Stephen and Timothy Quay (Brothers Quay)

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Stephen/Timothy Quay

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Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA


Stephen and Timothy Quay are identical twin brothers and animators, working together as the Quay Brothers. They are extremely influential in the field of stop-motion animation, creating dark and esoteric works that have built on several fascinating animation traditions.

Career outline

Before working on film, the two brothers worked on illustration, primarily for book covers. It has been noted that their proficiency in designing Gothic book covers goes hand in hand with numerous aspects of their prop and set handicraft for their films. Additionally, their films almost always originate from literary sources, tying this early artistic precursor to all of their later work. Among the books they illustrated are: The first edition of Anthony Burgess’ novel The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby’s End, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer, as well as for the authors Italo Calvino, Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Mark le Fanu.

Brothers Quay films are characteristically dark, and feature a high degree of handcrafted work. They often use miniature sets, antique (or antique-styled) puppets, handmade sets and create all of their lighting setups. Though their work has often been compared to the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, they were in fact introduced to his work quite late in their career, once they had already developed their style.

Their work is inspired by several East European animators, writers and artists. Early on, the Brothers Quay were inspired by the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk (who created the classic abstract animation Jeux des anges (1964)) and Jan Lenica, who collaborated together on Borowczyk’s early films.

Their first film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979), features a young man’s experience as he leaves his room and travels to the city, is haunting and dreamlike. Even at this early stage, the Brothers Quay established several key components of their intensely characteristic style.

Their other animated shorts include works such as: The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984), This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), Stille Nacht (1988), The Comb (1990), Anamorphosis (1991), Tales From Vienna Woods (1992), In Absentia (2000), and The Phantom Museum (2003).

Writers who typically explore the surrealist and expressionist works of authors Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser and Michel de Ghelderode. These authors also typically write on the terrifying labyrinth of bureaucracy, a minutia of politics and fear in the nooks and crannies of social life: of the object-ness of government and society taking a phantom life of its own. Perhaps their most famous film, Street of Crocodiles (1986), is based on a novel by Bruno Schulz. The animation features a city nearly devoid of life, except for the group of people/dolls who live in one of the shops and move in a circular, mechanical dance. The film is dark, dust and lush with detail – suggesting a multitude of additional corners and pathways down which the story could easily continue.

As stop-motion animators, the Brothers Quay have also found inspiration from some of the great  puppeteers of history, including puppeteer/animator Wladyslaw Starewicz, and Czech Richard Teschner.

Music has also been a tremendous primary source for them, particularly Czech composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Polish Leszek Jankowski, the last of whom has created many original scores for their work. Indeed, every one of their works begins with the music, with the Brothers Quay animating to and around a specific score. This is particularly evident in the Brothers Quay film In Absentia (2000), set to music by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

They have made two feature-length live action films: Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (based on the writings of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser) and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes, produced by Keith Griffiths. They also directed an animated sequence in Julie Taymor’s film Frida (2002). These live action films have been produced, interestingly, to very much the same techniques and themes.

The Brothers Quay have also worked on TV commercials and numerous music videos, including those for His Name Is Alive, Michael Penn, 16 Horsepower, and Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”). They have also been awarded for their vast work on sets for theatre and opera performances, which include: director Richard Jones’ Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges; Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear”; Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa; and Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”. The Brothers Quay were nominated for a Tony Award for their set design work on a revival of Ionesco’s “The Chairs”. They were awarded the 1998 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for this work.

The Brothers Quay produced a film for an exhibition funded by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 2010, through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative grant. They created a film entitled Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum). The Brothers Quay organized other museum exhibitions in 2013 and 2014, and have several ongoing collaborations planned.


Buchan, Suzanne H., ‘The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime’, Film Quarterly v. 51, n. 3, Spring 1998.

McCormack, J. W. ‘Talking Metaphysics, Subversion, and Puppets with Legendary Twin Filmmakers the Quay Brothers’, VICE Aug. 25. 2015.

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