Gene Deitch, Part 1: The Oscar-winning US animator who made Tom and Jerry cartoons in communist Prague

Gene Deitch, photo: Ian Willoughby

Gene Deitch, who turns 95 next month, is by some distance the US citizen longest resident in Prague. Deitch had run a successful animation studio in New York prior to the fateful meeting in 1959 with his future wife Zdenka that led him to settle in Prague soon after. From behind the Iron Curtain, he produced an Oscar-winning animated short, as well as directing Tom and Jerry and Popeye cartoons for the American market.

Gene Deitch,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Deitch, a jazz buff, actually started out doing illustrations for the magazine Record Changer. And, he told me in the first half of a two-part interview, it was those drawings that brought him to the attention of animation producers in Hollywood, where he had grown up.

“The people who made animated films were also jazz fans.

“They all subscribed to the Record Changer magazine and saw my cartoons.

“I saw an ad in there, somebody had put in a little insert in that he had exactly the Jelly Roll Morton album I was looking for.

“So I knocked on his door and as soon as he opened it he said, You don’t happen to be the same Gene Deitch that’s drawing these cartoons?

“I said, Yes, I am, and he said, I know some people who are looking for you.

“It turned out he was doing a script for this new animation studio.

“All these guys were refugees from the Disney studio and they were really sick of doing Disney kitsch. They wanted to expand.

“They really developed the whole idea that animated films can be a lot more than Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny and so on.

“For them the animation medium had fantastic possibilities.

“They had gotten to the point where they would have liked to have had an apprentice that was not spoiled by the Hollywood kitsch of animation.

“After the end of the war Czech animators had come into possession of some pirated Disney films that the Nazis had made.”

“They were fans of my cartoons in this magazine. And that changed my life right there [laughs]!

“They said, You’re exactly the person we want, because the style of your cartoons is way far away from Disney and this is what we’re trying to do – almost anybody else we could get would be already spoiled by that style.”

You’ve been based in Prague for almost 60 years now. You first came in 1959 because a US film producer called Bill Snyder said he could help you make a short called Munro on condition that you do so in Prague. How outlandish was that idea, during the Cold War, to come to Prague?

“Totally outlandish.

“Among other things I was a stamp collector and I had in my mind where Prague was, just from stamp collecting.

“And from drinking beer at a place called Prague, Oklahoma.

“So this guy was suddenly talking about Prague, Czechoslovakia, but I knew enough.

“By that time it had all begun to focus in my mind – this guy must be crazy, because nobody can go there. And especially not me [laughs].”

When you came here, what were the work conditions you found? The studios here were nationalised and you were coming from capitalist America.

“Yes, so finally I got it all straightened out in my mind that Snyder wanted to do this, but I said, Look, there’s no chance in the world of my going there.

“Now I realised what he was talking about. This was a communist country.

“And in the first place, I don’t even have a passport! Why should I even have a passport? I’m living in America, you know, I go to Mexico, I go to Canada – you don’t need a passport.

“The whole idea was crazy, because all I knew about Europe was from old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies where they were dancing on a Hollywood set that was supposed to be in Europe [laughs].

“It was a big deal to go to Europe in those days. A big deal.”

One of the episodes of Tom and Jerry directed by Gene Deitch in Prague

But were the studios markedly different from the studios in the States in those times?

“Completely, because these people were really shut off from the West. The Iron Curtain was no joke, as I found out later.

“After the end of the war they had come into possession of some pirated Disney films that the Nazis had made, of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio.

“They were black and white duplicated movie prints which they had and they studied those prints to get the idea of how this works.

“When you make drawings in slightly different positions and show them real fast, it looks like they’re moving – Aha, this is cinema animation! And they thought this was a great thing.

“Jiří Trnka himself, who was already a great graphic artist and was famous for being ambidextrous… right at the end of the war, they decided they were going to put together their own studio [Bratři v triku, cofounded by Trnka] to make these animated films – and they used the old prints they had got hold of to try to study how they were made.

“They converted an old discarded movie projector and remade it so they were able to look at movie prints frame by frame by frame and get at the root of how this was done.

“Because they had no contact with the West, the Czechs came up with an entirely different way of doing this, technically. It was amazing.”

“So they really started from zero.

“And because of that, because they had no contact with the West, they came up with an entirely different way of doing this, technically. It was really amazing.

“I can’t go into all the details to you, but the basic idea of making an animated film is you’re photographing one drawing at a time and these have to be shown in rapid succession, faster than the persistence of vision in humanity.

“You could get the illusion of motion – that’s what it’s all about.

“They just figured it out from the grass roots and they had developed a very elaborate system where on each drawing they would put a bunch of numbers on the edge which would not be photographed.

“That gave the cameraman the information on how to shoot these things.

“We didn’t do anything like making numbers on the drawing itself.

“We had what we call exposure sheets, which were line by line showing the frames. You’d put all the numbers on there and it was easy to make corrections.

Gene Deitch,  photo: archive of Gene Deitch,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“When I came and saw how they were doing it, I thought it was absolutely insane. But they got it on the screen, they made it.

“But I had to make a big joke out of the fact that in the animation you have to separate parts of the drawings on different levels, so you don’t have to keep drawing the same thing over and over again.

“So you might have, let’s say, the body on one hand, the arms on another level, the eyes and the mouth on still another level of drawings.

“You ended up with a very complicated series of numbering that you had to figure out.

“So they were just working backwards. They went backwards from this effect to how to get to this effect.

“Whereas we had developed it… our system in America was based on some of the early experiments by Winsor McCay, for example, with a famous film called Gertie the Dinosaur, which was the first real animated film.

“They [the Czechs] had figured out a totally different way of doing this.

“But even when Winsor McCay was making Gertie the Dinosaur, he didn’t know enough to know that what moved could be on one level of drawing and what was static, such as the background, could be on another level: just one drawing for the background.

“Winsor McCay traced the background and every single frame, over and over.

“Here I am in Prague and suddenly I start getting telegrams from my colleagues saying, Congratulations, your film has won the Oscars!”

“If you look at these old films and wonder why the background is wiggling all the time [laughs] – that was the reason. This was just a search for a technical way of doing it.

“In Hollywood they came up with one way.

“And in Europe, being completely separated, especially in Prague, they came up with a totally different way.

“So when you ask me what did I think when I got there, it was like Alice going through a mirror into wonderland [laughs].”

Not long after you came here you met Zdenka, who is still your wife all these decades later. And then the film that you had made here, Munro, won the Oscar. Were you able to enjoy that moment?

“Not really [laughs]! It was a total shock.

“But the main reason I did finally agree with this guy to come here – and I had a contract saying I only had to stay 10 days – was that he agreed that if I came and helped him with his problems, that he would finance making this story of Munro, which I had no chance of financing in America.

“That was the key thing.

“So I did it and we got a release from Paramount Pictures, who as an experiment said they would put it in some theatres. And that’s all it took to qualify for the Oscars.

Photo: Czech Television
“So right away, Bill Snyder got a big idea: I’m going to enter this film for an Oscar!

“Well, I’m back here and I’m in the midst of now developing a fantastic love affair.

“And [for the Oscars] I know that you’ve go to Hollywood, and you have to stay in a big hotel, rent a tuxedo and go through all this stuff.

“I said that we have one chance in 10 million of this thing doing anything – I’m not going to go through all that trouble.

“But old Snyder actually believed that it could happen.

“So HE went there and naturally he enters the film under his own name… and that leads to another big story.

“But the fact is that here I am in Prague and suddenly I start getting telegrams from my colleagues saying, Congratulations, your film has won the Oscars [laughs]!

“Well, of course that did change everything.

“When you win the Oscar, then suddenly you go from nobody to somebody and I started to get all kinds of offers to do more films.

“The real fans and purists thought our films were terrible, because they weren’t pure Tom and Jerry.”

“For one thing, I wanted to be here long enough to get married with Zdenka.

“The other thing was that all these jobs started being offered: Popeye cartoons, Tom and Jerry cartoons and many things like this started coming in.

“I didn’t really want to do those particular films. But what I did want to do was to marry Zdenka and so this was going to keep me here. So it was a great thing.

“Whether I had the actual Oscar in my possession or not didn’t matter. The idea was that that’s what everybody believed – and I got lots of work.”

To me it’s an incredible story that Popeye cartoons and Tom and Jerry cartoons were made behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s or whenever. Would that have been widely known in the States that these were coming from behind the Iron Curtain?

“Bill Snyder started to be terrified exactly on that point.

“I fell in love not only with Zdenka, but with the whole studio and all those people became my friends.

Photo: Ian Willoughby
“We were forced by Snyder to put fake names on the credits.

“Zdenka at that time was Zdenka Neumannová, so instead of Neumannová they said Newman.

“They gave everybody a fake, English-sounding name.

“This was really terrifically embarrassing to me. I had discovered all these people and here is a chance for them to get known, to do something.

“Snyder was terrified by this whole idea, that as soon as these American producers would cop on to the idea they we were making this film behind the Iron Curtain we would probably lose the whole thing.

“And eventually we did lose a lot of work when this came out.”

I know there were different series of, for example, Tom and Jerry. Are the ones that were made here noticeably different from the ones that were made in the States?

“Well, I was not really a fan of Tom and Jerry and there were a lot of things about it which we really couldn’t do.

“For example, in the Tom and Jerry cartoons one character was a black woman, a house maid, and the way they put her on the screen her head was always out of the frame.

“I said, We absolutely can’t do that. So that was one of the things. I said, No more black housemaid.

“So I tried to think of new things that Tom and Jerry could do.

“The MGM [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio] people were happy with the cartoons we were making.

“But the fans! The real fans and purists thought our films were terrible, because they weren’t pure Tom and Jerry.”

“Because of the Iron Curtain, the animators in the studio in Prague had never ever even seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It was way out of their culture.”

Were they visually different, though?

“Well I did everything possible to make sure they weren’t, but I had to overcome tremendous problems.

“Because of the Iron Curtain, the animators in the studio here in Prague had never ever even seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

“It was way out of their culture. And this kind of meaningless, stupid violence was also way out of their culture.

“To them, animation was really a cultural thing and they were trying to make artistic animation here.

“I didn’t want to come here and spoil this. I thought it was really wonderful, what they were doing here.

“But I knew it was not going to be commercially viable in America. Besides other things, they had a different concept of pace.

“They would make leisurely films that took time to establish a real story, whereas in America it has to be ‘slam bam, thank you mam’, one gag after another and super high tempo, which people were not used to at all.

“So when they started making these films for Snyder they were beautiful, but they were leisurely paced and he couldn’t sell them in America.

“That’s why he came to me in the first place.

“He wanted me to come and show them how films had to be done if they were to be successful in America, to make this kind of tempo change.”

In part two of this interview, which will be broadcast on Friday, Gene Deitch discusses his good friend Pete Seeger coming to Prague, the US communists who lived in the city under the previous regime and Prague’s transformation in the last three decades. For further information, check out Gene Deitch’s book For the Love of Prague. He also has a website:

A 1966 animated version of The Hobbit by Gene Deitch and Adolf Born.