Creative ideas, extraordinary technical prowess and entertaining stories are the keys that have made Czech animation cinema a worldwide export success. One of the pioneers of this cinematographic branch was the illustrator, puppeteer, sculptor and set designer Jiří Trnka, one of the stars of the Bratři v triku film studio. This successful production company was born in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, but its roots date back to the time of the war, according to the film historian Michaela Mertová.
“The Germans wanted to compete with Walt Disney and create animated films and comedies. For this reason, they founded a film studio in Prague in which they employed artists graduated from art schools and other visual artists, who normally would not be interested in animated films but in fine arts, architecture and graphics. They had these options: to work in the war industry, in agriculture or in the animation film studio ”.
Animated cinema was important to the regime
The Communists, who came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, strongly supported the production of animated films. With the merger of the Bratři v triku studio with other production companies, they created the state company Krátký film (“Short Film”) that produced hundreds of films, many of which were very successful at international festivals and their screenings in the West generated high revenues.
Professionals from the Bratři v triku studio, including artists such as Eduard Hofman, Jiří Brdečka, Břetislav Pojar and Zdeněk Miler, the author of the famous animated figure Topito, invited Jiří Trnka to lead the studio’s art section. Until then, Trnka had been a book illustrator and puppet maker, so animated cinema represented a challenge for him, according to his grandson Matyáš Trnka, also an artist and animator.
“He learned everything from scratch. He read books, studied how to create a script and how to edit. He was surrounded by people who helped him. One of them was the screenwriter Jiří Brdečka with whom he collaborated all his life. From the narrative point of view, he has great merit in the success of his films ”.
Mute but expressive puppets
One of Jiří Trnka’s great passions were puppets, which he not only made, but also made them the protagonists of his films. His hobby culminated in 1947 with the founding of the Puppet Film Studio which produced more than twenty films. His latest masterpiece is ‘La Mano’ (‘Ruka’), from 1965, an allegory of the lack of freedom of an artist in a totalitarian society, which was a great success at the prestigious Annecy film festival in France.
Most of Trnka’s films were based on the literary works of Czech and foreign writers, including Jaroslav Hašek, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Cristian Andersen. While in Czechoslovakia his films were aimed at children, abroad the adults attended his screenings.
Despite being mute and with an unalterable facial expression, Jiří Trnka’s puppets express emotions through movements and plays of light and shadow. Thus Trnka explained his intention.
“I always wanted the puppets to continue being puppets, not to end up being the imitation of a person. For this reason, their faces look more like masks. These expressions that we need in the movies were used by the old masks. The expression is manifested with movement and pantomime, the face does not play a very important role ”.
Hermína Týrlová, the queen of animation
Another of the great characters of Czech animation cinema f
ue Hermína Týrlová, whose work was linked to the Baťa film studios in the city of Zlín. His work stands out for its experimentation, such as the combination of animation and real images, the movement of figures made of bread, fabrics and beads, among others. With these unique film tricks, the filmmaker tried to promote the fantasy of children, to whom most of her works were directed, says Mertová.
“She was orphaned at a young age, which affected her throughout her life. He knew how sensitive children are, that the world sometimes treats them badly, and that they need help and an explanation of why certain things happen. Through his films he tried to offer them this ”.
Hermína Týrlová created more than sixty short films, several of which are world famous. Among the most successful are the films ‘La ant Ferdy’, the anti-war ‘The rebellion of toys’, and ‘The knot in the handkerchief’. His work was awarded in numerous festivals, among which those of Cannes, San Sebastián, Montevideo and Mar del Plata stand out.
According to Michaela Mertová, the end of the golden age of Czech animated cinema coincides with the year 1990, shortly after the fall of communism. The monopoly on film production disappeared, the studios were privatized and abandoned by many professionals.
“We could not continue with this tradition and guarantee the operation of the studios or train new filmmakers who would learn from older professionals and develop the craft. To create the animated feature film ‘Fimfárum’ (2002) it was necessary to bring together all the Prague studios. If we want to create feature films, which is the only way to introduce films into distribution networks, we would have to open a new studio ”.
However, the success of animated films did not end at the end of the millennium. Other successes later will be the subject of other episodes of this series.