Jiří Trnka (February 24, 1912 Plzeň – December 30, 1969 Prague) was a Czech puppet maker, illustrator, motion-picture animator and film director, renowned for his puppet animations.
Trnka graduated from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. He created a puppet theater in 1936, which was dissolved at the outbreak of World War II. He then immersed himself into stage design and illustration of books for children. After the war ended, he established an animation unit at the Prague film studio and soon became internationally recognized as the world's greatest puppet animator using the traditional Czech method, and won several film festival awards. The award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 came merely one year after his entry into the world of motion picture.
He was dubbed "the Walt Disney of the East" , although what he essentially did was substitute depth for lack of it, and performed mastery of technique for superficialism. Most of his motion pictures targeted the adult audience, although he loved children and illustrated numerous books for them.
After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, he not only found a way to live and create art in the country that repressed anything that merely hinted at subversion and ran against the official doctrines, but also secured funding and was even granted a state funeral with honors. This remarkable symbiosis with the Communist government was only possible because of the medium he embraced – puppets were deemed too innocent to undermine the ideology, and because of the universal values epitomized by his art, which even Communists found hard to suppress.
Trnka's works carried sublte story lines expressing the struggles of life under a communist regime, bringing a voice and method of release to his fellows. Much of this subtility passed by the oppressors unnoticed, however, when he went too far and introduced a religious component or an obvious theme that the Communists thought would encourage open-minded and out-of-the-box views and thus jeopardize the political system, he was quickly set back. Surely Trnka must have known that he was inviting trouble, yet he continued. He would not be passive or compliant.
Jiří Trnka died of heart illness in 1969.
The stop-motion puppet animator, graphic designer, illustrator, painter, sculptor, stage and theater designer, and toy designer Jiří Trnka is, together with H. Týrlová and K. Zeman, the founder of the Czech animated film. Universally accepted values laced with kind humor were a significant component of his works, which combine the traditional with the modern. As a private person he never said much; he weighed every word. Children, his and the others, were the love of his life. He was an excellent reader of the human character and knew how to attract famous people. His physique was almost remarkable - a robust, stocky man with a uniquely sculpted head.
Trnka came from a lineage of diversified artists. At the age of eleven, Trnka began studying drawing under puppeteer Josef Skupa in Pilsen (Plzeň) and started giving puppet performances. Between 1929 and 1935, he studied at the Prague-based Umělecko-průmyslová škola (now Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design), majoring in applied graphics. For almost a year he ran his own puppet show, "Wooden Theater" (Dřevěné divadlo), at the Rokoko theater in Prague.
In 1939 he grabbed the attention of the publishing world with his illustrations of the children's book Míša Kulička (Mickey the Ball). In the same year, the National Theater in Prague (Národní divadlo) selected his bid for Smetana's opera Libuše, and he started collaboration with Osvobozené divadlo, where he likewise designed and produced stage props and costumes.
The early years of World War II Trnka spent working with director J. Frejka on the productions by William Shakespeare, Plautus, and Klicpera. Along with Adolf Zábranský, he invented a new type of illustration for children, and it was around this period that he started illustrating books of novelist and children's writer František Hrubín. In the middle of the war years, he produced the painting "Czech Bethlehem" as an expression of beauty, calm and peace.
In 1945, along with other animators, he founded the animated film studio Bratři v triku, and the film became his creative medium for the next twenty years. In 1946 he founded the puppet film studio that was later renamed Studio Jiřího Trnky. In 1946 his animated film The Animals and the Robbers won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. Two years later, an offer came from the United States to teach film animation in university, but he declined with these words: "I cannot make little cowboys; I know how to make Czech peasants, and nobody in America is interested in those. I am local."
From 1956 on, he illustrated numerous children's books. The last years of his life were devoted to painting, sculptures, and book illustrations. In 1967 he was appointed professor of his Alma Mater, but failing health made it difficult and, eventually, impossible to work. He died in Prague at the age of 57.
Trnka's films were frequently first recognized outside Czechoslovakia. Trnka attributed this to the fact that in Czechoslovakia, his poeticism and perhaps naiveté was a common fare, whereas the West was inundated by somewhat tougher production. Moreover, he never thought that the fame came simply because of the puppets; what was being said was what mattered, not just the motion and attractiveness of the puppets.
Jan Werich was once visiting Trnka's studio and, without Trnka being aware of it, observed him painting the backdrop on glass planes. Werich thought he was dreaming, so he came over and asked, "Excuse me, are you painting with both hands?" Trnka responded, "Well, not always, but those morons are not around and we are running out of time (on the children's movie project)." 
Trnka arrived at the first post-war Cannes Festival in 1946 with his three cartoons (his filmmaking career had only begun on May 29, 1945, when a group of young animators asked the famous book illustrator to become their boss). Although The Robbers and the Animals won the award, another film which was entered, The Present, was of more importance to Trnka's work. The Present was a cartoon for adults, a satire with Trnka's very own individual art design and a non-Disney way of storytelling. It was completely misunderstood until Stephen Bosustow congratulated Trnka on it three years later. It was a visible step that divided post-war animation into two groups: the productions of big studios (classics) and films that were modern expressions, created in form and content by strong, individual personalities. Trnka liberated the Czech, and world, animated and puppet films from American influences and brought in a complexity of animation and poetry. His long-term fellow artists Stanislav Látal, Václav Bedřich, Adolf Born, and Zdeněk Smetana continued in his footsteps.
After seeing Trnka's wide screen puppet feature film The Midsummer Night's Dream at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, an English journalist labeled Trnka the "Walt Disney Of The East". This is viewed by some as exaggeration, citing the differences between the two great artists, such as Disney's focus on the children or family audience, while most of Trnka's films targeted the adult audience.
Trnka preferred puppets, whom he loved and elevated above all other kinds of art. The Czech Year (Spalicek), which refers to illustrated folk songbooks and also a piece of wood) is a very significant piece in Trnka's career. It was his first puppet feature film; when asked 20 years later which of his films he liked the most, he named this one. This was not simply an answer due to patriotism, although the six-part cycle illustrates the old Czech folk customs around the year. When he started working on it in 1946, Christmas was drawing in, so he opened with "The Bethlehem" sequence, which was inspired by his own painting. The screening of this first portion of the film was so successful that the cycle expanded to six parts. The Czech Year was internationally acclaimed for the beautiful, brilliant animation of unpretentious and unembellished wooden puppets and music inspired by Czech folk songs.
The Hand was Trnka's last, and some say the greatest, film. An unforgiving political allegory, different in content and form, it strictly follows the story outline without developing lyrical detail. In the film, an artist, happy with his life, is making a pot for his favorite plant, when a giant hand appears and orders him to create a statue of a hand, not allowing him to make anything else. Resistance and disobedience take him to prison, where he is forced to give in, at the cost of his freedom and ultimately his life. The same hand organizes the artist's state funeral, where all artists are honored. This darkly humorous allegory on totalitarianism, which won the top prize at the Annecy International Animation Festival, was banned in the Communist Czechoslovakia. When it was released, they dismissed it as a criticism of the personality cult (Josef Stalin), but the general public recognized the alarming allegory of human existence in a totalitarian society.
This was the first time that Trnka openly expressed what he thought about his own inhumane totalitarian society. The Hand was one of the first films that helped usher in the Prague Spring. Oddly, it predicted Trnka's own death. When he died in November 1969, he was awarded a state funeral with honors. Only four months after his death, The Hand was blacklisted, all copies were confiscated by the secret police, and there was no screening for the next 20 years. This was how much the Communist government felt intimidated by the seventeen-minute puppet film.
Trnka took on modern issues in the film Cybernetic Grandma.
Story of the Bass Cello is based on Anton Chekhov's story about a bass player whose clothes are stolen while he is bathing in the river. When he spots a beautiful maiden in the same predicament, he hides her in the case of his large double-bass.
Merry Circus is neither a puppet film nor a cartoon; movement is simulated by paper cutouts.
A Drop Too Much is a tragic tale of a motorcyclist who, on his way to meet his fiancée, stops at a tavern with disastrous consequences. This was a warning against drinking and driving.
Song of the Prairie is a parody of the Wild West, where the pistol rules the roost, timidity has no place, and love blossoms at first sight.
Emperor's Nightingale is a puppet animation classic based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen featuring a nightingale who sings a song to the Emperor, emboldening him to revolt against the rigid protocol of his glittering yet shallow world. The Washington Post described it as "a lost classic happily found again" and the Wired magazine found it to be "one of the most stunningly beautiful animated films ever released" and "a masterpiece of filmmaking and a production that elevates the art form to new heights." 
Three short adaptations of Jaroslav Hašek's famous classic The Good Soldier Schweik have won the heart of all Czechs, but he was still looking for an internationally reknown classic story where he could address the entire world through his art. Trnka was a Renaissance man, born with enormous talent in many different areas, but in the wrong time and the wrong place.
The wide screen puppet feature film The Midsummer Night's Dream, an adaptation of Shakespeare's play, voicing Trnka's opinions and estheticism of the puppet film, failed both at home and abroad. It was a universally known story with a carefully prepared screenplay (co-writer J. Brdečka), brilliant puppet animation with little dialogue and sporadic narration. Trnka never allowed lip-synch; he thought it was barbaric for puppets - as works of art - to be treated in this manner. Music was always preferred to the spoken word. He often discussed his projects with the composer V. Trojan, before he began working on the screenplay. When the musical score was composed ahead of the animation and he liked it, he would change the animation arrangement to fit the music.
The reception of The Midsummer Night's Dream was a great disappointment for Trnka; he had worked for years on it. Days and nights were spent shooting, with the crew sleeping in the studio. It cost him his health. Animation historian Edgar Dutka ascribes the fiasco to the picturesque yet intricate story, which was lost on the critics as well as audience. Trnka was strongly criticized at home for creating l'art pour l'art (Art for Art's Sake) and thus lost touch with the working class. He shot the film with two parallel cameras because he did not believe in "compositions seen through a mailbox slot." 
After the Communist takeover of post-war Czechoslovakia on February 25, 1948, which gradually prompted many artists and prominent figures into exile, Trnka found himself for the most part not only unrestrained in his creative genius but also subsidized, for even the Communists enjoyed his work. They thought the puppet stories were for children; therefore, they did not see any harm, and they did not censor or blacklist almost any of them. Only two parts of the film Spring, featuring a Christian procession, and The Legend of St. Prokop were banned on grounds of religious propaganda until the late 1980s. When Trnka finished the national fairytale Bajaja in 1950, he was greatly honored by the regime.
On the other hand, when he wanted to adapt Don Quijote in 1951, the government barred the project, having found it too cosmopolitan. There always existed two sides to the government's 'generous' hand. Instead of Don Quijote, he was pressed to create historic myths in The Old Czech Legends. Trnka was not initially interested in doing this. He would have rather quit working at the studio and gone back to illustrating children's books, but he gave the theme a second thought and what ensued was a film with strong and brilliant scenes, great character animation, and superb music, more in the way of Leos Janacek than Bedřich Smetana. This project proved Trnka's filmmaker skills; however, he was right: such a topic had a very limited audience. Even Czechs did not appreciate a filmed version of the history which they had to learn at school.
Along with fellow animators, Trnka in 1946 established a small puppet film studio (renamed The Studio of Jiří Trnka), where puppets would "move on the screen". Here "active dreaming" – a blending of imagination and poetry with invention and realism, occurred, resulting in the classic animated puppet films, rarely shot elsewhere in the world. Not only puppet films but also commercials produced here were marked by superb animation techniques, wisdom, and ubiquitous moral values. The Czech puppet film remains the studio's focus. All technologies of animated film, including stop-motion puppet animation, semi-plastic film, flat-surface film, pixilation (animation of objects), and the plasticine method are used. 
All links retrieved May 8, 2018.
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