Břetislav Pojar and Miroslav Štěpánek #2: The largely Štěpánek-directed “Hey Mister, Let’s Play!” entries (1966-67)

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Watch the films discussed in this article with English subtitles by viewing them on YouTube here!

…or, download copies for personal viewing here!

When we left off in my last article, Břetislav Pojar had just emigrated to Canada, where he would spend most of his time creating films over the next several years, leaving screenwriter Ivan Urban and designer Miroslav Štěpánek to come up with the next three Bears films largely on their own. (It appears Pojar was in Canada as early as late 1965, as he would make a special guest appearance in the September 16, 1965 episode of the classic Québécois children’s series Bobino, in which his third kitten film Kočičí škola and his 1951 directorial debut Perníková chaloupka were screened as well.) Pojar, for his part, would continue to be credited as co-writer alongside Urban, and he would also be billed with Štěpánek as director; what exactly his continued credits on his series entailed, however, remains ambiguous, with the two sides offering rather different accounts of how the direction in these particular entries was handled.

Pojar claimed that Štěpánek simply represented him as director: he prepared storyboards for these entries in advance, according to which Štěpánek would process the films through production, hence his co-direction credit with Pojar. Štěpánek, meanwhile, countered that he himself “decided what to do and how to do it” on the sets, and that Pojar’s role upon returning from Canada was simply to connect the filmed shots, finish the editing, and mix the film. “It happened that way by our mutual agreement and by it we were both introduced as directors on the titles. It was not written on them ‘directed by Břetislav Pojar, co-directed by Miroslav Štěpánek.’ It is therefore impossible to speak only of Pojar’s Bears. This would also damage screenwriter Ivan Urban.”

A look at the films themselves would seem to corroborate Štěpánek’s point-of-view. Whereas Pojar’s entries from 1965 mainly used the Bears and their dynamic as ways of commenting more generally on social issues and human nature, these entries go in a very different, character-driven direction, focusing much more on the Bears as unique personalities in themselves and the strains that have developed as a result of keeping their troubled relationship going for far too long; in this regard, ironically, the Bears’ remarkable transformations are largely muted in these entries, and even when they do occur, only rarely do they play practical roles as they did in Pojar’s entries. Perhaps this increased focus on the Bears as actual characters can be traced back to Štěpánek’s and Ivan Urban’s shared Central Bohemian kinship, and thus their being much closer, in a sense, to these two Bears from Kolín than Pojar could ever truly be; in any case, it seems doubtful that they would have had the opportunity to explore this grittier side of the Bears, starting from the foundation laid by Pojar’s entries and helped significantly by his animators Boris Masník, Stanislava Procházková, and Pavel Procházka and the preparation team at Čiklovka—all of whom were now evidently so skilled at bringing the Bears to life that they could deliver great results even without Pojar’s direct guidance—if Pojar were still overseeing them directly.

In this respect, Štěpánek made one very major change to the Bears’ appearance from this point onwards: he redesigned their snouts, often dividing them into two parts so that their mouths could more easily be animated. Henceforth, the animators would start linking the character acting much more closely to Ivan Urban’s dialogue, and even make a concerted effort at syncing the mouth animation and body gestures with Rudolf Deyl Jr.’s voice acting—all of which would go towards more vividly portraying the Bears as real children who can move and gesture wildly to emphasize what they are saying, and often get into heated arguments and even fights when things are not going their way. (more…)

Tadanari Okamoto in 1981: “The White Elephant” and “Old Man Frypan”

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This month marks five years since this humble blog was started with a large post, by the long-gone and controversial tamerlane, about Russian animation. At first, it was supposed to be a fairly ambitious project, with contributions not only from him and me but also from others like ibcf and magnil, but in the end, I was the one left to shoulder the burden of trying to write substantially about old international animation in a way that might be satisfying—not just to myself, but to anyone who is willing to read through extensive and even holistic (at least, that’s what I’m trying to aim for) analyses of these fascinating artists across the globe and the unsung gems they have put out.

Since then, other bloggers have taken up the mantle themselves, often proving far more prolific and certainly able to express their thoughts and knowledge more regularly and concisely than I could ever be, and in certain ways this blog has become almost obsolete. Very regularly, I’ve been tempted to call it quits altogether, not least due to the inherent difficulties of trying to write massive articles about animation (which have only gotten longer and longer over time) without becoming rote, boring, or utterly vacuous; especially now, as I find myself increasingly busy with the life of a Ph.D. research student in Biomedical Engineering, I honestly do not know if I can keep writing up for much longer. (And there are still so many things I really want to write about…) The truth is that these kinds of lengthy articles were not what this blog was supposed to be devoted to; when tamerlane was preparing the blog, his intention was that we would mostly focus on shorter write-ups devoted to specific films, with only occasional mega-articles like his inaugural piece on Russian animation, and my earliest pieces for the blog were very much in that vein. Only later, as it became obvious that On the Ones had become a one-shroom show, did I decide to devote myself almost exclusively to occasional mega-articles: better to spend my time researching and writing extensively on a particular artist, and to grab people’s attention that way, than to spread myself thin trying to post regularly about a mish-mash of films or topics.

My very first article on here was about the great independent animator Tadanari Okamoto’s forgotten 1980 classic, The Forgotten Doll, and so to commemorate OTO’s fifth anniversary, I have decided to write about Okamoto’s two longer films from 1981, The White Elephant and Old Man Frypan, both of which also tend to be overlooked in favor of his more well-known classics like Praise Be to Small Ills or The Magic Ballad. (Very many thanks to my friends Meizhan and Kenji for translating them into English!) For these write-ups, I have tried to hold myself back somewhat—you won’t have to deal with too much of the obsessively-detailed descriptions of character animation that are defining what could be my final articles on this blog (revisiting a good chunk of Břetislav Pojar’s filmography), aha—though, given how much I’ve changed as a writer since OTO started, I may not resist the urge to discuss every little interesting thing that catches my eye (or ear) even so. (more…)

Břetislav Pojar and Miroslav Štěpánek #1: Pojar’s “Hey Mister, Let’s Play!” entries (1965)

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Watch the films discussed in this article with English subtitles by viewing them on YouTube here!

…or, download copies for personal viewing here!

In the years since I initially spoke at length about the multi-talented animator Břetislav Pojar, and his important collaborations with artist Miroslav Štěpánek, I have learned some valuable things about them and their working relationship and how it regrettably deteriorated over time, not least because of disputes over who deserved more credit for the success of their works together—in particular, their beloved series of shorts featuring the two bears who met at Kolín, known as Pojďte pane, budeme si hrát (Hey Mister, Let’s Play) and Kdo to hodil, pánové? (Who Threw That, Gentlemen?). During this period, I also discovered that Pojar and Štěpánek actually made a TV series after The Garden ended, Dášeňka, based on Karel Čapek’s dog-rearing novel of the same name, and it was a treat to see more Pojar films that I had not known even existed at the time I wrote my original articles. And this past February, I discovered that Czech Television has made several episodes of their old multi-installment television anthology, Mistři českého animovaného filmu (Masters of Czech Animated Film), available for free viewing on their website; to my elation, they included four of the Hey Mister, Let’s Play shorts with original credits, and they even came with subtitles transcribing all the dialogue in the short films themselves.

Things progressed even further in March, when I somehow discovered that subtitles for all episodes of Mistři českého animovaného filmu, and all of the Hey Mister and Who Threw That shorts individually, were available online; even when the episodes themselves weren’t viewable, the subtitles for them were strangely buried within the HTML code of their individual pages on Czech Television’s website. Around this same time, I also realized that most of the narration in Dášeňka was taken straight from the original book; altogether, this meant that all three of the major Pojar-Štěpánek series (Hey Mister/Who Threw That, The Garden, Dášeňka) already had more-or-less complete written transcriptions in Czech, and were just waiting to translated by someone who had enough time and knowledge.

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A transcript for “Princesses are Not to Be Sniffed At”…buried inside HTML code on Czech Television’s website!

I quickly realized this would be a great opportunity to do a huge service to those animation fans out there who love Pojar and his works, especially the Hey Mister series, but have been unable to fully appreciate them owing to the language barrier, as well as to further publicize what I have learned about his career and collaboration with Štěpánek; while I must openly admit to not being a Czech speaker, I have nevertheless made a painstaking attempt to translate these shorts using the subtitles provided by Czech Television, with the help of numerous online resources and pages (not least of which was this dictionary, aha). The results are not quite perfect, and I welcome corrections from any Czech speakers who notice any mistakes I may have made; still, it’s nice to finally be able to revisit these wonderful shorts with at least a little bit of extra knowledge and insight.

This planned series of articles, as it stands, would not be possible without the immense support of Marin Pažanin, whose Ajetology blog is a valuable resource on Czech animation in its own right; it was his interest in the artists behind Pat & Mat that led to him interviewing, among others, the great ex-Pojar animator Jan Klos, whose anecdotes were crucial to a further understanding of these series and the personalities behind them. Marin is also responsible for providing me with several of the images that will be used to illustrate these articleseither by pointing me to certain resources or by scanning them himself from his copy of the book Zlatý věk české loutkové animace—as well as correcting or suggesting changes to my translations of the shorts themselves, and most importantly he even pointed me to the existence of the Japanese DVD of The Garden, which featured those films in vastly superior quality to the versions that have circulated online for years. (You can watch these Japanese versions with my subtitles here!) I will always be grateful to him. (more…)

The 11 Cats (11ぴきのねこ) and Other Tales (1976, 1980)

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At long last, a certain dream of mine for almost four years now has come true—namely, for Group TAC’s long-forgotten classic film The 11 Cats, which was originally released on this very day 40 years ago, to receive English subtitles! Even better, the film is now available for viewing in a better-quality version that was previously online, and best of all, it even comes with English-subtitled versions of director Shirō Fujimoto’s three best episodes for TAC’s legendary anthology series, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, which showcase his unique talent as an illustrator and even painter in his own right.

Download these films directly from Google Drive!

…or, watch them on Youtube!

Had I been told back in the late summer of 2016 that I, and two other friends I’ve made since then (Meizhan and Kenji, the latter of whom contributed a guest article to this very blog last year), would ultimately be the ones to undertake this project, I would not have believed it. Yet so much has changed since then, and I like to think I’ve grown immensely as a person and writer, so here we are…

Ben Ettinger has already written a nice primer on The 11 Cats and the creative figures behind it, so for this article, I would like to delve even further into the historical context behind the film’s making and what said creative figures were up to at the time, as well as offer certain insights on the film and the MNMB episodes—and Fujimoto’s own directorial vision, for that matter—that have hitherto not been brought up in a public space. Additionally, I would like to recount the tumultuous events that led up to this very day, including a look at the enormous difficulties I encountered in creating at least a semi-restored version of the film. (more…)

Scattered Impressions of Zagreb Film’s Early Years: Dušan Vukotić, Vatroslav Mimica, Vlado Kristl

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Last year marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of Zagreb Film, which for a few decades was home to one of the premiere animation studios on the international scene. The Zagreb School of Animation was distinguished by its emphasis on an artist’s unique vision, its variety of approaches to filmmaking and design, its deliberate use of stylized animation, its experimentation with unconventional soundtracks, and, perhaps most crucially, its focus on making fun of the absurdities, foibles, and cruel realities of life from the little man’s perspective.

To continue this blog’s previous ill-fated format of Capsule Reviews, I will try to discuss the films of the studio’s most visionary artists over a few articles. For this first entry, I will focus on the three great directors who defined the studio’s early years, namely creative leader Dušan Vukotić, live-action filmmaker Vatroslav Mimica, and modern artist Vlado Kristl. Owing to the sheer volume of films, I may not go quite as in-depth as I have in previous articles; nevertheless, I would like to shed some light on an important corner of animation and film history that is, alas, largely neglected among general audiences nowadays. A few reviews, labeled with [popka], have been written by my dear friend Benjamin Wang; additionally, in a change from this blog’s previously-exclusive focus on animation, we have discussed some of Vukotić’s and Mimica’s live-action films, as they were very much a continuation of their work in animation. (more…)

An Honorary Compendium of Writings on Toshio Hirata (平田敏夫) and His Collaborators

February 16th, 2018 marked what would have been the 80th birthday of the late but great Japanese animator Toshio Hirata, and today marks four years since his death. To commemorate these occasions, I’d like to discuss several of his most personal films as a director, … Continue reading An Honorary Compendium of Writings on Toshio Hirata (平田敏夫) and His Collaborators

Ishu Patel, A Truly International Animator

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The Indian-Canadian animator Ishu Patel is emblematic of the spirit of pioneering, unconventional, and personal animated filmmaking that characterized the most brilliant talents at the National Film Board of Canada, through which he created six films over a period of two decades. In each of those six films, Patel adopts a novel visual style and storytelling mode to express his vision, often drawing not from other animators but from his own ingenuity, resourcefulness, and experiences growing up in rural India and afterwards. Even now, his works are easily among the most inspired in animation, with their beautiful artistry typically backed up by equally powerful, allegorical, universally-appealing stories and compellingly offbeat soundtracks.

Patel had no intention of becoming an animator from a young age; indeed, not until he had begun a career at the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad was he first exposed to international animation, particularly the short films of the NFBC. Realizing that animated films could be the work of a single visionary, and that his own interests and skills (particularly in illustration, photography, and design) were all involved in making animation, Patel began devoting his time and energy to using the materials and equipment at the NID to learn animation, often by experimenting, shooting tests, and watching other animators’ films; his being self-taught in this manner undoubtedly accounts for the singular quality of his work once he established himself as a director at the NFBC in the mid-1970s. (more…)

Witold Giersz: Poland’s Animator-Painter (Part 1)

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Among the most prolific Polish animators of the past century, and certainly one of the most accessible, is Witold Giersz. His defining trait, in several of his more ambitious films, is his painterly, visuals-focused approach to animation: his characters are unabashedly the medium with which they were created, whether paint or crayon or even tissue, brought to vivid life. He moreover instills a gentle, biting humanism into several of his films: he depicts how people can be idiotic, imprudent, and spiteful, if not downright malicious, but does so with such warmth and humor that it’s clear he does not think humans as a whole are irredeemable so much as they are well-meaning, if ultimately flawed in a variety of ways and often prone to being doomed by their own vanities and those of others. (more…)

Tadanari Okamoto in 1971: Moving into 2D with “Chikotan, My Bride” and Two Other Melancholy Musicals

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For the first few years of his independent career, Tadanari Okamoto largely stuck with stop-motion; even during this early period, however, he already had a penchant for experimenting with different materials and designs. In his first three films alone, based on stories by science fiction writer Shinichi Hoshi, the rather pedestrian puppets of his Noburō Ōfuji Award-winning A Wonderful Medicine, which nevertheless featured delightfully sloppy-looking, mostly hand-drawn FX animation, gave way to the plastic toy-like puppets of its follow-up Welcome, Aliens and then the low-relief wooden puppets of Operation Woodpecker. His desire to try different forms of animation and subject matter became more apparent in the three animated music videos he created for the Song Series from 1968 to 1970, as evidenced by the rugged, wooden aesthetic of Back When Grandpa Was a Pirate and the unabashedly paper-constructed (and also Ōfuji Award-winning) Home, My Home, and said videos reflected the increasing importance of music in his films; his sleek Ōfuji Award-winning 1970 film The Flower and the Mole, meanwhile, featured brief sequences of 2D hand-drawn animation, indicating a willingness to extend into different animated mediums.

1971 would be a landmark for Okamoto in that regard. All three of his works that yearChikotan, My Bride and two more music videoswere his first to be produced entirely in drawn animation, and Chikotan would be the first of his extended films in which the music was truly on an equal footing with the animation. Moreover, these musical works were the first in which a pronounced melancholic tone was prominent, with Chikotan, in particular, becoming outright tragic at its climax, in contrast to the relative lightheartedness of his earlier films. These works remain among the most unappreciated of Okamoto’s early career, with memorable scores, a heartfelt atmosphere, and beautifully-crafted art design and animation that, over 45 years later, continue to impress in their vitality. (more…)