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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 19: 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?

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 60's and 70's 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!

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 cigaretet 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 wouldn't be them. In the union they were the vast majority, and they voted for higher pay scale now. So that's what the union went after. They didn’t foresee that they had sealed their own doom. 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 US 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 was 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 XXXX need for animation films of all kinds has grown incredibly. There is now room for all, and world production and competition not only raised the standards of our work but it increased 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. When they eventually caught on to the real facts, they suddenly became envious. The fact was that 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 of the Prague animation studio during the socialist era.  A couple of them truly believed in socialism, but most hated it. Only the inserted studio manager was an actual "aperatchik." There was a string of bureaucrat managers during my thirty 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.

Were the animators dogged by censorship? Were they a propaganda arm of the communist regime? If so, it was extremely subtle. Their stories and style were more of a cultural difference than political pressure. The Czech approach to animated films for children would seem overly sweet and cuddly to American kids. Czechs just didn't go for the smart-alec, sassy, in-your-face American cartoon style. So perhaps in a way their stuff contributed to the "everything's-lovely" official line. But the fact is, the Czech kidsliked the kind of stuff that was turned out. The 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, but not outright socialism posters. There was little direct censorship, everyone knew what could and couldn't be gotten away with. The most obvious self-censorship was the avoidance of bear characters that might be thought to be satirizing the Soviet Union. the bear was a Russian symbol. A so-called "dramaturg," or story editor was assigned to each film as a sort of literary guide, perhaps a watchdog. Those story editors 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 couldn't 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 needed to worry about when the market economy came.

The communists provided a continuity of work we Americans could never imagine. In America, I never worked anywhere for more than four years. Working at the Bratri v triku studio in Prague in those days was virtually a lifetime annuity. The the pay was lousy, but the work was steady, basic living was cheap, and there were perks. The State Film maintained country recreation hotels for all employees, 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 list of every staff member's birthday, "Name Day," anniversary, whatever. Bottles appeared, along with snacks, a large, funny birthday drawing was turned out, which all the colleagues signed, and they all would line up with flowers outside the door of the celebrant's room, marching in, kissing, laughing, toasting, and snacking. The creaky studio tape player rolled, and an afternoon and evening of revelry was on.

In spite of the shadow of the regime, Prague animators 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. After more than 50 years, many of the staff are among my closest friends.

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The best thing was that the communist leaders knew nothing of how animation films were made, so they generally left the studio alone. They couldn't 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 an animation scene.

In spite of the grayness and boredom of communist ideology all around, and the paucity of goods they craved, the "Bratři v triku" animation studio was an oasis of fun. It was like a huge family. The studio was stocked with married couples, former married couples, lovers, former lovers, new couplings, offspring, evolving relationships all working together for years and years. Zdenka and I worked in the studio for 55 years - continuously.... and she wasn't even the oldest staff member!

But Zdenka was the last survivor. Capitalism, so long yearned for, was a challenge the studio was unprepared for when it finally arrived in 1989.  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 in the new market economy, the studio atrophied when it became totally reliant on custom production.  During my time in the studio, nearly all of the projects were brought in by me or by Zdenka.  I don't know whether I should feel guilt or gratification that I was bringing custom production to a studio that previously was solely devoted to "art for art's sake" production supplied by the State.

I had 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 unit, doing our films under the production leadership of Zdenka, was 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 American 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 their own home turf. Only those working on the "artistic" films in the Klárov unit 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 1989 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 privatized studio owners were relying on Zdenka and me to bring in most of their business. Zdenka at 72 was finally officially appointed chief of the studio in early 2000 and busier than ever, showed no signs of slowing down. But how much longer could either of us carry on? The new owners assumed we would go on forever, and never developed their own marketing staff or successor production leaders. The studio had somehow survived 55 years of glory, all during a regime of political dictatorship. We had hoped it would carry on, but the “Studio Bratři v triku, a Czech national icon, went down in flames, having played a significant role in the history of cinema animation As Zdenka and I neared age 90, we finally had a chance to do some private projects.  This book is one of them. The production of the Nudnik Revealed book and video was another.  We have no plans to retire!

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

My first day at the Prague studio, 10 October, 1959. Bill Snyder, Lulka Kopecná, (Zdenka's secretary), me, and Zdenka.

Zdenka, Miluse Hluchanícová, and me at the Prague studio in 1976, working on "Strega Nonna", an adaptation of the Tomie de Paola children's picture book, for Weston Woods.

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

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