I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Czech it Out!: Disney of the East


by Stephen Sues
March 5, 2011

Since the beginning of my career as an animator, I have been awestruck and fascinated by the work of Czech animators.  My introduction to it was that of Jiri Trnka, whose The Hand still stands as one of my favorite ever uses of visual metaphor in an animated film.  This brilliantly simple, dialogue-free story about the government's abuse of censorship and propaganda delivers a powerful message in less than 20 minutes, and without a word of dialogue. Using an elegant combination of stop-motion puppet animation, and live-action acting from the elbow down, The Hand couldn't say what it said louder than it did. It was one of those foreign films where you feel like you already know so much about both the environment and the attitude the filmmaker is living in.

I once read Trnka be referred to as “the Walt Disney of the East.” Not only do I think the appellation is ill-fitting of an animator like Trnka, but I find it is so much more appropriate for his contemporary, and fellow Czech animator, Karel Zeman.  To me, this title fits Zeman for both positive and negative reasons.

Considered the world over “the co-founder of Czech animation,” Zeman, like Disney, wanted to make movies that tapped into the audience's imaginations and show them things never before seen on screen.  They both are known for adapting well-known fantasy stories as well as penning them their own.  In the case of Zeman’s special effect driven live-action films like "The Stolen Airship" and "The Fabulous Baron Munchausen", he yields incredible results. Often resembling the great animation-driven fantasy flicks from America by Ray Harryhausen, they stand out as the few films that pushed the boundaries of what could be done on film decades before visual effects went mainstream.

But there is, like Disney, an unremarkable quality to Karel Zeman’s work; the images are pretty, but never breathtaking. "1001 Nights" feels like something I had seen in half a dozen Russian shorts: the cut-out animation based on a folk tale/fantasy story.  While the story involves far-off lands, including an island on a whale's back, nothing ever feels like it has such scale or depth. Everything is as flat as the paper it's made from, making the animation feel artificial. When compared with other cut-out animated fairy tales from Eastern Europe, like those of Yuri Norstein, "1001 Nights" lacks the finesse and fluidity that makes you forget you're looking at paper cutouts.  In spite of a story that includes giant eagles and other myriad dangerous things, the animation is so stiff and lifeless that it never feels as compelling as it should.

One of the biggest issues I had with "1001 Nights" was its reliance on narration. Some scenes would have been more interesting if the words weren't delivered by such a bland narrator.  So much of what made me fall in love with animation was learning how the medium could cross languages, and in the best cases, culture barriers. While I've seen plenty of excellent shorts, both foreign and English language, with narration or dialogue, "1001 Nights" felt like being spoon-fed a story that went stale months ago.

However, I didn't find Zeman's work to improve as much as I hoped once he went dialogue-free with Inspirace. While it certainly beats Nights for originality, the animation often feels stiff, most noticeably with a school of fish that moves in such perfect synchronicity and un-organically. The story itself is hardly there at all. Framed as a daydream, it feels for the most part like a collection of things Zeman thought would be cool to animate, and then somewhere in there there's some kind of love story between a ballerina and a clown. The overall style, while having its own kind of beauty, feels cheap and saccharine, like your grandmother's figurine collection. Meaning “Inspiration” in English, the short certainly could be seen as a visualization of inspiration itself, but it doesn't exactly create it.

To get a taste of the Zeman that pack a punch, I highly recommend watching the documentary The Special Effects of Karel Zeman. Featuring great making-of footage from the sets of his features like Journey to Prehistory and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, its essentially every reason I've wanted to make movies played out in movie form.

 

Steve Sues is from South Orange, New Jersey, and is supposedly studying film and animation at Hampshire College, though he spends most of his time reading webcomics and watching whatever film or TV show he can get his hands on that catches his interest, and then analyzing the crap out of all of it.

He generally likes almost anything in film or television that tries something new, which often crosses over into his love for weird, offbeat stuff, like Don Hertzfeldt and David Lynch and Monty Python. He is a huge fan of comics, especially newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, as well as webcomics like Chainsawsuit, Sam and Fuzzy, and Subnormality.