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Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay - Biography

Brothers Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay are esteemed filmmakers, film directors and animators. They are identical twins most famously known as both either Brothers Quay or the Quay Brothers. Indeed their collaborative stop-motion animations are extremely well known for the ways in which they have been influential to the field. They were born on June 17, 1947 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a town that had an important European immigrant influx, which surely helped in sparking the two brother’s interest in European culture in general, but especially that of Easter Europe in particular. They attended art school together at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, USA and at the Royal College of Art in London, UK in the late 1960s where they would set their studio and where they still live today as well. They are both professors of Animated Film at The European Graduate School where they have taught an intensive summer seminar, typically in the form of a workshop.

It is during their time studying in Philadelphia that they would take film courses and in doing so would see for the first time the surrealist movies of Luis Buñuel (1900 - 1983), the ones by the Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889 - 1968), who is considered by many critic as being one of the most important directors of all times. But the two brothers would also be introduced to the films of the Russian movie director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932 - 1986) as well as the ones of Swedish movie and theater director Ingmar Bergman (1918 - ). Such screenings would be incredibly formative for them. As a result, they would decide to make their own films and would manage to make a few short films as well as two animation movies using a kind of collage as a method. After graduation in 1969, they would as we have seen move to study in England. At that time they would make three short animated films: Der der Loop Loop ; Il Duetto ; and, Palace in flames.

With their first movies, Stephen and Timothy Quay would show a particular taste for esoteric influences. Indeed they began with the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk (1923 - 2006) and Jan Lenica (1928 - 2001). They would then show their inspiration was grounded by the work of writers such as the famous Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924), the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878 - 1956), the avant-gardes Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode (1898 - 1962), the Russian and French animator Wladyslaw Starewicz (1882 - 1965). Moreover, Czech composers too such Leoš Janáček (1854 - 1928) as well as Zdeněk Liška (1922 - 1983) would be a great source of inspiration for them. The same would be true with the Polish composer Leszek Jankowski (1956 - ) who would in fact write original musical scores for a good deal of their films.

The Quay Brothers would create films that the critics would often call surreal and which usually involve inanimate objects coming to life. In 1998 they were the recipient of the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for their outstanding effort on the play The Chairs (originally “Les Chaise”) by the Romanian and French Theatre of the Absurd playwright Eugène Ionesco (1909 - 1994). The other recipient that same year was Richard Hudson (1954 - ) for his work on the famous musical The Lion King.

The Brothers Quay are two of the most remarkable filmmakers of our time. Working in collaboration since at least 1969, when they first moved to London from the United States, their stop-action films have introduced a generation of viewers to a lyrical darkness not often associated with animation. Influenced heavily by Central European writers and artists their work reflects the dark psychology resulting from a century of industrial warfare, surrealist art and dialectical politics. For example, they have especially been inspired by figures like the Polish killed by a German Nazi officer Bruno Schultz (1892 - 1942), on whose story Street of Crocodiles (1986) is based. As well as the German Dada painter Max Ernst (1891 - 1976), but also the influential multimedia Czech filmmaker and puppeteer Jan Švankmajer (1934 - ). The latter it is noteworthy has also influenced other famous noted individuals such as film director Tim Burton (1958 - ) and the American-born British screenwriter, director and actor Terry Gilliam (1940 - ), who is also a member of the famous Monty Python troupe. Stephen and Timothy Quay would in fact be such great admirers of Švankmajer that they would dedicate one of their short films to him, entitled The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984).

The Quay Brothers have also worked in advertising for big names like Nikon or Coca-Cola, as well as in music, and example of their work there is the video clip for the famous British musician Peter Gabriel (1950) song Sledge Hammer (1986), which went as high as number 4 on the UK music charts and reached number 1 in the US, ironically knocking out Genesis’ “Invisible Touch”. The song itself dealt with sex and sexual relations. The inseparable filmmakers would also do work for MTV.

It is difficult to distinguish who does what exactly in the brilliantly creative pair that Stephen and Timothy Quay make. Indeed, they are both directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and animators. Indeed, looking at their individual trade only, the sole skill that separates them slightly is the fact that Stephen Quay has, unlike his brother, done some acting on top of everything else. His latest being as the librarian the 2003 TV movie The Phantom Museum: Random Forays Into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection. This film was, however, directed my both brothers.

As a piece of perhaps unsurpassed filmmaking, in fact their most famous work to date, Street of Crocodiles is a twenty-one minute animation film which evokes pre-war Poland, provincial and mystical, connected to the traditions of history before the destruction of the German war machine rolled across it. Shot in both a blue and sepia tint, Street of Crocodiles, is a step backwards into a mind seemingly locked in a frozen half-made world, something nearly mad yet instantly recognizable. Like the scene of a car accident (or film footage of the Warsaw Ghetto), it is impossible to turn away, yet horrifying to remain present. In this half-made world, ordinary items are enlarged and distorted, dolls' eyes peer out at the spectator, and screws, twisting and turning as though in a mad ballet, remove and insert themselves from pieces of wood.

In their later work, the Brothers Quay have expanded their use of stop-action filmmaking by mixing it with live choreography involving installation, and at times even ballet. In The Sandman, a televised ballet starring the Spanish prima ballerina Tamara Rojo (1974 - ) and the Soviet-born dancer Irek Mukhamedov (1960 - ), the image-movements of puppets are reproduced in the jerky staccato forms of the dancers.

We will have to wait until 1995 for the two brothers start giving us feature films with Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life. The next one would not be until 10 years later: The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), which would be a free adaptation of the Argentinian Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914 - 1999) notable novel The Invention of Morel.

Brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay have made over the years many films ranging from dozens of short movies to a few feature-length films. The wide collection of their oeuvre includes: Maska (2010). Inventorium Sladow (2009). Eurydice... She, So Beloved (2007), The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), The Phantom Museum: Random Forays Into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome's Medical Collection (2003), Poor Roger (2003), Songs for Dead Children (2003), Oranges and Lemons (2003), Green Gravel (2003), Jenny Jones (2003), The Sandman (2000), In Absentia (2000), Duet – Variations for the Convalescence of 'A' (1999), Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1995), The Summit (1995), Stille Nacht IV: Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993), Long Way Down (Look What The Cat Drug In) (1992), Stille Nacht III: Tales From Vienna Woods (1992), De Artificiali Perspectiva, or Anamorphosis (1991), The Calligrapher Parts I, II, III (1991), Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1991), The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep) (1990), Ex-Voto / The Pond (1989), Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (1988), Street of Crocodiles (1986), The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom (aka Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse) (1985), The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984), Stravinsky - The Paris Years (1983), Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions (1983), Igor – Chez Pleyel – The Paris Years (1982), Ein Brudermord (1981), The Eternal Day Of Michel de Ghelderode (1981), Punch And Judy (Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy) (1980) and Nocturna Artificialia (1979).

Stephen and Timothy Quay are Professors of Animated Film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where they conduct an Intensive Summer Workshop.