In the history of Czech film there have been few animators who have been more important than Karel Zeman, whose career spanning from the late 1940s to the '80s continues to be admired today. The author, often compared to the French film wizard Georges Melies, was himself a master of fantasy, capturing the imagination of countless young viewers. One of his most famous films, Cesta do praveku - Journey to Prehistory, or Journey to the Beginning of Time, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It is at this seminal work by Karel Zeman, that we look at today.
Karel Zeman was born in 1910 in Ostromer, northeast Bohemia, when cinema was still tottering on its first legs. Schooled in France, Zeman worked in advertising but was attracted to puppetry and animated film. Returning home, the young ad man then worked for major Czech firms like the Bata Shoe Company. But, ultimately he was destined for much more. In 1943 he began working at Czechoslovakia's famous Zlin film studio. Together with Hermina Tyrlova, he began work on a project titled "Christmas Dream" and three years later it won Best Animated Film at Cannes. Michaela Mertova is a historian at the National Film Archive in Prague, who specialises in animated film:
"Zeman and Tyrlova were pillars of Czech animation and pillars of the studio in Zlin. In the beginning Zeman used puppets in his films and many different animation tricks. But, as his career went on, he began mixing animation with live action. Journey to the Beginning of Time was one of the first films he shot this way. The film was an eye-opener for Czech and foreign audiences alike. It portrayed a fantastic world and I think he was one filmmaker who was really able to capture the imagination of works by Jules Verne. In visual terms, there is no question the films continue to resonate with audiences even today."
The movie, inspired by Verne, tells the story of four boys who take a rowboat on a magical but ultimately scientific journey. Using the boat they go through a mysterious cave, then make their way back through time.
First, they are greeted by a beautiful shaggy mammoth who watches curiously from the shore; later, they spot real dinosaurs; and finally they arrive at the primeval ocean where all life once began. Scenes are full of atmosphere: dark forests, oozing pits, mountain backdrops, and tall grass.
Even at fifty or so, "Journey to the Beginning of Time" is fairly well-paced but meditative. Like a painting come to life: it most successfully blends live action with animated animals either by splitting the screen, sometimes using foreground and background in silhouette, or by cleverly manipulating characters' point of view. Film historian Michaela Mertova again:
"In terms of the animation it was very convincing as a whole. Its success lies in the fact that Zeman was able to create a timeless model - a timeless representation of prehistory, so it remains convincing even now. Of course, the audience was aware it was an artificial world and that it was animated, but it was so alive, so natural, that audiences were never distracted by the tricks."
The film also follows the work of palaeontologist Josef Augusta and famous primeval scenes illustrator and painter Zdenek Burian, to create animals as accurately as possible, based on scientific knowledge at the time.
Oldrich Fejfar, is a professor of Palaeontology at Prague's Charles University, who was a student there when the film was being made.
"It was, I think, the same tradition to 'reconstruct' extinct animals that was started by Josef Augusta and Zdenek Burian in the 1940s. They wrote two books - one called, to paraphrase the titles, 'The Extinct Past'; the other 'The Past Life of the Earth' - so the film was a continuation of this tradition. I think the interest of Professor Augusta was to bring this topic to the movies, not only in books, but also on film. The models of the animals were made in plaster and then were animated at the laboratories in Zlin. The animation of the animals was done there."
Josef Augusta was himself an advisor to Mr Zeman on the film and received credit. Many frames directly evoke Burian's paintings, as if shot through a shimmering glass. The river, the major motif, sluggishly draws the boys' boat further along on their adventure. Through the Ice Age until, they gradually reach stifling primordial swamps: they witness amazing sights: live mammoths and dinosaurs, pterodactyls, rhinos, and other beasts.
"We know a little about Zeman's animation methods: two documentaries were later made about his work, and he allowed cameras into the proverbial kitchen to see how some of the tricks were done. One of the most famous scenes involved the boys crawling over the body of a dinosaur. The actors crawled over a maquette while a part of the scene was actually a [mask over the lens] - a painting of the dinosaur. [Zeman's] methods were so original and exact that they still get respect even from viewers spoiled by digital FX today."
Palaeontologist Oldrich Fejfar agrees.
"When we have seen the new movies by the BBC, for example, or Spielberg's movie (Jurassic Park) - everybody said the result was very good. It was a good result: Augusta and Zeman were successful."
Of course: it would be a mistake to think in some ways the film hasn't aged at least a little: it isn't quite as rip-roaring as an Indiana Jones adventure. But, one reason it has aged well is because it remains so honest in its aims. To paraphrase one of the boys in the story: this is not about bringing back some sensation but in learning about the past. Its educational message remains.
To this day Karel Zeman's films have fans around the world - more perhaps elsewhere than in the country where he was born. "Journey" does periodically air, at least on TV. Elsewhere, though, festivals honouring the visionary's work have been held, fairly recently, for example, in France, and the US.
And, though Zeman is known for a number of different adventures, like those of Baron Munchhausen, which he filmed in the 60s, or Sinbad, in 1971, Journey to the Beginning of Time holds a special place in many fans hearts, if only because learning about the primeval earth belongs so strongly to our childhood years. Zeman, who died in 1989 shortly before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, enabled his young viewers to visit a long lost forgotten past that we all carry within our genetic make-up.
Like all good filmmakers, Karel Zeman enabled us to dream.
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