Who are you calling old?

Take a tour of
the Vecernícek exhibition with the larger-than-life, world's famous, seventy-something Czecho-American couple, the Deitches.

You half-expect birds to flutter and tweet as the Deitches approach, such is the mystique of their 40-plus-year love affair. It gives you a warm, happy feeling to see these nice people in love. He looks smaller in person and she looks bigger. It's the stuff of fairy tales, a story about two who make fairy tales for a living.

Cartoon Films, The Long and Short of It

Their work was often kept at a distance, for practical, personal, and professional reasons. Generally, Gene represented the client, and Zdenka the company. As production chief, she had a hand in the founding of Vecernícek ("little bedtime story") in 1965, and has been watching ever since as generations of Czech kids tune in to the ever-changing seven-minute program at 7 pm, 365 days a year. She even found the five-year-old boy who did the opening "Dobreee vecer" voice-overs and oversaw the format - which has remained the same since the beginning, albeit now in color. She still works for the same studio she started with 57 years ago, Bratri v triku, only now she runs it.

Gene had worked for the Weston Woods Studio and ,, as well as his own production company where he produced and directed children's storybook adaptations. Among them were "Where the Wild Things Are" and cartoon shorts like "Tom and Jerry," which few would ever guess were actually made in Communist Czechoslovakia. He also managed to pick up an Oscar along the way for his work on "Munro" with Jules Pfeiffer. He writes, advises on film and remains a (humble) local celebrity.

Their combined expertise is unparalleled in this or any other country and, while Gene gives a nod to the new school of computer animation, Zdenka is defiant in upholding the steady, old traditions of Czech animation, the cornerstone being laid by Jirí Trnka, Zdenek Miler and countless others, most of whom they know or knew as colleagues and dear friends.

Touring the Vecernícek exhibition at Palac Adria on Jungmannova Street with the Deitches is like greeting an old friend in every cartoon panel and miniature puppet set. Their nostalgia is for a simpler time, before cartoons lost their human scale; it's a nostalgia built upon a lifetime of working at the forefront of animation.

Pill: Tell us about the nuts and bolts of making an animated film.

Gene: It's a slow process like anything, like building a house or any kind of job, it's broken down into steps. Anything like this that seems so mysterious gets simpler if you just get down to the basics. If you had to make a film by yourself you'd figure out how to do it. This is the way they [the Czechs] learned how to do animation. They started this studio with some pirated Disney prints the Germans had made of Snow White and Pinocchio. They put it on an old projector where they could view it frame by frame and they just figured out how to do it, working backwards. You realize it's just a matter of steps. Like building a house you have to make a plan, get your materials together.

The fact is there's a constant, 24 frames a second - if you didn't have that, you couldn't make it. You see how many seconds the action takes and then you know how many frames that has to be. Then you know at which point the action is at this or that position, then you go back and make your in-between drawings. The farther apart they are, the faster they will appear on the screen because the frame-rate is the same.

Once you get those basic tools in place, then there's really not so much magic, just hard work. You have to plan everything. All films rely on good planning. The most important work is before you start shooting, when it's still all fun... You've got to work out your storyboards and your scene continuity and all of the basic things - that's all the big work. When you finally get down to shooting it, theoretically it's done.

Pill: Nowadays, the films are mostly computer-driven?

Gene: It is painful to think when you see a film like Shrek, when you realize that nothing like this existed before. It's all form. First, clay models, electronic pens, a screen transfer of a skeleton and then other people put the layers on it, then 3-D modeling and textures and cloths, then they figure out where the light is coming from and make the exaggerations. It's marvelous to see how far we've come. All you really have to do is look at the end credits to see they're twice as long as any of the films we made!

Zdenka: It's just some engineer sitting there at a computer, not an animator. (Gene rolls his eyes.) Look at the details of these [Trnka] sets and you'll see a real human hand. This is a craft that people love to do and love to watch. [Gene is] a great fan of the computer, but not me.

Pill: What about the handcrafted films? Is it a dying art, and how do you find the next generation of animators?

Zdenka: The [3-D] puppet animation is no more a dying art than puppetry is. There are people who will finance it. There are many, very talented people in this country who choose this profession for love. They can start out in a woodshop or atelier and learn to make models. The possibilities to make these miniature replicas are only limited by what we believe is or is not possible. This is great art and we will do it if for nothing else than for the children.

Yesterday I had a group of 35 children from America, from Miami, who visited the studio. They were absolutely flabbergasted when I told them that it takes 4000 drawings to make one 5-minute film. This is the wonderful part of my job, when children come to the studio and then send me their drawings the next day. This exhibition is great for children and for their parents who know the value of this art. In school, they don't always get the orientation for the artistic approach. I tell them that there are animators among them. I show them this work, and they want to learn more. I believe it is a great thing that we are showing every night on Vecernícek. Sazka [The Czech lottery] might give 50 million to hockey or something, but never to keep alive this tradition. It is too bad.

Pill: So computers will put you out of work some day?

Gene: The "donkey" work is better done on a computer, but Zdenka may disagree. What we really do is storytelling. The technology, whether it's puppets or 2-D or 3-D or computer animation - it's a side issue, really. What's important is the story and, of course, storytelling goes back to the caveman days - painting on the walls and telling stories to entertain yourself. Using your imagination. This is the real issue. You look at these old films and you have no idea of the amount of painstaking work that went into them. I thought for a moment that these [Trnka] sets might be replicas, but who could possibly copy them? They are magnificent.

Zdenka: I will not stop working anytime soon.

Gene: No chance of that, I'm the retired one.

Pill: What are some of Gene's most typically "American" qualities?

Zdenka: He likes shopping. He never knows what anything costs and he never counts his money. [But] I don't believe that Gene is a typical American. He is a typical artist.

Pill: How did you learn Czech?

Gene: I always say that I speak bad Czech fluently. It took me a while and the neighbors first suspected that I might be a Slovak. Then, after a TV interview, I got word that a little kid [thought I was] Moravian. So, after a little while, they might figure that I'm Czech. So, you can see that I'm getting closer to where I really live.

The Vecernícek exhibition currently on view until July 28 at the Palác Adria (at the intersection of Národní and Jungmannova streets) is a benefit for bone marrow transplant patients. Please offer a contribution for this worthy cause.

-John Caulkins can be reached at [email protected]

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