Břetislav Pojar: Multi-Talent of Czech Animation (Part 1)

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The late Břetislav Pojar was one of the finest animators of the past several decades, and certainly one of the greatest names in Czech animation. He animated for the legendary stop-motion filmmaker Jiří Trnka starting in the late 1940s, serving as one of his most important collaborators (Trnka could not animate himself); in the early 50s, he became a full-fledged director (while still animating for Trnka), and would create many distinctive films that varied in their artistic style, narrative, and medium, including some for the National Film Board of Canada. What sets Pojar’s films apart is a charming, playful sense of humor, at times spilling into satire, as well as a focus on the expressiveness of movement and an insight into the virtues, vices, and foibles of humanity; all these elements, along with the variety in approaches and the lyricism seen even in his more didactic films, make his filmography refreshing and well worth exploring.

In that regard, I thought I would discuss several of his films as a starting point for animation fans to get into his work. By no means is it intended to be comprehensive or even a “best picks” selection, but any degree of exposure is good exposure, especially for an animator of Pojar’s caliber. I hope to write more articles like this for other great international animators in the future, but that depends on how much time I have.

A Drop Too Much / O skleničku víc (1953)

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A safe-driving motorcyclist, on the way to see his girlfriend, stops at a pub, where he gets caught up in a wedding celebration. His heavy drinking proves to be his downfall, as he recklessly night-drives drunk.

What elevates this anti-drinking propaganda film, described by Pojar himself as his “step into the unknown”, above others of its kind is Pojar’s gifted direction, which even early on was characterized by a penchant for free, atmospheric cinematography, well-articulated character acting (as in his master Jiří Trnka’s films, the character puppets, sculpted here as in those films by Trnka himself, never change their facial expressions), and inspired visual ideas. The scenes in the pub, in spite of their joyful celebrating, have an air of mortality about them, thanks to the camera’s unerring focus on the drinking warnings (which, later on, outright have skulls-and-crossbones) no matter how much the motorcyclist brushes them off as he, against his better judgement, drinks away while reminiscing on his own sweetheart. His deteriorated mental state is eccentrically portrayed through, of all things, his odd interactions with a stick figure drawn on the floor outside the pub; initially, he stops short of it, changes its displeased expression to a happy (and smoking!) one, and bids it adieu as if it were an actual person, but a while later, as he rides away from the pub, he inconsiderately runs over it. Taken together, it’s a nice way of illustrating how unhinged the motorcyclist has become under the influence of alcohol.

The climactic night ride is easily the best sequence in the film, with its use of silhouette and daring, fast-moving point-of-view shots and camera angles shrouded in darkness as the drunk motorcyclist drives increasingly out of control; while it may not be an exact depiction of drunk driving, it does capture the harrowing feeling associated with a drunk driver obliviously speeding forward in a dark, rainy night, racing against trains and endangering not only himself but others. (Even here, Pojar manages to slip in some humor, as the motorcyclist bids adieu to a horse-driver he almost crashed into.) The ending is haunting in its depiction of the motorcyclist’s demise after he crashes in a construction site; the poster from earlier in the film featuring a skull-and-crossbones in a drinking glass makes its return, almost “flashing” and signalling death thanks to a lantern in front of it swinging from the impact of the crash, followed by the motorcyclist’s picture of his sweetheart pathetically, quietly fluttering on the ground for several seconds. In one destructive drink-induced crash, their hopes have been crushed.

Given the important role of the cinematography in this film, Ludvík Hájek and Emanuel Franek deserve commendation for brilliantly handling the camera, especially in the nighttime driving climax. The score by noted composer Jan Rychlík is almost symphonic, suiting the driving scenes well, though the scenes at the pub feature a rustic accordion song followed by a waltz. Ultimately, though, for all its artistic virtues, the film is sensationalistic and overly dramaticunderstandable, given that it was made as a Czechoslovak government warning against drinking and driving, but in due time Pojar would prove himself worthy of truly compelling material.


The Little Umbrella / Paraplíčko (1957)

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At night, after the humans have gone to bed, a tiny man with an umbrella descends in on a room with toys that awaken in his presence. Together, they put on a talent show; but as dawn breaks, the little man must leave, and the toys must return to their former positions.

Toys come to life have always been a part of animation. Here, Pojar provides enough imaginative set-pieces and elements to make a whimsical little children’s film, whether the backdrop that can flip between various views of a hilltop castle at will, the bubble person (blown to life by the umbrella man) who is easily weighed down by a butterfly-shaped object and meets his gently poignant demise thanks to a real one, the fire-breathing worm-like toys and their geometric master with whip-hands, the acrobat who bounces on and hits a tightrope such that nearby blocks on it arrange themselves into different images, and, finally, a dance involving three frogs and a giant ball that descends into near-chaos among the toys once two helicopters get involved.

As simple as the set-pieces may seem, it is evident that significant work was required on part of Pojar’s animators to pull them off. The individual bubbles that make up the bubble person are never firmly attached to each other, allowing him great flexibility and dynamism; they squash-and-stretch as they move in and out of the bubble blower, and when the butterfly begins popping them, they separate into tangible water droplets. The performances involving the fire-breathing worms and the frogs are beautifully choreographed; the climax of the former, after the worms set the whips on fire, is staged against black, with flashing lights representing the fiery whips in some shots. The highlight of the film is the painstaking acrobatic sequence, in which all the blocks bounce individually while keeping in time with the tightrope’s movements, and keep it up even as they form a house, a fence, a table, and a chair (all adorned with a flowerpot design); they are soon revealed to have a mind of their own, humiliating the acrobat by turning into odd shapes when he tries to demand that they move over to him. Only when the acrobat breaks down in tears do they finally comply and let him sit on their unwieldy chair shape, taking the opportunity to raise the chair higher…then send him plummeting down afterwards! The little umbrella man manages to bring the act to a nice conclusion by catching him with a crib then jumping into it himself, encouraging the blocks to follow suit; the chair of blocks bounces up one last time with the man and the acrobat on it, the tightrope replaced with the even bouncier crib.

Miloš Vacek’s lighthearted, often lulling music is essential in making the film as charming as it is. Pojar’s inclination throughout his career to experiment with different mediums finds an early expression in the various different characters, made as they are of different materials; Trnka again served a crucial role as the puppet-maker. There are nice touches of character animation; in particular, the umbrella man is much more irascible than he seems, nearly losing his temper at the opening of the film out of impatience with the people in the house not going to bed, and in fact his clock-throwing frustration at the uproarious toys proves to be responsible for alerting them to return to normal before the awakening humans notice. Even the audience toys, like the giant giggling doll, the elephant with a trumpet, and a small bear cub, seem to have been carefully animated so as to be discernible personalities. While not one of Pojar’s best, this film is pleasant and enjoyable for what it is, and possesses a fair amount of virtuosity to boot.


The Lion and the Song / Lev a písnička (1959)

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A traveling accordionist is eaten by a lion at a desert oasis. But the lion makes the mistake of eating his accordion, too, and the noise it makes prevents him from catching any prey, resulting in his death as he desperately tries to stop it; in the end, another traveling musician stumbles upon the lion’s bones with the accordion intact, and through his playing the original accordionist’s song lives on.

This is the first of Pojar’s tour-de-forces, an allegory for how art and goodness ultimately triumph over naked, terrifying power. Zdenek Seydl’s lavish art direction combines scenic desert vistas with decorative, exotic stylization in the designs of the oasis and the characters. Wiliam Bukový’s beautiful score uses the accordion not only as a solo instrument but also for dramatic effect, accompanied by a sweeping orchestra (and occasional Hammond organ), and is capable of great contrast; for instance, the titular song is a lovely melody, and the accordionist’s frolicking is underscored by lush strings and woodwinds, while the music as the lion meets his doom grows ever-more discordant, culminating in a messy accordion and an abrupt stop as he crashes to the ground.

The key element, though, is the beautiful character animation, a testament to Pojar’s role as Jiří Trnka’s star animator. The accordionist does not make the bare minimum of movements required to convey an action, but moves soulfully, imbued with an intellect, revealing his state of mind through even his slightest motions; he transcends his puppet body to become a believable character, acting with the spontaneity, grace, and emotion of any real person. There is never a change in facial expression on his part; but with so much effort put into his actual animation, any such change would be superfluous. The lion, for his part, is a menacing creature, his very design exuding terror; he does not act purely on instinct, but draws out the accordionist’s fear as long as possible, finally pouncing only when the accordionist lets his guard down and starts playing peacefully. His cold calculation evaporates, however, when the accordion he swallows renders him unable to catch any prey; in turn, he becomes increasingly reckless and frustrated in his actions, at one point digging through the sand out of desperation to catch a single lizard and at another slamming shut a book depicting a lion eating a deer, as if it were mocking him.

The accordionist’s endearing animation is particularly crucial given that much of the first part of the film is devoted to depicting his gentleness of heart and devotion to the arts. Perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence is when he performs a romantic dance for the desert animals, in which he constantly switches between the male and female roles; the situation is comic, yet the accordionist executes it with such finesse and personality that, underscored by Bukový’s music, it becomes a touching tour-de-force in itself. His following it up with heartfelt accordion-playing only drives home what a kindly soul he is, making his death by the lion all the more tragic and unjust. In a similar vein, the manner in which the lion loses his former demeanor thanks to the swallowed accordion is effective symbolism for how even the most unassuming art, by its very existence, can seriously threaten and ultimately destroy even the most powerful tyranny.

The importance of Vladimír Malík’s cinematography cannot be overstated. Through his effort, the meticulous layout of each shot, even when it moves or is a close-up, conveys the animation and scenery perfectly, bringing them to their fullest potential, and powerful visual stunts like the aforementioned dance can be pulled off. He also uses the camera for dramatic effect, such as when the accordionist starts playing in the face of the lion, when blurring is used to reveal his total lack of attention to the danger before him, or at the lion’s demise, when the camera itself, taking on the lion’s point of view, seems to fall from the column and tumble down to the desert ground.

In short, The Lion and the Song is the film in which Pojar finally came into his own as a brilliant director, with all its parts—a timeless story that touches on humanity, beautiful art, music, and cinematography, quality character animation—cohering to make a perfect whole. It’s only fitting that it was released the same year as Trnka’s own masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on which Pojar had, of course, served as an animator; yet whereas Trnka’s film heralded the final days of his prolific career, Pojar’s was the beginning of several more great films to come.


Orator / Úvodní slovo pronese (1962)

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A wordy orator believes his speech will amaze his audience, but it only bores them and makes them turn to other things, and eventually sleep.

This is one of the earliest of Pojar’s explicitly satirical films, in this case dealing with the absurdity of long public speaking and the behavior of its audience. Visually, what is most striking is the flat, two-dimensional aesthetic, an obvious change from the previously-detailed films; as in Lion, Zdenek Seydl was the art director, but here the stylization is sleeker, with angular, geometric puppets against flat, bold, design-laden backgrounds. With its modern look, it’s like UPA designed a stop-motion film, and it fits with the film’s refined sense of poking fun at humanity.

The stylization of the film’s “dialogue” as letter blocks coming out of mouths to audible gibberish is clever, signifying the potential of the spoken word to affect others for better or worse. In this film, it is particularly effective given that the orator himself has almost all the dialogue; inasmuch as he believes the constant streams of letters coming out of his mouth will rivet his audience, in reality they only serve to drive home just how obnoxious, overbearing, and simply boring he really is.

Most fascinating, though, is the depiction of “inward” movement, in contrast to the “outward” character animation of Pojar’s previous films. While the latter is not entirely absent (the early scenes are devoted to the orator’s odd home life), the best scenes offer a look into the interior minds of the audience members as they sit through the speech. The orator imagines in detail how his speech will supposedly open faucets of tears, trigger storms of thought, tickle his audience and frighten them, and of course enlighten their dark minds. In reality, though, they find themselves unable to literally descramble his rambling in their heads, and so clear themselves of the letters and begin thinking of their own lives and desireseating, sewing, sports, clothing, and beautyas the speech’s complex constructs fail to go anywhere. In a gleefully cynical moment, the portly audience member grows so impatient that he actually thinks of shooting the orator, but the sleeping lady next to him convinces him to join the rest of the audience in sleeping; it culminates in a little girl going up to the orator in the midst of the most loud part of his speech and shushing him in order to let the audience sleep, much to his mortification!

It all ends well in an amusingly perverse way, though. The snoring causes his speech papers to blow away, with the orator falling off the stage trying to grab them; the noise wakes up the audience, and almost impulsively they begin applauding him! So the audience effectively pats themselves on the back for their faux-politeness, praising a speech they didn’t even listen to, while the orator’s own ego is gratified by the fake laudingeven after he clumsily smashes his head into and shatters the room’s lights, he sees himself as a true maestro of the spoken word. It’s this underlying irony that makes Pojar’s films in general so enjoyable, and his wit would only grow sharper as the years passed.

Vladimír Malík again served as cameraman, and he does a good job adapting to the two-dimensional perspective. Wiliam Bukový’s music isn’t as prominent as it was in Lion, given the nature of the film, though what is heard is quite catchy, even if it’s not as grandiose as the previous film’s score. The individual animators are credited; in this case, Boris Masník, Stanislava Procházková, and Pavel Procházka did a fine job animating the modernist characters, their thoughts, and of course the letters. Masník, in particular, would animate for Pojar for several years.


You Don’t Sniff Round Princesses / K princeznám se nečuchá (1965)

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When the short bear catches a fish and cooks it, the tall bear convinces him that it’s a spellbound princess, intending to take it for himself to eat. Hilarity and creativity ensue as the tall bear tries to take the fish by various means, whether making the small bear storm a “castle” guarded by fierce dogs or dressing himself up like a ravenous Indian.

This is the third film in Pojar’s beloved six-part children’s series Hey Mister, Let’s Play, about two bears who met at Kolínthe short one childish and rather dimwitted, the tall one worldly and manipulative. (Five more shorts would be made with the bears some years later, though under the title Who Threw That, Gentlemen; more on that shortly.) The defining trait of the series is its almost boundless imagination through its distinctive, lively semi-relief animation; the bears, through their pliable, liberally squashing-and-stretching character puppets, can change into anything and everything at will just to suit whatever situation or thought comes to mind, and the stories have a free-wheeling quality, focusing more on the bears’ fun exploits, interactions, and conflicts (which can change on a whim) than on any concrete plot. It’s an innovative visual commentary on childhood, with all its exploration, trickery, and flights of fancy; undoubtedly the collaboration of art director Miroslav Štěpánek was essential in establishing the series’ appealing style, and in fact he shares a director’s credit with Pojar in a number of the shorts. Unfortunately, one element that will go unappreciated by non-Czech-speaking fans is the witty dialogue; nevertheless, the voice acting itself, by Rudolf Deyl, has a funny quality that manages to get the bears’ emotions across.

Typical in this series, and prominent in this entry, is a rich, broad range of ideas, activities, and odd transformations that never lets up all the way to the end. Even the most seemingly trivial objects in the film become opportunities for some new game or action, often being discarded or reintroduced whenever convenient; for instance, the pan on which the small bear had cooked the fish is smashed to become his hero’s hat, which in turn becomes part of his astronaut helmet when the tall bear fools him, through a stylistically unique red-and-white-colored sequence done with cutouts, into thinking there’s a potion on the moon to cure the fishy “princess”. There’s also the politically incorrect sequence in which, having grown a bump on his head, the tall bear proceeds to stick feathers in it and cover himself in red pigment, becoming an Indianhe even fades into the red background, in a neat visual trick! (I should add that later, the bears venture into a muddy brown backdrop, and the short bear gets covered in mud…it becomes his turn to chase after the tall bear while more-or-less invisible!)

Permeating the film is a biting sense of cynicism. As fun as the tall bear’s transformations into a horse and a mechanical crane are, it’s clear that his main goal is to eat the fish that rightfully belongs to the short bear. His selfishness is especially obvious when they are being chased by the dogs towards the climax, during which he turns into arrow signs as a way of hiding; the irony is compounded by one of the dogs proceeding to urinate on the bear-signpost! And even the short bear, for all his high-minded devotion to chivalric ideals, is not above imagining himself (in a sequence using chalk drawings) walking an old lady into a house and setting it on fire so he can “save” the lady, awarding himself a medal—the tall bear reacts by drawing a chalk policeman to arrest the arsonist chalk bear, underlining how ridiculous the situation is.

As much of a jerk as the tall bear is, though, he does have a heart. He finally eats the fish after disguising himself as an old magician who can change the “princess” back to normal; seeing the short bear break down in tears over what he believes is the princess’s skeleton, however, causes him to realize that he’s gone too far in his tricks. Going over to comfort the short bear, the tall bear brings him to a pond inside the mansion, where the short one manages to fish out (of all things!) a two-wheeled boat; his expression of dissatisfaction quickly changes to elation, and the film ends with them excitedly riding the boat out to sea, the tall bear turning into a sail. Like all good friendships, the bears may bicker and even hurt each others’ feelings, but they still care for each other, and enjoy each other’s company.

I could go on and on about, say, the brilliance of the ferocious big dog who can chew a sword into nails (and his odd sidekicks, among them a poodle) and how he is literally flattened onto the background by a barrel at one point, or the various amusing touches throughout the film—the tall bear thinks an apple is good fish bait, and before walking off to check out the small bear’s fish takes a bite out of said apple—but ultimately, no amount of description can adequately sum up the sheer ingenuity in this film, or the Hey Mister series in general; these shorts have to be seen to be believed. Justifiably, they are among Pojar’s best-known work, and serve as a wonderful starting point to get into his other films.

Most copies of the Hey Mister films have the opening credits snipped off. Based on a version of the first entry in the series that retains the credits, the same key crew from Orator—cameraman Vladimír Malík, composer Wiliam Bukový, and animators Boris Masník, Stanislava Procházková, and Pavel Procházka—contributed their talents to this series as well. It’s clear that the animators had great fun in manipulating the characters, and there’s no denying that Bukový’s theme song for the series is quite the earworm, with his incidental music helping the awesome visuals along; Malík again proved himself adept at shooting unique flat-perspective stop-motion.

As an addendum: the five shorts under the Who Threw That, Gentlemen title, made in the early 1970s, have a slightly different feel from the original shorts. The bears’ designs are even more stylized, with longer snouts, and their voices, provided by František Filipovský, are quirkier; moreover, whereas the earlier shorts tended to focus on the bears’ own tumultuous friendship, the later shorts were generally about their interactions with a new character specific to each film. What does stay the same, though, is the no-holds-barred imaginative, ever-transforming animation, and in that regard the films are absolutely worth checking out; I would probably start with the second entry, The Dog’s Fiddles (Psí kusy) (1971), in which the two bears meet a charlatan of a virtuoso violinist dog named Dalibor, and in turn fiddle around with him (bad pun, haha) in the hopes of exposing his fakery. I like how the dog, for all his phony pretentious airs, remains a dog first and foremost, such that, when the tall bear heckles him after his “performance”, he quickly jumps out of his suit, lands on all fours, and begins viciously barking at the bears, and at one point he fetches his violin bow as if it were a stick; the introduction to the film, in which the bears fight over an object and transform into a whole bunch of things as they do so, is quite possibly a distillation of what makes these films so memorable, and the ending, in which the bears create their own jazzy music by turning into various instruments, is simply fantastic. There’s also the fourth short And Don’t Tell Me, Vašík (A neříkej mi Vašíku) (1972), one of the episodes co-directed by Miroslav Štěpánek, in which the bears meet a misanthropic inventor-researcher beaver named Vaclav; it features a few scenes that take place in the dark, and also an extended sequence utilizing black-and-white cut-out animation. Which leads us to…


Antidarwin / Darwin Antidarwin aneb Co žížala netušila (1969)

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An earthworm decides it wants to evolve into several increasingly complex animals, eventually becoming a human in a minute or so. But his attempts to live a carefree life are thwarted by mankind’s conflicts over several centuries; he decides that being a human isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and so devolves back into an earthworm, burrowing himself back underground.

Here, Pojar subverts Darwin’s theory of evolution to attack humans’ eternal belligerence towards each other. Appropriately, the visual style is a hybrid of 19th-century engravings and grotesquely-caricatured modern design, with minimal use of colors. The character cut-outs (and, I assume, the protagonist’s sketchy thought bubbles), drawn by Miroslav Štěpánek, were animated by Pojar himself, and there’s a delightful pliability to the cut-out animation that’s reminiscent of the Hey Mister and Who Threw That films; what’s especially nice is that the malleable animation is a valuable component of the events depicted in the film. Certainly the sequence in which the worm transforms into various different animals would not be as effective without the free movement, and, more importantly, the first squabble the worm-turned-human is dragged into is a competition to determine what kind of caveman he is based on his look; he is bashed down to a short, fat stature by one group and squashed to become tall-headed by another, and after a long-haired savage forces the ex-worm’s hair to become longer, said savage and a long-bearded rival twist around his head, each desiring the former worm to join him.

One of the film’s most unique concepts is that the history of conflict is condensed into one area, in a single period of time, resulting in some fun intermingling. The hairy rivals’ brawl is interrupted by a belligerent Crusader who literally funnels his ideals into the ex-worm’s head, resulting in the ex-worm taking on his attire and signaling the beginning of the religious wars of medieval times; in that regard, the Crusader and one of the savages end up with their heads on pikes thanks to a Turkish squadron on horseback. In more evidence of the film’s delicious animation, the ex-worm is nearly killed by their leader in spite of trying to literally shed his clothing, only for the Turk and his horse to be deflated by a bullet!

At first, the worm-human rejoices, returning to his nakedness as he lets out a Tarzan cry, but the arrival of the shooter only heralds the beginning of rapid, long-range conflict and more indoctrination, and in due time the national-level war arrives as our protagonist is stuffed with propaganda from two opposing leaders to the point where he floats up like a balloon and then bursts into his cut-out body parts. Then a politician in a car guns down the flag-wielding leaders, beginning the era of the politically-charged war—and he, too, is quickly shot away by increasingly dangerous technological improvements such as tanks and missiles, causing wars to take on a truly suicidal character. In the face of humanity’s sheer inhumanity, the ex-worm realizes that maybe being a worm wasn’t so bad after all.

By bringing various conflicts and wars over the course of history together, and by putting a human-evolved-from-earthworm who simply wants to live comfortably in the midst of the ensuing chaos, Pojar raises a troubling question: mankind has evolved civilizationally—but in all that time, has it truly put aside a sort of intolerant tribalism, one that desires conformity in looks, in culture, in ideology and leaves no room for differences, or even needless hatred in general? And moreover, are we as people willing to truly learn from the past—or have we been actively denigrating it, crusading against it, deflating it, shooting it down under the impression that we are somehow more enlightened now, all while continuing to repeat the same historical mistakes and atrocities? It’s hard for a person aware of history to look at humanity and not want to bury himself underground—yet, somehow, there’s enough good and hope in life that we have the will to keep on living.

Lest this all make the film sound über-serious, though, I should reiterate that this is all executed with Pojar’s typical light, humorous touch, as evidenced by the parodic visual style and Pojar’s own lively animation. Complementing the animation and art is the oddball, minimally-orchestrated music, by Jirí Kolafa, which makes heavy use of high-pitched vocalizations in the second half of the film when the other humans enter; they bring a blackly comedic, almost matter-of-fact feel to the unfortunate proceedings. To wit, Antidarwin is one of Pojar’s best satires, yet also one of his most arcane given the titular subject matter; it may not be fully appreciable on the first viewing, but once the taste for it is acquired, it becomes (for lack of a better word) genius.

To be continued

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