The world of Karel Zeman’s fantasy: where animation and real-life meet

Karel Zeman

This past Easter when visiting Prague, I stumbled upon the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague. To be honest, I wasn’t aware at all of Karel Zeman (1910-1989) until that very moment. He’s not often discussed in film history books beyond perhaps a mention, and he doesn’t belong to the far more often discussed Czech New Wave. However, in this museum, I discovered “the world of Karel Zeman’s fantasy”: His films and all the special effects he invented to create the magical touch that is the trademark of his films. Not for nothing, he is considered the Czech Méliès.

Last month, I already discussed his short animation film Vánoční sen (1946) in our article on the winners of Cannes 1946. This black-and-white stop-motion film was his very first experiment with combining animation and live-action. Back then, Zeman had no experience with directing or making animation films at all. He taught himself and the whole film crew how stop-motion works, with the intention to make feature-length animation films in the future. And so he did. He made six wonderful and charming future length animation/live-action films between 1955 and 1970, that deserve every cinephile’s attention:

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955): Boys Meet Dinosaur

Journey to the Beginning of Time.

Zeman wanted every film to be different. He didn’t want to repeat himself, in which he succeeded. Nevertheless, almost every film was based on a novel by the same writer: Jules Verne. For Journey to the Beginning of Time, Zeman was inspired by Verne’s science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).

Journey to the Beginning of Time is a science fiction children’s film, made for educational purposes. it’s about four boys who travel through time to discover the prehistoric world. On their journey, they come across various prehistoric animals, such as a mammoth and a brontosaurus. This film was quite unique since political films dominated Czechoslovakian cinema at that time.

Regarding the style of the film, Zeman was influenced by one of the most important figures of the paleo-art of his time: the Czech painter and book illustrator Zdeněk Burian (1905-1981), who painted thousands of paleontological reconstructions. Some of his paintings of animals were filmed in real time, while others were the foundation for stop-motion parts.

They also gave Zeman an idea of what his 2D and 3D-models should look like. It was, of course, impossible to film prehistoric animals in real-life. And so, Zeman built these animals himself. He made puppets and filmed them in split screen, for example. While one half of the lens was covered with a black piece of paper, the other half filmed the animal. After that, he covered the other half of the lens and filmed the four boys in their boat.

In the end, the dinosaur and the boys would be united on one film strip. No difference can be traced between the upper part and lower part. The result is extraordinary, especially when you think about the fact that Zeman made this scene without any help from any computer effects.

And if you thought Czechoslovakia had an abundance of wildlife in the 1950s, you’re wrong. Zeman painted some decors in the same style as the paleontological paintings of Burian and placed them in the forest he shot the film, creating the illusion of wilderness. Again, the difference between the painted decors and real nature can hardly be traced.

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958): Walking Under Water

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

A gang of pirates kidnaps a scientist to get his futuristic weapon. This film is about one of the adventures scientist Simon Heart has written about in his journal. However, Zeman wanted more than just make an adventurous film. He wanted to address the impact of technology on the world and humankind.

During his journey, Heart discovers several new inventions, such as air balloons and submarines. Unfortunately, not everyone is as fascinated by new technology as he is. The man who sits next to him in the train reads an article about people that are needlessly killed during a submarine accident. “Man was created with feet to walk upon the Earth and on Earth he should stay sir,” he argues. Heart disagrees: “Unfortunately, there have always been people who are not satisfied with walking on the Earth”. Clearly, he is one of them.

With The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman imitated the style of the original illustrations of Verne’s Facing the Flag (1896). This resulted in a beautiful black-and-white film where almost everything is striped. Zeman loved the engravings that illustrated Verne’s story and he thought using the same technique was the only way to represent it in a suitable manner.

To create an engraved look, Zeman used a rubber paint roller to paint white stripes on the clothes and the scenery. In order to unite the real-life characters with the painted backgrounds, he used the technique of matte painting. Both the painted background and the characters were shot through a piece of glass, to create a sense of unity.

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was Zeman’s biggest success and his international breakthrough. It was screened in 72 countries, including Japan, and it won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival Expo 58 in Brussels.

And if you thought he used an underwater camera to film the divers who are on a water expedition, you’re wrong again! He just filmed puppets through a piece of ribbed glass.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961): Toot-Toot, Beep-Beep

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen.

For the two films that followed after The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman made an exception. Instead of using a novel of Verne as source of inspiration, he based The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961) on the fictional German nobleman Baron Munchhausen, created by Rudolf Erich Raspe, who based his character on a real German baron Münchhausen.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen became a romantic and comedic film in which Baron Munchausen is portrayed as a romantic figure. Just like in Raspe’s book, the baron fails in succeeding his impossible achievements, like riding on a cannonball. The absurd plays an important role, which is emphasised by the paranoid style of the film. When the camera enters the richly decorated castle of the Sultan, it passes through yellow and blue archways. It’s like passing through the layers of a peep show, which creates a hypnotising effect.

Since Zeman just had made a black-and-white film, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen had to be in colour. During the day, the film is mostly yellow, while the images become blue when night falls. The sun is red, just like the smoke that comes from bombs. This smoke was made with just a simple trick. All Zeman did to get this magically strange smoke was dripping red paint in an aquarium of water.

The film is full of bizarre things and satire. Yes, Baron Münchhausen flies on a cannonball, but there is also a fish that is so big that it’s able to eat boats. When the baron talks to the Turkish ruler in his richly decorated house, a honking sound is coming out of his mouth. Moonman Tony doesn’t understand it, but he thinks it’s musical. The Baron explains: “This is the language of high diplomacy.” In other words, these people speak a language others will never understand.

Are you afraid that Zeman filmed a real horse falling from a cliff? No need to worry, that part is drawn and integrated into the real landscape.

A Jester’s Tale (1964): When the God of War Blows

Jester’s Tale.

After The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen, Zeman decided to address a more serious subject, in a less serious manner. A Jester’s Tale is a satire of the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe. The style of this film was based on the drawings of the Swiss engraver and illustrator Matthäus Merian der Ältere. And so, A Jester’s Tale became a black-and-white film that contains beautiful landscapes with the same look as the illustrations of Merian der Ältere.

A Jester’s Tale starts with a jester sitting behind a very big book. “I’m a fool and I’m a jester,” he says and tells us that he is the writer of this chronicle too. The story is about peasant boy Petr, who is forced to take part in the Thirty Years’ War. He manages to escape but is almost immediately caught by enemies. Later on, he meets the pretty girl Lenka, who joins him on his trip.

“All of a sudden, the god of war blows from the sky,” says the Jester. In the clouds, the face of a man appears. He blows towards the ground, which destroys walls and towns. As if Zeman wants to say that war always appear from nowhere and that no-one never knows who started the fight. But why start a war anyway? “To the great delight of warriors who make history,” the Jester explains. Unfortunately, these warriors are eager to demonstrate their deeds instead of their words.

After the fight is over, two angels with a ribbon with “Finis” written on it in their hand appear in the sky. The same word is sung by a choir. “It’s done,” Petr’s companion says. Who knows when and where the god of war will blow next time?

The Stolen Airship (1966): Who runs the air? Boys!

The Stolen Airship.

In The Stolen Airship, five boys are done with being excluded from every spectacular event at the fair. They’re not even allowed to go on a promised trip with an airship. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They steal a balloon and go on an adventurous trip around the world on their own. They slowly fly away from their hometown, while several statues point to the sky with a look of surprise in their eyes.

For The Stolen Airship (1966), Zeman had many inspiration sources. Not only did he return to his habit and used two novels of Verne (The Mysterious Island (1874) and Two Years’ Vacation (1888), but he also got inspired by the Art Nouveau style, which was most popular between 1890 and 1910, and the General Land Centennial Exhibition that was held in 1891 in Prague.

In general, the film is sepia-coloured and the nouveau-art influences can be seen in both interiors and exteriors. Curly gates decorate the streets and nouveau-art style posters hang on advertising stakes, for example.

Shortly after the incident, a witch-hunt starts to get the boys and the balloon back and to get the secret formula of the newest airship the professor is working on. Again, Zeman addresses people’s fascination for and fear of technology. “Mankind will rule the air,” says a journalist of the local newspaper victoriously. But will these young boys ever come back?

Still wondering if the boys ever left the ground in real life? Well, no, of course they didn’t. The shots from the airships in the air were all paintings.

On the Comet (1970): Make Noise, not War

On the Comet.

On the Comet, Zeman’s last animation-live-action film, was based on Verne’s science fiction novel Hector Servadac (1877). It’s an anti-war fantasy film about the lovers Hector and Angelica, against the background of colonialism in Northern Africa. Hector works for the French army. One day, he falls into the sea. Angelica saves him. While the war between the French and the generic Arabian army starts, a comet is coming closer and closer.

The film changes colours several times, just like in The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. In general, it’s sandy in colour, but it turns into red when thunder hits the castle or explosions take place. When “the end of the world is near”, it becomes grey. The change does not only reinforce the atmosphere of the scene, but also harkens back to the use of colour in the early cinema period.

The humour in On the Comet is very Monty Python-esque. The soldiers seem dumb and come up with silly solutions for their problems. One day, the French soldiers spot some dinosaurs. Their bullets and cannonballs can’t stop the dinosaurs from approaching the city. But as soon as they notice that the dinosaurs can only be driven away by noise, a new strategy is born. The soldiers start stealing pots and pans on the local market. They want to fight these creatures with “new technology”. The soldiers tie up a bunch of pots and pans on a pole and make as much noise as possible to scare away the dinosaurs. It looks silly, but it works!

In the meantime, the Arabians gather the weapons that the French have thrown away, which enables them to shoot at the French. The French are shot by their own ammunition, while they are defenceless. The technology that once allowed them to easily overcome the enemies has been turned against them.

Fascinating Film Magic: No New Technology Needed

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen.

So, what does “the world of Karel Zeman’s fantasy” look like? Well, we can state that his fantasy was huge and never looked the same. It can be black-and-white but colourful too. It brings prehistorical animals to life, unites the animated and the real, criticises war and expresses worries about the influence of new technology on us, human. New technology doesn’t make our lifes nor our personalities better, on the contrary. Technology can transform us into mean, selfish people, or even worse, it can kill us.

Can we make better films now we have computers to make the most bizarre special effects? In fact, we have more possibilities nowadays, but Karel Zeman proved that for making extraordinary films, only a creative brain is needed. And the result? Fascinating film magic.

This Essay article was published in May 2018