Around this same time that puppet animation was trying to find its voice in America, on the other side of the globe it was on its way to being much more strongly established. Czechoslovakia and other parts of Eastern Europe had a long history of traditional puppet theater; it naturally found its way into stop-motion filmmaking while retaining its same lyrical essence. The master of the Czech puppet movement would undoubtedly be Jiri Trnka, who produced some feature-length films along with his many influential shorts. After starting his studio in 1946, he ended up embarking on what would become his first feature, Spalicek (The Czech Year), released in 1947. The film is divided into six segments that illustrate a full year of seasonal Czech customs: Shrovetide, Spring, the Legend of St. Prokop, the Fair, the Feast, and Bethlehem. Traditional Czech folk songs enliven the animation. The final film was a huge success that put Trnka on the map as the country’s leading puppet animator. This success led to the possibility for another feature, Cisaruv Slavik (The Emperor’s Nightingale) in 1949. This film was based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a Chinese emperor with a toy nightingale who forgets about the real nightingale who would comfort him with his song. The significance of this film was that it introduced Trnka to America through theatrical distribution there, with an English narration by Boris Karloff (Figure 1.7). In both versions, a beautiful musical score by Vaclav Trojan blended perfectly with the puppets and scenery. Critics worldwide hailed the film as a masterpiece of the medium.
[Figure 1.6] Newspaper ad for Lou Bunin’s Alice in
Wonderland. (Lou Bunin, 1951)
Another feature, Bajaja (Prince Bayaya), followed in 1950. This was a medieval tale of a young peasant who overcomes many odds to win the heart of a princess. Trnka used Bajaja as a platform to push the envelope in terms of the rich detail and complexity that could be achieved with puppet animation, creating a scope of effects much more epic than his earlier works. What is most interesting about Trnka’s work is the tension between what the Czech government agreed to fund and preferred he create, and what Trnka himself wanted to create. Some of his films directly reflect Czech culture and ideals, into which he put just as much pride and care, but he also wanted to explore stories from other cultures. His other features were Staré pověsti české (Old Czech Legends) in 1953, which is a collection of Czech hero epics, and Sen Noci Svatojanske (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in 1959, based on William Shakespeare’s play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was shot in widescreen and was certainly Trnka’s most exquisite and ambitious production to date. It expressed Trnka’s style and personal views of puppet animation, which did not rely on any lip sync or facial expression to tell the story. He was more concerned with the music and picture working together to achieve a lyrical effect that brought the essence of traditional puppet theater to the screen. As beautiful and artistic as his epic film was, many common audiences did not connect with it on the same emotional level, which can be said of many “art films” done in feature length. (Ironically, the same year, Disney released Sleeping Beauty, which had many similarities to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its ambition, scope, and focus on beautiful art direction over direct emotional engagement for the audience, as many critics felt.) All the same, when it comes to treating the art of stop-motion puppet animation to a high level of grace, beauty, and respect, Trnka set the bar and inspired a whole legion of animators in his wake.
[Figure 1.7] Newspaper ad for the U.S. release of
The Emperor’s Nightingale. (Trnka Studios, 1949.)
The 1960s and 1970s were an interesting time for cross-cultural pollination between different countries producing stop-motion features, particularly Czechoslovakia and Japan with North America. Japanese animator Kihachiro Kawamoto, after working briefly with one of Japan’s leading puppet animators, Tad Mochinaga, went to Czechoslovakia to work with Trnka at his studio in 1963. Trnka encouraged him to respect the puppet film as an art form and embrace the lyrical style of his culture, so Kawamoto brought this influence back to Japan and inspired the puppet movement there. Meanwhile, the films of Mochinaga inspired an entirely new partnership that would bring the Japanese animation style to America. Back in America, through commercials, series, and specials, stop-motion animation began to find a voice on television as early as the 1950s. In the 1960s, the medium found a new leader through the studio of Rankin/Bass. Originally under the name Videocraft International, founders Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass joined forces with Mochinaga’s studio in Japan in 1958 and made a name for themselves through their Animagic TV specials. They also created some features for the big screen. Throughout the production of these features, Rankin was very hands-on at the Japanese studio, while Bass oversaw much of the music and script writing from his head office in New York. Rankin took up residence in Japan for months at a time, working alongside the animators, costume builders, and storyboard and fabrication departments.
Their first feature, Willy McBean and His Magic Machine, was produced around the same time as their famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special and was released in 1965 (Figure 1.8). The origins of the film came about through a time-traveling character named Willy Nilly, who was featured in a few episodes of their The New Adventures of Pinocchio series for television. Ideas for a spin-off series grew into a feature-length script about Willy McBean, his monkey sidekick Pablo, and their adventures traveling through time to stop the mad Professor Von Rotten from altering the course of history. The original story and characters were designed by Rudolph’s designer Tony Peters, who was rooted in the style of the UPA studio that was popular in the ’50s. The following year, 1966, brought a musical feature, The Daydreamer (Figure 1.9), to the screen, which was part of a three-picture deal with producer Joseph E. Levine that combined the Animagic puppets with an all-star cast of live actors. Noted illustrator Al Hirschfeld designed the poster and credit sequence for the film, in which Paul O’Keefe plays a young Hans Christian Andersen who dreams about four of his well-known stories, told in stop-motion.
[Figure 1.8] Tad Mochinaga animates a scene from Willy McBean and His Magic Machine. (© 1965, Rankin/Bass Productions/Rick Goldschmidt Archives.)