A Czech filmmaker (November 3, 1910 April 5, 1989) whodespite primitive working conditions, shoestring budgets, near-constant political turmoil in his home country, and Soviet censors breathing down his necksomehow managed to produce some of the most visually innovative cinematic work of the 20th century.
His films combine live-action elements, animation, and Special Effects of every kind to create highly stylized and imaginative visuals, paying homage to all kinds of old-fashioned art, from ancient Persian miniatures to illuminated European manuscripts to Victorian steel engravings. Directors Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton, John Landis, and Terry Gilliam are among those who have lauded his films, and it's been said that Wes Anderson and Jan vankmajer were influenced by him too. He's often been called the Czech equivalent of Georges Méliès, and the Barbican Centre in London described him simply as "unarguably one of the greatest animators of all time."
Zeman's feature films are:
- Poklad ptačího ostrova (1952, The Treasure of Bird Island)
- Cesta do pravěku (1955, Journey to Prehistory), released in the US as Journey to the Beginning of Time
- Vynález zkázy (1958, The Deadly Invention or An Invention for Destruction), released in the US as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
- Baron Práil (1961, Baron Munchausen), released in the US as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
- Bláznova kronika (1964, A Jester's Tale), released in the US as War of the Fools
- Ukradená vzducholoď (1967, The Stolen Airship)
- Na kometě (1970, On the Comet)
- Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci (1974, Tales of 1,001 Nights), released in the US as Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor
- Krabat: Čarodějův učeň (1977, Krabat: The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
- Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence (1980, The Tale of John and Mary)
Tropes common to Zeman and his works include:
- Ambiguous Ending / And the Adventure Continues: Zeman's endings often end on a note of conclusiveness and emotional satisfaction while still leaving the narrative itself completely open-ended.
- Journey to Prehistory begins with a Frame Device showing one of the kids at home, putting together a scrapbook about the journey he's just gone on but the film doesn't explain how the travelers got back from prehistory to the present. Was there an alternative route? Did the river start running the opposite direction? Was it all a dream? Did the scrapbook-maker make the whole thing up? No matter; the journey itself happened, and that's the story Zeman wanted to tell.
- Baron Munchausen ends with love in bloom between a modern astronaut and an eighteenth-century fictional character. (On the Moon, no less.) It Makes Sense in Context, but where will the relationship will go from there? That's for Zeman to know and us to find out.
- Creator Thumbprint: Zeman seems to have put a thunderstorm in pretty much all of his feature films.
- Deliberately Monochrome:
- The Deadly Invention, to evoke the original engravings from Jules Verne's books.
- Baron Munchausen, The Stolen Airship, and On the Comet: the live-action elements were filmed in black and white, but color animation, color washes, and splashes of color are all added for stylistic reasons. The resulting effect is rather like a 19th-century hand-colored postcard (The Stolen Airship and On the Comet even lampshade that similarity a couple of times) or one of those cool old tinted and hand-colored films from the early silent era (think the Early Films featured in Hugo).
- A Jester's Tale is in black-and-white, but an article written during filming claimed that it would include color washes like the three films immediately above; Executive Meddling or Money, Dear Boy (or both) may have prevented this effect from being carried out.
- Dub Name Change:
- "Baron Práil" is the standard Czech name for the character known to the rest of the world as Baron Munchausen, so most foreign releases of the film simply change the character's name (and, with it, the title of the film) back to what we would expect.
- When The Deadly Invention first came to America as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, the names of most of the cast and crew were Anglicized to disguise the film's Czech origin. The same thing happened when Journey to Prehistory came over as Journey to the Beginning of Time.
- Have a Gay Old Time: In a Shout-Out to The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, an effective and appropriate Completely Different Title for The Deadly Invention, the American producers also renamed Baron Munchausen ... calling it The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Now that the word "fabulous" is so strongly associated with the concept of being Camp Gay, the American title has become a bit misleading.
- Importation Expansion:
- When Journey to Prehistory was released in the United States as Journey to the Beginning of Time, it got an entirely new beginning featuring lookalike actors (carefully shot to avoid showing their faces) going to the New York Museum of Natural History and taking a boat ride in Central Park before segueing to the original Czech footage.
- When The Deadly Invention was first packaged for Americans as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, an introduction was added featuring the television host Hugh Downs, of 20/20 and Concentration fame.
- Lost World: Most obviously in Journey to Prehistory, with a sort of extended Surreal Humor Shout-Out to the concept also featured in On the Comet.
- Medium Blending: Zeman worked wonders with this trope.
- The Deadly Invention combines live actors with all sorts of animation techniques to recreate the original illustration style in Jules Verne's books. The Stolen Airship and On the Comet return to Verne, with a generous dash of Art Nouveau for good measure.
- Baron Munchausen and A Jester's Tale use the technique to pay homage to the eminent illustrators Gustave Doré and Matthaus Merian, respectively.
- Journey to Prehistory blends live-action with stop-motion, cutouts, and even puppetry, much of it in direct tribute to the great paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian.
- Krabat, Tales of 1,001 Nights, and The Tale of John and Mary are predominantly cutout animation, but weave in other techniques now and then for the pure visual splendor of it.
- The Munchausen: Baron Munchausen, naturally.
- Retraux: One reviewer noted that The Deadly Invention isn't just set in a charmingly Steam Punk 19th-century world; it looks and sounds as if it had actually been made within that world. Along the same lines, another reviewer said something to the effect that, while it's normally easy to guess what decade a film was made in, it's well nigh impossible to say even which century this one is from.
- Steam Punk: The Deadly Invention, The Stolen Airship, and On the Comet all qualify. Even Baron Munchausen has elements of the trope.
- Surreal Humor: Zeman's oeuvre doesn't just blur the line between fantasy and surrealism; it completely erases the line, then washes out any remaining traces of it, then waltzes all over and around where the line used to be.
- Zeerust: Played for Retraux charm in The Deadly Invention, The Stolen Airship, and On the Comet, befitting their Steam Punk flavor.