Special Visionary filmmaker Karel Zeman
In this Christmas special Radio Prague highlights the work of visionary filmmaker Karel Zeman. His daughter Ludmila Zeman – acclaimed children’s book author & illustrator - remembers her father's approach as a director. Also highlighted: the new Karel Zeman Museum in Prague.
During the holiday season, TV specials in the Czech Republic, like in most parts of the world, are looked forward to – especially by children. In North America several generations have grown-up on Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas. The equivalent in the Czech Republic would be live-action fairy tales such as Tři oříšky pro Popelku, a much-loved re-telling of the Cinderella story, or S čerty nejsou žerty (Give the Devil his Due). Magical films by visionary Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, including Journey to the Beginning of Time and Baron Munchausen (which influenced Terry Gilliam), also are screened at the holidays, and they also deserve special mention: they remain among the most magical and innovative films ever produced.
Copies at one point were almost impossible to get. Now, several of Zeman’s main titles – including the seminal Journey to the Beginning of Time (which mixes a variety of revolutionary animation techniques and live action) have seen digitalisation and rerelease. No doubt copies were found by some families under the Christmas tree this year. The first film to be re-released was Journey to the Beginning of Time. The movie, inspired by Jules Verne, tells the story of four boys who travel on a boat into the past via a cave, going further back from the age of the mammals to dinosaurs until they gradually reach the primordial swamps and seas from which life originally sprang.
"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."
As an animator, Zeman masterfully mixed different techniques to bring the impossible to life, layering, for example, live action of the child actors on the boat in the mid-ground, matte paintings of mountains on the horizon, and puppets or mock-ups of animals in the foreground, whether a woolly mammoth or stegosaurus. His daughter Ludmila Zeman, who spent much of her childhood at the Zlín film studio where her father worked, agrees he came up with many novel approaches and the results were not only entertaining but educational. She agrees he was an innovator and an enormous influence; I spoke to her on a line to her home in Montreal this week:
“I think that he was very much ahead of his time. He always tried to find ways of bring his ideas to film and he believed in movie possibilities. What he invented really was the combination of many techniques: cell animation, cut-out, 3-D puppets, and live actors. And he put all these techniques in one film and was really trying to erase all these barriers. That was really his speciality and I don’t think any other filmmaker was able to do special effects as well as my father.”
In many ways Ludmila says she had a remarkable childhood and her father included her early on in the process of filmmaking. Some directors cut off their personal life from their profession, but Karel Zeman was different. Ludmila learned even as a girl about life at the studio, the different professions in the film business, and the different stages of work.
“I was very lucky child because the studio was very close to our house. Also around the studio there were great surroundings: lots of forest. So in the summer when it was nice I spent the days outdoors and when it was rainy I was in the studio, either watching my father work or watching movies in the projection room. That was very special of course because very few people had a television and certainly it was very rare to go see a children’s movie.
“I remember that he really liked every part of filmmaking because he was himself a designer and animator, he worked with cameras, with every part of production. But what he really loved was to create the story on paper first in the form of a screenplay or storyboard. This was his favourite because he was able to draw the whole story in sketches very quickly. He said it was the most exciting part because he was able to create stories fast.”
Indeed, this was a lesson he stressed repeatedly, which Ludmila Zeman herself enjoyed and admits influenced her own decision to pursue a career as an illustrator and children’s book author. Ludmila Zeman again:
“He showed me many times, after everyone had left and gone home from the studio, he stayed with me and put a huge piece of paper across the table and sketched a whole scene and said ‘now you have to figure out how the puppet will move across the space in a short period of time. For him it was important how to create the scene, the combination of close-ups and long shots and how it all worked. He showed me this many times and I think this was the biggest help that I got to go on to create things for myself.”
Technical innovation was always Karel Zeman’s strong suit; film historian Michaela Mertová said this, in our past interview, in relation to Journey to the Beginning of Time:
“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 maquete 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."
With so many films produced, including Baron Prášil (or Baron Munchausen, which is said to have influenced Terry Gilliam of Brazil and 12 Monkeys fame) did his daughter Ludmila have a favourite?
“As a designer I love Invention for Deception – this is my favourite film and now because I oversaw the digitalisation of Baron Munchausen, this is an amazing film and I love it very much!”
I also asked her if she had ever had had a chance to discuss her father’s work with Terry Gilliam, given that the latter made his own version of Baron Munchausen.
“I love Terry Gilliam, he is a great filmmaker and a very honest one. I have seen him many times at festivals but we never discussed my father’s work together. I just know from what he wrote in the newspaper that he was inspired by my father’s Baron Munchausen, and that he tried to succeed but that my father’s version was much better.”
Coinciding with the new release of Baron Munchausen and other Zeman works is the recent opening (in October) of the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague, located in a courtyard in the historic Malá strana, flanked by the famous Charles Bridge. It seems like such an obvious choice for a museum, one has to wonder why no one came up with the idea before. But with interactive technology having become so easy to use, perhaps the timing was perfect. It is a small but fascinating museum where visitors are encouraged to photograph and to touch.
And that is a thrill especially for elementary school children, who were amazed when they visited going from one room to another. In one, they find themselves 20,000 leagues under the sea; in another they can climb onto a fabulous flying machine and in still another, they can tread across the surface of the moon.
The permanent exhibit, as the filmmaker did in life, goes to great lengths to reveal the magic behind the movies, the kitchen so to speak where things were created and produced and “cooked up”. The director of the museum, Jakub Matějka, told me more:
“In the museum we are dedicated especially to three main films by Karel Zeman, which means Journey to the Beginning of Time, ‘inspiration’ for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and Baron Munchausen. The museum is designed a film studio which visitors can enter. They can try all the machines and learn, through interaction, how Zeman created special FX in his day without the help of a computer.”
So... how about a look around?
What we can see here are original puppets that Zeman designed and worked with, as well clips, and the emphasis is obviously on the audio-visual so you can see what he did on flat screens. This is not the kind of show where you would have just a ‘wall of text’.
“That’s right. We wanted to attract not just film fans but also families with children. And I think we are following Zeman’s ideal: he loved making films for children but also for everyone.”
“That’s right, for December alone we have 40 schools lined up so we are looking forward to presenting the work of Karel Zeman to the new generation.”
Sure enough when I visited some of those kids – children and their teachers from Grade 2b from Malostranská Elementary School to be exact – showed up.
“It’s nice here. It’s a nice movie.”
Have you seen it?
“I didn’t know there would be something about this film here.”
“I wanted to come here because I thought it would be nice. I am interested in Journey to the Beginning of Time.”
You can tell from the tone they are curious and happy to be there. One girl said she liked it, but didn’t know the movie, while a boy told me he knew the film but hadn’t expected to see it highlighted in the show. Almost all said they liked what they saw with one apparently itching to head back into time on his own “if only he could”.
And this is what it is all about: surprise and fascination, the spark setting off one’s imagination. Ludmila Zeman:
“I am very happy with the result, I was very excited from the very beginning. Finally, my father’s work, and he made a lot of good films - can be highlighted in one place. Every film is different. It shows how rich his work is. I really like how the space was designed by Jakub Fábel and Ondřej Beránek in a very modern way. I think it is a great success.”
In her view, the museum can inspire children today the way she was inspired by her father when she watched him work.
“I think the museum has come at the right time. These days almost anyone can make a movie at home with a few items and a computer. So In think it serves as a great inspiration and shows some of the ways you can come up with ideas and find solutions. I think it can be an inspiration.”
Ludmila Zeman’s own illustrated trilogy on the adventures of Gilgamesh won the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada and her film Lord of the Sky was short-listed for an Oscar nomination. She has also produced work for PBS and shorts for the Sesame Street programme. In the future, too, she hopes she can pass on her own knowledge in workshops at the museum.
“I hope things will work out: I love to take part and I think they will establish a workshop for children. I would like to present my books, and show how to animate and to show them the process of filmmaking. I would like to participate in this.”
As for her own philosophy as an artist, that too was largely influenced by her father’s approach. Ludmila Zeman once more:
“What I learned from my father was that when I worked on a story was to create a special design as well as to include educational elements for children. At the museum I think they have the Gilgamesh stories which were very successful as well as Sindibad (Sinbad), from 1,001 Tales of the Arabian Nights which I loved very much as a child. The story allowed me to focus on elements such as travel, geography and also culture. I used Persian miniatures as the basis for the book’s design and I was also influenced by my father’s The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, which we did together.”
Be sure to look up Mrs Zeman’s acclaimed books, which are also available at the museum dedicated to her father, online. If interested you can also visit www.muzeumkarlazemana.cz and www.ludmilazeman.com