Chapter 17: Prague, A Change Of Life.
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 animators that Zdenka had recommended. So we were all into a working relationship.
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.
The technology of animation had been formalized within the Disney studio during the '20s and '30s, and had subsequently been adapted in nearly all animation studios in the Western orbit and well beyond. So here I was, trying not only to instill some new animation philosophy, but having to cope with a technical system in nearly every way opposite to the American standard! Their system did work - they got their stuff onto the screen - but it was awkward and unnecessarily labor-intensive. Instead of using standard exposure sheets, onto which the animation drawing numbers would be listed on lines indicating film frames, the Czech animators wrote numbers of the film frames directly onto the animation drawings themselves. They did not use exposure sheets (dope sheets) at all!!!
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 that the particular drawing would be exposed onto. 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 has to be extended. [illustration] 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. Any animator, layout man or animation camera operator in America would go nuts with such a system! (Don't forget, the bumblebee does fly, and the Czech did make remarkable films!)
I think this misguided system arose because they also had no center peg. They used a two-peg system for their animation. The two round pegholes were like those of a two-ring loose-leaf notebook. The simple addition of a center peg would surely have inspired camera calculations from the centers of fields! I made it my gentle and patient crusade to urge them to consider the standard system, but it ultimately took our importation of their first Oxberry camera stand to make them see the light. The Oxberry's moving camera compound was a revelation for them! Their camera beds were mere fixed tables, and they had to run panorama backgrounds along the edge of what amounted to a wooden yardstick, screwed to the table. For more elaborate moves they had to attach the peg bars to a pantograph arrangement.