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 The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka

The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka

Starting today, the Lightbox Film Center is showing the US’s first complete retrospective of the works of Czech animation master Jiří Trnka (1912-1969), which premiered earlier this year at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Here’s an awesome trailer for the series:

While beloved by animation buffs and Europeans, Trnka, also called ‘the Walt Disney of the East’ is not as well-known to American audiences. This exhibition offers a rare chance to see the animator’s work on the big screen, encompassing both his puppet films and hand-drawn animation.

We were able to reach out to Irena Kovarova, the series’ curator, to get some more details about Trnka and his work.

Cinema76: I understand Trnka worked in both traditional (hand-drawn) and stop motion animation. Why do you think he came to prefer the latter?

Irena Kovarova: At the start of his film animation career, Trnka joined a studio that was experienced in hand-drawn animation. But he was a master book illustrator and didn't really like the loss of control over his own 'line' - as someone else took his drawing and redrew it over and over to give the characters movement. It seems he went into animation with the idea to employ puppets from the get go (puppets were his lifelong interest). It took him only a year before he started making his first puppet film using stop motion. He returned to drawing animation later in his life but used different techniques than in his early films.   

C76: The parallels to Walt Disney seem apt, not only in relation to his work as an animator, but as preserving these traditional stories and drawing on similar aesthetic influences. What influenced Trnka's style or approach to storytelling?

IK: As a book illustrator, he worked with stories for decades before starting to make any films. You can consider that time as a deep study of literature and storytelling styles. He had done a tremendous amount of work on visualizing these stories for the books and it seems like a great well of inspiration for his films. And many of his films are adaptations of works of literature or theater plays - some of which he already illustrated in the past. 


C76: Living behind the Iron Curtain, what was Trnka's relationship with communism/socialism?

IK: Trnka lived one half of his life before the Communist takeover in 1948. By then, he was already a very successful illustrator and internationally renown filmmaker. That gave him a strong position with the regime, allowing him to produce animated films at large expense. He wasn't politically engaged, though, and was a freelancer his entire life (a privilege that only artists were allowed to have), so to some extent, he was independent. But of course he was dependent on the funding that was decided centrally by the state-run studios and the Communists had the power to limit the topics of his films and whom he could cast (and they did). He found ways to make the films his own even if given a topic (like Old Czech Legends), but he couldn't make all the films he wanted. And his last film The Hand is a clear comment on the pressure he felt from the regime. The film was banned pretty quickly. That and his failing health ended his film career — four years before his premature death at age 57.

C76: Which film would you say is the most quintessential Trnka?

IK: Any of the puppet films, really. But if you want to see the mastery he accumulated throughout his career, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be my choice. With each feature film he added something new and entered for him unchartered territories, so in this last feature film it's all there, while he used completely new materials. The puppets are no more made of wood, but plastic on wire frame, which gives them a more graceful movement. He made full use of it as in his concept, the Shakespeare comedy is a ballet/pantomime. With puppets—imagine that!

The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka runs from October 4th through the 13th at Lightbox Film Center. See all program details and purchase tickets here.

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