Czech Animators that Changed the World


The Czech Republic might be a small country but it has a great cultural history. It's given the world sugar cubes, contact lenses, the polka dot and the word 'Robot'. But one area for which Czechs have gained international recognition that has far outweighed these humble achievements, is in animation. Here we look at four Czech animators who have made their mark on global cinema.

1. Karel Zeman and inspiration for Spielberga

Karel Zeman was born in Czechoslovakia in 1910 and was an incredibly visionary film director for his time. His style was influenced by Georges Méliès and he adapted various iconic literary works to the silver screen. In his wildly original films, he combined live action, stop-motion animation and practical special effects in a way that had never been done before. Thanks to his progressive style, he was able to recreate the fantastic inventions from Jules Verne's books and bring dinosaurs to life. Zeman's films dazzled audiences in his home country and all over the world. The Journey to the Beginning of Time was at one time playing at 96 cinemas in New York. From the 1980s onwards, a new generation of filmmakers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson have named Zeman as a key inspiration. Without Karel Zeman, maybe we would never have seen Velociraptors...

2. Zdeněk Miler, and the Mole that travelled the world

Zdeněk Miler is one of our most famous examples of cartoon animation. He breathed life into many animated characters, but undoubtedly achieved his greatest success with Mole. It was originally a series of short animated films for children from 1957, which later became a complete television series in the show Večerníček. Our cute Mole interacts with different animals and solves various troubles. Because it has a strong, simple story without dialogue, the stories of Mole worked very well abroad including China, where the rights were sold by Zdeněk Miler's granddaughter. This spawned a new animated series The Mole and the Panda. The series is also popular in Japan, where books about the Mole have been published since the late 1950s. Today, Mole cartoons and merchandise are seen around the world.  

3. Jan Pinkava and his Oscar win

Jan Pinkava is probably the most prominent contemporary Czech 3D animator. He was born in Prague in 1953, but in 1969 he emigrated with his family to Great Britain. He learned to animate in 3D in London and initially made a living producing 3D animated commercials before being hired in 1993 by the world's largest animation studio - Pixar. Since then, Pinkava has won many animation awards, until in 1997 he received the highest accolade - the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. His film Geri's Game about a lonely chess player who plays against himself catapulted Pinkava to the top tier of the world's animators. Thanks to this success, he went on to co-direct another Oscar-winning film Ratatouille. He also worked on the hit film The Incredibles, for which he invented the characters and part of the story. 

4. Jan Švankmajer

Jan Švankmajer prefers to call himself a filmmaker or a surrealist rather than an animator but his influence on animation has been immense. Combining stop-motion and live action to create dark, nightmarish worlds, his films are unique and unforgettable. He began making shorts in the 1960s before moving onto his feature-length debut Alice based on the Lewis Carroll book and has made many films since then before recently retiring.

His films often had subtle (or not so subtle) political messages within them which got him into trouble with the Communist authorities and led to censorship problems. But outside of Czechoslovakia he found an enthusiastic audience in the 1980s in the arthouse cinemas of the world who were drawn to his films which were unlike anything they had seen before.

Filmmakers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and the Brothers Quay are open admirers of his work and it's easy to see why.

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