animated shorts that Pal made in Europe starting in the early 1930s. (He immigrated to America in 1939.)

In 1950, Pal shifted to live-action feature films, producing or directing sci-fi and fantasy classics like Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), pictures which Pal infused with his own special brand of wonder and whimsy.

In addition to his vast artistic and technical influence on animators and virtually all sci-fi/fantasy filmmakers who followed him, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, Pal was a personally beloved man in Hollywood. Among his many friends was a young filmmaker, Arnold Leibovit, who set out to make a documentary about Pal's life and career after Pal died in 1980. Leibovit had actually dreamed of making such a documentary since his own childhood days in Miami. "I used to go see pictures like The Time Machine and wonder at the creativity involved in the special effects," he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1986.

But launching the project was a challenge. Leibovit was turned down by many potential investors, including twice by the American Film Institute, so he eventually raised $150,000 on his own to make The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal. Pal's widow, Zsoka, served as a consultant, and Leibovit said it was not difficult to engage the participation of Hollywood luminaries who had worked with or known Pal: the documentary is riddled with interviews with the likes of Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Robert Wise, Tony Randall, Walter Lantz, Roy Disney, Barbara Eden, Russ Tamblyn, Joe Dante, Ray Bradbury, and Gene Roddenberry. It also incorporates archival footage of Pal himself, who says at one point that he wasn't trafficking in fantasy so much as "the near future."

The result, narrated by Paul Frees, is an affectionate and fascinating look at a visionary craftsman and storyteller. It surveys Pal's career from his earliest Puppetoons to his final features. Those two phases of his career are actually linked in intricate ways. Leibovit has explained that Pal encountered difficulties in making his sci-fi features because Hollywood studios looked down on the genre, thinking it more appropriate for the B movie realm. "But convince them he eventually did," said Leibovit. "I think what aided him was his understanding of cartooning in the early Puppetoon days. He had been making animated films for some 20 years, and was the head of two stop-motion studios in Europe and the United States before he ever made a single feature film. So his administrative and creative hands-on skills really helped him win the respect of the studio executives. He was able to apply frame by frame animation techniques to the special effects he was doing, and especially time lapse photography, making his famous science fiction and fantasy films more acceptable to the studios."

The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal premiered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on August 20, 1986, in front of a who's-who of Hollywood talent. The evening was hosted by Gene Roddenberry, who considered Pal a personal mentor: the two had offices across from one another at Paramount in the 1960s and shared many spaghetti lunches. Pal's optimistic view of humanity's future influenced Roddenberry quite heavily in his development of Star Trek.

After making this documentary, Leibovit immediately made another tribute film to Pal: The Puppetoon Movie (1987), essentially a compilation of some of Pal's best Puppetoons. Leibovit remains a torch-bearer for his old mentor. In addition to his two films devoted to Pal's career, which are still in active DVD and Blu-ray release, he executive produced the 2002 remake of The Time Machine and is developing both another film version of that story and a remake of Pal's The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). Leibovit also operates a website,, that is partially devoted to the legacy of Pal, the man described in his documentary as "a gentle European [who] came to America and set a course for future generations to follow."

By Jeremy Arnold

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