43. Jiří Trnka

On the obscure Batholomew Street in the Old Town section of Prague is an ancient music hall where Mozart once played.  It was here that Jiří Trnka produced all of his great puppet films. It is now the Ponrepo screening theater for animation filmmakers.

Inside the little doorway used to be the Jiří Trnka stop-motion puppet film studio, where all of his great films were made. It has been converted into a professional screening theater., „Ponrepo.“ On February 1st 2012 we all gathered here to pay tribute to the 100th anniversary of Trnka’s birth. in this very hall, when it had just a bare wooden floor, all of Trnka’s great films were produced!

Trnka’s son, Jiří Trnka Jr, and other members of Trnka’s family were present. The new 500 crown Trnka coin was officially “christened,” and the first of a month-long series of all his films were projected.  The place of course was packed with all our present colleagues!

Břetislav “Slava” Pojar in February 1,2012. He is the last surviving top level Trnka colleague. and brilliant animator.   Pojar is a titan in his own right, the long time director in his own Prague studio., turning out a long series of masterpieces.  I worked with him once, translating his famous Bears series into English and performing the voices. I consider him the last of the great Czech puppet filmmakers.

“Slava” Pojar and Zdenka reminisced over the great days of Czech animatio

“Mr.Deitch, I am a very famous man!”

Jiří Trnka was indeed a very famous man – in Czechoslovakia and in the entire world of animation. When we first met, he said the above words to me.  It was, I learned, in his usual ironic code.   Translation: „I am not a free man!“

When he said those words to me about how famous he was, it was deep in the communist era, the early 1960s, when he was being used by the regime for communist glory.   Trnka’s amazing puppet films and his brilliant book illustrations were among the very few things that brought respect to this country in those otherwise dismal days. So he was decked with honors and awarded carefully orchestrated perqs.  He was designated a “National Artist,” the country’s highest cultural honorific in those days.  His books brought him enough royalties from foreign publication to buy himself a Mercedes-Benz car, one of the few in this country at the time. They could be counted on two or three fingers of one hand.  He was granted the extremely rare privilege of occasional shopping trips to Vienna, but his family stayed behind; hostages…

 What he was not granted was the ability to publically speak his mind, or make the films he really wanted to make.  When he tried it once, (THE HAND), it was immediately banned.

He was a magical painter, sculptor, puppet designer, animator, director, illustrator – actually a two-handed one; he was said to be  ambidextrous, able to draw with a pencil in each hand, though he was predominantly left-handed. Every time I saw him write anything it was with his left hand. I at least shared that with him!

Zdenka and I became privileged guests at his canal-side villa. Trnka regularly hosted a small group of Prague’s intellectual elite, especially those disaffected from the regime.  How in the world was I included? Well, as I told you, Bill Snyder’s first business in the country was to buy Trnka’s films.  Bill introduced them to American audiences, and further, he actually named his first daughter, “Trinka!”  That certainly bought him invitations from Trnka each time he was in Prague. When Snyder brought me over here to work, he took Zdenka & me along to Trnka’s house and introduced me.  Of course, Trnka worked with Zdenka, but we didn’t fit in with his distinguished circle any more than Bill did.  Regulars at the Trnka soirees were the internationlly famous actor Jan Werich, the prominent art professor, author and caricaturist, Adolph Hofmeister, and our animation colleague and future Best Man at our wedding, Jiří Brdečka, a debonaire writer who partnered with Trnka on on many of his greatest films.  (My following “Credit 44” is about Brdečka.)

In those early days I couldn’t speak Czech, and Trnka couldn’t speak English, but the others could, and I was an animation director and scenarist, so at least a professional colleague. Mainly, I was that rarest of rare birds actually living in the Czechoslovakia at the time, a genuine American!

On those occasions, and I expect on others, Trnka drank a lot of champagne.  As each bottle was emptied, he would hoist his ample body, walk steadily across the room, open a window, and toss the empty bottle into the adjacent canal. Once, I happened to walk by his house when the canal was being drained in order to repair the broken stones lining the banks.  As the water level slowly receded, an impressive mound of empty champagne bottles magestically arose.  I saw a neighbor woman watching this, clicking her tongue in mock reproach.  But he was tolerated, Trnka was in fact a beloved and eminently repected Czech celebrity.

One of those great evenings at Trnka’s charming villa stays in memory for Zdenka and me.  It was Christmas Eve in the early 1960s, and there was the required light snowfall.  Trnka often received gifts from his fans, and what came for him always slid through the Communists’ customs control with no problem. On this holiday evening Trnka opened a can of caviar he had received that day. Caviar itself was not that big a deal here during the communist era.  As it came from the Soviet Union, it was widely available in local shops, and amazingly cheap. But this was not the usual tiny jar of caviar. This can seemed the size of a snare drum, and was packed full with the finest Russsian Beluga Caviar!

Today, a kilo-sized can of caviar would be insanely expensive, reportedly worth more than $15,000 ! – and of course it could likely spoil when opened. So Trnka announced that our only option was to consume it immediately.  None of us gave the slightest thought to how much all that caviar was worth!  Each of us, and I recall there were only six or seven, were issued a soupspoon, and that mighty drum of caviar was passed around… and around. It was the caviar orgy of all time!  And just as we were all totally Beluga bound, we dimly began to hear a mellow trombone, trumpet and flute from outside, filling the frosty air with Christmas carols.

It was in fact a tradition to serenade Trnka at Christmas time. We all managed to make it to the window opening out onto the little sqare in the front Trnka’s house, and there, through the snowfall, were three musicians huddled under, and illuminated by the soft orange glow of a gas lamp!  I’m sure you can believe me when I say it was an evening never to be forgotten!

Even on ordinary evenings these meetings were memorable, and inevitably were full of the usual ironic remarks about the communist blight.  One I especially remember was by the great actor and comic, Jan Werich.  He said, “On a dark night like this I dream that all of the people of Czechoslovakia would form a long line all around the border of this country, carefully lift it up, and carry it 200 hundred kilometers to the West!”   He had a dream!

Every chance I had, I liked to watch Trnka at work,  It was always a performance of skill and patience, with none of the technologacal aids available today.. I  watched him work on his most powerful film, THE HAND, which would be quickly banned.  His studio, on Bartolomějska, (St. Bartholomew) Street in the Old Town section of Prague, was once a classical dance hall where Mozart had played.  It‘s now completely reconstructed  as a Film Club theater, with regular screening parties for us filmfolk.

I always wished there would be a way I could work with Trnka, but I was here to produce films for Bill Snyder, and politically, I could not take part in actual Czechoslovak productions.   I did a couple of our Weston Woods films in his studio, most notably my cut-out paper film, DRUMMER HOFF, beautifully animated by Trnka’s lead colleague, Slava Šramek.  I scored Trnka’s personal services finally in 1964. It was actually for THE HOBBIT!

One of the hardest to believe events in my career, I’ve already told you about in Credit 40 – about Bill Snyder – that we were the first filmakers on earth to have the fim rights to J.R.R.Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT, coupled with a firm option on THE LORD OF THE RINGS!   Believe it or not, it is absolutely true. 

Bill Snyder had shown up in Prague in 1963 with a copy of a little book he’d bought in England.   It didn’t look like much, and it’s illustrations were mostly strange maps of mystery places, with lots of runic symbols.  The title was, “The Hobbit, or “There, and Back Again,” by J.R.R.Tolkien.   It was a simply written children’s book first published in the 1920s, and seemed at first reading to be a hodge-podge of  fairy tale and  Nordik myth elements.  I had never heard of the story or of Tolkien, but Snyder said there was talk of an adult sequal about to come out, and this “preview” story was beginning to have a new life.

So Snyder impulsively bought the film rights for THE HOBBIT, with an exclusive option for the coming books, to be titled THE LORD OF THE RINGS, all for the sum of  $19,000 !!! I had the assignment to write the first ever screenplay for THE HOBBIT!

 It didn’t seem all that urgent, and I was at the time developing my own NUDNIK series. The first Nudnik episode was nominated for an Oscar, but it didn’t exactly become a worldwide hit.

Once I got started on The Hobbit, I quickly began to see it was a great story,  I became more and more wrapped up in it as I went along. As it seemed to be an obscure book, I felt free  to improvise, changing the names of some characters to bring it closer to an American feel.  Don’t forget the times here; in the early 1960s I was under orders to “Americanize! Americanize”

But I dreamed big, visually. I pitched Snyder the idea to employ Jiří Trnka to design the film. It was going to be a lavish production in a rich painting style! I was thinking of making use of the great set-building skill of the model makers at Trnka’s studio, in a sort of update of what Max Fleischer tried many years earlier, the use of real set backgrounds, with drawn animation characters superimosed over them. Would it have worked?  Remember that the luxury of computer-generated animation had not even been dreamt of at that time!

Trnka agreed to make some preliminary character concepts for me to take to New York with my finished screenplay.  Obviously, today I couldn’t fool around with Tolkien characters, but at the time, as the story was little known in America, coming from 1920s Olde England.  It seemed foreign and dated in its language.  Whatever. Even though Trnka forgot to put furry feet on his Bilbo Baggins model, and neither of us yet had a clue of the true weight of the Gollum character, he quickly produced 8 gorgeous images for me. They were never intended to be more than first studies, yet they clearly indicated the magical vision I aimed for.

Bill Snyder was unable to find a single financier! No American producer had ever heard of J.R.R.Tolkien!  In spite of every effort and Snyder’s enthusiam, he was forced to sell the rights to 20th Century-Fox.  He made a good profit on the sale. I think he got $100,000, but now we know that was a laughable amount for a film property of value without end!

What I got were these beautful crayon creations by Jiří Trnka, reproduced here in full size for the first time. It was five years later, on a frosty December day in 1969, that it occurred to me that I hadn‘t asked Trnka to sign the pictures, so I gatherd them up to carry to his house, which was just around the corner from where we ourselves lived, in the Malá Strana section of old Prague..

Exactlty at the moment when I was about to cross the little canal bridge that led to his house I saw an ambulance parked there, and two medics leading the ematiated Jiří Trnka to it. He was a shadow of his former imposing figure. I just stood there, shivering in the cold, gripping my eight unsigned works of art as Trinka was gently lifted into the ambulance.   I never saw him again.   He died the day before New Year’s Eve, just 57 years old.   I framed four of the pictures, and since that time they have been on the wall above our bed.   A gentle reminder of  the missed chance to be the first to bring J.R,R.Tolkien to the big screen.  Could we have pulled it off?   Dunno, but it would‘ve been a vastly different and infinitely more modest endeavor than what was wrought by Peter Jackson!

Trnka had just finished his masterpiece film, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, (Sen nocI svatojanské), in 1959, just as I first arrived in Prague.  Many of the gorgeous miniature sets were still in place when I was taken to meet him at his St. Bartholemew Street studio.  The stunning design and detailed workmanship of the sets, puppets and props were dazzling just as a physical objects. When I look at the film today, 53 years later as I write this, I am even more amazed than when I first saw it, by its magical beauty and animation skill, realizing that it was all done “in-camera,” with none of the digital aids available today.  The only tools at the time were specific to film: multiple exposure, lighting, and carefully controlled camera movement, augmenting the incredibly complex and sensitive animation of jointed puppets, often with interactive movements of many characters at once.  Any errors or jagged movement of even one figure in one moment of a long scene would require re-animation and reshooting of the entire scene.  Trnka was a perfectionist, and I was told that he had ordered many such reshoots during the long production.

The only way he could get the desired atmosphere with the technical limitations he had, and avoid the risk of having to duplicate the elaborate animation of jointed puppets, camera moves, lighting changes, etc., was to first shoot still footage of each set-up with varying degrees of multiple exposure settings. Once the right balance was found and noted, the full scene could be confidently animated..  But even then, any mistake of movement, would require the entire scene to be reshot.  Today’s computer animators have it easy by comparison!

How did he get way with the required time, staff and fincing in that tightly controlled system?  Well, by the 1950s, Trnka was considered one of the “national jewels” by the communist regime.  Whatever he needed, he got.

Not only was he allowed to have a private villa for his family in the most magical spot in Prague. He was allowed freedom to travel, and national honors, and in the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM production, he also got Eastmancolor rawstock film, which could only be bought with hard currency – US Dollars.  The only type of color film available for all other productions at the time was East German Agfacolor, which was mockingly called “CihlaColor.” (“BrickColor,” because the Agfa prints quickly faded to an overall red-brownish tone.)

Trnka’s long-time composer, Václav Trojan, created a magnificent musical score, recorded for the film by a full-sized symphony orchestra and vocal chorus. No expense was spared, as Trnka was supported by the Communist Party’s Minister of Culture, Václav Kopecký.   But that was 1959….

Just 10 years later, when the Prague Spring movement was crushed, which Trnka had supported, he was crushed along with the other dissidents.  Even such a nationally valuable and respected figure as he,  became a non-person.  His melancholy deepened. Added to his smoking and drinking, his loss of status likely hastened his death.

Post mortem, his name resonates in the land.  Just on the day I write these paragraphs , February 1st, 2012, a new Czech 500 crown commemorative silver coin has been issued in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Trnka’s birth. He died in his prime years, just 57 years old….  Why do geniuses have to die young?    Trnka and Mozart…….

This bronze bust was at the Kratky Film entrance hall, for many years…

Above is the new silver 500 crown commemorative Czech coin, issued on February 1, 2012, and “christened” at the Ponrepo screening room celebration.  It is about the size of the old US silver dollar, about 1 and a half inches in diameter.

Trnka was solidly built; a sculptor‘s dream, with a cross-shaped cheek scar on his right cheek, rumored to be the result of his first wife’s throwing a glass vase at him, full-force., but in truth a botched surgery from an infection. More phos and graphics below.

The master reviewing his work.

By 1987, long after Trnka was dead, the communist government relented and issued this postage stamp, honoring Trnka

I took this shot of Trnka and Zdenka, at the mid-1960’s Annecy animation film festival.

Jiří Trnka and Zdenka at the Annecy, France animation festival.

The Trnka house, on Prague’s Devil’s Canal.

Trnka and family near their canal-side house. Early 1960s.

 Below are some of Trinka’s first sketches of proposed Hobbit characters!

The Dragon I wanted to call “Slag.”

15 thoughts on “43. Jiří Trnka

  1. Firstly, a belated Happy Birthday! is in order. I hope you had a fun celebration! Michael Sporn just posted that you had a tour of the Kratky studio on this site. Fascinating to watch! A big thank you for sharing that. I got all giddy once I saw Pojar’s name come up, hoping I might him at work and that baffling lighting setup from his bear films. So to then see this: “I worked with him once, translating his famous Bears series into English and performing the voices.” Really!? Is there any way to see one of these? I love this series of shorts and it would be incredible to get just a taste of the actual dialogue. Beyond that, I’ve got to spend more time reading through your writing Gene. Always amazing stories to discover! Cheers

  2. Pingback: Czech Institute of Animation | Gene Deitch: Jiří Trnka

  3. Ahoj Gene!

    I just had to tell you that when I opened your email today I went to your website to see the latest installment and was anxious to see what you had to say about Jiri Trnka because I remember so well the children’s books that my grandparents used to send me from Czechoslovakia with Trnka’s illustrations. However, on the way, I got distracted by the notice right under the banner about the two Georges which mentions the documentary that was filmed based on your “For the Love of Prague” book, and which I had been wanting to see for several years now, since you mentioned it to me when we first met at your place on Helichova. So, instead of reading about the two Jiris, I ended up watching the documentary, and I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed it! What a wonderful story and wonderful life, that continues to grow and evolve day by day. You and Zdenka are such an inspiration!

    I will confess that I have not had a chance to read every installment that you’ve written so far. However, I did get to read the “Bill Snyder” one, which I found extremely fascinating from an historical point of view, though very upsetting in some ways from a financial point of view for you. Hopefully the richness of your life with Zdenka has outweighed the rip off of your retirement funds. Do you get anything from the Czech government for your “duchod”? I should hope so.

    I’m planning on being in Prague this summer the first couple weeks in July. Don’t know if you’re familiar with the Sokol organization, but they are having their “slet” in Prague this year. My mother is a member and wants to come for the festivities, although she will not be performing this year. However, she hopes to walk through the streets of Prague in her official Sokol uniform for the parade, watch some of the synchronized calesthenics, and participate in some of the activities at Tyrsuv Dum, which I think is close by to where you and Zdenka live. Do you know if you two will be in Prague in July? I would love to get together again if you can squeeze me into your busy schedule!

    Best regards to both you and Zdenka and here’s to na videnou v cervenci!

    Jana Sacharuk

    • Yes, Jana, the Sokol headquarters is jus around the corner from where Zdenks and I live. We hope to see you in july!

      PS to other readers: The “For The Love of Prague” documentary movie can be accessed in the chapter on 42.Zdenka

  4. Thankyou so much, Mr Deitch, for your reminiscences of Jiří Trnka and Jiří Brdečka – For those of us in the “west” who love their work and greatly respect them, it is almost impossible to get any sense of them as real people. For this reason, your personal stories here and in your book are very precious.

    • David, yours is exactly the kind of response I hope for. Many critics and film historians have written their learned analyses of Trnka’s & Brdecka’s works. As i knew, worked with, and socialized with the people I’m reminiscing about on this blog, I am trying to bring them to life as humans as well as artists.

    • Maybe we should look at a catalog of U.S. commemorative coins through history. This solid silver Trnka coin, in truth is for collectors, and is highly unlikely to get into our pockets as change. This one is nominally a 500 crown coin, and could be spent, but I had to pay 1,000 crowns for mine, which I scanned for this post. So using it to buy anything would double the cost! However, it is still a great honor to Trinka’s value to the Czech nation.

  5. A very small amount of searching actually turned up Midsummer Night’s Dream complete on YouTube! Yes stolen, but people *must* see this wonderful film! The person who posted it translated the subtitles from a Spanish language version which had in turn been translated from Czech with predictably surrealist results, but we all know the story. Honestly, this film would play quite well without dialog or narration.

    • Trnka had just finished shooting A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM as I arrived here in 1959. Many of the sets were still up when I first visited his studio. Seeing the film today on YouTube, it stands up to anything now being done, in my mind it was Trnka’s masterwork, and all done long before any of today’s digital tools existed. All of the effects, double exposures and complex animation with multiple characters, all had to be done “in camera,” going for broke with every scene. The slightest mistake could only be corrected by shooting the entire scene over again!

      As it happens, there will be a review screening of all Trnka’s works during the next weeks as I write this at the end of January 2012. We look forward to seeing DREAM in the same studio, now converted into a cinema, where the film was shot! Seeing the film with it’s magnificent music by Vaclav Trojan, will be a renewed thrill, surely reminding me of the stunning effect it had on me when I first saw it in 1960!

  6. I pulled out and watched The Hand last night. What an expression of just having one’s creative life screwed with by outside forces. No surprise that the authorities were not fond of it.
    I never met Jiří Trnka, but I was certainly aware of him during my early life which is a lot more than most Americans can say. When I was a child in the ’60’s his films were simply not shown here although I was lucky enough to have seen some of his shorts thanks to you. His works are now better known over here at least to animation enthusiasts and that is a very good thing.
    One of the things I really treasured as a child was a book illustrated with stills from Trnka’s film of Midsummer Nights Dream. The illustrations seemed magical. To this day, I have never seen the film! I haven’t checked in the last couple of years, but the last time I tried I was looking for an American formatted VHS without luck.
    The Hobbit film that was finally made under extreme time pressure is today an oddity. We can get a glimpse of what it might have been, but it appears quite strange in the light of later adaptations. It can be seen on YouTube.

  7. You’re right about Wikipedia, Steve. The Wiki article about me was hi-jacked by a Tom&Jerry partisan, stuffing it with a way out of proportion and misguided attack on one year of my 65 year career in animation.

    If there’s one item a filmmaker needs more than anything else, it’s a thick skin.

    • Steve thanks for your sharp eye, but my information is that Tolkien first wrote the basic Hobbit story about 1928, just to read to his children, but the story came to the attention of publisher in the mid-1930s, and was first published in 1936. Does anyone out there have more precise info?

      • Wikipedia, that ever unreliable source, cites a letter from Tolkien to W. H. Auden in which he wrote that he started writing The Hobbit in the early 30s and had the manuscript finished by 1932. However, the entry does not provide any citation or other detail. It (and I) could be wrong; Wikipedia is as tricksy as that Guloom.

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