Interview with Stop Motion Animation Pioneers, The Brothers Quay

Interview with stop motion animation pioneers, The Brothers Quay

Talking to the Quay Brothers is a lot of fun. Maybe it’s the bottles of Prosecco sitting in the middle of the table in which they’ve been imbibing or maybe it’s the fact that they devilishly grin when you ask which is which, further heightening the mystique surrounding them. Then again, “fun” is not exactly what you might expect from the identical twins Stephen and Timothy who have been making dark and moody stop-motion animated shorts for thirty-six years.

Their distinctive style of animation has set them apart from other stop-motion animators, although their influence has also been fairly widespread, made more obvious by the fact that their films are being brought back into the spotlight by no less than filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who has assembled a touring package of their shorts called “The Quay Brothers in 35MM” which includes his own documentary short “Quay” that goes behind the scenes into the brothers’ animation studio.

The show just premiered at the Film Forum in New York this past Wednesday along with three of their shorts: “The Comb (From the Museums of Sleep),” 2000’s “In Absentia” and one of their best known works, 1986’s “Street of Crocodiles,” and met with the Quays in the offices above Film Forum. Because we never knew which was which—one did most of the talking but the other would chime in with words/thoughts and finish sentences, much like you’d expect from twin brothers—we’re going to attribute all the quotes to both of them.

Surprisingly, the brothers didn’t know Nolan before he got involved with the project and decided to make the documentary short. “We had a phone call probably a month before that and he said he wanted to meet up and talk,” they told us. “We knew about the Zeitgeist connection and we knew there was a hint that he wanted to fund the Blu-ray but he asked if he could make a documentary on the way we worked. We accepted because once we spoke to him, you realize he’s an extremely intelligent man, perceptive, so we said ‘Absolutely.’ Just bring your camera over. I think he was surprised that we knew his work. It’s been a real pleasure to get to know him.”

They talked about Nolan’s time spent in the studio watching and questioning them, which was then edited down to the 8-minute short. “He’s extremely focused and we joked about, ‘Don’t ask what it means.’ That was the only forbidden question, but I think he was very interested in the process, because look at his work and think about the process of how he makes his films. Whereas he shoots on a grand epic scale, I think he recognized in our smallness that you can create a similar parallel epicness, but by exploring the miniature. I think he recognized something possibly that the infinitely small can become a macrocosm and not just a microcosm. I think he saw that in something like ‘In Absentia’ because that’s giant psychic landscapes.”

quaybrothersfeature2Mentioning psychic landscapes and how it might be to look into the mind of a schizophrenic seemed like a good transition to ask the Quays how they work together as a team and whether it’s two minds as one or if they sometimes disagree on things. “I think we’re pretty easy going. We’ve lived together for 68 years of our lives. We don’t have issues of egoism. Psychically, we’re joined. They don’t ask us to make a film each. We make one film. We collaborate together and become one, to unify this whole psyche to do a film like ‘In Absentia.’ I understand why twins might want to be separated that are conjoined, fair enough, but the idea of going the other way to become one is a poetic notion, it’s very nice.”

Surprisingly, the size of the sets they build could fit on the table at which we did the interview, basically a 4-foot by 8-foot space. “It’s an extremely intimate universe and you’re on close-up lenses, but you can do a wide shot. What’s great about working on a tabletop like this is to explore its limitations. In other words, you demolish how small it is by provoking how large it can be on the screen by certain conditions. I think that’s a great challenge.”

When we mentioned the system at LAIKA Studios in Portland who have a huge assembly line of animators to make films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, they said they were happy just doing everything themselves. “It’s perfectly understandable that two guys that happen to be twins that they’re not easily going to integrate with a whole crew of people nor would we ever once in our life want to direct a whole team of animators. For us, the discovery is in touching and in the way we work with the puppets, but it’s our personal communion with these things. We wouldn’t know how to tell an animator to give life to, say, this pencil. That’s for us to discover.”

Even with the advances in technology, they’ve still used many of the same techniques they’ve always used, often referencing the silent film era and using techniques like matte painting for backgrounds. They do shoot everything organically using stop motion but then use modern technology to composite the work.

It might be surprising to some that every one of the Quays short films begins with the music, which may be more obvious with something like “In Absentia” which is animated to a Stockhausen piece, but it’s actually one of the most important aspects of what they do. “All the films are done to the music, every film. The scenario is in the music, it tells us what to do. Like a choreographer, you base it on the rhythms in the music. You have an idea but you subsume into the rhythms inside the music, they suggest things.”

“You listen to ‘In Absentia,’ and when you have a sequence when the voices start sobbing and crying, you better make sure you have that in sync with an image,” they continued. “Otherwise, you wasted your efforts. You have to know really when to adhere to sync and when to abandon or float off the sync. It’s just something that you innately feel and we’ve always used music like that.”

“Bergman first said it that our films are based on musical laws, not dramaturgical laws,” they elaborated on that thought. “You have to have a different language and it almost demands a musical, poetic language to talk about that because you’re snagging other realms that I don’t think necessarily words are going to acquit very well. You need a different kind of vocabulary.”

quaybrothersfeature3The Quays have never tried to make something mainstream or kid-friendly because they admit that they wouldn’t know how. “We don’t ask for big budgets, nor do we want them. Nobody would give that to us. These are small productions that we can say they’re based loosely on a text inspired by Robert Walser (“A Different Stripe”) or Bruno Schulz (“Street of Crocodiles”), but the Felisberto Hernandez (“Unmistaken Hands”) came from the Wexner Center in Ohio who trusted us with our work and just said ‘Here’s $50,000. What would you like to work on?’ and we said, ‘We’d like to adapt the Felisberto.’ ‘Go ahead. Off you go guys.’ They don’t question if that’s a good commercial project or is that going to make some money? It was a grant, so we’ve always worked in that area. They’re just small grants that you can hone your craft and explore the marginality of literature or cinema music.”

“It could be a powerful antidote to certain kinds of cinema that something like this will drift into your town like a tumbleweed,” they joked when it was suggested that them traveling with the tour would make it more interesting. “You have a chance to see it and then it rolls onto the next venue. 

In fact, even with their recent union with Nolan, one of the grand purveyors of keeping film alive, they joke that their two analog film cameras have made “perfect doorstops” for the last fifteen years. “We shoot things as if we were still shooting through a 35mm camera even though we’re using digital now,” they tell us. “We use the same lenses, but in our brain, nothing has changed. It’s a slight shift, but there’s kind of an acrimony against the digital, an aggressiveness between Christopher and what we had to resort to because we don’t have the budget he does, but he left us some 35mm film as a general provocation.”

Nolan’s Syncopy production company is also working with Zeitgeist to release “The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films” for the first time ever on Blu-ray on October 20, which will include “Quay” and a couple more recent shorts, but leading up to that, fans of their work can go to one of the 11 cities on the tour where the three short films can be seen on brand new 35mm prints, the way they were originally filmed. It will continue on at the Film Forum until August 25, but you can see the full line-up of where “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” will play over the next couple months on the Official Zeitgeist Site.

(Photo credit: Robin Holland/