Interview: Gene Deitch Pt. 1 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

On the phone half a world away, Skyping in from his long time home of Prague, Gene Deitch has brought something rather unusual to the interview: visual aids. The animator has a large stack of magazines—Newsweek, Time, The New Yorker. He’s got a point to make, something about the radical changes currently occurring in the publishing industry.

In retrospect, I’m not sure we ever quite got there. But that fact doesn’t seem to phase Deitch, who after 65 years working as a professional illustrator/animation, can seemingly discuss any topic with an utter sense of facination.

For starters, it’s technology, a topic spurred on by the fact that, in his quick research of his interviewer, the artist discovered that I spend my days working at a computer magazine. “If I get an iPad,” Deitch explains, still holding a copy of Newsweek in his hands, “there’s no reason to continue subscribing.”

Is that something you’re seriously considering?

Well, I’ve been a gadget nut, my whole life. When I was a kid, I used to go to the store to buy something called hectograph gel. You went to a stationary store, and you could buy a can full of—it was like a gel. And you would take your mother’s baking pan out of the oven, and you would put this can in there. It would melt, and then you’d let it cool. And then the surface of that gelatin, you could draw pictures with a piece of paper, with indelible pencil. It’s the kind that would turn purple. You’d draw on that, or later you could get a typewriter ribbon that printed in this kind of purplish ink.

When I was eight years old, I started making a little newspaper. You would take a sponge and you would wet it a little bit. And then you would lay your paper, where you’ve created your drawing or your typing. And then you’d smooth it on and let it sit for one minute, and then you’d peel it off, and the image was laying on the top of this gelatin. Then, quick as a bunny, you could put up to 50 sheets on there, peel them off, and then they would get weaker and weaker and weaker. This was my first reproduction gimmick.

When you think about how far we’ve come, this is how I started. So I’ve been a nut for everything that came along. Right after the war, I bought a disc recorder, which had a needle that actually cut grooves into an acetate glass or aluminum disc. Then there was a wire recorder, then there was a tape recorder, finally I ended up with a Mini Disc recorder, and now look at where we are.

So you asked me if I’m going to buy an iPad—I’m somebody who cannot resist keeping up with the latest gimmick. But I’ve bought an awful lot of gimmicks.

As someone who keeps up so closely with the latest technology, do you tend to consider the ways in which this new technology might affect your work as an animator?

Well, you know, until recently, it didn’t. The basic animation process stayed the same for about 100 years. Once this guy named [Jon] Bray invented peg holes, and almost the same year, the idea of using celluloid sheets to put over a stable background became the basis for animation production, which stayed the same until now, of course. We’re still drawing or animation with pencil on paper, but no more inking and painting. No more coloring in coloring cells and no more shooting on 35mm film.

In other words, everything from the drawing stage is now on the computer. We’re not doing computer animation as such, but we are doing all of the post-production stuff on a computer.

How large is your operation?

Not very. Under the communist system here, it was all supported by the state. It’s really bad to look back on the communist time with nostalgia [laughs]. There was a downside. But the animation studio here was kind of a Shangri-La. First of all, nobody in the communist hierarchy had any idea what we were doing or how, but they knew it was popular and they left us alone.

The studio was—like it used to be in Hollywood—way far back in the lot, in the back corner. We were making these cartoons. The censorship was sort of self-censorship. Everybody knew that you couldn’t make a cartoon with a cartoon bear, because some communist would think that it was making fun of the Soviet Union, because the bear is their symbol.

There were just little things like that. When you’re making kiddy films about sunshine and flowers and birdies, they didn’t bother you. So we were able to do all kinds of experiments and were able to push the envelope, without anybody ever realizing what we were doing. They always had a communist stuck in there who was the nominal chief of the studio, but he also had no idea what we were doing.

My wife Zdenka was the production manager, now she’s the chief of the studio. She’s been with this production studio for 67 years. It’s unbelievable. Nobody works at one outfit for that long. She’s definitely made for the Guinness Book of World Records. But she doesn’t like publicity.

She’s been working at the studio since 1945. So, figure it out.

How did you end up there?

Well, I wrote a book called For the Love of Prague—and I’m not going to read it to you now. During the whole time of the communist period, people wondered what the hell I was doing there. You either had to be a communist yourself or a communist agent or utterly naïve. Or a glutton for punishment. Why would anybody want to live behind the iron curtain, with the terrible conditions?

The short story is, I didn’t want to do any of those things, and I didn’t choose to. But the very short story is that I had my own studio in New York at that time. A guy came and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I wanted to find a backer for my film Munro, by Jules Feiffer. I was looking for an angel to come in and flutter the money. And this guy walked it, out of the blue.

He had heard about me. By that time, I was the top animation guy in New York. He heard my name, and he came over. He told me he had some films in production and he needed me to help. If I would come and help, he would finance Munro.

So I said, “that’s fine.” But I said, “here I am, I’ve got my studios on the west side of Manhattan. I’m not gonna have time to go to the east side every day to work on it. Can we do it in my studio?” And he says, “well, it’s a little farther away than the east side of Manhattan” [laughs].

It’s the far east side.

Yeah [laughs]. That’s really how it happened. I thought the guy was a maniac, and I threw him out. But it did turn out to be a terrific offer. So I signed a contract with him saying I would go there, but I wouldn’t go stay for more than ten days. I had to sign a paper. I still have that paper, over 50 years later. You have to read my book, For the Love of Prague.

You fell in love with the city.

Well, I fell in love with the production manager [laughs]. And now she’s my wife. It was just one of those things. In fact, this guy who wanted me to got there was so desperate to talk me into it. I said, “look, you must be kidding. It’s a communist country.” I didn’t even have a passport. Living in America in those days, what did you need a passport for? I figured a passport was for really rich people to go to Paris and London, whatever. I’d been to Mexico and Canada. You didn’t need a passport.

I was the only American, probably, in the entire world, whose first trip to Europe was the iron curtain, in a place called “Prague.” It was like going back into medieval times. I had never set foot into Paris, London, Rome—any of those places. So it was a tremendously difficult thing to absorb, but he was going to back Munro, and that’s what I was interested in.

And look, we did it, it won the Oscar, and I fell in love with the production manager. And then, once we won the Oscar, everything changed. And then we got offers from MGM to do Tom and Jerry and Paramount wanted to do a series with us.

So I said, “okay, one more film. One more film. One more film.” And it just went on and on. And then, finally came the revolution, and now Prague is the best place in world to be [laughs]. we don’t have any unrest. It’s a gorgeous town. We have everything you could ever possibly want here.

Did studios refuse to farm work out to communist countries during that period?

Yeah. How we did it at first was, we really had to mask it, because MGM was not crazy about having “Made in Czechoslovakia” on their Tom and Jerry films. In the credit titles, we were forced to anglicize names, because there were all of these foreign-sounding names. It was tricky at first, but things changed very quickly, because the animation business is up and down, and before the advent of feature films and really big projects, animators were constantly out of work.

At first people were really looking at me sideways. They didn’t want to say it out right, but they thought I must be a pinko, or whatever, because why else would you want to stay there? The fact that I’m there, having a chance to make my kiddy cartoons and living very cheaply, it’s hard to get that across to people so they would believe it.

But there was a big sea change, as people got out of work. Of course I had a lot of contacts in America, and the letters started being completely different. “How can I get there?” “Can you get me a job there?” Because after all, I have never been out of work. If you’re an animator in America, that’s pretty hard to say, because you work from picture to picture.

And now, with all of the trappings of capitalism and the richness—we have people driving in Rolls Royces in Prague and everything else. But the downside is the studio in the communist system was supported by the state. There were 150 people on the staff. It was a tremendous operation. A director could take all year, waiting for the muse to kiss him on both cheeks to make a film, and he’s still getting his salary. It didn’t make a difference.

Now it’s a business. It’s privately owned and tough. Tough corporate owners, just like everyone else. And now my wife, Zdenka, she can’t keep that kind of a staff. She works with a skeleton staff that keeps the studio going, but all of the designers and the animators and the authors are under contract. That’s the only way it can be done now. That’s the downside.

[Continued in Part Two]

–Brian Heater

4 Comments to “Interview: Gene Deitch Pt. 1 [of 4]”

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