Interview: David Súkup

Interview: David Súkup

06 | 05

David Súkup:  I enjoy trying out different techniques and exploring their possibilities

One of this year's jury members judging the short and student film competitions is David Súkup, a Czech animator, director, art designers, and the author of a number of short films made using various animation techniques. In addition to directing television projects, such as the animated bedtime series Králík Fiala and Jezevec Chrujda or the series of animated songs Sing with Us, he also worked on several of the short stories included in the animated adaptation of Jan Werich's Fimfárum. Furthermore, in collaboration with producer Martin Vandas, he is also working on his own original animated films. 

When did you fall for animation and decide to pursue it? 

Ever since I was a kid, I was strangely drawn to animation, even though I had no idea what it was all about. Towards the end of primary school, when we were deciding about our future careers, I had already made up my mind. From there I went to a secondary art school, where one of my teachers had previously worked as a cinematographer at Krátký film Praha, and through him I got quite early, at the age of 16, into Krátký film and I have been working in animation ever since. 

Can you now, with hindsight, evaluate what animated filmmaking has actually brought you? What do you think is the goal of animation? 

It has brought me huge amounts of worry, work, stress, and missed deadlines, but most of all pleasure. I still greatly enjoy it, maybe even more than before. I think the goal of animation is to show different worlds, maybe even the author’s inner world, or to show something that is harder to show in the real world. 

One of your teachers was Břetislav Pojar. How did he influence you? 

Břetislav Pojar influenced me deeply by his approach to directing. We discussed scripts, shot sizes, etc. very intensely with him, and he helped us come up with solutions to how to express the meaning of a text with pictures.  

You initially worked as an animator, but eventually chose to focus on directing. What is it about this profession that drives you? 

I didn't really animate that much in my career. Of course, I had to animate the films that I made at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, but after school people tend to automatically gravitate towards directing or the artistic aspects of filmmaking. It is only after many years that I have now returned to animating itself while working on the second season of the bedtime series Jezevec Chrujda. With directing, I enjoy thinking about how to grasp the chosen subject matter because there are always a thousand ways you can approach it. I find it fulfilling both first selecting the subject matter itself and then transforming it according to my interpretation and intent. 

What does an animated film director need in order to make their ideas a reality? 

They have to be lucky enough to have good co-workers. When the team doesn't work well together or when there is someone with whom you don't get along, it's hard to make your ideas a reality. It’s important to pick a good art designer, animator, and cinematographer, so that everyone is able to pull together. Each of them will leave their own specific mark on the film. When you’re working on a script and a storyboard, you can never know what the end result will actually look like. Most of the film gets created while shooting, which is pretty much the most exciting thing about it for me because that's when the team collectively comes up with ideas that the director would never have come up with alone at their desk. 

Initially, you worked mainly with puppets, but later on you started using other techniques as well. Which technique is your favourite now and why?

Since I’m always switching from one technique to another, I don't really know. I’d say that puppets are the most badass thing to me, the royalty of animation techniques. I also did cutout animation for a while, which was also distinctive in many ways. I don't think I have any one favourite technique, instead I’d say that I enjoy trying out different techniques and exploring their possibilities. The one thing I don't think I would dare to do is painting on glass! 

You have already mentioned the bedtime series Jezevec Chrujda, but that’s not the only project you have worked on for Czech Television. How did your cooperation with CT begin?  

Czech Television, specifically their programme manager  Miloš Zvěřina, approached me years ago to direct the animated series Králík Fiala. When we were finishing our studies at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, Miloš asked around to see if anyone would be interested in collaborating with Czech Television. Some of us were interested, some were not, some looked down on working with CT, but I was all for it. And we have been cooperating ever since. 

Do you know what options young animators who would like to start working with Czech Television have today? 

One way this can happen is if CT has a project and they approach a director who seems ideal for the film or series based on his or her previous work. The other way is for you, as a filmmaker, to offer your own script to CT and try to convince them that your project is a good fit for them. But I’d say that's a bit tricky because film production for children has a lot of unwritten rules that people may not be fully aware of and therefore the subject matter of their film may not quite fit CT’s dramaturgical plan. I think that many times such attempts also fail because of the chosen visual style, with which young creators often want to break down various boundaries and come up with something new and original, but they don't realise that film production for children has its own rules. 

So CT doesn’t, for example, call for new project proposals? 

I don't think so. At least in my case, CT approached me straight away with specific ideas, and often the art director had already been chosen as well. This was also the case with Jezevec Chrujda. It is often the case that CT decides to make an adaptation of a successful book that someone has already illustrated, and in order to maintain the same visual style, the illustrator also becomes the art designer of the animated adaptation. Which I think is quite logical and the right way to do it.

The bedtime series Jezevec Chrujda, based on the book of the same name by Petr Stančík illustrated by Lucie Dvořáková, was made using semi-relief animation. Did CT also determine the animation technique to be used? 

No, as the director, you have a say in what technique will be used. On the other hand, for example, in the case of Králík Fiala, the plan from the beginning was to make the series using hand-drawn animation, even though Eva Sýkorová-Pekárková's art style would be a good match with cutout animation as well. In illustrating Jezevec Chrujda, Lucie Dvořáková chose a more painterly style of illustration, which is hard to replicate using hand-drawn animation, so got the idea to try semi-relief animation, and it worked our very well. 

What do you think of current animated film production for children (both the Bedtime Stories series and any other animated films)? 

I don't watch a lot of Bedtime Stories. (Laughs) Well, of course I do watch one or two episodes whenever a new show comes out or when I know that a friend or a former classmate of mine worked on it. So I'm mainly curious about new films and series by my friends and acquaintances. But if I were to evaluate animation for kids in general, I’d say that it's great that Bedtime Stories are still being produced. As for what the younger generation has been making, I have to admit that I'm a bit of a barbarian in this respect, and I don't really follow what's being produced in schools. Occasionally, when a successful new film comes out, it eventually gets on my radar, and I’m happy to watch it, but I don’t really have much awareness of current animated film production for children... 

You contributed to the feature film Fimfárum: the Third Time Lucky – you directed one a short story called Reason and Luck. How difficult was it to coordinate the animation process with Jan Werich's narration? 

When you're writing a script for your own original film, you can adapt or change anything to suit your needs. When the actors are recording dialogues, they can speed up, slow down, record another version, all depending on the needs of the film being made, and then you do the lip-synching, etc. In some rare cases, if something just doesn't work, you can have them record whatever you need again or fix any issues. The difference with Fimfárum was that Werich's stories had already been written and his narration had been recorded, and there was nothing that could be done with that in terms of editing or any changes. And Werich could have hardly anticipated that his fairy tales would be made into animated films, so he obviously didn't take into account the particular requirements of animation. But otherwise the sound work was more or less the same as with other films. Werich's delivery is perfect, though, so it was easy for the animators to follow his narration. But the rule that the narrator should not describe what the viewer can already see on the screen couldn’t really be applied here. In most cases this rule holds true, but with Werich it's the other way around – his descriptions are magical, and had they been cut out unnecessarily, the film would have lost much of its poetic charm. 

When directing Reason and Luck, you collaborated for the first time with artist Patricia Ortiz Martinez. How did you get to work together and how was it? 

I first met Patricia when I was animating another Fimfárum story, The Hat and the Little Jay Feather. It was directed by Vlasta Pospíšilová, and Patricia was in charge of the production together with Jan Balej. So once I knew I would be directing Reason and Luck, the first person I thought of was Jan Balej, but he was working on his feature film at the time and didn't have time, so he recommended Patricia, whom I already knew back then. Her artwork was great. Since Patricia is Spanish, her style had a different flair than what we are used to seeing in Czech puppet films, and I liked it very much. 

What is important for you when choosing an art designer? 

Firstly, their art style – whether it fits the material being directed – but I also choose based on how well we get along. It's important to me that we get on well on a personal level. For example, I am currently working on an animated adaptation of The Chattertooth Eleven with producer Martin Vandas, for which I have asked Tomáš and Martin Zach to be the art designers. I met them while directing a series for the Czech Academy of Sciences called Undistorted Science. When I saw their style, I immediately thought that was exactly what I needed for The Chattertooth Eleven.

You have also been working with Martin Vandas for several years on the co-production film Of Unwanted Things and People. You are in charge of adapting the story Orphans. What was the initial impulse to film Arnošt Goldflam's book, and how is the international cooperation currently going? 

Martin Vandas got the idea when he came across a book of short stories by Arnošt Goldflam. He selected several stories and asked me if I would like to direct one of them. We found Orphans to be the most interesting and heart-warming one, so we agreed to make it into a short film. But when we actually started working on it, Martin realized that it would be a shame to do just one, and that we could adapt more of them. But that would have been too much of a long-term project for me and I wasn’t really into it. So Martin approached various foreign producers whom he knew and who could take on more stories. Currently, filmmakers from Slovakia, Slovenia, and France are working on the film and this international collaboration has considerably protracted the entire process. While I had already finished filming and submitted my part, colleagues from other countries were, for example, still applying for grants. So now we are waiting for all the parts to get finished so that we can finally start post-production, which will also take place simultaneously in several countries. So let’s hope we’ll see the film finished one day. 

Is this feature film the most challenging project that you have worked on so far? 

I have to admit that the most challenging project for me so far has been The Chattertooth Eleven, which I have been working on for about six or seven years now. The problem with such projects is that you don't work on them continuously, but you get to it once in a while, and in the meantime you work on ads, for example, so it all drags on a bit. I was in charge of the entire animatic, which I had to redo several times and based on which Marek Epstein then rewrote the script. Later on, the story changed as well, so there were numerous versions of both the script and the animatic. At the moment it's also challenging for me because even though we did get money for development, when we later applied for a grant for its production, we didn't get it. It's not clear yet whether the project will go ahead at all. 

Recently, you also made a short poetic film called Ivan Wernisch – In the Coffee Grinder for the series Poetry in Animation. How was this project conceived and what is it about? 

Again, it was Martin Vandas who came up with the project. He got the idea of bringing together fifty animation filmmakers and have them make short animated films using various techniques based on fifty poems by Czech authors. Each film was to be no longer than one minute, and after negotiating with distributors, Martin managed to arrange for the individual films to be screened in cinemas before feature films. In addition, the series could be screened by TV stations, at festivals, etc. But the project is on ice for now as its financial and legal aspects are still being addressed. It would be a pity if it wouldn’t get completed, because I personally think the series is a fantastic idea. So far, only the pilot, meaning my film, has been made. 

Your work also includes many advertisements or commissions. How would you say this type of production differs from other short films? Have you taken away anything from it that you have used in your own projects? 

The main difference between making advertisements and other projects is definitely the money you get. (laughs) But the advertising industry has also seen a major downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of production teaches you a certain precision of work. When you have thirty seconds that have to look great, you have to know precisely what to do and how to do it. You also learn to work under pressure because the deadlines for finishing ads are unbreakable. At the same time, this type of work is great in that it keeps you in touch with modern technologies, which are constantly evolving. 

Several years ago, you were preparing your animated horror film Karavana. Where is the project now, and can you tell us more about it? 

It was planned to be a feature-length puppet film based on the book by Wilhelm Hauff, which was illustrated by Jiří Trnka. The plot was about a caravan travelling through a desert, whose members tell scary stories at each stop. The film was to be produced again by Martin Vandas, and I wrote the script together with Irena Hejdová. We really liked the idea of an animated horror film for adults, but it didn’t get past the script stage. We were discouraged by the great cost of making the required puppets because you have to meet higher standards when making an animated film for adult viewers... Eventually, we were unable to find a satisfactory way how to adapt the story, so we abandoned the project. 

Are you working on any other project besides the new season of Jezevec Chrujda and The Chattertooh Eleven adaptation? 

Yes, we are preparing a brand new Bedtime Stories series, but I’m not allowed to tell you anything about it yet. (laughs)