Karel Zeman

Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman
Born (1910-11-03)November 3, 1910
Ostroměř, Austria-Hungary (present-day Czech Republic)
Died April 5, 1989(1989-04-05) (aged 78)
Gottwaldov, Czechoslovakia
Occupation Film director, animator
Children Ludmila Zeman[1]
  • 1970 National Artist[2]
  • 1980 Order of the Republic[3]

Karel Zeman (November 3, 1910 – April 5, 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]


Zeman was born on November 3, 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]

At Baťa's window-dressing school, where he was teaching, Zeman met the animator Elmar Klos and showed him a sample of his work. Klos offered Zeman a job at Zlín's animation studio. 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 his brother Bořivoj Zeman, 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 most well-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 November 3, 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 April 5, 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]

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


Feature Films

YearOriginal Czech titleStandard English titleUS release title
1952Poklad ptačího ostrovaThe Treasure of Bird IslandN/A
1955Cesta do pravěkuJourney to PrehistoryJourney to the Beginning of Time
1958Vynález zkázyAn Invention for DestructionThe Fabulous World of Jules Verne
1961Baron PrášilBaron MunchausenThe Fabulous Baron Munchausen
1964Bláznova kronikaA Jester's TaleWar of the Fools[25]
1967Ukradená vzducholoďThe Stolen AirshipN/A
1970Na kometěOn the CometOn the Comet
1974Pohádky tisíce a jedné nociTales of 1,001 NightsAdventures of Sinbad the Sailor
1977Čarodějův učeňKrabat — The Sorcerer's ApprenticeN/A
1980Pohádka o Honzíkovi a MařenceThe Tale of John and MaryN/A

Short Films

YearOriginal Czech titleEnglish titleNotes
1945Vánoční senThe Christmas DreamReleased in the US as A Christmas Dream
1946KřečekThe Hamster
1946Podkova pro štěstíHorseshoe for LuckThe first Mr. Prokouk film[26]
1947Pan Prokouk ouřadujeMr. Prokouk, Bureaucrat
1947BrigádyVoluntary workThe third Mr. Prokouk film
1947Pan Prokouk v pokušeníMr. Prokouk in Temptation
1948Pan Prokouk filmujeMr. Prokouk Filming
1949Pan Prokouk vynálezcemMr. Prokouk, Inventor
1950Král LávraKing Lávra
1955Pan Prokouk, Přítel zvířátekMr. Prokouk, Friend of the Animals
1958Pan Proukock detektivemMr. Prokouk, Detective
1959Pan Proukock akrobatemMr. Prokouk, Acrobat
1971Dobrodružství námořníka SindibádaAdventures of Sinbad the Sailor
1972Druhá cesta námořníka SindibádaThe Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor
1973V zemi obrů. Třetí cesta námořníka SindibádaIn the Land of Giants (the third voyage)
1973Magnetová hora. Čtvrtá cesta námořníka SindibádaThe Magnet Mountain (the fourth voyage)
1973Létající koberec. Pátá cesta námořníka SindibádaThe Flying Carpet (the fifth voyage)
1974Mořský sultán. Šestá cesta námořníka SindibádaThe Sultan of the Sea (the sixth voyage)
1974Zkrocený démon. Sedmá cesta námořníka SindibádaTaming the Demon (the seventh voyage)


  1. "Archived - Ludmila Zeman". Library and Archives Canada. 2002-09-25. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Karel Zeman: Animated fantasy in the Czech cinema". The Times. 10 April 1989. p. 16.
  3. 1 2 "Havlin presents award, Husak letter to artist". Daily Report: Eastern Europe. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. 4 November 1980. p. D6. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  4. 1 2 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. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  6. "Hommages et rétrospectives 2010: Karel Zeman". Angers European First Film Festival. 2010. 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. 1 2 3 4 5 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. 1 2 3 "Biography: Karel Zeman". Muzeum Karla Zemana. 2013. 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. 1 2 3 Hames, p. 196
  12. 1 2 3 4 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. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  15. "2nd Moscow International Film Festival (1961)". Moscow International Film Festival. Retrieved 2012-11-04.
  16. "7th Moscow International Film Festival (1971)". Moscow International Film Festival. 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.
  19. Zipes, Jack (2011). The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York: Routledge. p. 43.
  20. Gilliam, Terry (2004). Terry Gilliam: Interviews. Mississippi: Jackson University Press. pp. 132–3.
  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. 1 2 "Focus: Karel Zeman". Animate the World. Barbican Centre. 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. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  26. "Pan Prokouk: Podkova pro štěstí". Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
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