Brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay were born in 1947 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. After studying illustration and graphic design at Philadelphia College of Art, they obtained a scholarship at the Royal College of Art in London. Film history will always recognize them as the authors of surrealistic animation in the strictest sense. Even though animation movies constitute an essential part of the brothers´ Quay filmography, their work overlaps with art forms ranging from theatre to opera and dance. In an interview with Fest Anča’s collaborator Tereza Klasová, they revealed some details about the beginnings of their career, their inspiration and their current work.
FA: You both studied illustration. Do you recall the turning point in your artistic development which led to the decision to leave paper and pursue animation?
QQs: Film always fascinated us and animation in particular. Slowly with the frustration that one’s own drawings didn’t move, were frozen, and that the realm of puppets might afford us the third dimension in terms of volume, depth in space, light, music and sound, and that an entire universe could be created in miniature on a table top, and that this could be achieved between just the two of us was very appealing. And above all no one was looking to judge.
FA: In your work you often use motives from Central European literature – apart from Kafka Walser and Schulz, you are also renowned for your admiration of Jan Švankmajer. Do you remember how your affinity towards these (at least one of the authors) developed?
QQs: Our discovery of Kafka was very prosaic. We first encountered the word used as an adjective “Kafkaesque” and asked the librarian what it meant. He didn’t know either. We were students at art school in our early 20s. By chance the library had his Diaries, which in just one decisive moment opened up the entire Central European world. His writings were a revelation of precise descriptions, dreams, fragments of stories begun over and over and then abandoned, which then led us to his short stories. That coupled with a book on Prague of B&W photos by Plicka that for us uniquely physicalized Kafka’s city as relayed by the Diaries. We discovered Bruno Schulz in Poland through Andrzej Klimowski, the poster designer who proposed that we read him. Of course it took another 11 years before this film (Ulica Krokodyli – a film adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s short story, editor`s note) eventually happened; and ultimately when we approached the BFI they wanted a narrative film. We offered Ulica Krokodyli which they accepted as a “narrative” piece of literature. But of course it was hardly narrative.
And with Robert Walser it was an article in the London literary journal TLS [Times Literary Supplement] by Walser’s English translator called: Portrait of a Nobody. How could we not have seen that that was directed personally towards us!?!?!? We immediately launched ourselves into the world of Walser, and shortly after making Ulica Krokodyli our producer proposed whether we would ever consider making a feature film. And so we thought of a feature as a “chamber film” in the tradition of Bergman’s Trilogy and we proposed Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. All this happened back in Philadelphia where on a tiny circular table we had an 18th century anatomical engraving of a human tongue from the front page of a TLS article. This we dutifully covered with a piece of protective glass so we could enjoy cheese and wine at the table while talking about cinema – even though at that time we were still only doing drawings.
We learned much from that simple ceremony of subjective orientation over an objectivised and dissected tongue – which of course secretly contained both the multiplicity of languages and also that sense of tasting. That then became the so-called Baudelairian “invitation to the voyage”. Everything was invisibly connected. Our sails were given wind by listening to other music – becoming our link to other worlds of sound, which of course is simultaneously an aural phenomenon similar to the tongue’s appropriation of nuance.
We had a voracious appetite for a particular literature that was clearly initially indebted to Kafka’s ferocious example, and in hindsight this is clearly obvious but we felt we simply didn’t belong to America. We were entirely unsettled and wanted to discover a deeper and buried heritage in Europe. Somehow our bodies needed to be closer to a literary map that seemingly became in time Bruno Schulz’s Drohobycz, Franz Kafka’s Prague, Robert Walser’s asylum in Switzerland, and even a part of Felisberto Hernandez’s Uruguay.
Perhaps we are still seated at that little table in Philadelphia over that dissected tongue and that ceremony has never stopped. The little table with a mere hand’s reach beyond its perimeter has doubled in size to become an animation table here in London that is scarcely much larger forty years later. Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote for the marionette theatre in Brussels, once said apropos the realm of puppets that: ‘in stepping down into a Belgian “cave” one had to lower one’s head with humility to enter their kingdom’.
That image has never escaped us, and of course it suits our artisan side.
FA: You are currently working on the new full-length feature Sanatorium Under the Sign of Hourglass, also based on motives from Bruno Schulz’s work. What can viewers expect (how is the production going, which animation technique did you opt for and why…?)
QQs: Schulz’s SANATORIUM was for us one of his most haunting stories, and we’re sure that there is a lot of unfinished business that we still want to explore in his realm. It’s meant to be a feature film with a combination of live-action and animation.
FA: Apart from your own artistic production you also work in the commercial sphere whilst remaining faithful to your signature style. Did it take long to find a balance between commercial demands and your own poetics? What kind of commission would you never accept?
QQs: There were some very enlightened clients and ad agencies in the mid-80s in London and America who knew how to write with us in mind, so for about 15 years we would do an advert a year. One commercial would take us about 6 weeks. The good money earned from such ventures gave us the freedom in the remaining 46 weeks of the year to explore our own worlds and, most importantly, to keep the studio funded. It was a cautious bet with the Devil. For example, a commercial for “wood protection” pushed us into exploring the beauty of exotic wood veneers and the riot of wood grain, which then allowed us to create a kingdom of wood including a musical score for woodwinds. So we didn’t roll out a “signature style” on every advert, but rather let the subject matter push us into other domains with another kind of conspiracy.
And amazingly the client was always seduced.
FA: Do you think each medium conveys a specific message type?
QQs: No, not at all.
FA: How do you see trends in contemporary animation? Do you think the transition of storytelling media from hand-made to digital – apart from being an aesthetic change – also implies a change in narrative and interpretation?
QQs: We stopped shooting in 35 mm film in 2002 simply because the budgets could not support it. So we quietly moved into the digital realm where we have endeavoured to achieve technically what we managed photographically on 35 mm film. That said, the digital realm has given us both an enormous amount of freedom in terms of workflow and doing everything, so to speak, ‘in house’. So the shooting process is integrated immediately into a digital interchange where each realm mutually augments the other.
FA: Thank you very much for the interview!
Translation: Zuzana Hábeková