I directed cartoon shorts for 65 years, first on film, and later on pixels. I’ve actually had two careers in animation, first in Hollywood, Detroit and New York from 1946 to 1960, and from then on in the Golden city of Prague for forty more years! My first Prague film, produced for movie theater release by Paramount Pictures in 1960, won an Oscar. Several others got nominated. Oscars then were for films shown in movie theaters, when short cartoons were still a regular part of movie house programs. One Oscar-nominated Paramount cartoon of mine introduced my favorite personal creation, a homeless, hapless creature named Nudnik. This week we’ll look at the first six.
Nudnik seemed to be a born failure, but I tried to make him charming and funny enough to make audiences feel he was their bumbling relative. That lugubrious slow-drag blues music, played by a famous 1960’s Prague jazz group led by my old friend Karel Velebny, was just what I wanted for Nudnik, a steady moan, to back up the clownish blows suffered by the disaster-prone Nudnik.
As a blues fan, I loved that music, but Paramount hated it, and in spite of the cartoon’s Oscar nomination, they insisted on something “more cartoonish.” So from then on I had to go musically to the opposite extreme. I picked the bright, mindless depression song, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” that seemd to be exactly Nudnik’s theme tune, as a happy-go-lucky loser. It was arranged for me as cartoon music by a famous Czech swingband leader of the time, Ferda Havlik.
NUDNIK ON THE ROOF
With the first episode, the Nudnik pattern was set. In each film Nudnik awakens in a different miserable pad, and things only get worse. That’s what Nudnik’s name was supposed to suggest, but as a confused Jew, I’d gotten it wrong. I was shocked to find out, too late, that the Yiddish word “nudnik” meant a bore. A BORE!!! That’s the last thing I wanted my Nudnik to be, So now I have to do a frantic back-peddling, and make up a history to explain why his name isn’t “Schlimazel!”
I tell the whole nitwit story about Nudnik’s name in my book entitled, Nudnik Revealed, published by Fantagraphics, and cheap enough so that even Nudnik himself could afford to buy a copy! Order one, click here.
I stumbled into Prague in 1959, when it was one of the most unclever places on the planet to be in at the time. It was then a communist dictatorship, with no sign at all of any democratic future. Nearly 55 years later as I record this, it’s one of the great places to be. The the name, “Nudnik,” came to me from having to learn the Czech language. The devilish grammar was compensated somewhat by the fun of its sounds. I laughed at Czech words like “plukovnik,” “chodnik,” “cajnik,” “sputnik,” “parnik,” “kralik,” “rohlik,” before I had any idea what those words meant. They kinda reminded me of the funny English word, “picnic!” And I’d heard my parents use the word “nudnik” to describe someone they didn’t think much of. The word sounded funny to me!. So “Nudnik” it was, whatever the hell it meant!
WHO NEEDS NUDNIK?
Like most animators, I was inspired by those great cinema clowns, Buster Keaten, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and also from seeing the great tramp circus clown Emmett Kelley. Such a clown character came to mind when I was creative chief for a short while at CBS Terrytoons. I created a character there called “Foofle,” He was sort of a proto Nudnik, but I wasn’t at Terrytoons long enough to fully develop him. It was 10 years later, in Prague that another chance appeared when we were invited to make some cartoons for Paramount. It was our chance to expand the character beyond what I had time to to at Terrytoons.
DRIVE ON, NUDNIK!
A character violation about Nudnik, that no one seemed to notice, was that even though he could never get any other things right, he was always able to deftly tie the knots in his red bandana head cozy. He had to do it in every film; I felt that it was necessary for me to establish his prosaic headpiece in every film right off, and get it out of the way. I had to keep in mind that the Nudnik films were designed for movie theater audiences, and it would be rare for any single viewer to see more than one or two of them…. ever! My thinking would’ve been different if I were doing Nudnik for a daily or even weekly TV slot, when such basic things would only be repeated if a more significant gag would develop from the action. – What was consistant about Nudnik was that he was always tender hearted, and was always rewarded by others with contempt.
FROM NUDNIK, WITH LOVE
In working up the animation model for Nudnik, I had the usual goal, to create a character that was unique, unlike any other, that might bring something not only truly new, but possibly even relevant! A tall order. I earnestly try, whenever I have a chance, to make something relevant. I heard many times that old warning, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union!” Well, Weston Union is out of the telegram business, and today movies are one of the prime ways to make a statement. But if a telegram would be addressed to “Mr. Outsider,” Nudnik would’ve received it!
Nudnik as a film series had the same bad luck as Nudnik the cartoon character. Nudnik was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so were his films. I still proclaim that Nudnik is my favorite and most personal creation, and I had hoped he (I think he was a “he”) would go far. After all, in spite of his embedded ineptness, he was in fact nominated for an Oscar!
NEXT WEEK: The rest of the Nudnik series.
Zdenka Deitchová – production manager (project producer)
Milan Klikar – lead animator
Věra Marešová – animator
Antonin Bureš – animator
Mirko Kačena – animator
Milada Kačenová – animator
Věra Kudrnová – animator
Olga Šišková – animator
Věra Kudrnová – animator
Zdenka Křipková – animator
Ludmila Kopecká – Animation checker
Bohouš Šiška – background painter
Miluše Hluchoničová – background painter
These were the same people, who also worked on our Tom & Jerry films.