Prague, A Change of Life

In 1959 at the request of Bill Snyder, a successful animation distributor, Gene Deitch arrived in Prague to oversee the production of several animated specials based on classic children's books. He was surprised to find an impossible production system, and is even more surprised to find himself still there to this day

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

After signing me up and explaining how to obtain a passport, Snyder once again took off for Prague. I had accepted this weird offer only as a chance of getting my two pet projects produced, that was all. My plan was to do the absolute minimum of messing with these people's films, get my own projects into production, and then get safely home, the sooner the better.

A Rocky Start

When Snyder arrived in Prague, he hastened to convey his "good news" to studio production manager Zdenka Najmanova. "Darling," he said, placing a reassuring hand on her sturdy little shoulder, "I am bringing you the best animation director in America to show you how to improve these films."

Zdenka was so thrilled with this news, she promptly resolved not to speak to me. I can only imagine the torrent of nasty Czech words that must have cascaded through her head. The thought of some smart-assed American hotshot hobnailing over her finished movies created in her a generous serving of advance hostility.

During those first days, I screened some of my UPA films for the staff. I needed to show them that I was really a professional, and that my advice was worth listening to. After that, I seemed to get increased respect, and was no longer viewed as a troublemaking interloper. That made things a lot easier.

The great moment came when I was finally able to get my own two film projects started. When explaining the storyboard to the staff, I tried to act it out, as I usually did to my own UPA, Terrytoons or GDA staff. What was hilarious in this case was that it all had to be translated. I would enthusiastically act out the scenario, and each time I came to a gag point, there had to be a pause for translation. Then, everyone would laugh at the gag. It was like seeing a movie that was 20 seconds out of synch! It was talk-pause-laugh, talk-pause-laugh, talk-pause-laugh, throughout the entire demonstration!

I was delighted that they liked my projects, which were so culturally different from their own. I had brought with me the dialogue soundtracks for my two new films, which I had recorded in New York, and I was ready to give the individual scenes to the animators that Zdenka had recommended. So we were all into a working relationship.

Wait! How Do You Do This?

The unexpected difficulty was that the Czechs had a totally different system of animation notation and camera instructions. The Czech artists who set up the animation studio just after World War II certainly had a passion for this art, but they did not really know how to go about it.

All they had to learn from were bootleg black & white prints the Germans had duplicated from a couple of Disney features. They figured out basically how these films were made by running them on what they called a "Kinox" machine, a gadget made out of old projector parts that allowed a film to be run frame-by-frame and viewed on a plate of frosted glass, more or less like an American-style "Moviola." Working "backwards" in this way, they more or less figured out how the animation drawings and backgrounds should be organized.

They completely ignored -- and didn't even know about -- the general world standard of using exposure sheets on which ruled lines represented the frames of film! The studio was tightly gripped by an old guard clique whose pride did not allow them to accept the thought that there might be a better, easier, or more logical way to organize the work. It was a mindset I was to struggle against for at least 20 years, with success coming slowly and partially. I used to kid them about the way their animation drawings looked. All around the edges of the photographed area were numbers. There was the production number, the sequence and scene number, and then a list of the numbers of all the film frames onto which that particular drawing would be exposed.

Animation drawings frequently repeat of course, and in the case of walk-cycles, or other cycle actions, the drawings repeat often. Quite frequently there were more numbers on the animation paper than there was drawing! And routinely, when there were corrections, the sheets became further filled with crossed out numbers, or inserted series of numbers when action had to be extended. All of the corrected numbers had to be carefully traced onto the cels by the inkers. It seemed totally bizarre to me. I saw many cells that had only eye-dots drawn on them, but enough numbers to look like an algebraic conundrum.

Even more maddening was in their format and framing system. We based our film layout practice on the Acme, and later the Oxberry, system of camera field formats, with the smallest possible format being the 1-field (rarely, if ever used), and progressing outward numerically, each field being numbered according to its width in inches. The Czechs labeled their largest format number-1, and used larger numbers for progressively smaller field sizes! And whereas we calculate all of our camera moves from the center of the fields, which remain constant no matter how we may move in or out, the Czechs perversely measured their camera moves from the lower, left-hand corner of the fields.

Then there was layout. Forget "Production Design," as we so elegantly labeled it in the old UPA days, the Prague studio had no category at all for layout. Layout and scene-planning were still my specialty, and I wanted to develop assistants to do this work. But the Czechoslovak Socialist bureaucracy had not created a layout category for the studio, so Zdenka had no way of paying anyone to do layouts. We had to label the work differently, but gradually a few young people took to it, and today they are the major directors in the studio.

The Silver Lining

So why in the world did I even want to cope with such problems for over 40 years? The fact is that I fell in love with the dynamic little production manager, with Prague, and with the possibility to do the kind of films I had been denied doing by my ouster from Terrytoons. I decided to learn their system, to teach them mine, and to try to get the twain to meet.

As much as I felt their system to be an illogical and cockeyed way to go about animation, I realized that what got onto the screen was all that really mattered. They did make great films. Their system did work, so if they were used to it, and it worked, well God bless them! The important thing was that they were good animators, and animation filmmaking was in their bones; it was a strong tradition in the country. In an earlier chapter, I hypothesized that the first "animation shows" took place in caves, 35,000 years ago. That is my opinion, but a fact is that the tradition that produced animation in this country really does go back that far! I'll explain

One of the first things I noticed about the way they worked, is how they related to the figures they were animating; they referred to them in just that way, that they were animating figures. An American animator is far more likely to say, "I'm animating Mickey," or "Bugs," or whomever. An American animator's goal was traditionally to create an illusion of life, and we think of our characters as real personalities. We almost always use lip-sync -- our characters must appear to be really speaking. The Czechs had a diametrically opposite approach. The mouths did not move as they spoke dialog and the eyes did not really look. There was no great consideration to weight or the laws of physics. There was no real development of character. All of those things were secondary to a symbolic approach to storytelling. They felt that American animation left nothing to the imagination; that we "shoveled it to 'em. They preferred to suggest, to mime. And that is where their ancient tradition came in. The same Alexander Marshack who had told me about the cave paintings, invited me to an exhibit of artifacts he had installed at the New York Museum of Natural history, objects he had found in his archaeological work. Among the objects on display was the oldest articulated puppet ever found. It was 35,000 years old and was found in the territory of today's Czech Republic! That ancient tradition of puppetry eventually evolved into the Czech animation style.

I respected their way, but yet there I was, with the task of producing animation movies for my American client, who (heaven forbid!), had no wish that our films would reveal their Czechoslovak origin. They had to look like "American cartoons."

Willy-nilly, I had to teach the Czechs the American style of animation. Amazingly, they were eager to learn. But of all the technical problems I mentioned, the one that was the greatest block of all to communication was still something else: "You say tom-ah-to, and I say tom-ay-to" is one thing, but what if you say "metrage," and I say "footage?" As the world is globalized" the confusion over the array of electrical plugs, the range of voltages, PAL, SECAM or NTSC TV standards, region-limited DVD players, pounds and kilograms, miles and kilometers, inches and centimeters... Well animation footage/meters may not be the most earth-shaking of problems, but one of many disjoints that must come together if we are to live in a truly global village.

To find out more on Gene's career in the world of animation, read his book How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."