Paradox Ethereal Magazine issue 11 -108

Stephen and Timothy Quay

the magical stop-motion animators

“If [a] project does eventually get approval, then we almost invariably chuck [the] original proposal out, not out of any cavalierness, but simply because we know that, as we start building the decors and the puppets, the script begins to grow and evolve very organically.”

(From an interview with Robert K. Elder for his book The Best Film You’ve Never Seen)

Article, by Korina Methers

Stephen and Timothy Quay are American stop-motion animators. The identical twin brothers otherwise called the Brothers Quay or Quay Brothers received the 1998 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for their work on the play The Chairs.

Timothy had studied Illustration and Stephen Film at the Philadelphia College of Art before they moved to England, in 1969, to study at the Royal College of Art. Before turning to film, the Quays worked as professional illustrators. The first edition of Anthony Burgess’ novel The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby’s End, features their drawings before the start of each chapter. After designing book covers for Gothic and science fiction book cover commissions they did while in Philadelphia, the Quays have created suggestive designs for a variety of publications that seem to reflect not only their own interests in particular authors, covers for Italo Calvino, Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Mark le Fanu’s study of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but also in themes and motifs that these authors develop.

In 1980 the twins and Keith Griffiths, a fellow student and later their producer, formed Koninck Studios in South London.


The Quay Brothers’ works since 1979 until today are characterised by esoteric influences, starting with the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica and continuing with the writers Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser and Michel de Ghelderode, puppeteers Wladyslaw Starewicz and Czech Richard Teschner and Czech composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Polish Leszek Jankowski, the last of whom has created many original scores for their work. Last but not least the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, for whom they named one of their films (The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer). Literary texts are inspirational sources for almost all of their film projects

Quay brothers emphasize that the most significant influence on their work was Walerian Borowczyk, who made both animation shorts and live-action features.


Most of their animation films feature puppets made of doll parts and other organic and inorganic materials, often partially disassembled, in a dark, moody atmosphere. Titles, intertitles and credits appear in a variety of handwritten styles. Most of heir films have no spoken content at all, while others, such as The Comb (From the Museums of Sleep) (1990) include multilingual background gibberish that is not intended to be coherently understood. Perhaps their best-known work is Street of Crocodiles, based on the short novel of the same name by the Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz. This short film was selected by director and animator Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time, and critic Jonathan Romney included it on his list of the ten best films in any medium (for Sight and Sound’s 2002 critics’ poll).

They have made two feature-length live action films: Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, produced by Keith Griffiths and Janine Marmot, and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes, produced by Keith Griffiths. They also directed an animated sequence in the film Frida.

The critical success of Street of Crocodiles gave the Quay Brothers artistic freedom that led to the exploration of new aesthetic forms, also allowing them to make extensive experiments in technique, both with cameras and on large stage sets.

The creative brothers are also engaged in stage design for opera, ballet and theatre since 1988. Their work at miniature scale has translated into large-scale decors for the theatre and opera productions of director Richard Jones: Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges; Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear”; Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa; and Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”. Their set design for a revival of Ionesco’s “The Chairs” was nominated for a Tony Award in 1998.

Their puppet animation set designs have been curated as an internationally touring exhibition called “Dormitorium” which toured the east coast of the United States in 2009.


The Quay brothers prefer to work with pre-recorded music.Music plays a very important role in the Quay brothers’ films, many of which have been written especially for them by the Polish composer Leszek Jankowski. In 2000, they contributed a short film to the BBC’s Sound On Film series in which they visualised a 20-minute piece by the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

They have created music videos for His Name Is Alive (“Are We Still Married”, “Can’t Go Wrong Without You”), Michael Penn (“Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)”) and 16 Horsepower (“Black Soul Choir”).


Feature films

Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995)
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

Short films

Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
Punch And Judy (Tragical Comedy or
Comical Tragedy) (1980)
Ein Brudermord (1981)
The Eternal Day Of Michel de Ghelderode (1981)
Stravinsky – The Paris Years (1983)
Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions (1983)
The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984)
The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) a.k.a. Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (1988)
Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988)
Old Piano (1988) – an ident for MTV
Ex-Voto/The Pond (1989)
The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep) (1990)
Rain Dance (1990) – a short film for Sesame Street
De Artificiali Perspectiva, or Anamorphosis (1991)
The Calligrapher (1991) – an ident commissioned for the BBC2 television channel, but never broadcast
Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1991)
Long Way Down (Look What The Cat Drug In) (1992)
Stille Nacht III: Tales From Vienna Woods (1992)
Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You (1993)
The Summit (1995)
In Absentia (2000)
Duet (2000)
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door (2001)
The Phantom Museum: Random Forays Into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection (2003)
Inwentorium śladów (2009) Poland (23’)
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) [2011] Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (2013)


The Falls (1980)

Books about Quay Brothers / References

*Mikurda, Kuba and Prodeus, Adriana (Eds). Trzynasty miesiąc. Kino Braci Quay. Cracow-Warsaw: Korporacja Ha!art & IFF Era New Horizons, 2010.
*Buchan, Suzanne. The Quay Brothers. Into a Metaphysical Playroom. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
*Buchan, Suzanne, et al. The Quay Brothers’ Universum. nai010, EYE, 2013.
*Pilling, Jayne and Fabrizio Liberti (Eds). Stephen e Timothy Quay. Bergamo: Stamperia Stefanoni, 1999.

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