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Czech Animation: Two Perspectives

Czech animation is renowned for its rich heritage, even as it continues in crisis. Andrew Osmond interviews two of its leading figures on upholding a proud tradition.

When one reads about Czech animation what we could once call Czechoslovakian animation, until the political upheavals in Eastern Europe led to the establishment of the Czech Republic a decade ago two very different portraits emerge. On the one hand, theres Czech animations heritage, in all its incredible diversity. Even animation fans who havent had the opportunity to see the classics know the masters names: people like Karel Zeman, the Czech Melies; the brilliant Jiri Trnka, stop-motion maestro behind the magic Midsummer Nights Dream (1961) and the brutal The Hand (1965); and the surreal, caustic Jan Svankmajer.

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Check out this great clip from The Hand. © Rembrandt Films. All rights reserved.

And then theres the industrys pessimistic present full of scare stories and glum news. The era of Communist state support is now a memory, often remembered with wry nostalgia by those artists who were supported and restricted by it. According to Britains Guardian newspaper, the main post-communist years of decline were 1990 to 1996, between which the number of Czech animated films dropped from an average of 140 a year to 50. Since then, production has risen, but there were only about 75 films made in 2001, many coming from film schools like Pragues famous academy Famu. Its difficult to write about Czech animation without sounding elegiac, accepting the passing of an animated age.

However, neither of the two industry practitioners interviewed here have much time for wistful regrets. Its tempting to say they represent two generations of Czech animation, and in some ways they do, but at the same time, they see themselves as part of a continuing history and industry, albeit one that encompasses a multitude of styles and approaches. And they dont think its over yet.

Its difficult to think of anyone better placed for an overview of Czech animation than Zdenka Deitch. Formerly Zdenka Najmanova, since 2000, she has headed the great Prague animation studio Bratri v Triku, where shes worked for nearly 60 years. The studio, whose name means Trick Brothers or Brothers in Trick, was founded after World War II by Trnka and Eduard Hofman (director of the 1958 feature The Creation of the World). Its the oldest and the largest studio in the industry, responsible for more than 1,600 titles, including many for children that range from two-minute shorts to full-length features. Zdenka Deitch is the wife of famed U.S. director Gene Deitch, whose own account of coming to Bratri v Triku can be found from Chapter 16 onwards in his online book, How to Succeed in Animation, available on this site.

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Heres Zdenka Deitchs account in her own words.

When I was a young girl, I was an art school student, but the universities were closed during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II. In the summer of 1945, just after the war had ended, I went to a big live-action studio called Barrandov in Prague. I went with a writer friend who was doing research on the German occupation. While we were sitting there, I saw an advert on a little table for the opening of a new animation studio in the center of Prague. The studio chief was Jiri Trnka, who was already a very well known artist. [The studios parent company is Kratky Film Praha. Bratri v Triku specializes in drawn cartoons, with its sister studio, Studio Jiri Trnka, specializing in puppets, though the puppet side is dormant now because of the expense and length of production.]

There had been a studio before, working on titles and advertising, so there were already several offices. Everyone was thrown somewhere else during the last years of the war, and, afterward, people were invited to start the studio again.

I looked at the advert and thought it might be interesting, so I took my portfolio of drawings and went there. The studio people looked at my drawings. I was maybe too young for them but they said, well, we will try! I started on July 2, 1945, right at the beginning. At first I was coloring and inking, then I was animating. Then, because I had some kind of talent for organization, I became a production manager working with Mr. Trnka, who was then directing and designing films for UNESCO. His client in London came over to Prague and the studio called on me, because I was the only person at Triku who spoke a little bit of English...

Jiri Trnka working on his film, Good Soldier Shweik. © Kratky Film Praha.

Jiri Trnka working on his film, Good Soldier Shweik. © Kratky Film Praha.

The early days were an absolutely amazing time. There was a tremendous spirit just after the war. Many young people, thrown out of university, were drawn to the studio. We were really starting from nothing, from blank paper, learning everything, which was absolutely fascinating. The early films were so individual and poetic. There were no series of films, each title was individual and the directors were always thinking of quality, trying to put something special in the design. In 1947, one of our films, based on a famous Czech fairy tale, won a prize at Cannes, and, from then on, we gained a reputation in Europe, where people were very surprised by this Czech studio nobody had heard of.

We were growing, growing, growing, with lots of success. I worked with such a good group of people. Animation is not only about talent, but also about patience and love. You dont make cartoons to make money or to become rich, only a few people get rich and then the money comes from merchandising.

You have to give children respect in animation. What you give to kids in these films will be returned by them when they grow up. You will not find ugliness in our films. I hate messy, stupid cartoons that are not for children, but only for booboos. A good story is the most important thing, a story that will give something to the younger generation and will be taken up by different generations. Everybody wants to have computer animation today, but classic animation comes from the heart. These days, we send our drawings and backgrounds to a nearby studio, which colors them on computer, but if youre telling a simple story, for example about little kids going somewhere, having fun, then you need the classical style.

During the war, Germans captured a black-and-white print of Disneys Snow White and brought it to Prague. There was a machine called a Kinox, made of old projector parts, which you could put a reel of film on and study it frame by frame. The Czech animators saw the character movement and learned from that, but they only learned the basics, which we adapted to our own humor and character.

The Mole, one of Bratri v Trikus best-known childrens titles. Courtesy of Gene Deitch. © Kratky Film.

The Mole, one of Bratri v Trikus best-known childrens titles. Courtesy of Gene Deitch. © Kratky Film.

Czech characters are more stylized; we work more with the design. [Gene Deitch describes it as a symbolic approach to storytelling, based on suggestion and mime.] Each film is a different design, and we put the animation in such a way that the art would dominate. In an animation like Mole [one of Bratri v Trikus best-known childrens titles, by Zdenek Miler], the artist is full of poetry, and he makes a story to give out something positive. The animation promotes poetry and visuals in children, their feeling for beauty, the importance of how they live. Its an aesthetic that promotes the best in kids and humans in general. There are no words and the movement is slow. Kids are enchanted by little creatures, and its great animation because the characters are done in such a way you feel theyre part of you. We want to promote kids feelings for aesthetics.

We did work for American clients as well. [Zdenka was appointed head of the studios Snyder unit, set up by U.S. producer William L. Snyder, who later sent Gene Deitch to Prague.] We animated for Warner Bros., Weston Woods Studios in Connecticut [who commissioned numerous films of childrens picture books] and Tom and Jerry cartoons for Rembrandt Releases (1961-2). We learned much from Tom and Jerry, about timing and American-school theory, but to use rather than copy. They were made on a much lower budget than the U.S. Tom and Jerry films ($10,000 each, compared to over $40,000 for the originals), and Im proud of what we did for the money. We also made Popeye and Krazy Kat films for King Features TV.

Of course, the pressure was to finish the package of films in a certain time. In those days it was too much because we were only a small group, so we were helped out by the Zagreb studio in Yugoslavia. It was a good collaboration. [Zdenka and Gene Deitch had a custom production unit separate from the main studio site, which Zdenka headed. For a longer account of the custom series, see chapters 20 and 21 of Deitchs book.]

Czech people have a special sense of humor. Theyll recognize something that you didnt even mean, in the style of the cartoon, something thats against the regime. After the Russian takeover, there was a special committee that decided what could and couldnt be done. But artists were always finding ways around, showing things that the officials didnt see. It wasnt always intentional. For example, my husband directed a film called The Giants (1968, made just as the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia), which visualized the problem of Palestine and Israel. It was a film about two small guys who always fight. They dont have enough strength so they both call on giants, in pink and blue. When it was shown, the reaction was absolutely hilarious! People were clapping, taking the film quite differently from what my husband had in mind. The film won the Grand Prize at the Spanish film festival, but it was banned so no one could see it for years and years. [For Gene Deitchs own perspective, see chapter 24 of his book.] Now you can do whatever you want but you have no money. In those days you were restricted, but you had money... so whats better?

During the communist era, the politicians thought animation had no value, but they saw it as bread and circuses for the public, so they gave us money. The revolution was great, but now there is no money! There are some small grants from the Ministry of Culture, about $3,000, but theyre usually only given to young people who do everything from A to Z. After 1989, people thought that there was the possibility of a new wave of Czech animation, and several small studios were established. People left our studio for that reason, especially young men because they had families and needed more money. Now, most of our workers are female.

Complaints about U.S. firms pale when you see where the Kratky animators worked. Courtesy of and © Gene Deitch.

Complaints about U.S. firms pale when you see where the Kratky animators worked. Courtesy of and © Gene Deitch.

In Prague, we have a film faculty and there is one class that teaches animation. The students can start in the studio as apprentices, making some test animation. After a year, they may be accepted to university for the next five years, during which time we try to help them because they have to prove they can make cartoons. They can use the studio facilities, spend maybe one or two months before the camera to make a short film and we charge them nothing. Later on, when they are in the fourth or fifth grades, they produce another film, which we take and show at festivals.

I dont want to put young people down but they have no patience. They need more patience if they are really going to learn how to draw, how to make the characters. Young people always want to make something fantastic, spectacular, but they need to work hard, study, learn and be very honest in their animation. I would like to establish more young talent, and draw more people from the universities. I feel there will be a change of generation. We established the studio, as it was, now I think we should give chances to young people, young artists. It is very important they follow in our work. I would be absolutely crushed if I realized there would be no one who would do it.

We are making films for foreign customers, who keep us going. We have to live off what we get, which is not so easy. My husband has won an Oscar so we are well known, but still, if you want to do a nice small film, theres no place for it. Everyone wants a 52-part series. International festivals like Annecy are very important, when everybody can get together and talk and show films. Our current animation includes projects for Palm Plus Media in the Netherlands and for Weston Woods Studios. Were doing a film for Weston Woods right now, and weve also finished Bark, George, adapted from a childrens picture book by my husbands friend Jules Feiffer [who wrote the story for Gene Deitchs Oscar-winning Munro (1960)].

Were also making new animation for Czech TV. In Prague, there is an evening TV slot for childrens programming, which shows our films, introducing them to a new generation, which is important. Some of our films are also shown on Saturday mornings. Mole is very popular with little children, they really love it!

Extinct World of Gloves shows off Bartas unique style. © Kratky Film Praha.

Extinct World of Gloves shows off Bartas unique style. © Kratky Film Praha.

Overall, I think its a good start. Its rather difficult to get the customers, there are always money problems, but we try our best!

One of the younger Czech animators that Zdenka most admires is the artist and director Jiri Barta, recognized as one of the most significant figures in the post 60s industry. Among Bartas short films is the spooky tale The Last Theft (1987), a largely live-action film directed as if with puppets, and the stop-motion Extinct World of Gloves (1983), where hand garments re-enact Hollywood history. Perhaps Bartas most striking short is The Ballad of Green Wood (1984), an audacious stop-motion film in which sticks dance and fight through a rugged landscape of mountains and caves, all filmed outdoors on location.

Bartas Pied Piper is a stop-motion tour-de-force.

Bartas Pied Piper is a stop-motion tour-de-force.

Green Wood involved filmmakers from the Jiri Trnka studio, which later lent its resources to Bartas ambitious feature The Pied Piper (1985). Barta was most interested in the films crooked setting and depraved townspeople, who get a deserved comeuppance from the fearsome Pied Piper, all placed in the trappings of a medieval morality play. Barta is now developing a feature version of the Golem story, and screened a seven-minute promotional reel in London last year.

I studied at the College of Applied Arts, in the Department of Film and Television Graphics. If I look at the work of my colleagues, they are partly art designers and partly animators. Animated cinema is a collection of many individualities, and I think nobody wants to follow anybody else. Everyone has their own way. I met Jiri Trnka at the very beginning of my time in animation. He taught at our art school in illustration and graphics, because he said animation is very complicated and he didnt want to do it! Trnka belongs to the older generation (he died in 1969) and is a legend.

I dont think the problem of Czech animation is a problem of money, its more distribution. If you have no cinemas or TV channels to show animated films, then theres no one to finance them. You can ask from the grant system, which might give you 50% of a budget but I am speaking about very small budgets. We look for collaboration with other countries; sometimes were successful, sometimes not. Ive worked in Cardiff, Wales [on the 13-minute short The Tyrant and the Child, co-produced with S4C], but I seldom have such opportunities.

Animation festivals are very important, not only to show our work but to see the work of other animators. Its very important for us to see the situation in the world. In particular, we can see many computer-animated films now, and mixes of computer and hand animation. I dont think computer animation is better than hand animation, but you can choose one way or another. At the beginning, I was against computers because I thought the animation was a little bit cold, showing a very scientific world, but, after several years, Ive changed my feelings. My students work on computers and I know their commercial possibilities, so they are important.

My feature film The Pied Piper was made in 1985 between West Germany and Kratky Film Praha, with the money coming from both sides. It was a huge and complicated project for us, taking about two and a half years to make. I was lucky because I could ask my friends and colleagues to help me. There were about 30 people working on the project in all. The film used several different techniques, including 3D puppets and the illusion of 3D space created by light on a series of glass sheets. All the films sets were made in a special perspective, so that the backgrounds seemed very distant, but they were only painted and sculpted that way.

Animated film for Czech animators is about stylization and art design. If I talk about the Czech animated school [the name given to the strand of Czech animation influenced by Trnka, Zeman, their predecessor Hermina Tyrlova and their successor Jan Svankmajer], that doesnt mean one style, but many individualities, many different styles. The Pied Piper started from the idea that this was an old German legend, so it needed to be expressionist, medieval. Czech animation can be both grotesque and funny. Nothing is absolutely serious, but there are greater or lesser degrees of humor.

Jan Svankmajer was a successor of Trnka.

Jan Svankmajer was a successor of Trnka.

I didnt make a script for this film, only storyboards. A script had been developed before I came on board, but it was hard to get it to feature length, so I was invited to make the film. I liked the story, the ideas, the atmosphere and thought I could get something. I was most interested in the mood, and I made the film according to my feelings. Pied Piper is a film about character, setting a city of evil against a few bright characters, like the lady Agnes, whos an island in the middle of darkness. Then theres the extraordinary figure of the Pied Piper, whos like Destiny, Death or Time, with further symbols of time in the film like the town clock on the tower. I gave the story a different ending [in which the Piper turns the townspeople into rats] because there are many kinds of expression.

I like The Ballad of Green Water, my short film, because I needed to imagine all the possible situations when we were animating, up in mountains and caves. Filming it was a big adventure and sometimes very funny. We would find a place and try to shoot, but it was so complicated, because the weather could change in a few minutes. You might be able to animate for an hour before having to cancel and start again next day. We had to set up so many shots and choose from them. We had three times as many shots as in the actual film. The shooting took from winter till summer. Seven or eight months, for 10 minutes of animation!

With my current feature The Golem, I suppose Im in a parallel situation to Yuri Norstein making The Overcoat. (I like Norsteins work, he has a very nice mood and stylization, absolutely distinct.) I am preparing many storyboards and trying to approach producers. Some people in Japan promised to help me with the film, but they were cautious because they said the story was dark, it had a little bit of a deep mood. They said it wasnt for Japanese people. Its strange, because at the outset, they said yes to everything, but now theyre silent. Im also putting the film to Czech TV, and looking around in many different directions.

Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.

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