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Quay, Brothers (1947-)

Directors, Writers, Designers, Animators

Main image of Quay, Brothers (1947-)

Stephen and Timothy Quay, identical twins, were born in Norristown, near Philadelphia, in 1947. After graduating in 1969 from the Philadelphia College of Art, where they studied illustration and graphics, they won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. At the School of Film and Television they made their first short films (mostly lost), and met fellow student Keith Griffiths, who first collaborated with them on Nocturna Artificialia (1979), funded by the BFI Production Board. Working together as Koninck Studios, with Griffiths producing, the Quays have maintained a steady output of surreal and fastidious puppet animation films, supplemented by design work for opera, theatre and ballet. To help finance their avant-garde projects they have also worked on TV commercials, channel identification footage, and numerous music videos, including the Stille Nacht series, and, less characteristically, Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer.

The Quays are renowned for their craftsmanlike methods and their unusual sources of inspiration. Apart from their puppets, which typically look like old dolls abused by many generations of children, they construct their own sets, arrange the lighting, and operate the cameras. The films draw heavily on twentieth-century European visual and literary culture, especially the surrealist and expressionist traditions represented by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, the painter Max Ernst, and their fellow director of puppet films, the Czech Jan Svankmajer. As with Svankmajer, the Quays' cinema is short on conventional narrative but long on enigmatic visuals; music usually plays a major part in creating a bizarre, sinister atmosphere.

The world invented by the Quays appears frozen in time, covered with dust and cobwebs, full of mirrors and strange machinery - a world stored in a locked room or glass cabinet that nobody has accessed for decades. The colour scheme often suggests the hues of old photographs: sepias, browns, and dirty yellows predominate. Nocturna Artificialia, describing the cataleptic hero's adventures when he leaves his room for the city, immediately established their individual technique and propensity for dream narratives. Subsequent films in the early 1980s, made for the Arts Council or Channel 4, paid specific homage to the team's European influences, including the Punch and Judy tradition, the artistic vortex of 1920s Paris, Svankmajer, the Czech composer Janácek, and, in Ein Brudermord, the claustrophobic imagination of Franz Kafka.

The twenty-minute Street of Crocodiles (1986), their first film shot in 35mm, decisively lifted the Quays beyond the quasi-documentary orbit. The film is a homage to Bruno Schulz, one of whose novels bears the same title. The setting is a mythical land, somewhere in pre-Second World War provincial Poland, which operates like a living organism (Schulz in his work often compared a city to a living body). The population consists of people either half-dead or half-alive, with empty heads, who move in a circular, mechanical way, oblivious to anyone else's movements. The Quays suggest that this degraded land is stored in a deserted museum and activated by an old Kinetoscope machine - something that could be interpreted as a sign of their faith in the creative powers of cinema.

Further impressive film puzzles followed, among them The Comb, a sexually suggestive dream of damaged dolls, ladders, passageways, and a live-action woman (perhaps the dreamer), and De Artificiali Perspectiva, a quirky analysis of the optical distortions of anamorphosis. Then in 1995 the Quays mounted their first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta (UK/Japan/Germany), inspired by the writings of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser. Like the Street of Crocodiles, the Benjamenta Institute for the training of domestic servants presents a sinister microcosm, with its inhabitants leading a half-life of repetitive, largely pointless activities. Typically, the presence of actors prompted no change in the Brothers' stylistic approach: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, and Gottfried John became willingly used as quasi-objects, scrupulously positioned alongside forks, stag horns and dripping water in a fascinating if static symphony of light and shade constructed on the prevailing Quay themes of death, decay, and nothingness.

Recent collaborations with the choreographer William Tuckett and their small insert in Julie Taymor's Frida (US, 2002) have introduced wider audiences to the Quays; while The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Germany/UK/France, 2005), a live-action fairy-tale where a piano tuner attempts to rescue an opera singer from the clutches of a mad doctor in the Carpathian Mountains, is so bizarrely beautiful in its foggy, artificial, de-colourised way that it sure to attract new admirers. But the Quays remain director-animators for the cognoscenti - happy to live, like their films' characters and objects, in a remote, hermetic maze.

Buchan, Suzanne H., 'The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime', Film Quarterly v. 51, n. 3, Spring 1998, pp. 2-15
Greenaway, Peter, 'Street of Crocodiles', Sight and Sound, Summer 1986, pp. 182-183
Hammond, Paul, 'In Quay Animation', Afterimage 13, Autumn 1987, pp.54-67
Quay, Stephen and Timothy, 'Picked-up Pieces', Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1986, pp. 164-165
Romney, Jonathan, 'The Same Dark Drift', Sight and Sound, March 1992, pp. 24-27
Romney, Jonathan, 'Life's a Dream', Sight and Sound, August 1995, pp. 12-15
Tomlinson, Lynne, 'Launching the Quays', Animation Journal v.9, 2001, pp.5-19

Ewa Mazierska, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Anamorphosis (1991)Anamorphosis (1991)

Part-animated exploration and analysis of an optical conundrum

Thumbnail image of Are We Still Married? (1992)Are We Still Married? (1992)

The Quay Brothers' first music video for His Name Is Alive

Thumbnail image of Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)

A tribute to the great Czech animator

Thumbnail image of Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993)Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993)

The Quay Brothers' second music video for His Name Is Alive

Thumbnail image of Comb, The (1990)Comb, The (1990)

The Brothers Quay visit 'the museums of sleep'

Thumbnail image of Falls, The (1980)Falls, The (1980)

Peter Greenaway's catalogue of survivors of an unknown disaster

Thumbnail image of In Absentia (2000)In Absentia (2000)

Powerful visualisation of a piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Thumbnail image of Institute Benjamenta (1995)Institute Benjamenta (1995)

The Brothers Quay's debut feature, set in a bizarre school for servants

Thumbnail image of Nocturna Artificialia (1979)Nocturna Artificialia (1979)

Debut Brothers Quay: nocturnal puppet animation about dreams and trams

Thumbnail image of Phantom Museum, The (2003)Phantom Museum, The (2003)

A partly animated exploration of the Wellcome Trust's medical collections

Thumbnail image of Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)

Beautiful near-abstract black-and-white animation inspired by Fragonard(s)

Thumbnail image of Stille Nacht (1988)Stille Nacht (1988)

A ghostly vignette taking place on Christmas Eve

Thumbnail image of Street of Crocodiles (1986)Street of Crocodiles (1986)

A nightmarish netherworld populated by strange and sinister puppets

Thumbnail image of Tales From Vienna Woods (1992)Tales From Vienna Woods (1992)

The third in the Quay Brothers' Stille Nacht cycle

Thumbnail image of This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)

A tale of victims, victimisers and viciousness by the Brothers Quay

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Thumbnail image of Griffiths, Keith (1947-)Griffiths, Keith (1947-)

Producer, Director