ANOTHER DROWNED IDEA BOBS TO THE SURFACE–––“STORYSCOPE!”

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One of my most bizarre movie projects had only a distant connection with animation. My madcap producer in my early days in Prague, Bill Snyder, the princely dream-spinner, acquired the remake rights to a quirky Czech black & white movie, “WHO WANTS TO KILL JESSIE?” Check it out on YouTube! (Czech title, “Kdo chce zabit Jessie?”)

It was a sexy farce involving comic book characters coming to life and screwing up the lives of real people. Snyder set me to develop a concept for a new color version. I let my current animation projects lay, and jumped into this new challenge. “JESSIE” was about a super sexy comic book heroine, who is brought to life, and causes chaos in the life of her cartoonist creator. Thrust into the real world, Jessie and other characters could only speak in the comics style dialog “balloons” which floated over their heads. Cute and clever in 1966!

Snyder wanted something jazzier, for American filmgoers. He signed the Czech “Marilyn Monroe,” Olga Schoberová, to play Jessie, brought on board a big name Hollywood screen writer, Arthur Kopit, and geared up a crew to do a remake in color and CinemaScope. The simply made black &white Czech movie was not enough for Snyder.

Snyder set me to develop a visual concept for the new color version, I let my animation projects lay, and jumped into this new challenge. “JESSIE” was about a super sexy comic book heroine, causing chaos in the life of her cartoonist creator. Thrust into the real world, Jessie and other characters could only speak in the comics style dialog “balloons” which floated over their heads.

I fancied myself as a cutting edge animation director, ready at all times to trot where none had trotted before; I saw a chance to do something outside the standard movie box, to “redefine cinematic storytelling,” etc. etc. On my first visit to Prague in 1959 I’d seen the Czech multi-media show, “Laterna Magika,” an elaborate live production involving five film projectors, many various sized and shaped movable screens, and live performers. Already then, I began spinning dreams of “multi screens” that might be more practical, able to be shown in any existing movie theater.. There could be, I imagined, a new step up in cinematic storytelling, from just editing single shots, one after another! Why not show various aspects of a story all at once, interrelated images shown simultaneously… to heighten meaning…to expand both comedy and drama? Dreams of a technological and artistic breakthrough danced before my eyes! I suddenly had a chance to try my theory on an actual feature film!

I chose three scenes from the script that would show the basic idea of my newly hatched, “StoryScope” concept. My idea was to somehow create the illusion of “multi-screens” on a single standard Cinemascope format frame shape; so as to make a film that could be projected in any standard movie theater. Snyder was able to get a cast of contemporary Czech top-level movie stars to play in the demo gratis, with a promise of consideration of being cast in the actual movie, if he could get it financed. The joke however was that none of them spoke passable English. As you will hear in the resulting demo, I had personally pre-recorded all the voices myself, including the women’s voices, and coached the actors to lip-sync to my voice! I had to shoot the entire demo in one day, all the shooting time that the Barrandov studio would grant us as a freebee. So I had to plan everything for the minimum existing set pieces and props that could be easily and quickly set up.

The main work was later, when I took all the individual shots to a colleague who ran the one and only optical printer in the entire studio, for combining into the multiple image “StoryScope”demo, according to my plan. Remember this was deeply into the communist era, only a year before the Soviet invasion of 1968, something none of us imagined at the time! It was a fast, furious, and very risky shoot! So everything was riding on whether my demo would impress the Hollywood movie moguls. It was obviously too off-center for them, and there were no takers. I always get involved in trying new things. I seem to hang on to the notion that I can be successful by spitting into the wind. All I have left of this particular “revolutionary” way to make a movie is this little el-cheapo half-formed demo reel, which no movie mogul was disposed to risk his neck on. I’d like to know if any of you see a spark here. Maybe one of you may yet find a way to ignite it with a high-tech flame-thrower!

Until February 2013, the demo reel was forgotten and considered lost. I’m grateful that Bill’s son Adam Snyder came across it among his Dad’s boxes of old stuff.

When I was directing it in 1966, nearly 50 years ago as I write this, I really believed that I was about to make cinematic history; I was revolutionizing motion picture construction! I was adding a new level of movie meaning! I was redefining film editing! I was alight with hubris. But it all faded out, yet another failed experiment.

In my early years in commercial art, back in 1945, as assistant to CBS Radio art director, Jim Cantwell, I was already hard to control. Cantwell usually liked what I was trying, but in his way of expressing light-hearted doubts about my attempts to push the graphic limits, he would declare, “Gene, this could be greater than the whirling spray!” It was his parody of the generational gap between us. He had already found that new ideas rarely if ever can succeed if they are too new.

Now take a look at five minutes that failed to changed the world!

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In 1991, EU-TV Asked Me If I Saw The Future…

Aside

…which I didn’t. But I knew what I’d like it to be! Right after they finished quizzing Zdenka, and getting her passionate feelings, the EU TV crew hauled me before their camera. Even by 1991, thirty years after I began working in Prague, I still considered myself to be an outsider.  I did have the advantage of being Zdenka’s husband, and with already 30 years experience working with her crew, I did have an inside view, and personal friendship and collegial connection with the studio people. I had been living the local life; I was inspired by the 1989 democratic Velvet Revolution, and was even able to speak passable Czech.

The first part of this 1991 interview was a quick-as possible run-through, answering the inevitable Question Number One: “Why and how did I “decide” to come to communist Czechoslovakia????

That was the first question in every interview I ever did.  I got it digested, so I could get it said as quickly as possible, and get on to what I was actually doing, and hoped to do in the suddenly free and democratic Czechoslovakia.

I was still a foreigner – a guest in this country, but I was in a unique situation, and did have a front-row seat at a historical drama.  So I felt I could say something of value to people, if they were interested in interviewing me…

Even under the Communist Party rule, I’d been consulted by the Big Bosses for my ideas of how the studio should be organized.  But as my outline called for open relations with foreign producers, Western promotional ideas and marketing techniques, and free access to Western literature, my ideas were jovially listened to, but quickly consigned to a locked bottom drawer,

The bitter irony is that by 1991, when the studio had all of these possibilities, it was already too late.  The privatized studio fell into  the hands of those who saw value mainly in the vast archive of films; especially historic newsreel footage, all without the financial risks of new production, about which they had zero knowledge.

It was quickly realized that without the financing which the Communist government had provided, the studio was doomed.   We produced many of our best made films during that following decade, when Zdenka and I were into our 80s.  When we retired from production, and Czech TV stations set up their own studio sources, the world famous “Brothers in Tricot” layed down and played dead.

Market capitalism operates not on hot air, but on cold cash.  My suggestions that a marketing arm be established for the studio were not even taken up by the new owners! The great animation boom in the new century left the Czechs in the dust.  Within ten years after these 1991 interviews, the historic studio did a slow & steady fadeout.

Even when the independent Czech Republic was formed in 1993, Czechs still considered themselves, along with the French, to be the inventers of cinema animation, and thus sure to inevitably continue to be the leaders.  This nation was so busy getting rich and West-oriented, that the local Czech culture, including its famous animation reputation, was allowed to dissolve. Zdenka’s studio more and more depended on foreign customer production. mainly our long-time personal contacts.  Prduction of local Czech animated short films virtually vanshed.

There was no funding to develop a CGI capability. We only got as far as computerized scanning and coloring of drawn animation.

So it’s poignant and sadly instructive to see these 1991 interviews with Zdenka and me today, filmed exactly at the tipping point of Czech drawn-animation production.

GD June 2012

This was the complete staff of the Prague animation studio just three years before my first visit. You can see Zdenka there, circled in yellow, soon to be Chief of Production. This was the cartoon – drawn animation – staff at its height.