Karel Zeman

Karel Zeman was a Czech film director, screenwriter, and animator. He is primarily remembered for creating fantasy and science fiction films which combined live-action and animation.

In 1910, Zeman was born in the village of Ostromer in Austria-Hungary. The village is located near the town of Nova Paka, whose main tourist attraction is an abandoned monastery of Minims.

Zeman originally pursued a business education in the town of Kolin. In the 1920s, he studied advertising in France. He remained in France until 1936, working at an advertising studio in Marseilles. His first experience with animation was creating an animated advertisement for soap.

In the late 1930s, Zeman returned to Czechoslovakia, where he continued working in advertising. He created advertisements for companies such as Bata and Tatra. In 1939, Zeman attempted to migrate to Casablanca to avoid the poor living conditions in the German-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He was soon barred from migrating.

During World War II, Zeman became the advertising head of advertisement at Dum Sluzeb in the city of Brno. He participated in a window-dressing competition there, which his won. Film director Elmar Klos (1910-1993) filmed a newsreel about the competition and became acquainted with Zeman. Klos offered Zeman work at an animation studio located in Zlin. Zeman accepted the business proposal in 1943.

Zeman started working as an assistant animator under veteran animator Hermina Tyrlova (1900-1993), who would eventually be nicknamed “the mother of Czech animation”. In 1945, Zeman became the head of the animation’s studio, stop-motion animation production group. He started work on his first short film “A Christmas Dream”, which combined live-action with puppet animation. The plot involved a dream about toys coming to life.

In 1946, Zeman introduced a series of short films featuring a puppet called Mr. Prokouk. The series gained a fan following. In 1948, Zeman completed the short film “Inspiration”, as an experiment in using glass in animation productions. In 1950, Zeman completed a half-hour film called “Kral Lavra” (King Lavra), an adaptation of a satirical poem by Karel Havlicek Borovsky (1821-1856), The film depicted the legend of Labraid Loingsech, High King of Ireland and was met with critical success. Zeman won a National Award with this film.

In 1952, Zeman created his first feature film “The Treasure of Bird Island”, adapting a Persian fairy tale. He used several experimental techniques in animation. His next film was “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955), in which he animated many prehistoric animals. It was his first film to have an international release. Zeman worked on 8 other feature films between 1958 and 1980, as well as a large number of short films. He was one of Czechoslovakia’s most famed animators.

Zeman retired in 1980, at the age of 70. He had been working as a director for 34 years at that point. He died of natural causes in April 1989, about 7 months before the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. He was 78-years-old.

Zeman has been called as one of the 20th century’s most innovative and influential animators. He has been cited as an influence by (among others) Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Jan Svankmajer.

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