Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by the BFI and the films on them.

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denti alligator
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#26 Post by denti alligator » Wed Nov 29, 2006 5:33 pm

The Brothers Quay set is the release of the year!

Bliss = seeing an anamorphic and progressive "Rehearsal for Extinct Anatomies." This film, with its intircacies of black lines on white, looked horrible when interlaced -- it wobbled all over the place.

The commentaries I've listened to so far are fantastic.

Michael, what can we do to convince bfi to do Institute Benjamenta next?

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#27 Post by MichaelB » Fri Dec 01, 2006 2:38 pm

Another massive Quay review...
Speaking as a long time fan of the films of The Brothers Quay, I was seriously excited by the prospect of this two-disc set, but I have to say that it exceeds my wildest expectations. The transfers are excellent and the extra features both numerous and consistently high in quality. Whatever Quay related video or DVD material you already have, shelve them and buy this instead - you will not be disappointed. If you are new to their work, and many of you probably will be, then there has never been a better time to discover why their work is held in such high regard. A superb package, and one of the essential DVD releases of the year.

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#28 Post by denti alligator » Sat Dec 02, 2006 10:03 pm

Michael,
There's one thing I found slightly problematic with the Quays set. Of all the anamorphic films "Phantom Museum" has jagged black lines on the top and bottom. Jagged, meaning that the usually straight line is broken once at the top (about half way) and once at the bottom (about a third from the left). I've seen this on poorly transferred PAL discs before. Why is it showing up here? And why only on this film (thankfully, my least favorite of the 16x9 films)?

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#29 Post by MichaelB » Sun Dec 03, 2006 3:32 am

denti alligator wrote:Michael,
There's one thing I found slightly problematic with the Quays set. Of all the anamorphic films "Phantom Museum" has jagged black lines on the top and bottom. Jagged, meaning that the usually straight line is broken once at the top (about half way) and once at the bottom (about a third from the left). I've seen this on poorly transferred PAL discs before. Why is it showing up here? And why only on this film (thankfully, my least favorite of the 16x9 films)?
I'd have to check with our technical people, but I believe at least part of The Phantom Museum was shot on video, whereas everything else was 100% film.

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#30 Post by Steven H » Thu Dec 07, 2006 11:45 am

DVDBeaver has great things to say about the recently released The Innocents (Clayton, 1961). I can't wait to pick this and the Quay Bros set up. What a great year for the BFI!

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BFI: Quay Brothers

#31 Post by skuhn8 » Thu Jan 11, 2007 6:31 am

I heard it said that when the Alaska Earthquake occurred the earth actually moved ever so slightly on its axis. Sounds a little over-dramatic but my viewing of the short films of the Quay Brothers was somewhat analogous in its effect on my perception of the visual arts.

I came into this a virgin. I'd heard much about them, was aware that they had a hand in the Sledgehammer video, but had never seen any of their films. But when I received my set yesterday and popped it in with the intent of watching one or two, I was so blown away that I had to go back and view it by way of Play All.

What caught me off guard was the total world that they created, as if the camera's POV was capturing only a small sliver of a grander enterprise. But where Tim Burton's work (and he's a clever creator by all means) comes off as somewhat concocted for purposes of entertainment and servile to narrative, the Quays seem to be documenting an actual nether region—and here Bruno Schulz's thirteenth month is appropriate—that already exists. The camera lurks about, always moving, cutting away quickly and at the very moment when a transformation or metamorphosis is occurring. The horizontal axis is no more favored than the vertical. And the speed of movement varies frighteningly; motion frequently ramped up to blur and obscure. The set designs are lavish and meticulous, yet they don't seem to be overly concerned with impressing us with their labors—and here I'm reminded of Dreyer's set for The Passion of Joan of Arc, meticulous and to a scale distorted for POV though the camera captured so little of it.

Viewing these films continuously one runs the risk of losing a little of their individual character and element, of blurring their margins; but the reward is seeing their steady development. My favorite aspects of one film were deftly carried forward into the next. And when I thought I hit what would be the high point, The Street of Crocodiles, of which I had heard so much, I was later blown away by The Comb, where the otherwise banal presence of a girl sleeping reaches an almost dramatic poignancy when introduced into a world ruled by Old World puppets. She stands (or I should say ‘lies') between ‘their' world and ‘ours', a metamorphosis rendered in black and white, grainy. And after more than an hour of being bombarded with images from an Old World Eastern European dreamscape it was the shot of her thumb running along the tines of a comb that made me gasp. For a moment I was watching a puppet's movement; she had become a member of that world, as in one of those nightmares of being pulled in through the screen into a TV-horrorland.

There's so much going on here; I'm sure each subsequent viewing brings more to light, not just what's in the frame but whatever is being illustrated overall. I haven't been this blown away by a package since the CC's Brakhage set. This whole package transcends mere “what a great DVDâ€

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#32 Post by ivuernis » Thu Jan 11, 2007 7:36 am

The excellent reviews (including your own superb one) this set has been getting means it's rapidly making its way to the top of my "to-get" list.

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#33 Post by jt » Thu Jan 11, 2007 8:34 am

This does indeed seem to be well regarded by members of this forum. It came first or second in every category here.

I haven't worked my way through the whole set yet as I have to be in a certain frame of mind in order to enjoy these (or not be scared of them).

I had been working my way through in small chunks as I was afraid an overdose would fry my brain but if skuhn8 can manage them all in a single sitting without developing crippling nightmares, I might give it a go...

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#34 Post by Tommaso » Thu Jan 11, 2007 10:41 am

A good way for me to get rid of the nightmare was to watch a particular film twice, first in the normal way, and directly afterwards with the audio commentary. Of course hearing the Quays' explanations might take away a little from the hallucinatory scariness, like you're rationalizing away your fears, but their comments greatly help to appreciate both the technical parts and the possible inspiration and meaning of these films. And seeing them in the interviews on disc 2 reassures you that these are not some madmen better placed in the next asylum before they do worse than make these films, but that they are actually two very charming, and friendly people.
Having said this, I still find it surprising how they were able to translate that rather 'cosmic' Stockhausen music into something as unsettling as "In Absentia". Perhaps this is my favourite on the whole set, possibly because of the interaction between human persons and the Quays' signature machinery/automata, something I also likevery much about "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes", which - although still very creepy in places - I find much more accessible and more conventionally 'beautiful' than many of these shorts here. Not sure whether that film is quite as good, though.

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#35 Post by skuhn8 » Sun Jan 14, 2007 4:01 pm

I haven't yet seen the Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, but am very interested. I had a hard time with In Absentia, though not nearly as much as with The Phantom Museum, the weakest piece on Disc One in my opinion, appearing much more like a video inventory. I found In Absentia to be overly reliant on repetition, and though I understand that that is quite essential for the 'reality' of the patient that they are trying to depict, it comes off as close ups of pencil sharpener, broken tip, shavings, writing, over and over, and the dreamscape/landscape is very week in comparison to that in The Comb for instance. Yesterday I went back and watched the whole set, this time with commentaries where available and was amused when they themselves admitted that they didn't really know the intent or purpose of the automaton's swinging legs! I have to admit that I enjoyed In Absentia more a second time around, this time knowing about the E.W. depicted (I'd read the liner notes prior to this second round) but still can't get past the impression that they somehow lost steam from concept to execution. Perhaps they felt themselves constrained by the collaborative arrangement with Stockhausen (I'm not a fan but think the music really went well with the piece).

Street of Crocodiles. After a second go I think this has become my favorite. Again, a little commentary helps, and now it also raises a question: During the commentary they make repeated references to the 'Zone' that the intrepid explorer, at times referred to as Bruno Schulz's stand-in, is exploring. Right away Tarkovsky's Stalker came to mind, though I suspect that 'The Zone' perhaps has a tradition in metaphysical writings. But then once, casually, one of the brothers refers to the explorer as 'the stalker'. Has anyone read of any particular influence Tarkovsky has had on the Quays? It's not surprising given their East-turned gaze for inspiration.

Not seeing to much here on the forum on this set, I toured about looking for other input. Again and again, these shorts are referred to as 'nightmarish'. I don't really see it. Gilgamesh certainly has a threatening birdlike quality, but seems more like an animal instinct reminiscent of Kafka's story The Mole. And of course the tailor and his assistants in Street of Crocodiles. But otherwise, they seem more otherwordly than anything else. The Cabinet of JS is downright playful and cheerful.

Anyway, this set just gets better and better with each viewing.

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#36 Post by zedz » Sun Jan 14, 2007 4:43 pm

Based on what must be more than a dozen viewings over the years, Street of Crocodiles just improves with age and familiarity, and it never loses its otherworldly frisson. Like several of the films, it taps into Freudian notions of the 'uncanny' (a confusion between the animate and the inanimate - thus dolls and screws coming to life, watches pulsating with raw meat), and it has the obscure specificity and inscrutable internal logic of dreams (hence the 'nightmarish' tag).

Another favourite is Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, which is pure delight on a strictly formal level. This was the first Quay brothers film I saw and the powerful visual impression it generated lurked around my subconscious for about 15 years before I saw it again. Its presentation on the disc is a masterpiece of DVD transfer.

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#37 Post by John Cope » Sun Jan 14, 2007 4:53 pm

skuhn8 wrote: Again and again, these shorts are referred to as 'nightmarish'. I don't really see it.
I can certainly see it. The best, most precise examples are Stille Nachte II and IV. These short pieces evoke a singular, ominous mood, which is maintained primarily through the vague associations we make with their dream like imagery. Whatever may be interpreted from these pieces, there is no question that an undercurrent of deep distress runs through them. This is true of much of their work. Symbols and signifiers resonate as having multiple meanings; often, however, these symbols take the form of the metaphysically inscrutable opacity of bodily fluids or internal organs. Untethered to any specific tradition interpretations will range far and wide (though zedz is dead on in referencing the tension between the animate and inanimate) but there is an undeniably discomforting quality to these symbols and their definitive physicality, unmoored in "meaning".

As to this set itself, I can only echo others' sentiments. It is an excellent collection with truly stellar prints. I've been a fan of the Quays since I first saw Crocodiles back in the late 80's on PBS. I've collected what I could since then and this is the finest edition of their works released so far. I can't imagine it being improved upon any time soon. The booklet alone is worth the price. Kudos to Michael and the BFI. Now on to the Jarmans!

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#38 Post by skuhn8 » Sun Jan 14, 2007 5:06 pm

John Cope wrote:I can certainly see it. The best, most precise examples are Stille Nachte II and IV. These short pieces evoke a singular, ominous mood, which is maintained primarily through the vague associations we make with their dream like imagery. Whatever may be interpreted from these pieces, there is no question that an undercurrent of deep distress runs through them. This is true of much of their work. Symbols and signifiers resonate as having multiple meanings; often, however, these symbols take the form of the metaphysically inscrutable opacity of bodily fluids or internal organs. Untethered to any specific tradition interpretations will range far and wide (though zedz is dead on in referencing the tension between the animate and inanimate) but there is an undeniably discomforting quality to these symbols and their definitive physicality, unmoored in "meaning".
Well put. I think when I'm reading nightmarish I'm being too literal and yet commercial about it...the boogy man under the bed. You and zedz are right: it's the tension between the animate and inanimate, the familiar world we live in and this dark concoction with shadows and a roving POV that is taking us deeper into an uncomfortable realm that we do not control. And yes, those screws.

A question for MichaelB: was there a discussion as to why some shorts received a commentary and others did not? I would have thought that the Cabinet of J.S., being their first 'successful' short would have gotten one, as the wonderful Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, and The Comb.[/i]

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#39 Post by MichaelB » Sun Jan 14, 2007 5:22 pm

Well, I optimistically brought all the masters along to the recording session, but they'd already said that they only wanted to do five - though I did manage to persuade them to do Stille Nacht II as well. (There's a "deliberate mistake" on the DVD, incidentally - if you select 'Play All' on the commentary menu, you get the Stille Nacht titles in the order I/III/II, to reflect the order that they were recorded, as the commentary for II refers in passing to something that they explain properly in III. But you'll only notice this if you're mad enough to try to listen to all the commentaries in one go - the order in the menu is correct.)

They were absolutely adamant that they didn't want to discuss Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies or The Comb, because they felt that they couldn't verbalise what they were trying to achieve - which is fair enough.

As for The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, I imagine they opted not to do a commentary because they were already aware that:

(1) the BFI's forthcoming Svankmajer set will include the full original 54-minute version (no extra Quay animation, but it does reinstate 40 minutes of talking heads and Svankmajer clips that were cut out when the short was assembled from its original animated links);

(2) the above will also feature a three-minute Quay introduction, which I opportunistically shot at the same time that I filmed the intro on disc two last May (a few days before the commentary recording session).

There's also the fact that they're very consciously trying to play down the whole Svankmajer thing, as rather too many people have claimed that they're slavish acolytes (they explicitly deny this in the new intro) - though they actually didn't discover his work until 1983, years after their own style and preoccupations had been established. Walerian Borowczyk, whom they discovered at art college in the late 1960s, is a much bigger influence in every possible way.
zedz wrote:Its presentation on the disc is a masterpiece of DVD transfer.
My colleague James White deserves the kudos for that (along with the Quays, who were present throughout) - James told me that he was particularly proud of this transfer, as the film could almost have been deliberately made to present hideous encoding challenges at every turn.

The thing that absolutely astounds me is how he managed to get all those stripes rendered without any moiré problems - it's quite instructive watching this version (progressive anamorphic PAL) side-by-side with the old Kino version (interlaced letterboxed NTSC)!

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#40 Post by Tommaso » Sun Jan 14, 2007 8:08 pm

skuhn8 wrote:I haven't yet seen the Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, but am very interested.
Well, there's a whole thread devoted to it in the new films section here. This was my first Quay film, more or less (although I of course had seen the "Sledgehammer" clip and, years ago, the full version of "Cabinet of Jan Svankmayer"), and it was pretty mindblowing for me. In comparison to the Shorts, however, much of it is more 'common', some scenes actually remind me of Tim Burton's work, but it's drenched in their usual dark romantic, Hoffmanesque style. I love that film very much, the only objection I have perhaps is that I don't find the actors very convincing, sometimes very 'stilted'. But in almost every other respect, it's up to what you expect from them.
skuhn8 wrote:I had a hard time with In Absentia, though not nearly as much as with The Phantom Museum, the weakest piece on Disc One in my opinion, appearing much more like a video inventory.
This reflects my first impression, too. I have re-watched "Phantom Museum" last week, though, and this time it somehow clicked for me. The objects they present are pertaining to very basic things in human life, birth and death especially. So I now tend to regard the film, tentatively, as a sort of metaphoric contemplation on life itself, something of which we, however, get only short and imprecise glimpses (note how some of the medical apparati are shown only for a split second at first). i wonder what that recurring image of those mice-like automatons (?) running up and down in a sort of rectangle contraption might signify. The endless repetitive run of human lives?
skuhn8 wrote: I found In Absentia to be overly reliant on repetition, and though I understand that that is quite essential for the 'reality' of the patient that they are trying to depict, it comes off as close ups of pencil sharpener, broken tip, shavings, writing, over and over, and the dreamscape/landscape is very week in comparison to that in The Comb for instance.
Agreed, but I particularly was fascinated by this obsessive, repetitive quality. I may have been influenced by the fascinating information on the audio commentary, of course. I also like in "In Absentia" the absence of a certain whimsicality that is notable in many of the other films, the obsession with mechanisms, for instance, which is not so visible here. Thus the film for me has a more 'translucent' quality. But I may be biased because of the Stockhausen music, too. I'm a fan of his, hate to say it...

I think you're quite right about 'the zone' and the Tarkovsky connection, although these zones are quite different of course. But both Tarkovsky and the Quays seem to use the term as a metaphor for something that lies behind our usual rational world, potentially dangerous but at the same time consistently informing our 'waking' life ("The Comb" is a good example for this"), and being necessary for it.. That's where the nightmarish quality comes from: there's always something going on that obviously cannot be controlled, and the fact that the Quays visualize this 'zone' as mechanisms (probably unstoppable) makes it all the more creepier. The nightmarish quality has also to do with the fact that our general, daytime distinctions between animate and dead objects do not function anymore. 'Dead' things get a life of their own here, and I suppose it would even be creepy if those puppets and machineries did more overtly delightful things than they do. These are forces beyond our control, and they interact with our daytime life in a most disturbing way (there's just a mirror between the real world of the sleeper and the world of the puppets in "The Comb").

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#41 Post by Felix » Mon Jan 15, 2007 2:25 pm

skuhn8 wrote:I haven't yet seen the Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, but am very interested. I had a hard time with In Absentia, though not nearly as much as with The Phantom Museum, the weakest piece on Disc One in my opinion, appearing much more like a video inventory..
I think you may be quite close to the truth here wrt the video inventory. I always took it at face value, Random Forays Into the Collection of Henry Wellcome (though I have no issues with Thommaso's interpretation).

In context I thought it worked well. Context being its showing at the Wellcome Exhibition, an amazing exhibition of some of the most extraordinary objects ever collected (one can only wonder at how debased our society has become - if he were alive today, Wellcome's collection would probably have him in jail or at least on the front pages of the tabloids), one could wander through the exhibition and then into the little ante room where the film was being shown and see these same objects brought to life.

The other problem may simply be the range of materials the Quays had to work with. There were such rich pickings there with which they could work that they may have been overwhelmed for choice and lost their focus; more is not always better. For me though it still works fine.

The Wellcome collection (which I think is still open, as opposed to the exhibition) is well worth a visit and the exhibition catalogue (Medicine Man, The Forgotten Musuem of Henry Wellcome) is similarly so.

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#42 Post by skuhn8 » Mon Jan 15, 2007 2:42 pm

I enjoyed the collection itself as represented in the short--who wouldn't?--but thought the repeated grainy snippets of gloved hands moving up the stairs ('up to the basement' ok ok I get it) far beneath the capabilities of the Quays. I guess my problem was a little like watching Genesis go from Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to We Can't Dance. They raised the bar for inventiveness and visual bravado and then fell back on installation art video pieces heavily reliant on repitition and 'found' materials.

Insignificant note, but while perusing the MOKEP DVD site (Hungary's BFI) there was a note regarding the Quay's visit to Budapest last April. Had I known then what I know now I would've made a trip to the Titanic Pub where they raised pints to catch a glimpse.

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#43 Post by meanwhile » Wed Jan 17, 2007 6:57 pm

For anyone still wondering whether to invest in the Quay Brothers collection, this podcast may give a flavour of what to expect.

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#44 Post by ranaing83 » Wed Apr 25, 2007 8:07 am

Has anyone had the chance to check out the R1 Quay collection, "Phantom Museums"? I was wondering whether to get this or the BFI set, which I have heard great things about. I'd rather get the more affordable R1, but if its simply an improperly converted port...

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#45 Post by criterionsnob » Wed Apr 25, 2007 2:11 pm

I just received the R1 set yesterday and watched 3 of the films on disc 1. They look amazing and much better than the out of print R1 (which I sold for $100 a few months ago). I don't have the R2 to compare, but I am extremely happy with the new R1 release so far. Do we expect a comparison from the Beaver?

These are the same transfers as the BFI (and I believe the other disc contents are the same). I don't see any evidence of improper PAL to NTSC conversion. Contrast is beautiful and the image has much more detail than the previoius out of print R1 release, not to mention commentaries, loads of extras and a large booklet, of which I haven't even scratched the surface. Packaging is a folding two disc digipack with a slipcover, similar to the recent Criterion releases such as The Double Life of Veronique.

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#46 Post by MichaelB » Wed Apr 25, 2007 2:23 pm

In theory, I'm supposed to get a contractual-obligation copy, but it hasn't arrived yet.

I'm looking forward to seeing what they've done with it. The French release from ED Distribution is a more or less exact clone of the BFI disc (retaining the menu artwork, navigation and even the BFI ident at the beginning), the only differences being that everything's in French and the subtitle options are more complicated (some of the films, though dialogue-free, have onscreen text that needed translating).

Going from the cover of the US edition, it looks as though there are a few more differences between it and the BFI/ED one, though there's still clearly a massive overlap.

Purely out of entirely personal curiosity, who's credited as the producer?

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#47 Post by criterionsnob » Wed Apr 25, 2007 2:53 pm

I'll check when I get home tonight, but I do recall the BFI logo on the back and the fine print saying it was licenced from the BFI.

Looking at the Beaver review for the R2, I can say that the new R1 has different menus.

Both Producers are listed in the R1 booklet.

DVD Producer: Shannon Attaway

For the BFI: Producer - Michael Brooke

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#48 Post by patrick » Wed Apr 25, 2007 9:44 pm

Can anyone give me a breakdown on what I'm missing if I just keep my Kino disc? I'm sure I could find it if I poked around, but honestly I'm at work and feeling lazy. The packaging alone looks about a million times better.

Did the Quay Brothers work on the "Sledgehammer" video? I remember reading that it was done by Aardman.

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#49 Post by MichaelB » Thu Apr 26, 2007 2:24 am

patrick wrote:Can anyone give me a breakdown on what I'm missing if I just keep my Kino disc? I'm sure I could find it if I poked around, but honestly I'm at work and feeling lazy. The packaging alone looks about a million times better.
Vastly superior transfers of the existing eleven shorts, (we're talking night and day), two more shorts ('In Absentia', 'The Phantom Museum'), commentaries by the Quays on half a dozen titles, plus a load of other extras - an unfinished project ('The Summit'), idents for the BBC and BFI, two interviews (one shot for the DVD, one pulled off the shelves) and a clip from Peter Greenaway's 'The Falls'. Oh, and 'Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies' and 'In Absentia' in alternative Scope framing - and all non-4:3 titles are anamorphically enhanced

So yes, it's just a bit better!

[NB: Those are the BFI release specs - though I believe everything is also on the Zeitgeist disc]
Did the Quay Brothers work on the "Sledgehammer" video? I remember reading that it was done by Aardman.
The Quays were essentially animators for hire, working alongside Aardman's team, which is why they've never regarded it as part of their canon.

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#50 Post by Kinsayder » Sun Jul 15, 2007 9:24 am

Is there any chance of The Sandman making it to DVD? I realise it's more ballet than animation, so it probably didn't fit in with the rest of the contents of the BFI set. I'm interested because several of my favourite dancers (Irek Mukhamedov, Zenaida Yanowsky, Tamara Rojo) are in this.

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