Chapter 18: Why Prague, For God’s Sake?
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 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. 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 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 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 couldn't 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 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 worry today. There was 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. 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 member's 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 celebrant's 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.