Gene Deitch shares an interview he did with the Screen Cartoonists Union newsletter, Top Cel, about animation production life in a communist country in 1968.
An excerpt from Gene Deitchs How To Succeed In Animation (Dont Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).
Between 1964 and 1966, we produced in Prague 12 Nudnik cartoons for Paramount. The first one, which for arcane reasons was originally titled, Nudnik #2 was nominated for an Oscar in 1965.
This is a verbatim reproduction of a March 1968 interview in the New York Screen Cartoonists Union newsletter, Top Cel. In spite of the unions fear of runaway animation at that time, the questions from the newsletter editor Ed Smith were polite. I was then just eight years working in Czechoslovakia. My answers were printed on three pages of its six-page newsletter. You must read this in the context of its time; it was in no way an apologia for communism, but a straightforward reporting of my experiences so far in the country an attempt to brush away some myths. You can gain some insight as to the realities of film production during that time of communist rule, and of my own reactions to it. It was also the time of the Vietnam War, and that too colors some of my remarks...
Gene Deitch And Czechoslovakian* Animation
In recent years, Gene Deitch, formerly a N.Y. animation director and producer, has been living and working in animation in Czechoslovakia. Knowing our readers to be interested in Genes activities and in Czechoslovakian animation, your editor asked some questions. Here are the questions and Genes answering letter:
Purposes of animation produced: For instance, theatrical, government? What are the main uses? Are animated shorts shown in theaters to any large extent? Are there any advertising commercials for television or theatres?
Are there any animated features in production or recently completed? (If so, information about them?) Where do animation people come from? Art schools? Government sponsored training? Are animation studios state-owned or subsidized? Are there privately-owned studios?
What is the status of animators as compared to other professions (lawyers, etc.)? What is the average salary of animator and how does it compare with the salary of an average Czechoslovakian wage earner? Is foreign animation shown in Czechoslovakia? Any animated films which attracted special attention?
What is your exact role in Czechoslovakian animation? And last but not least, do animators still cook cabbages in the studio?
Dear Pepe, Ed and All the Brothers and Sisters Of Local 841,
My wife Zdenka and I are still feeling sad that we didnt make it to see you all at Montreal, as had been our firm plan, right up to the last minute. We were in the worst kind of a time-bind exactly then on a pilot film project that just couldnt wait for our return. We had also just missed Annecy, for the first time, because of the frantic earlier stages of the same film; a bad year for our contacts with old friends.
Now, these are the answers to the many asked and unasked questions that I get. Not propaganda, just the facts as they have applied to me. You can draw your own conclusions.
As to my present status: Basically the same, but for me an important difference is that I have finally felt ready to try to continue this on my own and I have now ended my exclusive deal with Rembrandt. I will still do several projects for Bill Snyder, especially this year, but I am now free to take on some other work. I know that this whole deal does not tickle you from the Union standpoint. My only answer to that unasked question is, that what I have produced here, and what I expect to do here in the future, are films that simply would not get made at all in the States.
As you know, I braved the TV commercial business in New York for as long, and as well as anybody, but it was killing me. I want to do entertainment programming, but I couldnt fight it out successfully in the giant corporations. You all know what happened to my Renaissance at Terrytoons. As long as I thought I had to fight to the death in N.Y., I guess I would have continued. I didnt escape here. I wasnt running away from anything, but an escape hatch did open up, completely unexpectedly, the day, in 1959, when Bill Snyder walked into my office. He offered to finance two of my pet projects, including Munro, if I would agree to go to Czechoslovakia to direct them.
Man, I thought he was crazy, kidding and very possibly dangerous. But in the following weeks of agonizing agency dementia, just the usual thing, concerning commercials we had in work, plus an unbelievably binding contract offered to me by Ralph Cohn, (still living at that time), of Screen Gems, in which it was clear that they had in mind playing me off against Bill and Joe, ([Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera] who were just getting started at that time), just in case they should get too big for their britches, (if what they now have is success God bless em) I decided, what the hell, it could be an adventure.
It wont be easy to answer all of your questions as crisply and concisely as you might like. After all, eight years is a long time and there are so many aspects to my experience here that I may tend to ramble. Feel free to edit out anything that doesnt interest you.
I think I will answer question four first, because that will put all the other answers in their proper perspective:
What is your exact role in Czechoslovakian animation? I have no role in Czechoslovak animation, and in many ways I am sorry about that. For the past eight years, I have been working, under an exclusive contract with Rembrandt Films, New York, and all of my income has derived from films I have done for Rembrandt, paid to me in dollars deposited in my New York bank account. I have in no way been working for the Czechs, but am here rather as a customer, directing films to the order of my New York client. I dont say this with pompous superiority, or imply that I enjoy separating myself from my Czech friends and co-workers, but I will take this opportunity to lay it on the line as explicitly as I can, because this is the one question I have been asked a hundred times, and quite often it is varied with drooling overtones that something dark is afoot.
So here then is the full answer. I take your question as simple, honest I direct and calling for an answer in the same spirit which I have given above. But for those who would like answers to a few related questions they dont quite know how to put politely, here they are:
I have not defected.
I am an American citizen with a very good up-to-date U.S. passport.
I file a U.S. income tax return each year. I have always paid my U.S. taxes on time even though I dont agree with everything theyre spent for.
I am a guest in this country, a representative of an American firm and I dont meddle in the internal affairs here. I am certainly not a communist, and nobody here expects me to be one. Ive been here a long time, and I feel sure that I am well liked and trusted. I have never violated that trust. Of course, I have a few friends in the American embassy, in a very informal way. Im not 100% sure that they trust me, but I have never violated their trust either. I have never done anything here to bring discredit on the U.S.A. After all, whether I like it or not, I realize that every American abroad does in fact represent his country, even if he doesnt agree with many of its current policies.
As a practical matter I have established residence here, but this has no bearing on my nationality or anything else. It only means that instead of a tourist visa, I have been granted a residence visa, which must only be renewed on an annual basis, Im allowed to keep a dollar bank account here, for my local living needs, and I can leave and re-enter the country completely freely, at will, as often as I like with no bother of getting a new visa for each trip. It saves me a lot of trouble.
In all of my years here, I have never been, (to my knowledge), followed, bugged or bothered. Im not saying it might not have happened, especially at first, but if it did I havent been aware of it. I can tell you for certain that I have never been approached, called in for questioning, visited or bothered in any way. I have been completely left alone and free to do my work, establish a household, develop friendships and contacts as I please, photograph freely, sell my photographs to local and foreign magazines travel where and when I choose anywhere within the country, just as simply as you might jump into your car and drive to Atlantic City... and, as I said, exit and enter the country just as freely.
Now, these are the answers to the many asked and unasked questions that I get. Not propaganda, just the facts as they have applied to me. You can draw your own conclusions.
So I came here to do the two shorts. The first thing I realized, with great relief, was that this thing had nothing whatever to do with politics. You can believe though, that when, I first saw the neon hammer & sickle they still had at the airport in those days, I had one horrible moment of cold fear. An instant later I was greeted by a charming, grandmotherly lady, and an experience began that has been largely pure joy. Everything about these people was great.
I saw immediately that they were not communists, but were simply animators and filmmakers like I am, with all the same concentration on doing their thing. Friendly is not an adequate word to describe the way they accepted me, and worked with me to please me. It was a family thing. It was love. And Prague was (and is) the loveliest city in the whole world. (San Franciscans of the world, Unite!)
All these years, while I have been swamped in making the same old thing, (though we did win the Oscar and get five nominations), for the American market, I have watched, with considerable envy, the Czech directors, who make considerably less money than I must, to support my immense family, do the kind of films they want to make, at a leisurely pace of one or two shorts a year, (as I struggled to direct up to 26 theatrical shorts a year).
So it has taken me all this time to answer your shortest question, What is my exact role in the Czech animation? To watch it with envy.
That is certainly all you will ever want to know about me, and now I will tell you about them.
purposes of animation produced? ... Main uses?... TV?... etc.
My blunt answer to this would be that animation is mainly produced here for purposes of national prestige Kultura with a capital K All of the arts are nationally supported in Czechoslovakia, and are not expected to, and certainly do not, pay their own way. (It costs about $350 for a ticket to see the absolute equivalent of the best Broadway play.) I go to the films a lot, but I rarely see a Czech cartoon or any cartoon on the program They do play, but they make very few color prints of each picture, and the distribution is very thin. Nowadays, with Czech films being so hot in the world, they are selling quite a few for screening abroad, mainly in Western Europe and underdeveloped countries around the world, but rarely to the U.S.
The fact is that the great majority of the Czech cartoons (again I emphasize that these are not our pictures, which are not shown here at all, but are made to order for our customers in the U.S.)... The Czech cartoons are really made for the various festivals. They are made to please critics, not people. There is a great tendency to reach artificially for artistic effects. As a result, many of them do not reach the ordinary Czech at all. Its a weird paradox here, that although I never found the kind of political censorship I expected when I first came here, they do have, in effect, a kind of reverse-English pseudo-artistic commercial censorship. In other words, a film doesnt get approved for production) the chiefs of the various film units, unless they think it will be a good prospect for some Golden Lemon award somewhere, and/or will bring in some shekels from West Germany.
Its interesting that the group which we have developed to do our U.S.A. films, which we have set up as a completely separate unit of about 65 people, in a separate building on the other side of town from the main Czech cartoon studio, is now geared very much to the American style, pace and attitude of production, and many of our kids feel that the Klarov group is full of hopeless dreamers.
The Klarov group neither produces anything for the government. There are several documentary, advertising and even army film units that make films in their own categories. The Klarov Kresleny Film studio produces strictly entertainment, and artistic films. Of course many fine artists and directors work there, and as you know by the best of their work, which you have seen, that they do a very high level of work, and I envy their creative life, unbound by the realities of the market place as I know it. What I have mentioned as commercial or festival pressures on them could be seen as unlimited creative freedom compared to the grotesque mediocrity forced upon us by our own commercial realities.
There is now the beginnings here of large-scale animation production for TV. My wife, who is production manager of the Service unit*, is now engaged in low-cost series production for the Czechoslovak TV. They have also done some TV commercials. As I said, there are some special Reklam groups, but this is an about-to-explode thing here. The New economic system here has already begun to pump up the consumer market, and ads on TV are on the sharp rise. Theater commercials, put on while the house is filling, are of course common everywhere in Europe, and here too, though still crude by our standards of slickness.
*(1 see that I dropped in something here that takes me back to me again, and to the long answer to your first question: Yes, it is true that my wife is the production manager of the group that makes my pictures! Somehow we have been able to maintain our balance over the years, as I represent the customer, and she represents Czechoslovak Film. So I guess that after all I DO have a role in the CS animation, at least by marriage!)
Animated features? ...where do new animators come from?
There are no feature-length cartoons in work, and none contemplated that I know of. Of course, I have been involved, with Snyder in several feature proposals, which we would have produced at least mainly here, but none of these have as yet come to production, and I would doubt that the Czechs would undertake a feature cartoon just now. New animators strictly come up from the ranks of the inbetweeners, and very slowly at that. There has not been a single new animator created in all the years I have been here, although a few animators have been made directors.
It appears though, that with the beginnings of TV serial production, several of the best inbetweeners will now be made animators. We need them. There is course, under the aegis of Adolph Hoffmeister, that develops the philosophy of animation and film graphics, but it is certainly not what you would think of as a true course in animation. The people that apply for jobs here are just the same kids as everywhere who are fascinated by cartoon films and want to get into this line of work. There is no logical reason for anybody wanting to be a cartoonist. You do it because that is your thing!
Dont forget, this is a very small country (14 million total pop.), and it supports a miraculously large film output, but it is still small in numbers. The total Prague cartoon film, personnel must be no more than 150 people. Outside of Prague it would be only a handful. Of course, there are a great many graphic artists, newspaper cartoonists, childrens book illustrators, painters, etc. who do design for the cartoon films produced here. In fact, most of the films are designed by externists.
Are animation studios state owned or subsidized? ...any private?
Individual artists, such as those I have described above who work as externists, are private, and some few informal groups work together on private projects, but there are still no private studio organizations. Still, that doesnt convey the true sense of how things operate here, to merely say that they are state owned or run. All film production is supervised and partly subsidized under the government department of culture. But the Czechoslovak State Film is set up and run as a separate organization. I wouldnt say as a business organization, because the nationalized film industry was not set up to make money but to create culture and to bring honor-to-the nation, and all that. But they have their general director, and directors of the sub groups, such as Short Film, under which the Puppet and Cartoon Film organizations function organizationally.
They each have their bank accounts, pay their bills and sell their films, either to the Central Film Distribution, or to Filmexport, or TV, or to advertisers, etc. All finished films are routinely reviewed by a board, which you would certainly call a censor, but I have never heard of a cartoon film being censored.
What is the status of animators ...salary compared to others, etc.?
I would say that the status is much higher than among us, and the salary average is well above that currently made by doctors and lawyers. These levels are just now about to undergo changes, as the new economic system gradually takes hold, but till now, the average animator has been in the very highest income bracket here. You must understand that the spread between the salary of the humblest street cleaner, and the managers of the biggest factories has been remarkably small in Czechoslovakia, a land of theoretical equality among the working people. Of course, in fact, there are ways of making a lot of money here, and the people in the creative arts have been the ones making it. There is no way, short of my writing you a whole book, to intelligently compare their wages with our wages.
It is all relative according to our way of life and their way of life, and it would be strictly a philosophical question as to whether the quality of life is better here or there. I will assume that you havent the patience to read my book. There is not much foreign animation shown here, only rarely.
Do they still cook cabbages in the studios?
Yes, And thats not all! The Czechs believe in being comfortable and cozy while working, The animators rooms are filled with pictures, flowers, all sorts of plants and vines, fish tanks, canaries and cooking gear. There is no Schraffts here, among other things, and no send-up sandwich joints. So coffee is always on the boil, and the bread knife at the ready.
Fellas, Ive been banging away on this for days now, in odd moments, and I havent even begun to tell you about what fascinates me about this place. Can you imagine, for instance, that all animation is produced here without exposure sheets at all, as we know them! There is so much that is interesting, if I and you only had the time to just write and to read! I hope that I have written something that is really of interest; if not, you should certainly have a better idea of what to ask next time!
All my best, Gene
To read more about Genes adventures in the animation world, visit Genes online book.
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 Hubleys 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 more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.
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