In 1963, aspiring Japanese animator Kihachiro Kawamoto traveled from Japan to Prague to study stop motion animation under Czech animator Jiří Trnka’s direction. According to an interview for Midnight Eye, the young Kawamoto sent Trnka a letter “and waited for over 6 months” for the reply and an invitation to come to Prague to learn from Trnka. Kawamoto spent over a year in Czechoslovakia studying puppet animation at Trnka’s studio.
Trnka likewise influenced Jean Cocteau, Jan Švankmajer (who produced a couple of films for Trnka’s studio), and the Quay Brothers (who purportedly learned puppet animation technique from a couple of Trnka’s protégés).
Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) is one of the most well-respected animators in stop motion history, but what makes his films so special? I would contend that his particular attention to the details of performance make his films stand out.
Trnka was generally opposed to sync-dialogue in his puppet films, and the design of his puppets’ faces precludes much movement. Occasionally we see eyelids open or close, but rarely do the characters change expression or move their mouths. Instead, Trnka’s puppets express story through movement. Trnka collaborator Břetislav Pojar has remarked, “They had character, and yet to a certain extent a neutral expression, so that they could vary emotional states through body position or silhouettes” (quoted by Cerise Howard in Senses of Cinema).
When you watch Trnka films, you never miss spoken words because everything is clearly and immersively communicated through body language and thoughtful use of cinematic techniques. For example, take this scene from The Archangel Gabriel and Mother Goose (Archanděl Gabriel a paní Husa; 1964):
From the first shot of the cats, we quickly intuit that the young lady is thinking of romance. As her masked suitor tries to make his way to her room, Trnka treats us to a comical sequence of him navigating the ledge that leads to her window. Again, Trnka’s attention to detail makes this scene special. The ladder doesn’t just come up and park on the ledge, it wavers around, implying that the man has trouble getting it into place. As the man slides along the ledge, his foot whirls around in a near-fall, and the film uses a quick shot-reverse-shot sequence with the moon reflected in the water below to signify his vertigo. Finally, before the man follows the young lady into bed, the film cuts to a close-up from his perspective, looking down at his shoes, which he rubs on the carpet in an anticipatory gesture.
These little details – the romantic cats, the bumbling ladder, the bit of vertigo, and the shoes on the carpet – are not strictly necessary for the basic narrative, but they breathe life into the characters and bring the audience into the world of the film.
Such details permeate Trnka’s films, and they’re why his films continue to inspire contemporary animators and why audiences keep falling in love with is films, even 50 years later.
Please join the IU Cinema on Sunday, December 9 at 1 pm for Masterly Tales: The Animated Short Films of Jiří Trnka, and witness the magic of his films for yourself. This series is part of the CINEkids International Children’s Film Series and the International Arthouse Series.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.