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Why Prague, For God’s Sake?

That was the question I constantly had to answer while isolated from my old colleagues, and hunkered in this distant and seemingly God-forsaken communist-gripped misery. This chapter answers the question. Was I a pinko? A spy? An enemy agent? A CIA man? Or did I just happen to fall into something too good to be true?

An excerpt from Gene Deitchs How To Succeed In Animation (Dont Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Prague, the city that grabbed me. Could an animator be happy here? Yes.

Prague, the city that grabbed me. Could an animator be happy here? Yes.

Jules Feiffer once did a book he called The Explainers. In my early years in Prague, I was constantly needing to explain to my family, friends and American colleagues what I was doing here. In the 60s and 70s, the Screen Cartoonists Union was inflamed with what they called runaway animation. Today it is the norm that most TV program animation is farmed out overseas. The Simpsons is animated in Korea... and so on. But having found myself in this outcast country, I did worry about being thought of as a pariah and traitor to my animation union colleagues in the States. During that period there was a high unemployment rate for cartoon union members, and they strongly resented what they called runaway animation... especially to a communist country!

My first day at the Prague studio (Oct. 10, 1959) with (left to right) Bill Snyder, Lulka Kopená (Zdenkas secretary), me and Zdenka.

My first day at the Prague studio (Oct. 10, 1959) with (left to right) Bill Snyder, Lulka Kopená (Zdenkas secretary), me and Zdenka.

As usual, there was more to this than met the eye. The Screen Actors Guild had long since established residual payments to their members, so that they would be paid every time their voice or face was aired in a commercial. Way back then, my friend Allen Swift walked into a New York recording studio, and within five minutes read the line, Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should. It may have been ungrammatical, and for a bad cause, but that single line made Allen a rich man, as it was repeated on the air over and over until everyone gave up smoking.

The Screen Cartoonists Union lusted after the same kind of deal for animators. However, an actor is a single person animated films are made by a group. Who would get the residuals? The inkers and painters realized it wouldnt be they. In the union they were the vast majority, and they voted for a higher pay scale now. So thats what the union went after. TV commercial work could support the higher wages, but programming material could not. Programming producers were forced to go where wages were lower, and so it is to this day. In a letter to the Cartoonists Union in April, 1971, I wrote:

In my view, any good, well-made animation films produced anywhere in the world helps to promote animation in general, and thus provide work for all of us. It seems to me that the real iron curtain is between TV commercial production, and all other forms. The fact is that the current U.S. animation pay scales are based on the high-spending economy of TV commercial production. TV entertainment, theatrical entertainment and teaching film economies can hardly afford top-quality animation production in an industry dominated by the big spenders in the blurb business...

The fact is there is very little, if any, runaway TV commercial animation being done. The films I am doing in Prague (story films for children) would not be made at all if it were not possible to produce them abroad. Thus your union would not get this work anyway... The future need for animation films of all kinds will be overwhelming. There will be room for all, and world production and competition can only raise the standards of our work and increase our effectiveness. More cultural contact and exchange of work is needed between peoples, not less!

Today the boom in primetime animation programming has provided work for anyone who can animate! I do think my 1971 letter was somewhat prophetic.

Yet, there was another, seemingly more sinister aspect to my sudden disappearance from the New York scene and surfacing in communist Czechoslovakia. I was constantly called upon to explain.

Was I a commie who suddenly came out of the closet? Was I just plain foolhardy? A masochist? Escaping from the commercial jungle? Many of my American friends and colleagues certainly wondered what I was doing, working with a communist animation studio. They had no real information as to what such a studio was really like. If they knew the real facts, they might very well have been envious. In truth, the studio was not full of communists, but actually just full of animators. There were only a handful of communist party members in the 165-member staff... A couple of them truly believed in socialism; most hated it. Only the inserted studio manager was an actual aperatchik.

There was a string of them during my 30 years there during the communist regime, and not one of them had any real idea of what was going on in the studio. Zdenka, as a producer, made out all the budgets and production plans, and the managers just signed them. None of them had the faintest idea of how animation films were made. All they were interested in was an avoidance of problems.

Zdenka, Milue Hluchaníová and me at the Prague studio in 1976, working on Strega Nonna, an adaptation of the Tomie de Paola childrens picture book, for Weston Woods.

Zdenka, Milue Hluchaníová and me at the Prague studio in 1976, working on Strega Nonna, an adaptation of the Tomie de Paola childrens picture book, for Weston Woods.

Were the animators dogged by censorship? Were they a propaganda arm of the communist regime? If so, it was extremely subtle. It was more of a cultural difference than actual political pressure. The Czech approach to animated films for children would seem overly sweet and cuddly to American kids. Czechs just didnt go for the smart-aleck, sassy, in-your-face American cartoon style. So perhaps in a way their stuff contributed to the everythings-lovely official line. But the fact is, the Czech kids liked the kind of stuff they put out. Their films aimed at adult audiences had somewhat more bite, but most offered a simplistic satire on the human condition, rather than being overtly political. The few openly militant films were naive Peace on Earth paeans, if not outright socialism posters.

There was little direct censorship, everyone knew what could and couldnt be gotten away with. The most obvious self-censorship was the avoidance of big heavy bear characters that might be thought to be satirizing the Soviet Union. A so-called dramaturg, or story editor was assigned to each film as a sort of literary guide, perhaps a watchdog. They received a fee for each film they oversaw, whether they had any actual input or not. One was even assigned to each of my films. I had nothing against their picking up the fee, but I never allowed them even within peeking distance to any of my films. My films were custom productions, paid for by American clients, and not for Czechoslovak release, so they couldnt touch me.

The animation studio staff had a situation every American animator could only dream about. The State supported the studio, because it contributed to the national cultural image abroad. The State film distribution company automatically bought every film they made, good or mediocre. No one worried about the studio going broke in those days, as they worry today. There was a continuity of work we Americans could never imagine. In America, I never worked any where for more than four years. Working at the Bratri v triku studio in Prague in those days was virtually a lifetime annuity. True, the pay was lousy, but the work was steady, basic living was cheap, and there were perks. The State Film maintained country recreation hotels, all free or dirt cheap. The studio was stocked with all sorts of sports and camping equipment for loan at no cost.

There was lots of prestige and public honor for animators. And there were the constant stream of parties. One motherly animator kept a book of every staff members birthday, Name day, anniversary, whatever. Bottles appeared, along with snacks, a large, funny congratulatory drawing was turned out, which everyone signed, and all would line up with flowers outside the door of the celebrants room, marching in, kissing, laughing, toasting, and snacking. The creaky studio tape recorder was set in motion, and an afternoon and evening of revelry was on.

In spite of the shadow of the regime, they did manage to have fun. In addition to the studio parties, there were organized bus outings to the countryside, costume parties in town, steamboat parties on the Vltava river, and parties in apartments and private country cottages. Of course I took part in it, being warmly accepted, not just as a client, but as an unofficial studio member and friend. Today, after nearly 40 years, many of the staff are my closest friends.

The best thing was that the communists knew nothing of how animation films were made, so they generally left the studio alone. They couldnt stock it with communists. Here was one category of work that required people with a very specific ability. Holding a Communist Party card could not get you from pose to pose.

In spite of the grayness and boredom of communist ideology all around, and the paucity of goods they craved, the Bratri v triku animation studio was an oasis of fun. It was like a huge family. The studio was stocked with married couples, lovers, former lovers, former married couples, new couplings, offspring, always evolving relationships, and all working together for years and years. As I write this, my Zdenka has been working in the studio for 55 years continuously... and she is not the oldest staff member!

But today, Zdenka is one of the last survivors. Capitalism has played roughly with the studio. The automatic acceptance of their output during the communist days of state support required no sales department. Once set adrift to survive on its own, the studio has atrophied, now being totally reliant on custom production, which previously almost all came from what Zdenka and I brought in. I dont know whether I should feel guilt or gratification that I, following Bill Snyder, introduced the idea of custom production to a studio previously solely devoted to art for arts sake production.

I personally suggested to them the idea of doing character-based serials. They had previously done only individual films in the creative styles of their dozen or so directors. The custom film unit, doing our films under the production leadership of Zdenka, was even set up in another part of town. The original studio, on Klárov Square, considered itself as the artistic producer, and the staff there tended to look down on the group doing our work. Due to the political shadow, our clients would not even allow our animators screen credits with their true Czech names, and our films were rarely shown publicly in Czechoslovakia almost never on local television. So our animators had a professional disadvantage on the home scene. Only those working on the artistic films in the Klárov studio were able to build a national reputation.

But sadly, they were animating on borrowed time, supported by a fantasy financial situation in a regime facing a dead-end. After the Velvet Revolution, the personal, artistic films could rarely get financing, and movie theaters, no longer under State control, stopped showing cartoon films. Step by step, the custom films and serials became the only viable production. But a marketing culture never developed in the never-never-land of State support.

The new studio owners are still relying on Zdenka and me to bring in most of their business. Zdenka was finally officially appointed chief of the studio in early 2000, and, at 72, is busier than ever, and shows no signs of slowing down. But how much longer either of us can carry on, and whether the top management can develop their own successful marketing is anyones guess. The studio has somehow survived 55 years of glory to date, (late-2000), and we hope it will carry on when we eventually go into retirement. At this writing that is not yet on the horizon!

Studio Bratri v triku is a national Czech icon, and has played a significant role in the history of cinema animation. Long may it continue!

To read more about Genes new life in Prague, 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.