The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Karel Zeman Museum, Prague


I recently went on holiday to Prague. Now, Prague is a beautiful city and so it's no surprise that it's often been used as a filming location. Over the years, films as diverse as Amadeus (1984), xXx (2002), Mission: Impossible (1996), Eurotrip (2004), Casino Royale (2006) and The Omen (2006) and have all filmed in the city, making use of its stunning and diverse architecture.

However, close to the famous Charles Bridge is a hidden gem. Opened in 2012, the Karel Zeman Museum is an interactive exhibition dedicated to the work of a Czech director who also belongs between Georges Melies and Ray Harryhausen in the pantheon of pioneering visual effects artists.

Zeman was born in 1910 and studied in France before returning to Czechoslovakia and wokring in advertising. He met the animator Elmar Klos who offered Zeman a job at an animation studio in Zlin. Zeman accepted the job in 1943 and worked as an assistant before becoming the director of the stop-motion animation production group in 1945. He started making short films, before moving on to feature-length movies which combine live-action and animation techniques. He was still working in the 1980s and died in Zlin in 1989. 

The museum is full of exhibits showcasing Zeman's life and work. The best part is you are actively encouraged to take photos and videos and even use the props for yourself.

This was a camera used by Zeman in the shooting of his films:

You can also see the glass figurines used in a 1949 short called Inspirace (Inspiration):

From 1946 to 1959, Zeman made a series of nine animated shorts featuring the character Mr Prokouk and you can see some of the original animations and some of the props too:

It's unsurprising that the main parts of the museum are dedicated to three of Zeman's major feature-length films. The first of these is Cesta do pravěku, also known as Journey To The Beginning Of Time (1955). It told the story of four boys who set out on a wooden boat back up the river of time into prehistoric times. A mix of education and Boys Own adventure, complete with trick photography and visual effects, it is regarded as a classic children's adventure and even had a nationwide release in America in 1960.

You can see a selection of props from the film as well as a book of storyboards taken for the film:

In Vynález zkázy, or The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne (1958), Zeman takes inspiration from Verne's Facing The Flag and the original illustrations for Verne's work to create what American critic Pauline Kael called a "wonderful giddy science fantasy". The film travels beneath the sea and through the sky and you can control the submarine or even have a try on the flying machine:

Baron Prášil, or The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961), takes the tall tales of the German nobleman and infuses them with a touch of Verne and applies Zeman's blend of live-action and animation to create what Howard Thompson of The New York Times calls "a delectable oddity". The Baron lands on the Moon and mistakes a crashed cosmonaut for the man in the moon, bringing him back to Earth and involving him in all sorts of madcap shenanigans.

One of the major props from Baron Prášil is the Moon rose chair - at the right angle, it can look as if you are sitting on a rose on the Moon.

Baron Prášil was screened at the BFI in the 1980s and had a direct influence on Terry Gilliam and his subsequent film The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). In an interview, Gilliam said: 'He did what I'm still trying to do, which is to try and combine live action with animation. His Doré-esque backgrounds were wonderful. The film captured the real spirit of the character.'

There are video screens all throughout the museum, showing clips of the films and acting as DVD extras, explaining how and why certain things were done. They are in Czech but all have English subtitles.

For film fans and anyone interested in the history of film (especially visual effects), this is worth a few hours of your time. You don't need to know who Zeman was or what he did to enjoy the museum but you'll leave with a fresh appreciation of a true master of his craft.

You can check out the museum's website here.


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