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Talking Metaphysics, Subversion, and Puppets with Legendary Twin Filmmakers the Quay Brothers

"The way we work, it could take hours and hours and days and weeks to prepare one frame."

by J. W. McCormack
Aug 25 2015, 4:29pm


Photo by Robin Holland. Courtesy of Film Forum

Quay, Christopher Nolan's new short portrait of the twin animator/filmmakers Stephen and Timothy Quay, consists of a visit to their London studio. The space is like an attic of subconscious horror strewn with stray doll parts, ingenious lighting rigs for their miniature sets, and, of course, immaculately built puppets, like the child-faced automatons from their unforgettable 1986 classic Street of Crocodiles. In one shot, they gingerly dab the eyes of a model with olive oil to get that lucid stare just right. In another, they muse over some recently acquired doll wigs, flecked with dirt and grit. "You find the object," explains one of the brothers, "and then work the project around what you find." The film is as much a study of the Quays' startling synchronicity as it is a tribute to their craft; they refer to themselves in the plural, complete each other's sentences, and tinker with their domain of vaguely disquieting splendor with equal delicacy.

Originally from Pennsylvania, the Brothers Quay attended Philadelphia's University of the Arts before enrolling at London's Royal College of Art and embarking on a 35-year career making films that navigate the edge of the imagination, often accompanied by magisterial film scores and a decidedly Polish or Czech-leaning aesthetic. Usually working in stop-motion, they have evolved one of the most recognizable styles in the history of film and been the subject of a massive retrospective at MoMA (2012's Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets). Aside from their own films—which include two feature-length productions, 1996's Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, based on Robert Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten, and 2005's The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes —they have designed sets for opera and ballet (including Tony-nominated set design for Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs), animated music videos by Peter Gabriel, Pere Ubu, and His Name Is Alive, and produced work for Sesame Street, MTV, and Philadelphia's Mütter Museum of medical curiosities.

Nolan's film is part of a four-film bill screening in 35mm in 11 cities ahead of the October release of The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films on Blu-Ray. I met the Quays last week prior to a screening at Film Forum, where they are taking a short break from their current project, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, based on a Bruno Schultz book. Essentially a single entity, the Quays differed only in that one of them wears his hair straighter (Stephen?) and the other one (Timothy?) appears to favor plunging necklines. Whenever one groped for a word or expression, the other would pick the conversation up seamlessly to refine the point; when they made eye contact, it was clear that something invisible and understood was passing between them.

VICE: First of all: What are your first names and how long have you been working together?
The Quay Brothers: Oh, you know our names! The films say "the Quay Brothers." It never says individually who we are. We are one. The whole point of the films is that they're not made by two guys, but that they are made by one.

It's clear from the Nolan film how inseparable you are. Have you ever worked apart?
Well, when you went to art school you did your own artwork. My brother did his work, I did my work, but when film came about you abandoned all that individuality and ego and became one. You're making one film, not two films.

How do you allocate the labor between you?
Everything is equal. While one of us might be editing, the other might be setting up the next shot. We'll do that kind of decompartmentalization. One gets called over, the other asks, "Do you like the lighting here, do you like this cut?" But we're in touch all the time. The principle is that one starts from the left, one starts from the right, and we meet in the middle.

It must be great working with someone who's exactly as good as you at everything.
Well, it is—in a sense. Because you never once have to say, "Do that," you're not ordering anybody like an assistant. We have had one assistant in our life, Ian Nicholas, who's a drinking partner and a furniture restorer. He's very good with constructing devices. He's brilliant.

How was Nocturna Artificialia, the first Brothers Quay movie, conceived?
It was our first time working with puppets. Strictly a puppet-animation film, and we knew nothing about how to make puppets. So it meant learning the whole technical side of how to make armatures and how to light them. We had no training, there were no guidebooks—well, hardly—to tell you how to do it. So you learned on the spot.

"In every single Communist country, they created a subversive empire with animation, because nobody was looking at animation."

That's kind of the revelation of the Nolan film, getting to see all your puppets in your studio. You're clearly as much craftsmen as filmmakers. Do you see yourselves as working in that tradition at all?
That's a huge legacy that goes back to the 14th century. Our own work probably descends from the turn of the century, with Richard Teschner and Władysław Starewicz. The tradition of European puppets—aside from classical puppetry—was always very symbolic and very serious. It wasn't for kids. They took on serious metaphysical themes. Growing up in America, we always felt like everything was Rin-Tin-Tin Land. It just felt like everything was gravitating towards kids and they wouldn't take the metis—the craft—seriously.

Whereas in every single communist country, they created a subversive empire with animation, because nobody was looking at animation. They were only looking at live-action films and worrying about censoring them. The animation films, they couldn't be bothered with. And so every single city or town in Poland had a funded marionette theater, subsidized so that they could make serious, committed puppetry. So there you are in Communist countries, [where] everything is subsidized and you're doing this remarkable puppetry, while America wouldn't even dream of paying even some poor puppet troupe in Philadelphia.

On the Creators Project: We Spoke to the Puppet Master Behind 'The Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth'

There's an American tradition of animation as well. But it's more like George Pal, Ray Harryhausen—more kid-friendly and concerned with metamorphosis. Your work is almost the opposite. Things want to transcend but can no more reach those heights than we can. As you said in your Q&A with Nolan, even the walls of your sets seem to be headed toward decay: "The treason of woodwork, the vacation of screws," as you put it. How do you put a limit that looks like mortality on a form where it seems like anything is possible?
That's a big question. But you just can't animate everything or there's nothing to suggest. There are limitations to what you can smuggle across visually, where the animation creates a metaphor. You can't create metaphor continually, ad nauseum. You have to choose: First it erupts, then it registers, then it vanishes. So you say, "Did that happen?" And yet it does happen.

It's a musical sensibility, as we always said. Music determines everything in terms of our narrative. Music demands, music suggests. Whereas traditional Hollywood animation is all based on character development—you know, there's Toy Story and it's Tom Hanks's voice pushing the thrust of the action. For us, décor is all part of it. It's the objects, a sense of atmosphere, the stimmung (mood) of what's happening in this landscape where the puppet is just, invariably, a tiny element.

Our characters are constantly belittled, trying to fend off forces greater than them, a whole metaphysical apparatus. And that makes the difference between us and Tom Hanks turning to Buzz Lightyear and saying, "Hey, partner. What are we gonna do?"

"Our characters are constantly belittled, trying to fend off forces greater than them, a whole metaphysical apparatus."

Is that why puppets are your ideal protagonists?
Exactly! Because they are symbolic forces, which you register as besieged victims. And I think we all recognize that when we're losing. And the great thing with puppets is the mask. It doesn't give way to emotion. He's stoic. That puts the viewer in the position of being caught in this malaise more than he is. He's fine!

You've made two feature-length films, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Do you approach directing humans differently?
Well, with puppets you pose a performance. With actors you elicit, or invite, their collaboration. They've read the script, we've chatted with them, they understand you and all you do is coax the performance you've entrusted them with.

You don't come out of those movies saying, "Back to puppets, I'm never working with meatbags again"?
No, not at all.

"The way we work, it could take hours and hours and days and weeks to prepare one frame."

In speaking about your influences, you usually cite, in literature Kafka's Diaries and, in film, Walerian Borowczyk, even as audiences identify you with [Czech animator] Jan Svankmajer—
But Borowczyk came first. Yes, Svankmajer came much later for us.

—and the movie The Mascot by Władysław Starewicz from the turn of the century. Who are artists working at present whom you can cite as contemporaries?
We have fellow animators that we adore. One is the Estonian Priit Pärn and another is the Ukranian Igor Kovalyov. Both these filmmakers are tremendous animators, and they chart extraordinary realms. Again, there's no kids—this is serious, searing animation, and it pushes live action where live action can't go.

And I think that's what we've always said: As animators, we devote our energies at 1/24 of a second, in a way that you bring so much to a frame because you're preparing every single one individually. Every shot, every gesture, the lighting, how you're editing it, how you've built the material. Whereas in live action, you push a button and whoosh! Twenty-four frames go by in one second.

The way we work, it could take hours and hours and days and weeks to prepare one frame. So I think the way animators work is something live-action directors have no comprehension of. Christopher [Nolan] knows this. He's genuine in his appreciation for a system that he realizes is truly terrifyingly arduous because even he says he wouldn't have the patience. But he understands, and he respects it.

"You have to be very precise, it's like removing the filament of a dandelion with a set of tweezers. You have to be focused, you can hardly breathe."

There's such an emphasis in your films of suggestion over certainty, implication over plot, the miniscule over grand narrative. It's no wonder you work without scripts, since you tend to go to a place where language can't.
Yes, the invisible rises. The fog—and then you're caught, you're captured. And I think that's part of something we try to delineate.

What about your relationship to the music in films like In Absentia, your collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen?
Well, our "collaboration" with Stockhausen was that he was paid a certain sum of money to lob some music into outer space. He must have been thinking, "I don't know who these guys are, I don't know who's going to wind up dealing with this music, but I'm going to give them something difficult, not easy."

But we'd known Stockhausen's music since the 60s, so when we were offered the project, we leapt at the chance, although we'd heard that a dozen other people had been offered the project and rejected it. Understandably! What live-action director would have risked his life on Stockhausen? Other than Werner Herzog, who did the same thing with John Taverner [in the film Pilgrimage]?

Was it a relief in some way to build around existing music rather than using specific scores, such as those by [frequent collaborators] Leszek Jankowski and Pendereski?
Even when we work with Pendereski or Leszek Jankowski, the music is always there first. It's on the table before we begin day one of animation. We're slowly building the decors, we're listening, and it's going deep into your system, that music. So just like a choreographer who has to work with ballet steps, he has to marshal that movement. We're not choreographers per se, but you still have to sense a kind of parallel choreography. The scenario is there in the music. There's a prelude, there's a central section, an epilogue—whether it's 19 minutes or just one.

Knowing the music as we do, when you go to animate a sequence, you're carrying it in your fingertips—that blur, that space—before you even touch the object. We're convinced of that. It's a quiet transmission of energy.

Your fingers are dancing?
There's no fucking dancing. You have to be very precise, it's like removing the filament of a dandelion with a set of tweezers. You have to be focused, you can hardly breathe. That's simply the challenge you set for yourself, because if you breathe too hard, you will blow it away.

J. W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, the Brooklyn Rail, Tin House, the New Inquiry, n+1, Publisher's Weekly, and Conjunctions.

The Quay Brothers: On 35mm plays at Film Forum in New York through Tuesday, August 25, before traveling to selected cities nationwide in September and October. The Short Films of the Quay Brothers is currently available on DVD and will be released on Blu-ray on October 20, 2015.