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Karel Zeman

Biography

director, screenwriter, artdirector
03.11.1910 – 05.04.1989

One of the most significant Czech directors, screenwriters and fine artists, Karel Zeman was born in 1910 and died in 1989. He made a number of short, medium-length, and feature-length films, the most renowned of which are Journey to the Beginning of Time, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Zeman received a number of prizes and awards at prestigious film festivals, making Czech cinematography famous throughout the world in the 20th century. He was admired in his time by personalities like Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin and Salvádor Dalí. His film work is still highly regarded, and the techniques he used are studied at film schools throughout the world. The aesthetics of Zeman’s filmic creations have influenced a range of world-class filmmakers, such as the director, fine artist, and member of Monty Python Terry Gilliam.

A true successor to Georges Méliès and a wizard of the big screen, as he was often called, Karel Zeman was born in Ostroměř near Nová Paka in northern Bohemia. A brilliant pioneer of special effects in film, he is still one of the few Czech directors to be universally recognized in the world of cinema.

Ever since his childhood he had adored puppets and performed with them in a puppet theatre. Despite his artistic talent his parents insisted he study business at high school in Kolín. At 17, responding to advertisement in a newspaper, he went to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where he studied advertising design. While in France, he frequently visited the cinema, and became especially interested in animated movies. He was to put this knowledge to good use in his own first attempt at animation – an advertisement for soap.

He travelled widely in his youth, hiking in Morocco, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Greece.

After his military service he returned to work in advertising, and, in 1939, he was about to make an extended trip to Casablanca in Morocco, as a representative of the Bata shoe company, but failed to get the necessary papers from the then Protectorate authorities in time and in the end he had to stay put.

He then began working as head of the advertising section of a department store in Brno. In 1943, the film director Elmar Klos was sent to make a report about a window-dressing competition which Zeman had recently won. Klos was so taken by Zeman’s work that he immediately offered him a job at the Bata Film Studios, in the Kudlov suburb of Zlín. Thus began the professional career of this later world famous film director and production designer.

Zeman often had to struggle against difficult conditions in the technically ill-equipped Kudlov Studios. Many of the workers with whom he started had no particular experience of filming. They, like Zeman himself, had to learn everything on the job. Gradually a coordinated creative team emerged.

Journey to the Beginning of Time released in 1955 became Zeman’s breakthrough film, his first to combine live action, animation and puppetry. Four years later, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne saw him shoot to world-wide success. The film was immediately sold to 72 countries and became the most successful Czech film of all time.

Zeman continued to develop his highly successful use of special effects in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and the two Jules Verne adaptations that followed. In the 1970’s, partly motivated by his love for children and the desire to create films specially for them – but also in part because of the difficulty of shooting live action movies – Zeman returned to making strictly animated films.

Among Zeman’s close associates were the composer Zdeněk Liška, animator Arnošt Kupčík, production manager Karel Hutěčka and his daughter Ludmila, co-creator of his films from “The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor” onwards.

In the late 70’s Zeman was threatened with the loss of his sight, but he overcame the disease and continued working. In the final stages of his life he suffered from heart problems.

Karel Zeman died in Zlín on April 5, 1989.

Filmography

1945 Vánoční sen –– The Christmas Dream
1946 Pan Prokouk: Podkova pro štěstí –– Mr. Prokouk: A Horseshoe for Luck
1946 Křeček –– The Hamster
1947 Zatopená zahrádka –– The Deluge of the Animals
1947 Pan Prokouk v pokušení –– Mr. Prokouk in Temptation
1947 Pan Prokouk ouřaduje –– Mr. Prokouk, The Office Clerk
1947 Pan Prokouk na brigádě –– Mr. Prokouk, The Volunteer
1948 Pan Prokouk filmuje –– Mr. Prokouk, The Filmmaker
1949 Pan Prokouk vynálezcem –– Mr. Prokouk, The Inventor
1949 Inspirace –– Inspiration
1950 Král Lávra –– King Lavra
1952 Poklad Ptačího ostrova –– The Treasure of Bird Island
1955 Pan Prokouk, přítel zvířátek –– Mr. Prokouk, The Animal Lover
1955 Cesta do pravěku –– Journey to the Beginning of Time
1957 Pan Prokouk detektivem –– Mr. Prokouk, The Detective
1958 Černý démant –– The Black Diamond
1958 Vynález zkázy –– The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
1959 Pan Prokouk akrobatem –– Mr. Prokouk, The Acrobat
1960 Laterna magika II –– The Magic Lantern II
1961 Baron Prášil –– The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
1962 Kouzelný svět Karla Zemana –– The Magical World of Karel Zeman
1964 Bláznova kronika –– A Jester’s Tale
1964 Bez pasu a bez víza z Kudlova do San Franciska –– From Kudlov to San Francisco with no Passport and no Visa
1966 Ukradená vzducholoď –– The Stolen Airship
1970 Na kometě –– On the Comet
1974 Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci –– The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor
1977 Čarodějův učeň – Krabat / Krabat – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
1980 Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence –– The Tale of John and Mary
1980 Karel Zeman dětem –– Karel Zeman for Children

 

Quotes

I’m on a journey to discover the beauty of the fairy tale and I want to stay on that path, trying to find better ways to capture it on film. And I have only one wish – to delight the eyes and heart of every child.

 

Why do I make movies? I’m looking for terra incognita, a land on which no filmmaker has yet set foot, a planet where no director has planted his flag of conquest, a world that exists only in fairy tales.

 

I wanted one thing – to show the fantastic world created by nature over millions of years. Film offered me that chance.

 

Man has created a grandiose world of technology, of which dread and fear are often the result … Fortunately, events in the world and our way of life are not determined by technology alone.

 

With the vast sweep of his imagination Jules Verne created a whole world of magical things imbued with a delightful naiveté, which just charm us …

 

I want to dedicate all the movies I’ve made to all the girls and boys.