Everyone discovers the short films of the Brothers Quay in their own unique way. I was first clued in by Terry Gilliam back in 2000. “You must know the Brothers Quay,” the ex-Python proselytized. “The Quay Brothers are identical twins from Philadelphia who have lived in England for something like 20 years. They do stop-motion animation, and it’s like Polish filmmaking. It’s wonderful, brilliant stuff.”
Although the Quays made their first feature in 1995 (“Institute Benjamenta“) and have another live action full-length entitled “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” currently playing the festival circuit, they are best known for the 21-minute “Street of Crocodiles” (1986), which Terry Gilliam has ordained one of the ten best animated films of all time.
“Street of Crocodiles,” which showcases mutant dolls doing disturbing things, is available on DVD in a compilation entitled “The Brothers Quay Collection: Ten Astonishing Short Films 1984-1993.” However, on April 21, 2006, a thousand lucky Los Angelenos were privileged to see the masterpiece projected on the big screen when Stephen and Timothy Quay made their first personal appearance in the United States at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis began his opening remarks by stating that when the Academy Foundation asked the Quays to appear at the 10th Marc Davis Celebration of Animation, they thought perhaps 300 people might be interested in the Quays’ Kafkaesque pieces, which are heavy on brilliant imagery, stunning music, and impressive camera work but short on audience-pleasing plot. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the event sold out weeks in advance, and all 1,012 seats at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater were filled with a rapt mixture of Academy members, film students, hipsters, and animation junkies.
The Quays, who call their work “puppet films” and admit they have “an errant sense of narrative,” showed excerpts from their many shorts plus a few of the commercials they periodically do to keep their two-man studio financially solvent.
Among the most surprising revelations of the evening was the brothers’ casual remark that they have moved into the realm of digital filmmaking. Committed to shooting and editing digitally, they are not yet fully embracing computer technology. “To sit in a room with a mouse would be hell to us,” say the brothers, who are inspired by the tactile element of their chosen method of filmmaking.
“Who do you think are the ‘next generation Brothers Quay’?” I asked the film student sitting next to me before the screening began. “Me!” was his not-surprising answer. Countless young animators are greatly influenced by the work of the fifty-something Quays.
Justin Curfman, who shares his stop-motion shorts, “Tephrasect” and “Zugskin,” with the world via YouTube.com and his own website [www.justincurfman.com], describes how the Quays inspired him: “While thumbing through a book on animation and its history throughout the world, I discovered ‘Street of Crocodiles.’ It was so refreshing to see that someone was out there creating these delicate little worlds with such a personal and specific message fueled with such a monomaniacal drive. They were already doing nearly exactly what I was aspiring to – their work helped me feel less like my intentions with the medium were too isolated and obscure for an audience of any sort.”
One of the most promising up-and-comers heavily influenced by the Quays’ work is Shane Acker, whose short “9” won a Student Academy Award and was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. The short’s official Academy Award synopsis reeks of Quay-ness: “In a nightmare landscape, a hunted figure confronts an insect-like creature that is stealing the souls of its brethren.”
Having been exposed to the Quay oeuvre as a student at UCLA, Acker was blown away. “The worlds the Brothers Quay create are haunting and timeless. Their use of abstract objects as characters and theatrical landscapes allows metaphor and allegory to create narratives. Their animated films are like sculpture, music or poetry in that they challenge the audience but resist literal meaning. I find their work incredibly inspiring and it illustrates the limitless possibilities of animated film, to push beyond convention and expectations.”
Unlike the Quays, Acker does use computer programs, animating and rendering in Maya, composing in AfterEffects. The 11-minute long “9” (a trailer for which can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website[http://www.shaneacker.com]) took Acker 4 years to make.
Like the Quays, Acker is moving into the feature realm. Tim Burton has signed the filmmaker to develop his short into a major motion picture. If it turns out anything like his short, it will be something to behold.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Kim Adelman is the author of The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films. She interviewed Terry Gilliam for the short film DVD compilation “Short 2: Dreams.”