The Quay brothers grew up in the area, but live in London. They’re famous for disturbing stop-motion animated films.
Many fans of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum believe exhibits of misshapen skulls and unspeakable body parts preserved in glass jars pretty much sell themselves. But the Mutter is looking for new marketing techniques. The museum known for its disturbing collection of medical abnormalities has commissioned a film from a pair of artists known for equally disturbing films. In the small world of stop-motion animated art films, the Quay Brothers are huge. The identical twins use handmade dolls, tiny industrial objects, and incredible attention to detail to create dark and brooding dreamscapes.
The Mutter Museum saw kindred spirits in the University of the Arts graduates who have been living in London for decades, and gave them access to its specimens and library to make a film about whatever struck their fancy. Timothy Quay says they were constantly surprised by what they found.
“There was a wet specimen of a child that was aborted early, and by putting on close-up lenses we found a mouse at the very bottom looking up at him. Of course it was a bit of flesh that had come off from the umbilical cord, but it was in the exact shape of a mouse looking up at the child. We brought everybody over, including the museum staff – they couldn’t believe it. By using close-up lenses we discovered it.”
The Quay brothers work in a very slow, improvisational process. They never use storyboards. They start with music and fit images to it.
“Music has power of elucidation that text cannot give- or, text over-defines and makes comfortable whereas music lets it become something else with imagination.”
The Quay brothers collaborated with a Polish composer on most of their films, but for this one at the Museum they have an American named Tim Nelson.
While shooting footage in Philadelphia, Stephen Quay says it still unclear what the film is about. Their process is exploratory and non-linear, closer to choreography than storytelling.
“It’s hard to tell people that, it’s hard to go to commissioning bodies and say that’s the way you work. Because nobody would believe you.”
The brothers are fans of pathological museums – places like the Mutter preserving the remains of diseased and misshapen bodies. Timothy says they house an immense sadness.
“One of the pathological books we have the book is called This Unhappy Science. It’s the banner that hangs over you here. You take on all those aspects.”
His brother Stephen says the Mutter is like a cemetery where the beloved are on display.
“Instead of saying, “to my dear husband who died on such and such a date,” a skull says 28 years old who died of castration. Because of a religious order that said you had to castrate yourself. Scopsy. That’s the epitaph on his tomb. Written on the side of his skull in a beautiful calligraphy. Most are written on the forehead or the right side of the skull.”
The Quay Brothers will take their footage back to London. The Mutter museum is expecting to be able to show a finished film next summer.