1) Czech puppet masters Hermína Týrlová and Jiří Trnka

'Zvířátka a Petrovští', photo: NFA
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In 1946, in the very first year of the famous Cannes Film Festival, the award for best short film went to the animated children’s short Animals and Bandits (Zvířátka a Petrovští). The film was the first international success not only for its creator, Jiří Trnka, but also for the newly founded studio Bratři v triku which had produced it. The golden age of Czech animated films had begun. In the years to come Czech animated films would influence generations of viewers the world over.

Painter, illustrator, puppet-maker, sculptor, and scenographer Jiří Trnka was one of the founders of Czech animation. The communist regime nurtured animated films because they brought prestige at festivals and significant revenues from the West. The Bratři v triku studio, part of the Krátký film state company, alone produced hundreds of films, including the very popular Večerníček bedtime stories.

Jiří Trnka,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0

This prosperous Prague studio was founded shortly after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1945. Its origins trace back to World War II, as film historian Michaela Mertová explains:

“The Germans wanted to compete with Walt Disney and produce popular cartoons on a large scale. So they founded a studio in Prague. It employed former art students and other creative people who, in normal circumstances, would have engaged in painting, architecture, or graphic art instead of animated films. They had a choice: to work for the war industry or agriculture, or to join the German animated film studio. So by the end of the war, there was a group of people here who had the experience and wanted to continue working on animated films.”

Photo: Czech Television

Among these animated film enthusiasts were Eduard Hofman, who later adapted children’s books by the Čapek brothers to the movie screen, Břetislav Pojar, one of the authors of the Hey Mister, Let’s Play (Pojďte pane budeme si hrát) series about two teddy bears, or the creator of the legendary Little Mole (Krteček) cartoons, Zdeněk Miler. The latter also came up with a logo for the new studio, which depicted three curly-haired boys in striped shirts. The senior and widely respected artist Jiří Trnka was asked to become the creative director of the new studio. Michaela Mertová again:

“They knew from the start that they did not want to do films like Walt Disney. They wanted to do their own films based on original themes and stylizations. In that respect, Jiří Trnka was the man for the job.”

At that time, Jiří Trnka was known first and foremost as an illustrator. And film work presented him with a new challenge, as Trnka’s grandson, the artist and animator Matyáš Trnka says:

“Even he was learning everything from scratch. He read books, learned how to write a script, how to edit films. He surrounded himself with people who helped him with all that. One of them was Trnka’s life-long collaborator, screenwriter Jiří Brdečka. His way with words contributed to the success of Trnka’s films.”

'A Midsummer Night’s Dream',  photo: Krátký Film Praha,  a. s.

But Trnka had always been mainly interested in puppets. He had spent his youth making puppets for a Pilsen theatre. To also incorporate puppets into his film work, he founded the Puppet Film Studio in 1947. Until his death in 1969, he shot more than 20 films with the studio, including several feature films. Among the most famous are The Czech Year (Špalíček), which was inspired by folk customs and traditions, and the fairy tales The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův Slavík) and Prince Bayaya (Bajaja). Trnka also adapted The Ancient Bohemian Legends (Staré pověsti České) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the movie screen. Trnka’s last masterpiece is the film The Hand (Ruka) from 1965, an allegorical story about the stifling of creative expression in a totalitarian society. It drew a great deal of attention at the prestigious festival in Annecy, France.

Trnka’s films, which bear his trademark style and reflect his experience from various creative fields, were all successful abroad, where they were mainly shown to adult audiences. The commentary to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was dubbed by acclaimed actors: Richard Burton in Great Britain and Jean Desailly in France.

Trnka’s film puppets are peculiar in that they are mute, and their facial expressions never change. And yet, through a combination of movement, light and shadow, they depict a whole scale of emotions. Jiří Trnka himself said this about his technique:

“I always tried to let my puppets stay puppets, to not make them an imitation of people. That’s why their faces look like masks. Masks from antiquity already had the expression that we need in films. Emotion is shown through movement and pantomime, the face itself does not play such an important role.”

Puppets by Jiří Trnka,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

Matyáš Trnka adds:

“The Puppet Film Studio also came up with the idea of creating a realistic puppet with the help of a skeleton It is basically a smaller metal replica of the human skeleton. It has arms, hands, fingers made out of wire, and bendable joints. It requires precision work, a technique that is used to this day.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first puppet film in Czechia shot in a wide format. Trnka enjoyed looking for new techniques and possibilities. I think, and I also talked with my dad (the artist Jan Trnka) about this, that if he was alive and working today, he would welcome all the possibilities of computer animation.”

Hermína Týrlová,  photo: NFA

Another prominent studio that contributed to Czech animation was established in the Moravian town of Zlín in 1936. In the second half of the 20th century, the famous directors Karel Zeman and Hermína Týrlová – one of the few women who made it in Czech animation at that time – made their films in Zlín. Týrlová was also a self-taught filmmaker. She had original ideas for her films, wrote scripts and often even made props. Her passion was to experiment and communicate with a young audience through her films. Doing so brought back memories of her own childhood. Michaela Mertová explains.

“She was born near Příbram into a mining family and was orphaned at a very young age. That had a large influence on her whole life and work. She realized how sensitive children are and how the surrounding world is often cold and unwelcoming. She knew how important it is for children to be given a helping hand, and some explanation of what is going on around them. And that is what she tried to offer in her films. She stayed true to that throughout her career, and she was over 80 years old when she shot her last picture.”

Hermína Týrlová made over 60 primarily short films, which were well-received in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Especially successful was a series of films with Ferda the Ant (Ferda Mravenec) and the anti-war story The Revolt of the Toys (Vzpoura hraček) from 1947, in which she combined puppets with real actors. But the biggest film of her career was the ground-breaking The Knot on the Handkerchief (Uzel na kapesníku), in which the main star was a moving piece of cloth. Hermína Týrlová remembers how she made the film:

“The Knot on the Handkerchief was a story which I wrote myself. But I was afraid to film it for a long time. Making a piece of cloth tied to a string the centrepiece of a story understandable for children was such a technically difficult endeavour. Although in the end, it worked out quite well.”

From that time onwards, the animator used all kinds of materials in her films such as wool, beads, and even gingerbread figures, as told by Michaela Mertová:

“She made a series of stories in which animals made of felt go on various adventures. In another series, which was about a kitten exploring the world, she chose to use wool puppets. Wool was a favourite material back then, mothers and grandmothers were constantly knitting their children hats, scarfs, socks… She also made a film using beads and pieces of glass. She dedicated another film to wooden building sets which were popular with children at the time. She was trying to convey to kids that everything they see around them can come alive and tell a story. Anything can be used to create a hero close to their hearts.”

Týrlová, who did not have children of her own, wanted to make her audience laugh, but also to spark their imagination. Originality, a creative idea, quality craftsmanship, and a good story were precisely the things that made Týrlová and other Czech animated filmmakers famous abroad. When did the golden age of Czech animation end? According to film historian Michaela Mertová, the year 1990 and the end of the state monopoly on film production was a milestone. As the film studios were privatized, a score of experienced animators left.

“We were unable to make sure that the studios could continue functioning. Movies on which a younger generation of animators could gain experience were not being made, and so the field did not keep evolving. The film Fimfárum, for example, was only made because all the studios in Prague banded together. If we want to start making feature films, which is today the only way to get animated movies distributed, we will simply have to build a new studio.”