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Original Creators: Stop-Motion Animators Of The Surreal, The Brothers Quay

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: The Brothers Quay.

Bringing life to inanimate objects in dark and curious worlds, identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, widely known as the Brothers Quay, have led a unique brand of experimentation in stop-motion puppet animation for over 30 years. They have produced more than 45 moving image works inspired by various animators, artists, and writers from Central Europe.

As Stephen Quay describes their work, “Our films are dark fairy tales with elements of grotesquerie and the pathological.” His brother Timothy Quay adds, “We set them in a twilight world, midway between sleep and wakefulness.”

Known for introducing a subversive darkness rarely seen in animation, their works inspired the likes of filmmakers Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. Just recently, New York City’s MoMA began a retrospective of the Quay Brothers’ inimitable works. In addition to their signature films, the exhibition also displays installations of never-before-seen illustrations and graphic design.

Born in 1947 in Pennsylvania, the identical twin brothers, who also happen to be Geminis, studied illustration in Philadelphia, where they were introduced to surrealist films like those of the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenings of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and Swedish film and theater director Ingmar Bergman were a major influence on the Quays while they attended the Royal College of Art in London in the late 1960s. It was there that they began producing their first animated shorts, which they continue to this day in their London studio, Atelier Koninck.

As two of the most original artists in their field, the esteemed filmmakers forward a passionate eye for detail and a revolutionary vision for texture and color. When paired with their otherworldly direction of the camera, these traits are incredibly distinct. Below, we take a look at just a few of the seminal works of the Brothers Quay.

Street of Crocodiles (1987)

Selected as one of the ten best animation films of all time by filmmaker Terry Gilliam, Street of Crocodiles is the Quay Brothers’ most recognized classic. The short animation, washed in a blue and sepia tint, is based on the short novel of the same title written by Polish writer Bruno Schultz who was killed by a Nazi officer.

Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1996)

Their first live-action feature-length film, Institute Benjamenta, is described by the Brothers Quay as a parallel universe of Robert Walser’s novel, Jakob von Gunten. The film focuses on the experiences of a young man, Jakob, training to become a manservant under the oppressive instruction of his brother and sister, Johannes and Lisa Benjamenta.

In Absentia (2000)

Commissioned by the BBC as part of the Sound on Film International series, this short is a collaboration with avante-garde musical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. With a soundtrack of Stockhausen‘s electronic piece Zwei Paare (Two Couples), the story is inspired and dedicated to a woman who wrote letters to her husband from an asylum.

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