Czech Republic / 1948
To coincide with the first Manchester Animation Festival and its screening of the new documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman, this week’s short is Inspiration, a fascinating and ingenious work, and therefore a fitting representation of this extraordinary director.
Like a psychedelic, eastern European Ray Harryhausen, Karel Zeman’s unique films create super-stylised environments and vivid fantasy worlds, using stop frame animation or combining stop frame creatures and live action actors. Not so much attempting to create a Harryhausen type effect of realism as invent whole new phantasmagorical universes, Zeman’s films are acknowledged as influential on groundbreaking contemporary directors such as Terry Gilliam, Jan Švankmajer, Tim Burton and many more. But the difference is that far from trying to create an impression of uniqueness, Zeman didn’t seem to think he was doing anything that weird at all, and the type of eccentricity and whimsy that seemed to come naturally to Zeman from within himself was perhaps adapted more as a self conscious, stylistic decision by others.
Born in Moravia, Zeman worked as a window dresser and poster designer and studying at business school. Following an early interest in Czech puppet theatre he moved to Paris to study commercial art and work in advertising. Returning to Czechoslovakia, Zeman continued in commercials until offered a job in the animation studio run by Hermina Tyrlova, one of the rare breed of leading early 20th century female animators and often called the ‘Mother of Czech Animation’. Zeman and Tyrlova then collaborated on Vanocni Sen (Christmas Dream, 1946) which won the award for best animated film at Cannes.
Soon after this in Zeman started his series of popular short children’s comic films featuring the character Mr Prokouk, but it was this extraordinary 1948 short Insparace (Inspiration), an ‘art film’ using miniature posed glass models and sets, which more defined his desire to push the envelope of stop frame and special effects to create unique dreamlike imaginary universes.
Later Zeman created his first feature Kral Lavra (King Lavra) in 1950 followed by his first live action/ animation film, Cesta du Praveku (Journey into History), a genre for which he would become world renowned. It was Zeman’s next film Vynalez Zkaky (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, 1958) which brought wide international acclaim and which many consider his masterpiece. Based on Verne’s novel Facing the Flag and designed to look like the kind of illustrations that would have featured in the original publication, the sets and backgrounds in this Victorian style give the feel of a toy cardboard puppet show from that era except in this case containing real actors. A favourite on television in the 1960s the film is now rarely seen, and like the rest of Zeman’s beautiful work, is criminally neglected
Zeman followed this with other Jules Verne adaptations such as Na Komete (Journey by Comet) and the whimsical fantasy Baron Prasil (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), seemingly influencial on Terry Gilliam’s later version of the tale; indeed, a lot of Zeman’s work seemed to influence Gilliam’s whimsical style. His later work includes a version of Sinbad (Pohadky Tisice A Jedne Noci, 1974) and the fantasy story of love conquering evil, Krabat (1977).
Apparently made as the result of a wager Zeman accepted that he wouldn’t be able to make a stop motion film using glass, most of the figures in Inspiration are seemingly reheated and reshaped for every frame of movement to create remarkably fluid figures in a unique stop frame world.
Bookended by live action sequences, Inspiration is mainly a series of animated vignettes set inside a universe contained within a drop of water. Beginning with lovingly filmed semi abstract technicolour images of light and colours refracting, reflecting and blurring through glass and water, (putting me in mind of a music video director I worked with who used to move pieces of broken glass about right in front of the camera lens for that trippy psychedelic effect) we see an artist who’s gaze settles of raindrops on his window as he stares out in search of inspiration. Whether the artists (or indeed Zeman’s) mind has been expanded by some particularly potent Czech absinthe or such like we can only speculate but he seems to achieve a moment of enlightenment as, in a series of films within films, he imagines worlds within worlds contained in the water droplets.
As we focus on a particular raindrop on a leaf we see a series of interlinking miniature scenarios within the tiny watery world. A clam opens and releases some bubbles, droplets of air within the drop of water, which rise to the surface and become flowers, one of which mutates into a glass ballerina figure, who dances and pirouettes on the water as if on ice. A dandelion seed blows into the droplet and becomes a clown figure who is transfixed by the dancer. When the clown approaches the dancer a thick opaque glass sheet blocks him off and, breaking through the barrier, he finds himself in an eerie glass forest where he is mesmerised once more by a crystalline woman riding a chariot pulled by a team of glass horses.
The droplet rolls off the leaf and is gone forever while back behind the window the artist, having found his inspiration, seems to begin work heating some glass.
I’m not sure what all this means exactly but it is captivating and fascinating to watch. The idea of these miniature transitory worlds, rich and intricate and full of emotion one minute and then gone the next, seems to give the artist and the audience a godlike perspective. The worlds within droplets within droplets within worlds reminded me of quantum type ideas of the universe being constructed by solar systems, planets then right down to atoms and molecules, which when opened up are like more solar systems and planets themselves, or of fractal patterns which repeat themselves with ever tinier detail the more you zoom in.
Whatever Inspiration makes you think about, the point is it should at least inspire your mind into action driven by curiosity, as like a lot of Zeman’s best work, it’s probably quite unlike anything you have seen before, from the insanely intricate craftsmanship of the remelted and reposed glass figures (an ornate carriage pulled by a team of horses!) or the rich, shimmering and glinting fantasy world of glass, ice and water he creates using these difficult materials, his skill and his imagination.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!