Chapter 17: Prague, A Change Of Life.
Then there was layout. Forget "Production Design," as we so elegantly labeled it in the old UPA days, the Prague studio had no category at all for layout. Layout and scene-planning were still my specialty, and I wanted to develop assistants to do this work. But the Czechoslovak Socialist bureaucracy had not created a layout category for the studio, so Zdenka had no way of paying anyone to do layouts. We had to label the work differently, but gradually a few young people took to it, and today they are the major directors in the studio.
So why in the world did I even want to cope with such problems for 40 years? The fact is that I fell in love with the dynamic little production manager, with Prague, and with the possibility to do the kind of films I had been denied doing by my ouster from Terrytoons. I decided to learn their system, to teach them mine, and to try to get the twain to meet.
As much as I felt their system to be an illogical and cockeyed way to go about animation, I realized that what got onto the screen was all that really mattered. They did make great films. Their system did work, so if they were used to it, and it worked, well God bless them! The important thing was that they were good animators, and animation filmmaking was in their bones; it was a strong tradition in the country. In an earlier chapter, I hypothesized that the first "animation shows" took place in caves, 35,000 years ago. That is my opinion, but a fact is that the tradition that produced animation in this country really does go back that far!
One of the first things I noticed about the way they worked, is how they related to the figures they were animating; they referred to them in just that way, that they were animating figures. An American animator is far more likely to say, "I'm animating "Mickey," or "Bugs," or whomever. An American animator's goal was traditionally to create an illusion of life, and we think of our characters as real personalities. We almost always use lip-sync - our characters must appear to be really speaking. The Czechs had a diametrically opposite approach. The mouths did not move as they spoke dialog, and the eyes did not really look. There was no great consideration to weight, or the laws of physics. There was no real development of character. All of those things were secondary to a symbolic approach to storytelling. They felt that American animation left nothing to the imagination; that we "shoveled it to 'em. They preferred to suggest, to mime. And that is where their ancient tradition came in. Czech animation on film merely continued their centuries old tradition of puppetry... and that is where they came from!
The same Alexander Marshack who had told me about the cave paintings, invited me to an exhibit of artifacts he had installed at the New York Museum of Natural history, objects he had found in his archaeological work. Among the objects on display was the oldest articulated puppet ever found. It was 35,000 years old, and it was found on the territory of today's Czech Republic! That ancient tradition of puppetry eventually evolved into the style of Czech animation.
I respected their way, but yet there I was, with the task of producing animation movies for my American client, who, (heaven forfend!), had no wish that our films would reveal their Czechoslovak origin. They had to look like "American cartoons."
Willy-nilly, I had to teach the Czechs the American style of animation. Amazingly, they were eager to learn. But of all the technical problems I mentioned, the one that was the greatest block of all to communication was still something else:
"You say tom-ah-to, and I say tom-ay-to" is one thing, but what if you say "metrage," and I say "footage?" I already ran that past you in Chapter 6; the trickiest technical obstacle in my early days here. As the world is „globalized" the confusion over the array of electrical plugs, the range of voltages, PAL, SECAM, or NTSC TV standards, region-limited DVD players, pounds and kilograms, miles and kilometers, inches and centimeters,... well animation footage/meters may not be the most earth-shaking of problems, but one of many disjoints that must come together if we are to live in a truly global village.