Karel Zeman: Fantasy and Technology

I am not a huge fan of CGI.  I certainly has its place, but give me some puppets and a bit of whimsical animation and I’ll be over the moon.  Even when it looks outdated it still holds it’s own a lot better than outdated CGI.  And there is something beautiful about the work that goes into creating puppets animation and elaborate sets and costumes.  However, like the skills used to build the pyramids, some animation and special effects are now a mystery to us.  One such example is the magical combination of live action, animation and puppetry used by Czechoslovakian director Karel Zeman.  The secrets of his craft are so fascinating that they are now the focus of a documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman.  In this documentary film students attempt to remake three of the most famous of Zeman’s scenes.  Zeman’s fascination with Jules Verne highlights his own desire for adventure and exploration in the world of film making and special effects.  His choices of subject are brave and perfect for the experimentation of his field.  Never one to back down from a challenge, Zeman accepted a bet to create an animation using glass, resulting in the film Inspirace 1948.

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Gustav Dore’s illustrations of Baron Muchausen

Out of all his films it was The Fabulous Baron Munchausen that most caught my imagination.  Even the story behind the story is fascinating.  Baron Munchausen was in fact a real person who told really tall tales.  Mostly based on his true exploits during the Russo-Turkish War but outrageously exaggerated.  He was not deliberately trying to deceive anyone with his stories, rather he wanted to “ ridicule the disposition for the marvelous which he observed in some of his acquaintances.”  The real Baron Munchausen then inspired Rudolf Erich Raspe to create a fictionalised Baron, originally published anonymously.

Like Chinese whispers the story of Baron Munchausen was passed down, first from his own mouth, then through Rudolf Erich Raspe, and then to be passed on through different translations, illustrations and finally film adaptations.  Out of the many artists who took on the task of illustrating the Baron, it was Gustav Dore who influenced Karel Zeman’s own interpretation of the stories.  The film uses animated and ‘real’ backdrops in the same black and white line drawing style of Gustav Dore, with live action actors playing the roles of the characters.  This combination of real, animated, created, wondrous special effects and romping storyline makes for a film that stands the test of time.

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The film begins on the moon where we get another taste of Zeman’s love of Jules Verne as an astronaut from Earth arrives on the moon only to discover the characters of From Earth to the Moon and the Baron.  They presume he is in fact a man from the moon, and the Baron offers to take him to Earth to show him around.  Here begins a series of adventures, from speaking the unintelligible ‘language of diplomacy’, to rescuing damsels in distress, fighting in a war, and eventually being shot back into space to once more land on the moon.  Zeman’s  adaptation plays up the discord and harmony of science and technology, and whimsical fantasy.  The Baron stands as a symbol of fantasy, and the astronaut, known as Tonik in the Czech version, as a symbol for technology.

This discord and harmony finds voice not just through the symbolic characters, but also through Karel Zeman’s film making artistry.  Fantastical imagination and drawing combines with technological special effects to create a film which creates a rich and wonderful world for the viewer.  Karel Zeman was a true artist of special effect and film making, and his work will stand as proof that technology and fantasy must work together to create beautiful special effects, and beautiful films.

Karel Zeman, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, 1962.

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