Arnold Leibovit

Artist in the Spotlight – Arnold Leibovit

Arnold Leibovit has spent the last four years restoring The Puppetoon Movie Volume 3 (2023), a landmark collection of 28 more George Pal Academy Award®-winning stop-motion and cel animated shorts. He takes Filmworkz through the impact the Puppetoons had on the film industry, his own filmic influences, and why he refers to his process of restoration as ‘film archaeology’.


Later known for his work on feature film classics like The Time Machine (1960) and The War of the Worlds (1953), George Pal revolutionized animation with the Puppetoons. With some films not seen in decades, the Puppetoons have now been brought back to life to be seen on Blu-ray to both old and new audiences, thanks to Leibovit’s persistence. 

Fans will be able to watch the return of Punchy & Judy, Jim Dandy, Rusty, Dr. Seuss, Jan and Janette, Mr. Strauss, Jasper, the Screwball Army; plus the first key stop-motion animation work from legendary animator Ray Harryhausen. The Puppetoon Movie Volume 3 is now available to buy here.

Puppetoons volume 3

Leibovit explains that it’s a rarity working with materials from the 1940s and with many of the pieces of footage having various nuances that keep the material from public eye and affects the quality of its condition. ‘When I started this process 40 years ago, most of these films weren’t known to exist’.

The footage is stored as negatives or with preservation prints that use the photochemical process, and redoes of the scan can be a very costly process. ‘It was not as difficult as you would think to restore the film – it wasn’t so much a repair or restoration, but was more the cleaning and grading which can be quite challenging. The condition of the original Technicolor negatives and source Technicolor nitrate prints was very good. The only one I’ve seen where it was seriously damaged was the first animated film he made called Midnight, which has been recently discovered in Germany.’ A range of software was required for the Puppetoons, including Diamant, PF Clean, and Phoenix.

Although Leibovit owns and controls the trademark for the Puppetoons, many production houses like Paramount still own copies. Puppetoons have also been found in archives, often in other countries, thanks to creator George Pal’s European roots.

An example of the Puppetoons
An example of the Puppetoons

‘The British Film Institute didn’t even know they had certain film materials until I brought it to their attention and then we had to figure out which prints were the quality ones from the bad ones. I call it ‘film archaeology’’.

Most copies of the puppets themselves have been lost or are in poor condition, with some of the remaining versions owned by collectors. Leibovit then demonstrates how the puppets work, revealing that they are much smaller than expected (around 10 cm in height) with appendices like limbs and heads that can be swapped in and out. 

Every frame requires a different position – ‘you had maybe 100 different heads with various expressions and a couple of dozen arms and legs, which were replaced to create movement frame by frame. They were carved or machine lathed from wood and the heads would have different eye balls, mouths shaping the vowels A E I O U’. 

Pal pioneered replacement figure animation, where up to 5,000 wooden puppets could be created for a single film, for which 12,000 frames had to be shot. This resulted in exceptionally fluid movement that few other techniques can compare. (Pictured The Philips Broadcast 1938)
Pal pioneered replacement figure animation, where up to 5,000 wooden puppets could be created for a single film, for which 12,000 frames had to be shot. This resulted in exceptionally fluid movement that few other techniques can compare. (Pictured The Philips Broadcast 1938)

The technique has since been disused due to its expensive requirements to film and the need to carve so many thousands of different puppet parts ands shapes for a single Puppetoon short subject. Despite this, ‘it allowed for a wonderful stylized look in animation that is different, much much more beautiful and smooth, than anything done with a single armature puppet like King Kong for example or the armatures done by Ray Harryhausen’.

It would take 3 minutes to expose a single frame of film, resulting in perhaps 300 frames a day or about 16 seconds of film in a day’s work. It would take 6 months to shoot an 8 minute Puppetoon, not including the preparation to design the sets, script, music, and voice work which could take several more months.  George Pal would create director’s sheets with every single shot in it, and then scenes were photographed and animated frame by frame in Technicolor – ‘the dye process of Technicolor is unsurpassable in terms of its splendor and beauty.’

George Pal with his puppets
George Pal with his puppets


George Pal was born in Hungary in 1908, where he went to the Hungarian University of the Fine Arts to become an architect but then became a cartoonist, and eventually an animator. He moved from Hungary to Germany, where he worked at UFA, the biggest film studio in Europe at the time, and he became the head of the animation department at 23 years old. Whilst there, he patented the Pal-Doll technique, which would become known as the Puppetoons. 

When the Nazis came to power, he managed to escape to Paris, then to Holland, and finally emigrated to the United States where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1943, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for ‘the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons’.

George Pal receiving Academy Award for Puppetoons (1944)
George Pal receiving Academy Award for Puppetoons (1944)

‘There have been others beside myself in various countries that have been trying to unearth some of these films with varying degrees of success. By some miracle I managed to finally obtain many of these films some thought lost and compile them in my various film releases The Puppetoon Movie (1987, 2013 and a new 4K in the works), The Puppetoon Movie Volume 2 (2021) and now The Puppetoon Movie Volume 3 (2023).  There are probably over 100 cel animated and stop-motion Puppetoons Pal made.’  Many of these films are available here.

Leibovit further explains that during World War II many of these films were destroyed or put in an archival state where they disappeared or were untouched for decades. Some films that have not been seen since their initial release in the 1930s have been surfacing in places like Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany and in the United Kingdom. Some of the films were obtained in occupied Germany as spoils of war and found their way to some of these other countries. 

An example of the Puppetoons
An example of the Puppetoons

The most famous Puppetoons however are the ones made by Pal in the United States at Paramount Pictures form 1940-1947, and are generally very well preserved. These are the Technicolor successive exposure negative Puppetoons which are the most famous of the Puppetoons which won Academy Award and were numerously nominated. These are the prize elements featured in The Puppetoon Movie and it’s subsequent Volumes 2 & 3: ‘I have an exclusive license to restore and market these with the cooperation of Paramount Pictures for the first time in history.’ 


Growing up in Miami Beach, Florida, Leibovit always had an interest in the movie industry, with several icons throughout his life. ‘At that time, it was the heyday of Miami. It was like a mini Hollywood – a lot of people were coming to Florida to make movies and I got to meet a lot of very famous people: Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Charlton Heston and Jerry Lewis.

‘When I was growing up, films from Ray Harryhausen, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was life changing for me, and it involved dimensional animation like the Puppetoons. Walt Disney was also a very big influence in my life, I met Walt when I was 12 years old at Disneyland. Meeting Walt, next to meeting George Pal, was probably the most life changing moments in my life.’

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad 
A still from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad 

‘What was so funny was that all these people I admired so much: Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, Cecil B. DeMille, all worked with George Pal’; Ray Harryhausen got his first job working for George Pal on Puppetoons when he was 18 years old, DeMille established Paramount Pictures where Pal was aided by DeMille to make his classics When Worlds Collide (1951) and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds both of which were feature films that DeMille was going to make. 

Watching The Time Machine at 9 years old was equally a pivotal moment for Leibovit: ‘I was stunned by it. It was like Star Wars, it was full of imagination and boyhood wonder – that’s the thing about Pal, he has that sense of wonder and the possibilities of tomorrow, the possibilities of doing things, in expanding your imagination. It was all so astonishing to see for the first time.’


Leibovit highlights the significance of the Puppetoons on the film industry today, with the origins of CGI, animation, and science fiction often returning to Pal’s puppets.

‘George Pal and Walt Disney were very good friends; Walt derived a great deal of inspiration from George Pal in the making of his feature films and then his Disneyland theme parks. Animatronics is just one step away from Puppets. All the animators at Disney watched the Puppetoons. Some of the Disney animators worked at the Puppetoons studios and designed characters like Punchy and Judy which was created by Fred Moore, who designed of all the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and other characters in Peter Pan (1953), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Cinderella (1950), among many others.

An example of the Puppetoons
An example of the Puppetoons

‘The Puppetoons represent stop-motion animation – what Pal called “Colored Cartoons in Three Dimension”. Walt Disney was trying to bring three dimensional life to flat hand drawn cel animation to give it a sense of depth. Then along comes George Pal with his three dimensional Puppetoons in real time. Walt was so impressed by George’s Puppetoons they became instant friends and he screened the Puppetoons regularly for all the animators. The influence through the years has been great. And even today these same techniques have been emulated with Pixar and other studios using CGI – ‘Computer-Generated Imagery’ – which is nothing more than stop-motion animated puppets, frame by frame animation. The very same technique Pal revolutionized decades earlier with his stylized frame by frame three dimensional color cartoons! George was a pioneer; so influential in the motion picture industry, and so ahead of his time’.

Leibovit argues that much of the legacy of special effects and stop-motion animaton of the film industry can be accredited to George Pal: ‘the studios were not really interested in sci-fi, they were considered a stepchild to the movie industry, which was focused on making westerns, musicals, and dramatic movies, but science fiction and fantasy was kid stuff. It was a comic book, it had no bearing on reality to them. They didn’t understand it. George Pal made it possible for what we see today in the world of fantasy and science fiction. He is one of the great influences of the motion picture industry and that’s why it’s so important to restore his work. If it wasn’t for George, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’

An example of the Puppetoons
An example of the Puppetoons


Leibovit has recently noticed a return to using physical film with photochemical labs being established to meet the demand, with many filmmakers and film students refusing the digital look.

Leibovit offers his opinion that ‘even though digital and CGI is supposedly more realistic, it doesn’t have the tactile believability to it, I’m just not a fan of it. When George Pal created The War of the Worlds it was all done with physical effects; it was a craft and was created with the most simple ideas. But nowadays we’ll just do everything using CGI and it’s all just one big, bland mess because it’s all the same. I think the industry knows it needs to go back to basics, to its origins, to storytelling, to have the basic quality of human emotion and character and develop things in a way that’s believable to the audience and use special effects only for special moments – which is what Pal did in his feature films. 

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds

He goes on to explain the recent success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) that has recently amassed $1 billion dollars in box office sales: ‘I think it’s got some good qualities but it’s really the Director that did it, who came up with this concept for Barbie and made a very successful movie. Now, of course, typical of the studios, the first thing they decide to do is say, “we’re going to start making a movie about this toy or that toy”. 

‘They don’t realize it has little to do with the Barbie toy. I wrote to the CEO of Warner Brothers yesterday saying “I hope that if you do any sequels to Barbie, you use the same creative team, because Barbie had nothing to do with it – it was the concept and message Gerwig the director incorporated that resonated with the audience”.

Margot Robbie in Barbie
Margot Robbie in Barbie

‘Gerwig’s the whole reason the film is the film it is and used Barbie as a vehicle for her view of gender in the current age. She came up with something fresh and different – a new perspective – and Barbie just happened to be the vehicle to do it with. The studios are often so set in their ways and so corporate, they follow formulas that often undermine artistic expression. They forget it’s the creative vision that is key to success. Everything is so money driven, the creative has been forced to take a back seat to the corporate bottom line. They’ve forgetten the artist and that’s why these strikes with the writers and actors are going on now.’

‘Back in the day, when George Pal was doing films, you had maybe a handful of people doing the work, but today, you have hundreds of people doing what one man did when he made his film, and personally I think the craft of work was better then than what’s done today. A big part of that is, I think there’s too many people that want to be in the business; I hate to be cynical about it, but unfortunately too many people want to be involved in the movie industry and the industry frankly can’t handle it business wise. It was always a very small industry and today it can hardly support the influx of so many people. That’s just a hard truth of our changing times. There are some challenging issues about the future of the industry and where it’s actually going and how it can survive – but that’s another discussion for another time…’