Karel Zeman  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Karel Zeman (November 3, 1910, Ostroměř near Nová Paka, then Austria-Hungary - April 5, 1989, Prague, then Czechoslovakia) was a Czech animator and filmmaker. He is considered the co-founder of the Czech animated film.

He started to be interested in puppet theatre while studying at business school. Soon after, he decided to study at the Art School of Advertising in France, and after graduating he took a job with an advertising studio in Marseilles. His first experience with animated film was making an ad for soup. When he returned home he continued working in advertising, now for big Czech firms Bata and Tatra. Zeman showed a sample of his work to the filmmaker Elmar Klos, and was offered a job at the animation studio in Zlín. He accepted the job in 1943. Once there, he met animator Hermína Týrlová, who had just finished animating the all-time children’s favorite Ferda Mravenec (Ferda the Ant, based on a story by Ondřej Sekora). Together, Zeman and Týrlova made the animated film Vánoční sen (Christmas Dream) and won the award for Best Animation at the 1946 festival in Cannes. Zeman was well on his way to becoming a world-renowned animator.

The first project Zeman did on his own was a popular series of short films about a character named Mr. Prokouk. These humorous stories revolved around the problems of everyday life: Mr. Prokouk at the Office, Mr. Prokouk the Inventor, and so on. Zeman’s first longer film was Král Lávra (King Lavra, based on a poem by Karel Havlíček Borovský), which earned him a National Award in 1950. In 1955 Zeman made his first film combining live actors, animation, and special effects— Cesta do pravěku (Journey to Prehistory), a work that stunned the world. Four years later, he released his masterpiece Vynález zkázy (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), opening a new world of possibilities that he explored in his other adaptations of Jules Verne novels — Ukradena vzducholod (Stolen Airship) and Na kometě (Off on the Comet) - and classic stories such as Baron Prášil (Baron Munchhausen), Bláznova kronika (The Jester’s Tale), and many more. Zeman used sets painted in the style of Victorian illustrations (mainly engravings by Gustave Dore), and then had live actors wandering through animated settings. The great success of these science fiction and fantasy features is a tribute to Zeman’s sense of humor and storytelling abilities, as well as his technique and originality. Though most of Zeman’s films are meant for children, they possess a sophisticated wit and visual style that enchants adults as well.

His most unusual film remains the short Inspiration (1949). Here Zeman employed an astonishing technique, using series of glass figurines to produce remarkably smooth animation with an exquisite sense of timing, movement, and narrative structure.

Another of Zeman’s feature-length animated films, Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci (Tales of One Thousand and One Nights), consists of seven short stories about Sinbad the sailor. Later, in Krabat, čarodějův učeň (Krabat - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1975), and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale O Honzíkovi a Mařence (Hansel and Gretel, 1980), he returned to classical forms of animation.

He died before the Velvet Revolution in Prague.

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