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The Quay Brothers

The Quay Brothers, identical twins, were born in Norristown, near Philadelphia, in 1947. After graduating in 1969 from the Philadelphia College of Art, where they studied illustration and graphics, they won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. At the School of Film and Television they made their first short films (mostly lost), and met fellow student Keith Griffiths, who first collaborated with them on Nocturna Artificialia (1979), funded by the BFI Production Board. Working together as Koninck Studios, with Griffiths producing, the Quays have maintained a steady output of surreal and fastidious puppet animation films, supplemented by design work for opera, theatre and ballet. To help finance their avant-garde projects they have also worked on TV commercials, channel identification footage, and numerous music videos, including the Stille Nacht series, and, less characteristically, Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer.

The Quays are renowned for their craftsmanlike methods and their unusual sources of inspiration. Apart from their puppets, which typically look like old dolls abused by many generations of children, they construct their own sets, arrange the lighting, and operate the cameras. The films draw heavily on twentieth-century European visual and literary culture, especially the surrealist and expressionist traditions represented by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, the painter Max Ernst, and their fellow director of puppet films, the Czech Jan Svankmajer. As with Svankmajer, the Quays' cinema is short on conventional narrative but long on enigmatic visuals; music usually plays a major part in creating a bizarre, sinister atmosphere.

The world invented by the Quays appears frozen in time, covered with dust and cobwebs, full of mirrors and strange machinery - a world stored in a locked room or glass cabinet that nobody has accessed for decades. The colour scheme often suggests the hues of old photographs: sepias, browns, and dirty yellows predominate. Nocturna Artificialia, describing the cataleptic hero's adventures when he leaves his room for the city, immediately established their individual technique and propensity for dream narratives. Subsequent films in the early 1980s, made for the Arts Council or Channel 4, paid specific homage to the team's European influences, including the Punch and Judy tradition, the artistic vortex of 1920s Paris, Svankmajer, the Czech composer Janácek, and, in Ein Brudermord, the claustrophobic imagination of Franz Kafka.

The twenty-minute Street of Crocodiles (1986), their first film shot in 35mm, decisively lifted the Quays beyond the quasi-documentary orbit. The film is a homage to Bruno Schulz, one of whose novels bears the same title. The setting is a mythical land, somewhere in pre-Second World War provincial Poland, which operates like a living organism (Schulz in his work often compared a city to a living body). The population consists of people either half-dead or half-alive, with empty heads, who move in a circular, mechanical way, oblivious to anyone else's movements. The Quays suggest that this degraded land is stored in a deserted museum and activated by an old Kinetoscope machine - something that could be interpreted as a sign of their faith in the creative powers of cinema.

Further impressive film puzzles followed, among them The Comb, a sexually suggestive dream of damaged dolls, ladders, passageways, and a live-action woman (perhaps the dreamer), and De Artificiali Perspectiva, a quirky analysis of the optical distortions of anamorphosis. Then in 1995 the Quays mounted their first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta (UK/Japan/Germany), inspired by the writings of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser. Like the Street of Crocodiles, the Benjamenta Institute for the training of domestic servants presents a sinister microcosm, with its inhabitants leading a half-life of repetitive, largely pointless activities. Typically, the presence of actors prompted no change in the Brothers' stylistic approach: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, and Gottfried John became willingly used as quasi-objects, scrupulously positioned alongside forks, stag horns and dripping water in a fascinating if static symphony of light and shade constructed on the prevailing Quay themes of death, decay, and nothingness.

Recent collaborations with the choreographer William Tuckett and their small insert in Julie Taymor's Frida (US, 2002) have introduced wider audiences to the Quays; while The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Germany/UK/France, 2005), a live-action fairy-tale where a piano tuner attempts to rescue an opera singer from the clutches of a mad doctor in the Carpathian Mountains, is so bizarrely beautiful in its foggy, artificial, de-colourised way that it sure to attract new admirers. But the Quays remain director-animators for the cognoscenti - happy to live, like their films' characters and objects, in a remote, hermetic maze.


  • 1979 Nocturna Artificalia (Nocturna Artificalia, or Those Who Desire Without End (21') [British Film Institute]

  • 1980 Punch & Judy (Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy) (52') [Arts Council of Great Britain]

  • 1981 Ein Brudermord (6') [GLAA]

  • 1981 The Eternal Day Of Michel De Ghelderode (30') [Arts Council of Great Britain]

  • 1982 Igor - Chez Pleyel - The Paris Years (25') [Channel Four]

  • 1983 Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions (25') [Channel Four]

  • 1984 The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer (14') [Channel Four]

  • 1985  The Epic Of Gilgamesh/ Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse or This Unnameable Little Broom (11') [Channel Four]

  • 1986  Street Of Crocodiles (20') [British Film Institute]

  • 1987  Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (14') [Channel Four]

  • 1988 Dramolet (Stille Nacht I) (1') [MTV]

  • 1989 Ex-Voto / The Pond (1') [MTV]

  • 1990 The Comb /From The Museums Of Sleep (18') [Channel Four]

  • 1990 De Artificiali Perspectiva Or Anamorphosis (13') [J Paul Getty Trust]

  • 1991 The Calligrapher Parts I, II, III (1') [BBC]

  • 1991 Are We Still Married? (Stille Nacht II) (3') [4AD]

  • 1992 Long Way Down (Look What The Cat Drug In) (3')

  • 1992 Tales From The Vienna Woods (Stille Nacht III) (3') [Atelier Koninck QBFZ]

  • 1993 Can't Go Wrong Without You (Stille Nacht IV) (3') [4AD]

  • 1994 Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (105') [Channel Four/ Image Forum/ British Screen/ Pandora Films]

  • 1995 The Summit

  • 1999 Duet - Variations For The Convalescence Of 'A' (16') [Channel Four]

  • 2000 The Sandman (41') [Channel Four]

  • 2000 In Absentia (20') [BBC]

  • 2000 Dog Door (Stille Nacht V) (5')

  • 2003 Poor Roger / Oranges And Lemons / Green Gravel / Jenny Jones

  • 2003 The Phantom Museum: Random Forays Into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome's Medical Collection (11') [The Wellcome Trust]

  • 2006 The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (99')

  • 2009 Inwentorium śladów (23')- produkcja [Serafiński Studio Graficzno - Filmowe]