Watching Jiří Barta’s stop-motion masterpiece, Toys in the Attic, makes you realize that no amount of movie making budget can substitute for the power of a talented visionary with a clever story, a dedicated crew, a camera and an attic full of dusty old rubbish. Barta’s film boasts neither sophisticated armatures nor 3D color printers, but rather, brilliant designs, rich characters and sets built from the oddest and most enchanting collection of household junk you’ve ever seen. Sometimes silly, sometimes creepy, but always interesting to watch, Toys in the Attic is a welcome reminder of the inherent visual storytelling power of stop-motion animation.
Originally completed in 2009, the film was licensed by Paris-based Eurocine Films in 2010. The English adaptation, written, casted and directed by Vivian Schilling, boasts a voice cast including Forest Whitaker, Joan Cusack and Cary Elwes. Toys in the Attic marks Barta’s first U.S. theatrical release and the reviews have been extremely positive. The director recently talked with us about the inherent challenges of making animated films with lavish design and meager budget in the post-Soviet Czech Republic.
Dan Sarto: What was life like as an animator in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia?
Jiří Barta: Although our country was under Soviet influence and pressure for 40 years, the amount of Czechoslovakian animated film production was quite huge, about 250 projects every year. A large portion of that production was children’s programming distributed for TV, while a smaller share of production was focused on individual projects such as animated shorts, which were shown in cinemas before a feature film or at film festivals.
Along with my colleagues, who were also directors, designers and animators, I primarily made short films when presented with an opportunity to produce my own stories. The censorship of Czechoslovakian film production was stronger with live action feature films than with animation, so my colleagues and I had a better chance to put our ideas into an art style that embraced our metaphors, symbols and hidden meanings. I know many of my colleagues elsewhere in Eastern Europe followed the same path into the field of animation. We took a big chance, and faced big challenges, finding a small amount of creative freedom within the big labyrinth of the government regime.
DS: What was the genesis of Toys in the Attic? What drew you to this story? Why choose this story over any others you may have been developing?
JB: I always have a few topics or scripts in my drawer which are waiting for a good and rich producer. Toys in the Attic originally was called Whose Birthday is it Today? It was one of my sleeping projects which I wrote many years ago with my colleague, screenwriter Edgar Dutka. I remember we were tired and frustrated from never-ending problems with my unfinished Golem so we decided to do something new, something light and joyful which would be more acceptable for producers and a children’s audience.
Children’s games involve a lot of creative fantasy. Kids use their associative imagination to create adventure and drama in their play. For example, they easily substitute big cupboards for real high mountains. An ordinary vacuum cleaner becomes a jet airplane or a heavy coal stove becomes a steam locomotive. They understand the language of metaphors quite well and of course, it is a beautiful challenge to incorporate this creativity in our animation.
When I found an old exercise book with my drawing of a train made from old train tickets with a piece of cigarette for the smokestack, the kid in my imagination reappeared. Edgar and I remembered the games we used to play in strange forbidden places we found in our attics. Suddenly, our writing brought us a real sense of joy. But unfortunately, after we finished writing, the script became another sleeping project in my drawer. Toys in the Attic slept for almost 10 years until we got a lucky break by accident – Edgar met our great producer in a cab.
DS: Describe the different animation techniques you used making this film.
JB: My colleagues and I used to do projects with a big trick camera and 35mm film, animating using only our hands. I didn’t want to stray too far from our most familiar filmmaking experiences and skills, so I decided to do everything through stop-motion and hand drawn styles. Another reason was because of our concept to use an antique artistic and visual style. I think an antique style looks better done with live human animation techniques rather than with virtual CG animation. On the other hand, computers were very helpful for digital recording, special effects and finally for CG animation in two shots. Also, computers were very important in post-production, as we combined a lot of animation with live-action and many other tricks.
DS: What draws you to stop-motion, as a filmmaker, designer and storyteller? How does the medium help you tell your stories?
JB: There are different projects in my filmography – different themes, design and technologies. Most of them were made using stop-motion because I’ve been working with puppets and 3D objects since my childhood. I used to play in an old marionette theatre. When I was a student, I was a member of a puppet theatre company.
First of all, I am designer, so I think up my stories through still picture drawings and images. So texture, mood and shapes, they are important factors which I match with a developing story. This method helps me imagine the visual side of the film more and to fill animated shots not only with proper movements but also with metaphors, symbols and hidden meanings usually seen in still pictures. Stop-motion is the animation technique that most closely matches my method of storytelling and visual creativity, although I am sometimes frustrated by the limitations of how puppets can act and of working with other mostly still characters.
DS: How long did it take to make this film? Tell us a little about your process.
JB: The first ideas for this story came in 1998. The first version of the script, Whose Birthday is it Today, was completed in 2000. We didn’t start pre-production on the film until January 2007. Then, everything started going very fast. Because of limited time and short deadlines, everything was developed at the same time - storyboard, design, crafting of puppets and sets. We collected a huge amount of junk and antique stuff for making sets and props. There was a small room in our rented studio where our entire crew of 10-15 people did all the work, from pre-production until the end of shooting.
In June 2007 we started to animate and shoot the film with four main animators who sometimes alternated with other colleagues. We finished shooting in September 2008. All post-production, including editing, special effects, sound and music, had to be finished at the beginning of 2009. In the end, our film had 12 main characters, close to 30 supporting characters and a big number of sets and props used in 1200 shots.
Usually, I design the characters and sets. However, the crafting is done by my skilled colleagues who work in a number of different professions. Filmmaking conditions depend on your budget. Our budget wasn’t big enough to bring on expensive professional workers and creative art shops like you can at a larger feature film studio. My team consisted of my old colleagues and friends, including my graduate students and other students from a range of Prague art schools. Toys in the Attic was a new experience for some of them. It was both a joyful and frustrating time for all of us during 15 months of shooting.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.