The quizzical nature of the Brothers Quay

animators, Brothers Quay, Eastern european art, enigmatic, film shorts, filmmakers, Philadelphia born, stop animation, unique vision, University of the Arts

The magnificent two return. After graduating 40 years ago, the Brothers Quay finally came back to the University of the Arts [formerly Philadelphia College of Art / PCA] for the opening of their exhibition, DORMITORIUM: Film Décors by the Quay Brothers.

Born outside Philadelphia, PA, Stephen and Timothy Quay are identical twins better known as the Brothers Quay. They are influential stop-motion animators, filmmakers, scenic designers and artists. After studying illustration at PCA, they relocated to London in 1969 to study at the Royal College of Art. They began their career there – making their first film shorts. After 1979, the Quays’ work was influenced mainly by eastern European animators, puppeteers, writers and composers. In addition to numerous film shorts, their canon includes two feature films and scenic design for opera and theater. They have also created music videos for Michael Penn and worked as animators on Peter Gabriel’s seminal video Sledgehammer.

Their work is highly personal. The experimental and curious nature of the Quays’ psyche is unleashed there. Their films shorts have little spoken dialogue – relying heavily on metaphors and original scores to create ideas. Their overall work has been categorized as moody, quirky, surreal, avant-garde, abstract, bizarre, enigmatic – yet always memorable and visually unique. The Brothers steadfast, global cult following suggests that their singular vision still resonates.


I have seen nearly all of their shorts and both feature films. I’ve always wondered whether to be active or passive in experiencing their work. In one way, watching their films is like trying to solve a multi-leveled cryptic puzzle: the challenge is to find the way of reading the clues that lead to a solution. But in another way, the work is a mythic world that the Brothers Quay have created. Sit back and take it in.

Some favorites are:

  • Street of Crocodiles (short, 1986): My introduction to the world of the Quays. Briefly, a man in a lecture hall snips the strings of a puppet – the newly freed puppet explores his surroundings. Rather than examining the obvious symbolism of props as screws, dust, and string, shots focus on the movements and inherent characteristics of the materials. What does the protagonist get from these manufactured pleasures?
  • The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (feature, 2005): Opera singer, Malvina, is murdered on-stage before her wedding. Murderer Dr. Droz takes her to his remote villa. Instilled with life, Malvina is to lead a production and recreate her abduction. In prepping for the performance, piano tuner of earthquakes, Felisberto, sets out to activate the seven essential automata. Amnesiac Malvina is drawn to the mysterious Felisberto, but he soon realizes Malvina is being held against her will…
    A dark, dark fairy tale à la Brothers Grimm. The narrative is flawed, but the film is hypnotic and I was seduced by the world the characters inhabited.
  • The Phantom Museum (short, 2003):  An idiosyncratic journey through the bizarre private medical collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, the great entrepreneur and philanthropist. I was fortunate to have seen the Medicine Man exhibit in London and the Brothers’ film presents a beautiful cosmos of an odd, but fascinating collection.

DORMITORIUM: Film Decors by the Quay Brothers is on view at Parsons / The New School thru 04 october 2009. The exhibition includes original sets from many of their films.

Photos: © University of the Arts, © Zeitgeist Films: Street of Crocodiles (1986), The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984), The Phantom Museum (2003)

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