Studio Bratři v triku - the cradle of Czech animation

The studio Bratři v triku, or “Brothers in T-Shirts”, has been the major producer of Czech animated film since the 1940s. Virtually every talent in Czech cartooning has gone through the studio, and it has won essentially every national and international award available to animators. But most importantly perhaps, the work of the studio has influenced generation after generation of Eastern Europeans and audiences elsewhere in the world as well. In this week’s Arts, Christian Falvey takes a peek into the cradle of Czech animation.

If you’re looking for cartoon animals blowing each other up with TNT, luring each other off cliffs and the like, you’ve come to the wrong country. Gentleness, imaginative adventure and a pacific nature reign in Czech children’s cinematography, and it was conceived by this studio, Bratři v triku, amid the rubble left after World War II.

Today, 64 years later, Bratri v triku is still up and running, as unfailingly as its 81-year-old chief, Zdena Deitchová. Mrs Deitchová came to the studio in 1945 to make pocket money over the summer, and has made by her own estimate some 1000 films there since. I came to the studio to listen to her memories from the early days of Czech animation.

“My former colleagues who tried to escape being sent to work in Germany tried to claim that they were working on a cartoon film. And they found a black and white copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and they were watching it carefully and learning how to move with objects, with characters. But of course the fact is that we never tried to copy this style. We only tried to learn something from the system – how it’s really done.”

The name and logo was conceived by the then-24-year-old Zdeněk Miler, author of the famous Mole cartoons, and one-time chief of the studio, who received a three-day holiday for his contribution. The logo shows three curly-haired “brothers in t-shirts”, which, aside from the obvious, had the added connotation of “brothers in a trick film”, as animation was referred to in Czech at that time.

From its founding under the guidance of famed puppeteer Jiří Trnka, known even in the West as the “Disney of the East”, the studio went on to win hundreds of awards at festivals the world over, from the Grand Prix in Cannes to an Oscar for the 1960 short “Munro”. The truly priceless product of their work however is the indelible mark it left on every Czech and Slovak child from the Second World War until the onslaught of Western programming at the end of the Cold War. Throughout a long, bleak and often frightening period of totalitarianism, Bratří v triku built a colourful world of tenderness and artistic brilliance that remains the hallmark of Czech children’s films today.

“As Czechs we have a little different feeling about the story, it’s more poetic. And especially with Jiří Trnka, who was really himself a puppeteer, we tried to develop our, as we say, ‘Czech school’ of animation. What we had in our mind was that always we try to find the best artists – background artists – and best musicians, because we feel if we are doing something for kids we should give them the best. We don’t like to show some kind of, say, nasty lie, beating or shooting – we don’t like this. Because we feel that when they grow up they will face these situations, but when they are little they should have something better.”

Mrs. Deitchová met her husband, American animator Gene Deitch, when he came to the studio on a 10-day business trip in the late 1950s. Fascinated with the environment and in particular with his wife-to-be, he stayed in Prague to become one of the only Americans to live through the bulk of the communist era on this side of the Iron Curtain. He later wrote a book about his experiences called For the Love of Prague.

Mr Deitch was working for rebel U.S. animation studio, United Productions of America, the hatchery for Academy award-winning characters like Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing. UPA was making a splash in animation in the early days by revolting against realism for the sake of both art and cost. What they considered their own unique method however, Mr Deitch found well developed in Prague when he first came in 1959.

“We were doing something completely different than Disney did. If you worked for Disney you had to learn how to draw Mickey Mouse, if you worked for Warner Brothers you had to learn how to draw Bugs Bunny, MGM, you had to draw Tom and Jerry. But UPA came out with the idea that we didn’t want to have standard characters, we wanted to be able to have a different style for every film according to the story. And so when I came here to Prague, the amazing thing was that they were doing exactly the same thing, and we’d thought we were just absolutely the originators of this idea! And the Czechs had been doing it all the time. And I thought, my god, it’s amazing, here we are behind the Iron Curtain, they’re seemingly fifty years behind us in everything else, but when it came to art, they were right up there.”

Midsummer Night's Dream
The hard-line Communist Party came to power in Czechoslovakia not long after the studio’s establishment. While vast changes swept in to most every aspect of life in the country, interestingly one place that was left aside from the upheaval was Bratri v triku. While indeed the studio had its share of politically-motivated firings for example, Bratři v triku was for the most part spared from the general tribulation of the era within a special shell of innocuousness.

“Many people were tremendously suppressed; it was a really dark period. Yet right here was a little oasis. We didn’t pay any attention to what was going on outside! We were protected from communism for the simple reason that nobody understood anything about animation. Nobody understood how to do it, why we do it, or whatever; they only knew that it was something valuable to the nation. They knew that if they had these cartoons, that was the one way that they could get some kind of renown, or cultural lift, or win prizes. Because they couldn’t win prizes with their economic system, they couldn’t win prizes with their refrigerators, they couldn’t win prizes with those crummy automobiles that they made – but they could win prizes with those silly little cartoon films!”

The end of communism also meant the end of Bratři v triku as a nationalised entity. The studio today has found sustenance in cooperative and hired work for other studios around the world. They nonetheless remain essential to the production of almost every cartoon film made in the Czech Republic and still participate in the work of the leading animators in this part of the world, such as Academy Award nominee Michaela Pavlátová.

Though they have adapted to a new age economically and technically, the future for Bratří v triku does not mean going the way of computer animation. The studio still sticks to tried and true craftsmanship of pencil on paper.

“We are holding on to what is now erroneously called 2D animation – which doesn’t mean anything. What we really do is drawn animation. We’re still drawing with a pencil on paper. We’re not creating action on a computer. Those characters don’t exist at all. This is great for achieving greater realism. But my main theory, and my main feeling about animation, is that the whole world of art is open to animation. And we can do things that Pixar can’t do: for example we can animate Picasso, we can animate Braque, we can animate Rouault, we can animate Chagall – whatever! And all kinds of graphic styles. And so I don’t think you can just brush off 2D animation, as they want to call it, as being something out of the way. Right now there’s a big fashion for computer generated animation, and we cannot match them for realism, we cannot match them for all those big special effects, what we can match them for is imagination. And open up the whole world of graphic art to our work.”