Czech filmmakers of the last century belonged among the European elite. One of those was definitely Karel Zeman. Working in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s with very few resources, Zeman created visionary films that have inspired such modern-day filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Tim Burton.

And they indeed had a lot to be inspired by. Consider Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” a masterpiece of special effects filmed in the 1990s. Decades before computer graphics even existed, Zeman was creating similar effects with models, simple animation and basic optical effects. Despite the relatively primitive technology, he created something that surpasses many contemporary films.

One of the best ways to experience Zeman’s work is at the Karel Zeman Museum in Malá Strana, which celebrated its fourth anniversary on October 1. This rare exhibition interactively presents Zeman’s life work in such a manner that you quickly become a part of his magical world. Each room provides a film studio simulation where visitors can explore Zeman’s special effects accompanied by music specially composed for this exposition. It is like a bewitching walk in a fantasy film studio, a return to the carefree moments of childhood.

No wonder then that Zeman is often called a film magician. He often had to deal with poorly equipped ateliers and badly organized teams. Therefore he had to rely fully on his dexterous hands and praiseworthy imagination, which you can experience on your own in the museum. You can fly on a flying machine, control the submarine from the film “Invention for Destruction” (1958) or sit on a moon rose from “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” (1961).

In making feature films from literally nothing, Zeman focused on every small detail, which has given his films a timeless appeal. A good example is “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955), inspired by the illustrations of Czech painter and writer Zdeněk Burian. This fantastic film can be considered a breakthrough in its use of 2-D and 3-D models, stop-motion animation special hand-made effects that combined to create an absolutely original piece.

In the film, four boys board a raft and sail down a river into prehistory. During their dangerous journey they see various animal and plant species, and arrive in the era of the dinosaurs. The film was very modern for its time, and hugely popular. It is filled with numerous animal miniatures that look real. For instance, at one point the boys are rowing on a lake when they encounter a life-sized brontosaurus. Of course the brontosaurus was a miniature, and Zeman was using an optical effect that combined the real boys rowing in the background with the animated miniature in the foreground. This unique work still stands as one of the best science fiction films ever made by a Czech director.

Recently, Zeman’s films have started to receive new life. Three institutions – the Czech Film Foundation, Karel Zeman Museum and Czech Television – have combined resources for a project called Restoring the World of Fantasy, which is creating digital restorations of the director’s most important works. “Deadly Invention” and “Baron Munchausen” have recently been released in new colors. “Journey to the Beginning of Time” is still waiting for its new coat.  

Along with trying out Zeman’s hand-made machines, visitors will find a special attraction at the very end of the museum – an opportunity to be part of the above-mentioned films. Thanks to the green screen you can watch yourself under the sea dealing with submarine life, or discovering dinosaurs along with the boys from “The Beginning of Time.”

From inside Zeman’s world, it’s even clearer how and why his work has such enduring fascination, putting viewers in touch with their inner child. As he once stated, he was trying to make a world that exists only in fairy tales. And who better than children to appreciate the realm of dreams and fantasy?

Photo courtesy of Karel Zeman Museum