Saturday, October 30, 2010

Czech Animation

When you think about animation films, the Czech Republic does not necessarily cross your mind immediately. You would rather think of the usual suspects, such as the works by Disney or Pixar or maybe even Japanese animes.
The following overview (which does not claim to be exhaustive or complete in any way, but merely to give a quick insight) should show quite plainly that the numerous pearls of Czech animation are easily as good (if not better) than the aforementioned.
The overview starts after World War II, as there is hardly any animation film industry in pre-WW II Czechoslovakia. Only few animated short films were created back then, of which most were interestingly enough co-productions with Norway.
Immediately after the end of the War, Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) and Eduard Hofman (1914-1987) found the ‘Atelier filmovych triku‘ (= animation film studio) in Prague. The studio is subdivided into two different entities. One is focused on marionette films, while the other (far more important) sector, called ‘Bratri v Triku‘ (= brothers of animation), specializes in cartoon and animation films. The studio’s first major success comes in 1947 with the film Zvirátka a petrovsti (The Animals and the People of Petrov, directed by Trnka himself), which also gets recognition in Cannes. Hereupon, ‘Bratri v Triku‘ starts growing rapidly. In the 1950s, further successful films follow (hailed by critics and audiences alike): Bajaja (Prince Bayaya, 1950, Trnka), Staré povesti ceské (Old Czech Legends, 1952, Trnka) and Sen noci svatojánské (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1959, Trnka), the latter being a wordless adaptation of Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Soon, Trnka is known as the ‘Walt Disney of the East‘, a certainly more than inaccurate sobriquet. Four years before his early death, he completes his last and most accomplished film, Ruka (The Hand, 1965), an 18-minute-allegory about a pottering marionette that tries to throw a vase for its flower. While doing so it is all the time interrupted by a huge, imperative hand wanting the puppet to create a sculpture of it instead. Quickly after Trnka’s death, the film was banned by the communist regime.
The singular style of the works by the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studios and especially by its founder Jiří Trnka are characteristic for the entire animation film industry of Czechoslovakia and the later Czech Republic. For instance, the characters are highly stylized, mostly with strong allegorical features. Language and words are far less important than mimic and gesture. The best example to illustrate this is the popular children’s program Krtek (Mole, 1957-2002), created by Zdeněk Miler, also a creative mind from the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studio. The characters and the poetic-positivistic stories take centre stage here. The style is simple, but witty; the narrative tempo rather slow and taciturn. According to the creators, the main concern was to procure a sense of aesthetics and beauty for the young audience.
In 1961, Munro, a short animated film from the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studio, wins the Oscar. After this decisive moment, the studio gets a number of remittance works from the United States, such as Tom and Jerry or Popeye. The main reason for this outsourcing decision though was less due to the remarkable quality of Czechoslovak animation film than to the far more inexpensive production possibilities and conditions in Eastern Europe. That way, the costs for one Tom and Jerry-episode could be reduced from 40,000 to 10,000 US-$.
After the Prague Spring in 1968 began the communist era of the Czech animated film. Under the pressure of the USSR, the studio was subjected to strict constraints, especially as for what was still allowed to be shown and was not anymore. Nevertheless, some artists, among them Jan Švankmajer (* 1934), were able to detect loopholes in the system and to continue denouncing the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union, albeit in a more subtle way. The positive side of the coin was the now much more intense financial endorsement by the State. For the communist regime, animation films were an ideal way of entertaining the people and thus distracting their attention from the defects and flaws of the system.
A second essential, though far less important production site for animation films in Czechoslovakia were the Zlín Studios in Moravia. The two pivotal artists here were Karel Zeman (1910-1989) and Hermina Týrlová (1900-1993), who already created some first films during the Second World War. Zeman, known as the ‘Czech Méliès‘, attached great importance to the poetic mood of his films. Mostly ‘real‘ people interacted with animated characters and backgrounds. In their style, his films were therefore close to the ‘Laterna Magika‘-theater in Prague, where ‘real‘ actors perform together with marionettes and a projected scenery. Among Zeman’s most accomplished works are films such as Cesta do praveku (Journey to the Beginning of Time, 1955) or the short Inspirace (Inspiration, 1949).
The key figure of Czech animation film is, apart from Jiří Trnka, the aforementioned Jan Švankmajer, who has been active for the past forty years, enchanting young and old alike. His technically perfectly animated films take mostly place in a gothic scenery such as castles, caves or dungeons which could originate from an Edgar Allan Poe-novel. Correspondingly dark and gritty are the locales (and sometimes also the topics) in his films. At this point, Švankmajer’s obsession with and personal fear of the Dark and the Unknown shine through. His films are innovative, gruesome and chock-full of scornful, almost sardonic humour, disclosing at times even caustic and satirical traits. Other characteristics of his oeuvre, apart from the cranky sense of humour, are the astonishing playfulness of his topics and ideas as well as the evident, feminist tendency toward erotic moments.
All of these typical and constitutive qualities can be found in an especially acute way in his stop-motion-masterpiece Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982). The short film goes twelve minutes and consists of three chapters, each of them analyzing the possibilities and impossibilities of the phenomenon ’dialogue‘. The first chapter shows the encounter of two heads, consisting once of fruits, once of tools, once of weapons and devouring each other at the end. The second segment seems more romantic: it is the encounter of two fusing clay heads- another dimension of dialogue. The most interesting episode is certainly the third concluding one, in which two politicians or officials -depending on your view- are debating. The content of their conversation is visualized through various objects on their tongues: toothpaste, toothbrush, shoe, slice of bread, shoelace, pencil sharpener, etc. While the objects of both parties supplement each other at the beginning, misunderstanding and malentendus surface soon, ending in a total chaos.
The numerous ironic, erotic, satiric and even macabre elements which shine through even in this quick summary make clear that this film is a one-of-a-kind in the genre of animated short films. It rightly won numerous awards on international festivals, for example on the Berlinale in 1983.
The major influences for Švankmajer are obviously the visual arts, and especially painting. Švankmajer himself dabbled in the plastic arts and showed great talent especially as a sculptor. Particularly influential and crucial for Švankmajer’s films are the works of mannerism and surrealism.
The main mannerist source of inspiration for Švankmajer is the Czech artist Arcimboldo (1526-1593). His idiosyncratic paintings, composed of fruits and vegetables, have influenced numerous films by Jan Švankmajer, such as the aforementioned Moznosti dialogu.
Švankmajer’s early opus is above all affected by contemporary surrealist artists from Prague though. It is only after the events of 1968 that his works take their distances with surrealism and become fundamentally more realistic. The core elements generally remain surrealist, but the settings get closer to reality. Alice (1988), Švankmajer’s version of Lewis Carroll’s books, features, apart from the already mentioned erotic dimension, a range of dream sequences and elements- an essential component of surrealist art.
Another leitmotif to be found in his works is the principle of the living/animate objects. As for this, a key experience in Švankmajer’s life can be found in his time at the Laterna Magika-theater in the early 60s. In most plays here, the living intermingle with the animate, and the actually ‘dead‘ dolls and marionettes get through this interaction with ‘real‘ performers a kind of soul. This important aspect of Švankmajer’s oeuvre can be found in an absurd and utterly self-ironic way in Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000), where a desperate, infertile woman adopts and brings up a tree trunk, which develops a life of its own and starts devouring the neighbours.
However, the present situation of the Czech animation film looks far less bright than its past: This year, Švankmajer released his most recent and (according to himself) last film, Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Surviving Life- Theory and Practice, 2010). With Švankmajer, a true monolith will disappear from the Czech and the international stage of animated films. He has long ago found and inspired his international disciples, among which you find names such as Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam.
After the fall of communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the expectations for the future of the Czech animation film were great. A wide range of new animation studios were created, of which only few would survive the scant 90s. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of produced animation films in the Czech Republic sank from 140 to merely 50 films per year. The financial aids by the government stayed away. The Golden Age of Czech animation films was definitely over. But the lack of national financing is not the only problem here. The traditional animation techniques are more and more substituted by CGI-animation, a market almost totally dominated by the United States.
A third major problem is the distribution of the films. The companies show little interest in the production or the copyright of Czech animation films. Not even in the Czech Republic, where the market is by now also flooded by Disney productions, leaving no room for the slow, unconventional rhythm of such films. Especially important are therefore animation film festivals (such as the ones in Annécy or Trebon in Southern Bohemia), where aspiring and rising talents in the genre are still given a fair chance.

The most important up-and-coming Czech artists are Jan Pinkava (* 1963), who won the Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film for his Geri’s Game (1998) and who works nowadays as a pioneer of computer-based animation at Pixar’s, and Jan Balej (* 1958), who won the Golden Reel for Best Animation at the International Festival of Tiburon (United States) for Jedné noci v jednom meste (One Night in a City, 2007).

Suggested for further reading: Czech Animation: Two Perspectives and Svankmajer E & J: Mouth to Mouth.

(Dedicated to a good friend. You know who you are...)


Álex said...

Waiting for new entries :)

Gabriel said...

Hi jeff!!

I see that you are a estern european stop-motion animation expert!

I wonder if you could help me with identifying a film. I had it on VHS years ago, adored it as a child, but has been since lost to me, and finding it again would be for me awesome.

It is a stop-motion puppetry epic "for the whole family", probably made in the late seventies or early eighties, surely in eastern europe, and probably czech. The style of puppets resemble that of Stanislas Latal's Robinson Crusoe.

The story revolves around a young and brave hero that has to save the tsar and his kingdom from an evil ogre who desires the tsar's daughter. Evil Tatars are also involved in the story. The hero has to retrieve three magical objects, which are a glove granting special strength, an invisibility cape, and a crow's feather granting the objects an ability to fly. The ogre also seeks these objects. The tatars threaten the kingdom constantly, from the steppes. There are also three sarcastic midgets involved at some point in the story...

Could you help me identify this film??? THank you!!!! :)

Anonymous said...

"Bratři v triku" a pun or double etendre -
triko - west, tea shirt
trik - magicians do tricks.
The picture showed three (boys) figures in the same stripy top (triko) bowing to the audience