Karel Zeman

Karel Zeman (3 November 1910 – 5 April 1989) was a Czech film director, artist, production designer and animator, best known for directing fantasy films combining live-action footage with animation.[4] Because of his creative use of special effects and animation in his films, he has often been called the "Czech Méliès".[5][6][7]

Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman
Born(1910-11-03)3 November 1910
Died5 April 1989(1989-04-05) (aged 78)
OccupationFilm director, animator
ChildrenLudmila Zeman[1]
  • 1970 National Artist[2]
  • 1980 Order of the Republic[3]


Zeman was born on 3 November 1910 in Ostroměř (near Nová Paka) in what was then Austria-Hungary.[8] At his parents' insistence, he studied business at high school in Kolín.[9] In the 1920s, he studied at a French advertising school, and worked at an advertising studio in Marseilles until 1936.[10] It was in France that he first worked with animation, filming an ad for soap.[9] He then returned to his home country (by now the First Czechoslovak Republic, known as Czechoslovakia), after visiting Egypt, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Back in Czechoslovakia, Zeman advertised for Czech firms like Baťa and Tatra.[8] In 1939 he attempted to make an extended stay in Casablanca, but was barred by the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia established by Nazi Germany; unable to get the necessary papers in time, Zeman was required to remain in his home country during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.[9]

During the war he worked as a head of advertisement at Dům služeb in Brno. Film director Elmar Klos came to Brno to film a newsreel about window-dressing competition, which Zeman won. Klos offered Zeman a job at Zlín's animation studio.[9] After some consideration (his wife and children were already established in Brno), Zeman accepted the job in 1943.[8] At the studio, Zeman worked as an assistant to the pioneering animator Hermína Týrlová, and in 1945 he became the director of the stop-motion animation production group.[11] The same year, in collaboration with Bořivoj Zeman [cs], he made his first short film, Vánoční sen ("A Christmas Dream"). The short, which combined animated puppets with live-action footage, marked the beginning of Zeman's experiments with new techniques and genres.[12]

Zeman then went on to solo work, including a series of satirical cartoon shorts starring a puppet called Mr. Prokouk; the series was a wide success and the character became a Czech favorite.[2] A bet Zeman accepted, challenging him to discover a method of working with glass in animation,[12] led to the unusual short Inspirace ("Inspiration," 1948), which tells a wordless, poetic love story using animated glass figurines.[8] Zeman then went on to the half-hour film Král Lávra (1950), based on the satirical poem by Karel Havlíček Borovský;[11] the film won a National Award.[8] In 1952, Zeman completed his first feature film, Poklad ptačího ostrova ("The Treasure of Bird Island," 1952). It was based on a Persian fairy tale and took its visual inspiration from Persian paintings,[11] combining multiple animation techniques in two- and three-dimensional space.[12]

American poster for Zeman's Vynález zkázy

It was in 1955, however, that Zeman began the work for which he is best known: six feature films designed artistically to combine live-action and animation techniques.[4] These were:

He was a member of the jury at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival in 1961[15] and at the 7th Moscow International Film Festival in 1971.[16] The Czechoslovakian government awarded him the title of National Artist in 1970.[2]

After his live-action films, Zeman experimented with more classical forms of animation, beginning with seven shorts about Sinbad the Sailor which were then expanded into the feature film Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci (1974).[17] His final films were Čarodějův učeň (1977), from the novel The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preußler, and Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence (1980). On 3 November 1980, in celebration of Zeman's seventieth birthday, President Gustáv Husák awarded him the Order of the Republic.[3]

Zeman died in Gottwaldov (present-day Zlín) on 5 April 1989,[2] a few months before the Velvet Revolution.


Zeman's works were influential to the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer,[18] as well as to the American filmmaker Terry Gilliam,[19] who said of Zeman: "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."[20] The American filmmaker Tim Burton described Zeman's creative process as "extremely inspirational" to his own work, and identified Zeman and the American animator Ray Harryhausen as his influences "in terms of doing stop motion and a more handmade quality … Karel Zeman did that amazingly."[21] Harryhausen himself also spoke in interviews of his admiration for Zeman,[22] and the films of the American director Wes Anderson have included homages to Zeman's works.[23]

The film historian Georges Sadoul identified Zeman as having "widened the horizons of the eighth art, animation," adding:

He is justly considered Méliès's successor. He undoubtedly brings the old master to mind, not only because he is an artisan impassioned by art, creating his "innocent inventions" with infinite patience rather than with large budgets, but also because of his ingenuous and always ingenious fantasies. Less intellectual than Trnka, but nonetheless his equal, he has great zest and a marvelous sense of baroque oddities and poetic gags.[12]

On the occasion of an animation exhibition in 2010, curators at the Barbican Centre said of Zeman: "although his influence outweighs his global fame, he is unarguably one of the greatest animators of all time."[23]

Entrance to the Karel Zeman museum

In 2012 a museum dedicated to Zeman and his work, the Muzeum Karla Zemana, opened near the Charles Bridge in Prague.[24]


Feature filmsEdit

Year Original Czech title Standard English title US release title
1952 Poklad ptačího ostrova The Treasure of Bird Island N/A
1955 Cesta do pravěku Journey to Prehistory Journey to the Beginning of Time
1958 Vynález zkázy Invention for Destruction The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
1962 Baron Prášil Baron Munchausen The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
1964 Bláznova kronika A Jester's Tale War of the Fools[25]
1967 Ukradená vzducholoď The Stolen Airship N/A
1970 Na kometě On the Comet On the Comet
1974 Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci Tales of 1,001 Nights Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor
1977 Čarodějův učeň Krabat — The Sorcerer's Apprentice N/A
1980 Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence The Tale of John and Mary N/A

Short filmsEdit

Year Original Czech title English title Notes
1945 Vánoční sen The Christmas Dream Released in the US as A Christmas Dream
1946 Křeček The Hamster
1946 Podkova pro štěstí Horseshoe for Luck The first Mr. Prokouk film[26]
1947 Pan Prokouk ouřaduje Mr. Prokouk, Bureaucrat
1947 Brigády Voluntary work The third Mr. Prokouk film
1947 Pan Prokouk v pokušení Mr. Prokouk in Temptation
1948 Pan Prokouk filmuje Mr. Prokouk Filming
1948 Inspirace Inspiration
1949 Pan Prokouk vynálezcem Mr. Prokouk, Inventor
1950 Král Lávra King Lávra
1955 Pan Prokouk, Přítel zvířátek Mr. Prokouk, Friend of the Animals
1958 Pan Prokouk detektivem Mr. Prokouk, Detective
1959 Pan Prokouk akrobatem Mr. Prokouk, Acrobat
1971 Dobrodružství námořníka Sindibáda Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor
1972 Druhá cesta námořníka Sindibáda The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor
1973 V zemi obrů. Třetí cesta námořníka Sindibáda In the Land of Giants (the third voyage)
1973 Magnetová hora. Čtvrtá cesta námořníka Sindibáda The Magnet Mountain (the fourth voyage)
1973 Létající koberec. Pátá cesta námořníka Sindibáda The Flying Carpet (the fifth voyage)
1974 Mořský sultán. Šestá cesta námořníka Sindibáda The Sultan of the Sea (the sixth voyage)
1974 Zkrocený démon. Sedmá cesta námořníka Sindibáda Taming the Demon (the seventh voyage)


  1. ^ "Archived - Ludmila Zeman". Library and Archives Canada. 2002-09-25. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  2. ^ a b c d "Karel Zeman: Animated fantasy in the Czech cinema". The Times. 10 April 1989. p. 16.
  3. ^ a b "Havlin presents award, Husak letter to artist". Daily Report: Eastern Europe. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. 4 November 1980. p. D6. Retrieved 15 June 2013.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ a b Hames, Peter (2009). Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 188.
  5. ^ Wellner-Pospisil, Michael (2002). "Le Méliès tchèque" (in French). Festival International du Film de la Rochelle. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  6. ^ "Hommages et rétrospectives 2010: Karel Zeman". Angers European First Film Festival. 2010. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  7. ^ "Journée des enfants: Projection du film Sindbad de Karel Zeman" (in French). Cinéma Tout Écran. 2002. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  8. ^ a b c d e Nováková, Markéta (March–April 2001). "The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman". Ahoy: Newsletter of the Czech Center New York. 6 (2). Published online: "The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman". Jules Verne: Andreas Fehrmann's Collection. Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  9. ^ a b c d "Biography: Karel Zeman". Muzeum Karla Zemana. 2013. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  10. ^ Richter, Václav (20 May 2010). "Karel Zeman: le centenaire du magicien du cinéma tchèque" (in French). Radio Prague. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Hames, p. 196
  12. ^ a b c d Sadoul, Georges (1972). Dictionary of Film Makers. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 286. ISBN 0520018648. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  13. ^ Polt, Harriet (Spring 1964). "The Czechoslovak Animated Film". Film Quarterly. 17 (3): 38. doi:10.1525/fq.1964.17.3.04a00120. JSTOR 1210908.
  14. ^ "The stolen airship". Karel Zeman Muzeum. Archived from the original on 2 July 2017. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  15. ^ "2nd Moscow International Film Festival (1961)". Moscow International Film Festival. Archived from the original on 2013-01-16. Retrieved 2012-11-04.
  16. ^ "7th Moscow International Film Festival (1971)". Moscow International Film Festival. Archived from the original on 2014-04-03. Retrieved 2012-12-22.
  17. ^ "A Thousand and One Nights (1974) - Connections". IMDb. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  18. ^ Harper, Graeme; Stone, Rob (2007). The unsilvered screen: surrealism on film. London: Wallflower Press. p. 61. ISBN 9781904764861.
  19. ^ Zipes, Jack (2011). The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York: Routledge. p. 43. ISBN 9780203927496.
  20. ^ Gilliam, Terry (2004). Terry Gilliam: Interviews. Mississippi: Jackson University Press. pp. 132–3. ISBN 9781578066247.
  21. ^ Willoughby, Ian (27 March 2014). "Karel Zeman's work inspirational, says director Tim Burton on eve of Prague art show". Radio Prague. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
  22. ^ O'Neill, Phelim (1 November 2012). "Ray Harryhausen: the father of fantasy film-making". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
  23. ^ a b "Focus: Karel Zeman". Animate the World. Barbican Centre. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
  24. ^ Velinger, Jan (26 December 2012). "Visionary filmmaker Karel Zeman". Radio Prague. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  25. ^ War of the fools (Film, 1964). WorldCat. OCLC 43996060.
  26. ^ "Pan Prokouk: Podkova pro štěstí". Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze. Retrieved 16 June 2013.

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