Karel Zeman Museum

The pioneering special effects wizard gets his due

Jason Pirodsky

Written by Jason Pirodsky Published on 07.05.2013 10:30:04 (updated on 07.05.2013) Reading time: 4 minutes

Animator, director, and special effects innovator Karel Zeman influenced a generation of filmmakers and technicians, from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, who took some of his Monty Python animation cues from Zeman’s stop-motion work and even revisited the territory of the director’s Baron Prášil in 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Today, however, Zeman remains relatively unknown (even in his home country) outside of the world of animation and effects buffs over the world who have cherished his work for decades. The newly-opened Karel Zeman Museum, located a stone’s throw from Charles Bridge at the Saský dvůr courtyard in the heart of Prague, hopes to change that.

Covering the director’s entire filmography, from his early animated shorts through his most famous effects-laden films of the 1950s and 60s to his later work, the museum is a rich and rewarding (and best of all, interactive!) journey through the career of one of cinema’s greatest and least-known pioneers.

Early exhibits focus on Zeman’s early work, including the animated shorts he made with collaborator Hermína Týrlová (Vánoční sen (A Christmas Dream) won a short film award at the 1946 Cannes festival) and his solo work, including the Mr. Prokouk series.

Each exhibit contains a short placard about the film and Zeman’s techniques, and a video monitor showing the film on a loop. I was delighted to be able see many of these – which, like much of Zeman’s early work, I hadn’t been able to see anywhere else – though unfortunately, there’s no audio on the shorts.

Walking through narrow, brightly lit corridors (the museum was somewhat crowded on a mid-Saturday afternoon), the focus quickly shifts to Zeman’s breakthrough feature Cesta do pravěku (The Journey to the Beginning of Time), a Lost World-like adventure about a group of children who encounter a land full of dinosaurs.

Individual exhibits detail the special effects techniques used in the film, from matte paintings to 2D and 3D models to stop-motion animation to rear projection. Each is accompanied by a video showcasing their use in the movie. Best of all is the interactive nature of many of the exhibits: visitors can record themselves in front of a rear-projected image or film a shoot a sequence through a 3D model (needless to say, photography is not just allowed but encouraged throughout the museum).

Further exhibits detail the features Baron Prášil (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen) and Vynález zkázy (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne) in similar manner (visitors can ride a replica of the Jules Verne flying machine while a friend cranks a background image!) About 75% percent of the museum is dedicated to these three films and the techniques they contain, with (Czech-language, though English subtitles are frequently provided on-screen) audio available through a single set of headphones at each exhibit (germaphobes take note…)

A final room showcases Zeman’s later (and lesser-known) films, with a video exhibit looping a lengthy clip from each movie (including The Stolen Airship, On the Comet, Tales of 1,001 Nights, and KrabatThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice). I was delighted to find material from just about every film Zeman has made; I only wish that more was made available (here’s hoping we’ll see DVD releases of some of Zeman’s lesser-known features and early shorts in the near future).

By the end, the Karel Zeman Museum represents a relatively quick walk through the director’s career, though anyone stopping to watch the video exhibits in full can easily lose half a day. Most visitors will walk through at a brisker pace, however, resulting in a relatively short amount of time spent considering the 200 CZK entry fee.

Still, the small size of the museum – coupled with the number of interactive exhibits – makes this an ideal outing for children or those with short attention spans. And anyone interested in Zeman or the technical aspects of filmmaking with be delighted: this is a treasure trove of material from one of cinema’s true pioneers.

As CGI continues to dominate the realm of special effects in modern cinema, it’s great to see a celebration of the kind of practical work that has largely become obsolete (and yet, remains superior to computerized effects in many ways). I’m thrilled that the museum is bringing more attention to Zeman’s work; along Prague’s tourist drags, this is one of the more worthwhile destinations.

I was also happy to see that the museum (in association with the Karel Zeman Film Club) has put out newly-restored DVDs of three of Zeman’s most popular movies (all with English subtitles): Cesta do pravěku (The Journey to the Beginning of Time), Baron Prášil (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), and Vynález zkázy (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne) can be had at the gift shop for the bargain price of 129 CZK apiece. Email the museum at info@muzeumkarlazemana.cz to request shipment; international options possible.

Interested in more about Czech animation? Check out my picks of the top 20 Czech animators (parts 1and 2) and see where I’ve ranked Zeman.

Muzeum Karla Zemana
Saský dvůr – Saská 3, Prague 1 (Malá Strana)
+420 724 341 091

Open daily 10:00 – 19:00
Adults 200 CZK, children (under 15) 140 CZK

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