An old friend from my Disney days just told me about her latest project: crowdfunding Jan Svankmajer’s final film, Insects. She asked, Could I help?
There have always been other worlds of animation beyond the mainstream cartoons from Hollywood. I had loved Lotte Reiniger’s magical German silhouette films as a child, enjoyed ancient Betty Boop and Popeye shorts from the Fleischer Studios in New York, been happily terrified by Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion monsters.
I loved these other worlds but it seemed they only existed in the past. And then, in my first animation course at Syracuse University, teacher Bruce MacCurdy showed me I was wrong. He screened new films like Caroline Leaf’s The Street, Ryan Larkin’s Walking, Norman McLaren’s Neighbors, Paul Driessen’s Cat’s Cradle, Co Hoedeman’s The Sand Castle—all made at the National Film Board of Canada. These films were personal, independent, and wonderful. He also screened the excellent The Mysterians by Kathy Rose and Flesh Flows by Adam Beckett, both students at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). And I decided I needed to go there to keep learning.
At CalArts, I studied in both Jules Engel’s Experimental Animation program and the newly-formed Character Animation program. Jules saw what I hungered for and showed me more works from the other worlds: Frank Film by Frank Mouris; The Hand by Jiri Trnka; Labirynt by Jan Lenica. And one day he introduced me to the work of Jan Svankmajer with the short film Jabberwocky.
Jabberwocky grabbed my attention right away with head credits that change with slaps on a baby’s bottom. While inspired by Lewis Carroll’s poem, Svankmajer’s film is not an illustration – it’s a literal cabinet of wonders, a series of strange and funny and dark vignettes, astoundingly inventive and fueled by strong ideas that don’t need slick animation to make their point. I’ve never forgotten some of the images: flying, dancing clothes; a doll giving birth to baby dolls that burst through her clothes; a happy dancing jack knife that snaps shut and bleeds blood. And there’s an emotional through-line, stronger than a simple story, that, when it ends, leaves you knowing you’ve never seen or felt anything like this before.
I watched it over and over and even tried to buy my own 16mm copy of the film from the distributor (this was before video and digital files). Being a student, I just didn’t have the money. I dreamed I would make independent films like Svankmajer’s but, when I graduated from CalArts, I needed a job to eat. I was happy to get hired at Disney, but my path would never be the same again.
I continued to see Svankmajer’s films as time went by—films like the brilliant Dimensions of Dialogue with heads of clay that consume each other; the groundbreaking feature Alice where living socks use false teeth to speak; and then, in 1996, I got to meet and introduce Jan Svankmajer at the San Francisco Film Festival for the premiere of his Conspirators of Pleasure.
Conspirators seemed a very good film at first (there’s an astonishing scene where a live-action newscaster reads the news while, hidden beneath her desk, actual fish suck on her toes in pans of water.) But then at the end of the film, all the disparate characters and their stories coalesce and the film becomes a masterpiece. Svankmajer had done it again.
Jan Svankmajer is the real deal, a brilliant artist who has always remained true to his vision, making films that are as entertaining as they are challenging, brimming with images and ideas and characters and stories that burn in the mind, never to be forgotten. And now he needs our help to make his final movie, Insects.
We’re living in a great time now, a time that, with the internet and digital files, lost things can be found again. Young people are discovering Svankmajer’s early work for the first time and loving it. My son Harry the musician doesn’t care about how new something is, he only cares how good it is. Good will out, and Svankmajer is GREAT. And he’s ready to make another masterpiece that will be found again and again. Please dig as deep as you can.
Jan Svankmajer’s crowdfunding campaign for “Insects” is currently live on Indiegogo. To help with the campaign, Henry Selick is offering bug props that were used in the production of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The props, which will soon be available on the Indiegogo campaign, come with a certificate of authenticity signed by Selick.
(Photo at top: Jan Svankmajer at the entomological auction in Prague, 2016. Photo: Lukas Bucman.)