Béla Ternovszky is a director and animator, and while not everyone might recognize him by his name, by his works all the more. Everyone knows his movies and TV shows such as Macskafogó (Cat City), the Mézga Family, Kérem a következőt! (Next, please!) or Master Eder and his Pumuckl. The whole country has grown up with his stories, yet he only gets asked about Macskafogó. We talked about his other projects, his relationship to animation, working abroad, and trying to live up to audiences’ expectations.
It has been nine years since Macskafogó 2 (Catcher: Cat City 2), so my first question would be what are you up to these days?
Since Macskafogó 2, nothing. I mean nothing cartoon-related.
And not relating to cartoons?
Well there have been a couple of commercials, like Danone’s Mézga campaign, but other than that, I’m an active pensioner. I’m a slave of my passions: tennis, horse riding. I became a representative for the local self-government here in Pomáz, and I am also president of the Cultural Committee, which turned out to be a bigger engagement than it was expected and promised. I am a curator of the animated movies’ sponsorships at MTVA’s Média Mecenatúra, for the Macskássy [Gyula, director of cartoons] fund. This means a constant busyness as well. It also turned out that the Hungarian Academy of Arts is an active organization, and being a member of it means being busy frequently. This is all for the time being.
Speaking of the Mézga Family, which was the better experience: making TV shows or movies?
Making TV shows was the daily routine, but I really enjoyed it, it was like one of my hobbies. I always say that I was lucky enough to have my hobby as my job. Movies however, especially feature films, happened occasionally, which meant they were not made to carry out an order, but to bring your favorite ideas to life.
I guess you get this question a lot, but I have to ask: which character of yours are you the fondest of?
It was always the one I was working on. It would be unfair to Ursula if I said Pumuckl, but it would be also unfair to Pumuckl if I said Grabovszky or Aladár Mézga. So when we were making the Mézga Family, I can tell you which member of the family I liked to draw the most, or which one felt closest to me. Obviously Géza Mézga is the most complex one with his dull, lazy, middle-class householder habit. From the TV show Kérem a következőt! it’s maybe Ursula, but there is a duet going on on that show. I cannot really say Ernő Teknőc [the messenger], because he was only a bit player compared to the two main characters. Pumuckl was a really lovely time of my life, because he brought both financial and moral success.
My next question is actually about [Master Eder and his] Pumuckl and Mecki and his Friends. Both of these shows were made in German co-production, so have you ever thought about working abroad in the long run?
No, not at all. Just like it has never occurred to my father to defect in ’56. Especially that Pumuckl [1982-1989] was made in a time when it was quite difficult for Hungarians to travel abroad. I was given the exceptional opportunity to have a permanent visa though, so I could basically travel to Germany, Austria or anywhere else whenever I wanted to. Ergo it wasn’t as attractive or enticing anymore. The German producer however, kept egging me all the time to move there to start our own studio and work there, because it’d have been more comfortable for him than coming to Hungary. But it has really never occurred to me as a possibility, not then, not later. For my first job abroad, I spent a month in Belgium, and at the end of the month the owner of the animation studio wanted me to stay because the movie we were working on was not finished. So I begged Matolcsy on the phone not to let me stay, he had to order me home because I didn’t want to stay. On top of it all, I was a newlywed then and we just had our first child, so that one month was already more than enough for me. By the way, this is why Macskafogó 2 was made. I wanted to provide an opportunity for my old colleagues from Pannonia, whom I worked with on Bubó [Kérem a következőt! (Next, please!)], Mézga [Family], Pumuckl and Macskafogó, to make another high quality, Hungarian movie – in Hungarian, made by Hungarian directors, actors, with Hungarian funding. It was interesting that it didn’t really happened this way, partly because those colleagues who have already been working abroad didn’t want to come home for just this project, and partly because those who have stayed home were already retired. So this is why besides those few people who have originally worked on Macskafogó, Macskafogó 2 was made by Romanians, Ukrainians, Polish and Serbians.
Based on online reviews and opinions, it seems to me that the first Macskafogó movie is a lot more popular than the second one. Do you think this could have contributed to the fact that the sequel is not as well-liked as the first one was?
Well first of all, it is extremely rare in cinematic history that after a movie is a hit, the sequel is as good as the first one. It happens of course, but the opposite happens even more often. We, of course, knew this, and this is why for 20 years it was unimaginable for us to make a sequel. So this was something that we were expecting, which meant that we needed to make a movie that is impeccable at least from a professional point of view. It was natural, that viewers were expecting the same quality as they got with the first movie, so when they didn’t get the same jokes and experiences, they got angry. Of course I already knew that this movie will not be the same, but they didn’t. This is why the first reviews and comments were harsher and more condemning than what the film deserved. A couple of years later, when this anger and passion has calmed down, they might say: “Not bad. Not the first Macskafogó, but it’s a quality job.”
And how is the situation different nowadays compared to when Macskafogó was made? Are there more opportunities or financial support?
On the one hand, there is the Média Mecenatúra’s system where you can apply for funding for animated movies: the Macskássy fund has a 180 million HUF yearly limit, which is meant to fund short movies. On the other hand, the Dargay fund with a similar budget is supposed to support the finishing of TV shows that are already in production. Because with the Macskássy, they could only apply with one or two episodes, which would make the production of a 13-episodes long TV show infinitely long. However, in the case of the Dargay fund, all remaining production needs to be finished within a year, which is a rather big challenge and easy to fail. These funds are advertised every year, this is different from the way it was anno, and there is the Hungarian National Film Fund too, run by Vajna. Of course there is no budget separated for cartoons there, so applicants have to compete together with all the feature films, and it’s kind of like when there are too many Eskimos and not enough seals. And you can never know who is in the advisory board there, and how they feel about animation. We lived this for 50 years, when we were considered the same as feature-film-makers. Their hobby was much stronger than animation was, even though we could have had bigger slices of the cake than what we got based on our international fame, success and achievements.
You talk about your colleagues from Pannonia Filmstudio a lot. Is it important for you to stay in touch with them?
There are some of them, who cannot be really reached anymore, either because they moved to the countryside, or because it is difficult for them to leave their homes. With [József] Nepp and [Marcell] Jankovics however, we meet on a weekly basis where Pannonia was still Pannonia, in Kerék street, though it’s only a room that they rent now. Some of our old production manager colleagues, who are still doing administrative work there, join us pretty often. We also receive some ad hoc guests from time to time, from Pannonia, depending on their free time. They know that we can be found there on Tuesdays so they can come too, to tell stories, anecdotes, and just enjoy ourselves.
Speaking of studios, do you have a favorite studio? Or one whose work you pay close attention to?
Of course, there are the big American ones for example, like Disney, Pixar, and the others. They are not so dear to my heart as the classic Disney movies though. You know Walt Disney really did know something, what the audience needed, how to touch their hearts. These new movies don’t really have these attributes, but they are perfect from a technical point of view. And then there are the ones that I loved but they don’t exist anymore. Around the ’60s, ‘70s I really liked Zagreb Film. Before that, there was the Czech golden age with Trnka, who was the king of puppet movies and they made the Kisvakond (Little Mole) and things like that. There was also this Belgian studio called Belvision, where I have worked for a month. That studio made the Tintin movies as well as the Asterix movies.
Do you have a favorite cartoon?
I have many. I liked the movies of Yugoslavian directors, and there used to be an ASIFA Festival in Zagreb, where you could see really great short movies.
So is it safe to say that you like short movies better than feature films?
No. I like these big blockbusters, like The Lion King, they are really enjoyable to watch. With short movies though, I love the humorous ones the most. There is [József] Gémes’ Concertissimo for instance, which is about a concert hall where the band steps on stage and they pull out all kinds of machine-guns, the conductor comes in to conduct the band, and they start shooting the audience. Then everyone is shooting everyone, and it’s built on one single gag, with humor and great storytelling. Humor is my weakness. That’s what I like to watch and make as well.
And what about animation styles? Do you prefer traditional hand-drawn animation, or 3D, stop motion?
For me, animation and cartoons are about the process of animating. Directing is fun as well, but that’s a goal that’s worth reaching because the director is at the top of the hierarchy, and he gets all the financial and moral success. The most enjoyable part though is playing, acting with a certain character. To make the characters act out their roles. So for example in the case of motion capture, or if there is an actor as a live-action reference and then animators just copy that movement, where is the artistic invention in that? At the beginning I really didn’t like 3D animation, because all the characters looked turned off, shiny, but since then 3D animation has been perfected, so I really have nothing to complain about. I still don’t think though that it can be as charming as Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was for instance.
I have one last question: if you were to make another movie, what would it be about?
I don’t think about things that can never happen. I will not make another movie.
And you never thought about it? Not even before Macskafogó 2?
I did think about it, and we made that movie. It had its own philosophy and concept though. I became fed up with this music-video-like, fast, action-filled, flashing world, and wanted to give back bedtime stories their original function. Because when do parents and grandparents tell stories to children? When they put them to bed, to calm them down and make sure they have sweet dreams. Now if I showed today’s animated or live action movies to children, instead of calming them down, it would upset them, or even cause them to have nightmares. So this is why
we made the movie Egérút (Mishy and Mushy), which is a slower movie, not upsetting at all, and has a happy ending where the good wins. Unfortunately, it proved that my ideas don’t always coincide with reality. Because once the need for something has been set up, you can’t deprive the audience of that thing. So the audience was expecting a 3D, action-filled movie and instead they just got bored. But you cannot really fight the wind. It was a great example of how the things you find important are not important at all.