Saturday, November 25, 2006

Quayspeak continued

I was going to answer this in the comments box, but decided to move it here. I'll begin with a quote from my last post and a response to it:

"In fact, they're basically terrified of attempting to make a puppet walk. They rarely do it, and prefer to have them glide about on wheels, like Gilgamesh on his tricycle or the women in the tailor's shop in Crocodiles, because it imparts a nice smooth elegance. The few times a puppet did walk they would inevitably laugh embarrasedly and comment on how "ropey" it is, and how much they hate doing it."

To which Michael responded (quite rightly):

"I think the phrase "we had a horror of" has been slightly misinterpreted - I understood it to mean that they have a strong aesthetic objection to something, not that they found it too technically difficult.

I mean, if they wanted to make things easy for themselves, they wouldn't have built the Street of Crocodiles set out of multiple reflective glass panels and buried everything under an inch-thick layer of dust, would they?"

Yes, I'm not entirely sure what they meant by that remark, I hope I didn't mangle it too badly! "We had a horror of" could mean they were afraid of it or that they had a hard time with it (or possibly something different?). I definitely got the impression they feel their walk animation is substandard and that they don't like to do it if they can find a way around it. Walks are one of the hardest things to do well, and they mentioned that at the time there were no books (and no websites!) on how to do puppet animation, and I believe most people who were doing it either learned from more experienced animators (which they didn't have access to as far as I know) or figured it out for themselves through trial and error. It's very appropos of their artistic sensibilities that they chose to forego walks (the stock in trade for most stop motion animators, on which a character's personality is usually based, or rather through which it's reflected) and flying shots and the like, and instead got the camera in close and made such scenes obsolete. And in doing so they give the viewers something to mull over - "what do the wheeled women represent?" etc. Brilliant! This kind of creative problem solving (which is a hallmark of their style) is exactly what I was trying to get at long ago in a thread called Things that work well (and things that don't) - the idea that " If it is hard to do in animation, maybe it's something that isn't natural to it. For example, if I need a character to throw something, rather than make a flying rig and get it in one shot, I will have him draw back his arm in an obvious winding-up gesture, and do a quick pan to the target area, where we see the object (formerly in his hand) hitting the ground or whatever. It is a way of using the entirety of the film technique rather than focusing on the effects".

The thread didn't really go the way I hoped it would, but instead it turned into my introduction to Eastern European stopmotion by the old masters like Trnka and Pojar. One of those life-altering moments that reverbrate like a gongstrike through the rest of your life.

The last special feature is an interview taped in some kind of doll museum and conducted by a French guy who really struggles with english. I couldn't understand all the questions, but some of the ones I did just made me say "Huh?!?!?" I don't remember just now what they were, but it seemed like he just didn't have a grasp of what the Bros are about. And it seemed like they had a hard time understanding him too, or possibly they feigned it to their advantage. It was amazing to watch... this guy would ask some lame question and in typical Quay fashion they'd stand thinking for a minute or two and one would start muttering almost randomly, and it seemed to me like they pretty much ignored the questions and just kept elaborating on thier own fascination with puppets. And it's a trip to see the way they talk... they're definitely intoverts and they stumble for words, sometimes they seem to be very forgetful or lost, and the one speaking will just trail off, and suddenly the other one will pick up, as if they share thoughts. It's uncanny really.

But the reason I brought this up is to talk a bit about their ideas on the puppet. They kept talking about liberating them, about how sad it is to look around in the museaum and see all these cutesy little babydolls and little girly dolls dressed in their victorian finery and all they ever do is just sit there on shelves gathering dust. I'm trying to paraphrase here, and probably messing it all up - hey, I sat through a lot of Quay last night! The details escape me. But they said something along the lines of feeling sorry for the puppets (meaning dolls - they seem to use the terms interchangeably) - like children who have to sit around all dressed up formally all the time and never get to demonstrate their inner life... that unique strangeness that dolls and puppets have as objects rather than as imitations of people, and they wanted to do something almost pornographic with them just to break them free. To give them a pathology. Pathological puppets! That pretty much describes what they do - they focus in neurotically on individual gestures, meaningless repetitive twitches and the like, revealing mental or physical abberations. What a totally different approach from the usual! They said they love Trnka and Starevitch, but they felt the films were shot in a very static manner, without any use of cinematic language (and yes Shelley, they actually used that phrase!). So they wanted to bring the full complement of cinematography to bear in their little world. I repeatedly got the impression that they were neophytes learning as they went - they said a lot of their early reels would come back improperly exposed or somehow messed up, and they gradually figured out how to avoid these problems.

Another thing I was greatly impressed by (and wondered about) is that they made all their own armatures and puppets, as well as their 'decors'. But I suspect their puppets are mostly cobbled together from pieces of dolls and the like, with joints inserted here and there. In fact they said they liked to collect doll parts and particularly liked to get ahold of just a single arm or leg without a mate. They do everything themselves except the music and sound and sometimes they get help wth lighting.


Miguel said...

Ian Nicholas needs mentioning too - he's basically the Quays' technical wizard, and was responsible for building all the armatures and other mechanical devices from Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies onwards. It's very rare for his full name to appear in the credits: usually it's a tiny acknowledgement to 'Nicholas' tucked away in a corner somewhere.

Incidentally, the French interview was added at almost the last possible minute - I'd already sent the authoring house the DVD specs when the Quays' French distributor sent it to me. We just about had enough time to transcribe it (though I had to do it myself) and add subtitles, but we didn't have any time to do anything else to what was clearly unedited raw footage. So I just chopped about six or seven minutes of very dull shots of the Quays wandering around the museum (believe me, you're missing nothing) and presented the entire interview complete with camera wobbles, refocusing and all.

But I'm glad we did it, as there's some great material in there that doesn't appear anywhere else on the disc - in fact, as you noticed, the sheer eccentricity of some of the questions provoked many of the most interesting answers.

Darkstrider said...

Oh, Micheal - sorry, I didn't realize before who you were! Congratulations on a completley first rate production! At the moment it's my most treasured possession. Do you know anything about the upcoming NTSC set - whether it's going to be the same material?

Thanks so much for letting us know about this wonderful set, and be sure to do the same when the Svankmajer set becomes available! I'll be among the first to get it and I'll report here once again.

And I agree - that last interview is great stuff! It was cool to see the Quays when they were younger and they actually laughed a few times - though generally it was just the tail of a laugh cut short as the camera was turned on! And I'm trying to imagine them in their possible other carreer as gym teachers! Thank god that didn't happen!

herself said...

I just wrote and lost a VERY long comment piece on this entry. I think you were just spared by the Blog Gods.

The gist of it was that we are at cross purposes, as you seem to be interested in grasping the art of filmmaking and thereby its cinematic language and craft, yes? Whereas, I'm only looking to make art to please not more than my aesthetics and therefore have no intention of acquiring technique for that purpose.

Some believe that great art can only come from understanding principles of art. I see it differently. I see the most powerful artworks, like what I love most about the Quay's, are experimentation and play, in any form or medium, and ultimately only can be an expression of their creator. Art that represents the best in us is what moves me about a work. And to do that doesn't it have to come out of us as that and not technique mastery alone?

Andrew Liebau said...

Wow - great information! I am so glad I stumbled into your blog earlier today. I haven't received my Quay set yet (it hurts to say that) but from what you've said here it sounds like they've finally opened up and said a few things - hooray! The idea of the walk, or the lack of, in their films is something which I had never noticed. I can't believe they don't like the look of their walk animation - I have ALWAYS loved the shot in Street when the puppet does that oddly-paced bent-backed gait while the camera is looking down on him - marvelous. Then again, the strange, mechanical and yet ghost like gliding on wheels is a very Quayesque action. Now I'm really looking forward to getting my DVD in the mail!

Darkstrider said...

Shelley, I don't want to think about what the Quays' work would look like if they didn't strive to give it that polished cinematic aesthetic and instead went for primitive. That's precisely why (well, one reason among many) their work stands out so much, because they dared to bring cinematic excellence to puppetfilm! And they're the reason I want to study cinema, so I can lift my own efforts above the ordinary.

Andrew, good to hear from youy over here! Glad you found the blog, and what better time for it?!

herself said...

I think the Quays' must have already possessed their brand of artistic aesthetics before a single frame of work was ever shot. They had to bring their sensability to puppetfilm, who elses? No education could generate what was original to their learning/expression through experimentation with film. Cultivation, blooming, an increasing polish over time, of course. But for their art and message? It's in there like Ragu.

I can't say another word on this.

herself said...

The only sens-i-ble answer to that is; "Good!"

I'm not too articulate or bright. You're doing fantastically well, Mike.