Zeman, Karel

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ZEMAN, Karel

Animator. Nationality: Czech. Born: Ostroměř, 3 November 1910. Career: 1930–36—worked in France as poster designer, window dresser, artist with various advertising agencies; 1943—animator in Bata Film Studio at Zlín (now Gottwaldov); assistant director to Hermína Týlová; 1945—director, organizer of 2nd production group for puppet films at Gottwaldov Film Studio; 1955—A Journey into Primeval Times established international reputation. Awards: National Artist, 1970; Order of the Republic, 1980. Died: In Gottwaldov, 5 April 1989.

Films as Animator, Writer and Art Director:


Vánočni (The Christmas Dream) (co-d + sc only; comb. puppet and feature film); Podkova pro štěstí (A Hoseshoe for Luck) (Puppet film); Křeček (The Hamster) (Puppet film)


Pan prokouk úřaduje (Mr. Prokouk in the Office) (puppet film); Pan Prokouk v pokušeni (Mr. Prokouk in Temptation) (puppet film); Brigady (Mr. Prokouk Leaves for Volunteer Work) (puppet film)


Pan Prokouk filmuje (Mr. Prokouk Is Filming) (puppet film); Pan Prokouk vynálezcem (Mr. Prokouk, the Inventor) (puppet film)


Inspirace (Inspiration) (puppet film)


Král Làvra (King Lavra) (puppet film)


Poklad Ptačího ostrova (The Treasure of Bird Island) (puppet film)


Cesta do pravěku (A Journey into Prehistory; A Journey into Primeval Times) ("trick-film"); Pan Prokouk, přítel zvířátek (Mr. Prokouk, the Animal Lover) (puppet film)


Vynález zkàzy (An Invention for Destruction) ("trick-film")


Baron Prášil (Baron Münchhausen) ("trick-film")


Bláznova Kronika (A Jester's Tale) (puppet film)


Ukradená vzducholod (The Stolen Airship) ("trick-film")


Na Kometě (On the Comet) ("trick-film")


Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci (A Thousand and One Nights) (paper cut animation)


Carodějuv učen (Krabat) (paper cut animation)


Pohádka o Honzikovi a Mařence (The Tale of John and Mary) (paper cut animation)

Other Films:


Strakonický dudák (The Piper of Strakonice) (co-special effects); Cerný démant (The Black Diamond) (sc + art d)


Pan Prokouk detektivem (Mr. Prokouk, the Detective) (sc)


Pan Prokouk abrobat (Mr. Prokouk, the Acrobat) (sc + art d)


Pan Prokouk hodinářem (Mr. Prokouk, the Watchmaker) (sc + art d)


By ZEMAN: articles—

"Comment j'ai tourné Une Invention diabolique," in Image et Son (Paris), November 1959.

Midi-Minuit Fantastique (Paris), December-January 1966–67.

On ZEMAN: books—

Benešová, Marie, Karel Zeman, Prague, 1968.

Karel Zeman (in French), Ceskoslovensky Filmexport, Prague, 1968.

Hořejši, J., Karel Zeman, Prague, 1970.

Asenin, Sergei, Fantastičeskij kinomir Karela Zemana, Moscow, 1979.

On ZEMAN: articles—

Martin, Marcel, "Karel Zeman, ou, L'Impossible n'est pas tchèque," in Cinéma (Paris), no. 34, 1959.

Delahaye, Michel, "Aventures fantastiques," in Cinéma (Paris), no. 38, 1959.

Thirard, P.-L., "Le Diabolique Karel Zeman," in Les Lettres françaises (Paris), 15 January 1959.

Libuse, Konradova, "Putting on a Style," in Films and Filming (London), June 1961.

Philippe, P., "Le Baron de Crac rencontre le mage Zeman," in Les Lettres françaises (Paris), 26 April 1962.

Polt, Harriet, "The Czechoslovak Animated Film," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Spring 1964.

Benesová, Marie, "Karel Zeman ce nouveau Méliès," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), December-January 1964–65.

Hrbas, J., "Karel Zeman—Puvab chlapecké romantiky," in 3 parts, in Film a Doba (Prague), January, February, and March 1974.

Kliment, J., "Odpovčdnost umělcova—odpovědnost k umělci," in Film a Doba (Prague), October 1974.

Boček, Jaroslav, "Zlínští po osvobozeni," in Panoráma (Prague), no. 3, 1978.

Benešová, M., "Zápas o tvar," in Film a Doba (Prague), December 1980.

Film a Doba (Prague), November 1985.

CinémAction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 51, April 1989.

Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 6, no. 5, May 1989.

Film a Doba (Prague), July 1989.

Film a Doba (Prague), August 1989.

Monsterscene (Lombard), Summer/Fall 1995.

* * *

After 1945 Karel Zeman, Hermína Týlová's assistant, began independent work with a piece promoting recycling, Podkova Pro štěsti (A Horseshoe for Luck). Everyone in the studio was surprised at the positive response. The main animated character in the film, Mr. Prokouk, a sort of indifferent citizen with petty bourgeois traits, enjoyed tremendous popularity. Thus there emerged over the course of two years a series of five cartoons that responded to the needs of the time: nimble, tendentious grotesques with rapid-fire gags and Mr. Prokouk in the leading role. Zeman conceived the theme and wrote the script, and worked as graphic artist, animator, and director. In complete contrast to these cartoons, he then hastily produced a remarkable piece, a cinematic poem devoted to the work of Czech glass-makers in which he brought to life the fragile beauty of figures of blown glass. Inspirace (Inspiration) possesses the beauty of a perfect work of art and is one of the pinnacles of his career. Here, Zeman demonstrated great technical resourcefulness and an ability to experiment. The folk tale Poklad Ptačího ostrova (The Treasure of Bird Island), an evening-long animated film with a combination of flat and three-dimensional figures and an artistic form inspired by Persian miniatures, was intended for children. Also made for children was his next film, Cesta do pravěku (A Journey into Primeval Times). This is the story of four boys sailing against the current of time and encountering on their journey the natural world of past geological eras. The film's creative form gives it a special place: it is a popular science film, a scientific fantasy film, and combines animation, special effects, and live-action. Here again, Zeman showed his abilities as an experimenter.

While in Cesta do pravěku Zeman attempted to reconstruct a world that once existed, in his work Vynález zkázy (An Invention for Destruction), based on Jules Verne's novel Face au drapeau, he created a new world inspired by the illustrations that accompanied the first editions of Verne's novels. With considerable grace, Zeman attained in this film the magic of the old Verne stories, "that enchantment from naiveté, poetry, and geniality of Verne's novels that anticipated technical discoveries at the end of the century" (M. Benešová). In a perfect form he joined the techniques of the cartoon, animated, and live-action film and created a film in which actor, cartoon figure, structure, and scenery are a part of the graphic style. With this work Zeman revived and refined the forgotten Méliès mode of filmmaking and created his own style—that of the graphic special-effects film. Encouraged by the film's worldwide success, Zeman made another in the same style. This time he chose Bürger's novel Baron Prášil (Baron Münchhausen). Here, too, the graphic design is based on the original illustrations for the novel. Unlike its predecessor, however, this film was devoted more to the acting, while the graphic aspect was enriched through the emotive use of color. In subsequent films of this tendency the live-action component began to predominate.

In the 1970s he returned to the animated film and experimented with three-dimensional technique. He filmed folk tales for children. Along with Jiří Trnka and Hermína Týlová, Karel Zeman was the co-creator of the Czech animated film. The outstanding features of his talent were technical ingenuity and an experimental searching, which led him to the graphic special-effects film. His supreme work Vynález zkázy (An Invention for Destruction) was a unique landmark of world cinematography, which revived and refined the forgotten Méliès tradition.

—Vladimír Opěla