ANIMATED THOUGHTS - DANIEL SZCZECHURA – MASTER OF ANIMATION
by Jerzy Armata (translation: Joanna Baczmaga)
Daniel Szczechura is beyond doubt one of the most important masters in the history of Polish and international animation. A quarter century ago – in 1990 – he was awarded the Special Prize by the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA) for invaluable contributions to the art and development of animated film.
Initially nothing suggested that Szczechura – one of the fathers of the acclaimed Polish school of animation famous in the 60s and 70s of the last century – would dedicate most of his life to the animated genre. In fact, his career started with amateur fiction shorts. He also studied cinematography at the Łódź Film School, where he often worked as a camera operator on documentary and fiction etudes directed by his fellow students from the faculty of film direction. By the way, the now 85 years old artist is currently filming… a documentary dedicated to horse riding (Koń jest najważniejszy).
His artistic education started at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Many years later, he returned there to teach, running the Animated Film Workshop at the Faculty of Graphic Arts for more than thirty years. During his studies he became involved in the very popular Students’ Satirical Theatre (STS), where he painted posters and prepared stage designs for many of the group’s productions. It seems that this episode proved to be very important for Szczechura. This was where he met the young and angry intellectual elite of the time. He became sure that, as the title of one of their shows
proclaimed – ‘thinking has a colossal future’. However, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with being a camera operator, whose role is more or less subordinate to that of the film director. This could be why he turned to animation, which he discovered somewhat by chance while studying cinematography. Animation gave him independence, bringing him closer to his work, and considerably reducing the number of intermediaries necessary for translating his ideas onto the screen. It transformed cinema, which is essentially a collective art, into a more individual and personal statement. ‘I became interested in animation because, on one hand, I could control the entire creative process on my own, and on the other hand, as I found out later on, this type of work suits my personality’ – Szczechura admitted in one of his interviews. From among all animation techniques the one that he found closest to perfection and would practice for many years to come was cutout animation, which made it possible to forgo the whole baggage of animators, in betweeners, and assistants.
To a great extent, his first films – Conflicts (1960), The Machine (1961), The Letter (1962), and A Chair (1963) – were based on a specific, sketch comedy style understanding of satire and its social function. Conflicts criticises censorship, The Machine ridicules the absurdities of everyday life, The Letter mocks human stupidity and overzeal, while A Chair is a short and concise tale (or an instructional film even) on ways of gaining power. This series of Szczechura’s satirical films concludes with Charles (1966) – an entertaining story of a man painting furtively a slogan on a wall and law enforcers trying to stop him (when they catch him writing ‘Down with C…’ he ends the slogan with ‘Charles’) – and The Landing (1968) – a pure nonsense, brilliantly humorous tale of two soldiers, a corporal and a private, falling through the air after jumping off a plane without their parachutes. The Landing had the privilege of being the longestshelved film in the history of Polish animation: banned by censors from the Main Authority of Control of Press, Publications and Shows in 1968, it premiered nineteen years later, to be distributed only in small cinemas and film clubs. In his A Graph (1966), Szczechura used geometric aesthetic similar to that seen in his previous film, A Chair: a small figure, carelessly and ascetically drawn, and an evertightening web of segments of the title graph that ends up covering the entire screen. Unlike his previous films, A Graph is not meant to be a critical examination of human faults or social absurdities.
Satirical sarcasm is replaced by philosophical reflection on the meaning of human existence. The protagonist is chasing something that cannot be reached, dedicating his entire life to striving for the elusive. The existential reflection of A Graph is continued in The Voyage (1970) and The Leap (1978). It is worth noting that in both films the animated character is not anonymous at all, his features entirely too similar to the face of the author himself. These are very intimate and perhaps the most important of Szczechura’s films. The Chair’s record of critical acclaim in terms of received awards and special prizes was almost equalled five years later by Szczechura’s grotesque Hobby, an impressive surreal tale of a coldhearted, sophisticated woman, and naïve men. The film opened a new path in Szczechura’s work. Realistic description, despite the forms being simplified nearly to the point of abstraction (as in the case of The Chair or The Graph), gradually gave way to an unconstrained play of imagination, linear plot replaced by a journey to the inside. This surreal style is continued in Mirage (1981) and Mirage 2 (1983). This is also road cinema of a kind, but with objects moving instead
of people. The films, produced using processed photographs, abandon the logic of cause and effect in favour of a dreamlike narrative. The theme of the journey also appears in A Good Night Story (1997), a poetic and nostalgic tale inspired by Stasys Eidrigevičius’ artworks.
Szczechura’s cinema started with depictions of reality made in a satirical, exaggerated, and sneering, but still descriptive way. But these buffo tones soon gave way to a more serious reflection, while documenting the superficial and the external was abandoned in favour of an insight into what is hidden beneath the surface, deep inside a human being.
Daniel Szczechura – animated film director and screenwriter, stage designer, and teacher. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and art history at the University of Warsaw. He also obtained a degree from the Cinematography Department at the Łódź Film School. From 1961 to early 90s
he worked with Se-ma-for, a Łódź-based animated film studio. He made over 30 animated films that won numerous awards at Polish and international film festivals.
Conflicts / Konflikty (1960) – 4th Student Film Festival of the StateHigher School of Cinema: Social Film Award and Audience Award
The Machine / Maszyna (1961) – 2nd Polish National Short Film Festival in Krakow: Bronze Wawel Dragon for an Animated Film
The Letter / Litera (1962) – 3rd Polish National Short Film Festival in Krakow: Bronze Wawel Dragon for an Animated Film
A Chair / Fotel (1963) – 10th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival: Grand Prix for an Animated Film; 1st International Short Film Festival in Krakow: Grand Prix Golden Wawel Dragon;
6th International Festival of Documentary and Experimental Films in Montevideo: Grand Prix
Charles / Karol (1966) – Viennale International Week of Entertaining Films: Honorary Diploma
A Graph / Wykres (1966) – 6th Polish National Short Film Festival in Krakow: Bronze Hobby-Horse for an Animated Film; Bergamo International Film Festival: honorary diploma
The Landing / Desant (1968)
Hobby (1968) – 14th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival: Grand Prize; 2nd International Animated Film Festival in Mamaia: Silver Pelican and FIPRESCI Prize; International Film Festival AdelaideAuckland: First Prize for an Animated Film; 7th Buenos Aires International Short Film Festival: First Prize for an Animated Film
Podróż / The Voyage (1970) – 10th Polish National Short Film Festival in Krakow: Bronze Hobby-Horse for Best Animated Film
Burning Fingers / Gorejące palce (1975)
The Problem / Problem (1977)
The Leap / Skok (1978) – 20th Barcelona International Film Festival: Silver Medal
Mirage / Fatamorgana (1981) – Oberhausen International Short Film Festival: FICC Award
Mirage 2 / Fatamorgana 2 (1983)
A Good Night Story / Dobranocka (1997)
Henryk Tomaszewski (1995)
Koń jest najważniejszy (in production)