Eternal Cycles: Hungarian Animator Marcell Jankovics on “Son of the White Mare”

This past spring, animation enthusiasts in the United States were supposed to be presented with a rare chance to see one of the most astoundingly beautiful, and under-seen animated features in history. Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia), Hungarian filmmaker Marcell Jankovics’ 1981 feature, his second and most successful film internationally, was set for its first U.S theatrical run, after touring the international festival circuit last year. The features, based on multiple versions of László Arany narrative poem, fused together into a single narrative, follows Treeshaker, the youngest son of a horse goddess and his two lost brothers, Stonecrumbler and Ironkneader, as they journey to the underworld to rescue three princesses who have been imprisoned by a trio of multi-headed dragons who have taken over their homeland. The immensely colorful and psychedelic adventure was to be shown in a wonderfully done 4K restoration—a collaborative effort by L.A.-based Arbelos and the Hungarian National Film Institute—starting in New York City, before screening in select theaters across the country—however, things didn’t go as planned.Anyone with a collection of masks and hand sanitizer in their home knows why, and five months after a-once-in-a-century pandemic shut down one of the worlds most active cities, the rest of the country, and many independent cinemas along with it, devotees to animated film in select cities will finally be offered the choice of experiencing Son of the White Mare in virtual cinemas. It is not the ideal opportunity many envisioned when it was first announced earlier this year, however, Son of the White Mare, in cinemas or at home, is still a powerful visual experience that should not be missed as it offers admirers of animated cinema an opening to familiarize yourself with one of animations most underappreciated masters.Jankovics, whose reputation in Hungary is on par with Walt Disney in the U.S. and Hayao Miyazaki in Japan, is known for telling epic animated spectacles based on poetry and mythology, all done in a visually powerful, idiosyncratic style. The author, graphic designer, animator, and director, began his career in film right out of high school, acquiring an apprenticeship at Budapest’s Pannonia Film Studio in 1960, where he moved from apprentice to assistant animator to animator in three years, becoming a director in 1965. His first feature, 1973’s Johnny Corncob (János vitéz), based on the poet from fellow Hungarian Sándor Petőfi, was the first animated feature produced in the country. Before working on Son of the White Mare—which he directed, storyboarded and animated—he produced two admirable animated shorts; 1973’s Sisyphus and 1977’s The Struggle; the former earning him an Academy Award nomination, the latter the short film Palme d’Or at Cannes. Both will be shown, remastered, along with Son of the White Mare. In an interview done via email and with the assistance of a translator, the 78-year-old filmmaker tells us his feelings on the film being shown in virtual cinemas instead of physical ones, his thoughts on the film almost 40 years after its release, and providing some insight on what went into designing the three brothers and the trio of dragons. NOTEBOOK: I’m sure this is a question many have asked you already through the last few months, but how have you been dealing with the pandemic, as I have not read much about how it is affecting Hungary? MARCELL JANKOVICS: Hungary is one of the less infected countries. I’m worried because of my age, but I’ve never liked crowds, and I can find useful ways to spend my time.NOTEBOOK: Your film was supposed to have its first official theatrical release here in the States in March, instead, as with many films, it will have to be seen in virtual theaters. How do you feel knowing that the film will finally be getting released here in the States but only in virtual cinemas, rather than physical ones? JANKOVICS: It is still a joy and a source of great satisfaction.NOTEBOOK: This film, like most of your features is based on mythology, folktales and poetry, you’ve even written a number of books on mythology. Where did your interest in those subjects originate from? Did it come at an early age, during your times as a student or was it something you grew to appreciate once you started working in film?JANKOVICS: My interest can be traced back to my childhood. Fascination in folk tales arose from being commissioned to direct the production of Johnny Corncob.NOTEBOOK: In an interview you did a few years ago, you said that originally you wanted to adapt a number of folktales, however your studio manager wouldn’t allow you to make it because of your story’s “anti-Marxist interpretation of time!” Do you remember what those folktales were? JANKOVICS: It wasn’t a number of folktales, but rather stories I wrote myself based on folktales, whose subject matter was eternal cycles. This contradicted communist ideology. In their view, the march of history is a one-way street with a purpose and a cycle is like treading water.NOTEBOOK: It has been said that you took from other variations of the “Fehérlófia.” Can you remember what you brought in and left out from those variations? JANKOVICS: It would take a long time to tell you about this. There are two basic types. One has three heroes and the fight with the dwarf and the descent into hell is repeated three times. The other one has four. This is the real version, but a fourfold repetition is not something even audiences forty years ago would have tolerated.NOTEBOOK: You started working on this film in 1979, five years after the release of “Johnny Corncob. In the past, you have described working on that film as a “learning process” for not only yourself, but for the animators at Pannonia Film Studio. What did you all bring from that first experience in feature animation to Son of the White Mare?JANKOVICS: Nobody in Hungary had previously made a full-length animation film. Learning by watching a film is a passive process, that’s why, like it or not, Johnny Corncob was in fact the learning process for us all. I couldn’t give specific examples, rather generalities of principle on certain stylistic aspects I felt to be mine in terms of settings, image connections and dramaturgy. The two films are not so similar, Son of the White Mare was made in the wake of Johnny Corncob and in its mold. However, the observant viewer might say that there are certain stylistic traits characteristic of me. There is a scene in Johnny Corncob in which the hero, running towards the outlaw’s farm, dashes among the branches in a forest while his progress is watched by eyes in the darkness, a Disney effect. Son of the White Mare starts in the same way. Fleeing her pursuers, the mare escapes into the great dark forest. There is a similar scene as a reference in Toldi, which is currently being made. The strange thing is that I felt Johnny Corncob was an easy job while I really suffered over Son of the White Mare.NOTEBOOK: Can you tell us what went into the restoration?JANKOVICS: Since we are talking about traditional cel animation, one of the main goals was to remove the dirt, specks of dust, fingerprints, scratches, and sheen. Another was color correction, with the third one being a new sound mix.NOTEBOOK: How long has it been since you’ve seen the film?JANKOVICS: Several decades. I don’t usually spend time watching my films once they’re completed. While they are in production and then as they premiere you are forced to watch your films so many times that you don’t really wish to see them again for a long time.NOTEBOOK: But now that you have re-watched Son of the White Mare, do you have any new feelings about it?JANKOVICS: No. I see its mistakes, its virtues, the fact that it has stood the test of time and that a new generation of viewers derive joy from it makes me happy.NOTEBOOK: Do you re-watch any of your older works?JANKOVICS: Like I said, rarely. Only once I feel sufficiently removed from them.NOTEBOOK: Why do you think this film has proven to be such a success abroad?JANKOVICS: I don’t know. Based on the feedback I have received, many foreign and Hungarian youths today see it as a psychedelic film, they think I took some “magic substance” while shooting the movie, and that’s why it is the way it is. On the topic of another project of mine, the Hungarian folktales series, viewers from far away have said that Hungarians are interested in that our folktales give the impression that the storyteller had taken drugs.NOTEBOOK: I know that the visual presentation of Johnny Corncob was inspired by Yellow Submarine. For this film, did you look to animated films or other visual art from outside Hungary for inspiration?JANKOVICS: From my early teens on, I watched countless films, and not only cartoons. I was an omnivore. From the time I was admitted to Pannonia Film Studio as a trainee in-between animator, I started reading literature on filmmaking and attending lectures on film aesthetics at open universities. Not having any prior qualifications, this is how I began to learn about the film profession. Thus when making Johnny Corncob I was able to exploit all the know-how I had picked up; I’m sure that I also looked at foreign animations with such an eye, but I did not draw inspiration from them.NOTEBOOK: What made you decide on the color scheme of the three brothers?JANKOVICS: While folktales do feature colors, with a symbolic role too, this is not the case here. Like I said, I was interested in eternal cycles, which is why I used the color scheme researched by Goethe. In this, morning is green, yellow is noon, twilight is red, night is blue, with transitions. This also applies to the background world, and the cyclicity also appears in camera movements. At the same time, the “dark side,” i.e. the world of dragons is characterized by a darker, less pronounced and more frightful version of the same color scheme.NOTEBOOK: The dragons are of particular interest to me. One resembles a giant clay sculpture, the second, a mix between a tank and a battleship, the third, a collection of skyscrapers with legs. What inspired you to present the dragons this way, instead of the usual winged, fire-breathing creatures? JANKOVICS: They all breathe fire and the third one only gets legs when it is shrunk. A city doesn’t move on legs, it grows, expands and collapses. The first one, the one that breathes lava, stands for the distant past of humanity (the stone age), the second one, the one that shoots and blows things up, stands for the more recent past (18th to 20th centuries) and the third one with the ray gun stands for the present and the future. The clay sculpture was inspired by native Olmec sculptures on one hand and Central Asian giants appearing in the local tale versions of Son of the White Mare on the other.Marcell Jankovics’s Son of the White Mare (1981) is now showing in virtual cinemas in the United States.
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