Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sargeant state that, over time, animators have consistently “drawn from pre-existing works of fantasy fiction to expand the unique technical capabilities of the animated medium” (1). In this way, these animators created a new genre, the animated fantasy, combining elements of both animation, where the “images are primarily created by computer or hand and the characters voiced by actors,” and fantasy, where “live-action characters inhabit settings and/or experience situations that transcend the rules of the natural world” (4). One such animator, the late Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, was a pioneer of the fantasy animation genre. Peter Hames contends that Zeman “must be regarded as [a] genuine auteur” of this type of animated filmmaking (188).
In 1927, Zeman moved to France to study advertising design. While undertaking his studies, he frequented the cinema and became especially interested in animated movies. His first attempt at animation was in an advertisement for soap (Karel Zeman Museum). In 1943, when offered a job at the Zlin Film Studio, Zeman left his well-paying career as head of advertising for a chance at moviemaking. Karel Hutěčka, a production manager for a number of Zeman’s films, says in Tomás Hodan’s documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015): “I find it almost inconceivable today that this man … in a very good position professional and financially … with a nice home and everything … traded it all for the unknown.” In all, Zeman would go on to direct 11 feature-length animated fantasy films using a variety of techniques.
Zeman’s first production was A Christmas Dream (Vánoční sen, 1945). The film was originally directed and animated by Czech animation pioneer Hermína Týrlová. The film was almost completed when a fire in the studio storerooms destroyed the negative. Dejected, Týrlová declined to reshoot the film (Film Adventurer Karel Zeman). The studio decided that Zeman would film the animated parts, while his brother Bořivoj would reshoot the live-action segments. Many who worked at Zlin were technical novices. Hutěčka describes Zeman’s crew:
[Zeman] began working with people who knew as little about film as he did … all they knew was that film had perforations on the side. The cameramen were mostly photographers by trade. The animators came from a variety of professions. One might be a carpenter, another a metal engraver, another a clockmaker. They all had to learn everything from zero. And Zeman, who was teaching himself as well … taught them … how to animate movement frame by frame (Film Adventurer Karel Zeman).
A Christmas Dream would screen at the first Cannes International Film Festival in 1946, winning the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film.
Zeman followed A Christmas Dream with a series of shorts focusing on an original character named Mr. Prokouk, beginning with Mr. Prokouk: A Horseshoe for Luck (Pan Prokouk: Podkova pro štěstí, 1946). A wooden stop-motion puppet, Mr. Prokouk is “a resilient, recognizable everyman whose daily tribulations satirized the social conditions in Czechoslovakia during the immediate postwar years” (Berry 145). Zeman created nine Mr. Prokouk short films over thirteen years, and Mr. Prokouk would become “the most famous character in Czech animation” (Solomon). In 1948, Zeman directed the short stop-motion animated film Inspiration (Inspirace). Inspiration was animated completely using blown-glass figurines. Zeman’s daughter, Ludmila, an illustrator, animator and author herself, suggests that:
The film Inspiration was one of the signposts on my father’s path of exploration. One of his principles was that it wasn’t good to repeat himself. He had to draw every position so that the glassmaker could blow the glass exactly as needed. When he set his mind on something, he always found a way to do it (Film Adventurer Karel Zeman).
Japanese animator and director Kōji Yamamura praises the skill required to animate glass in Inspiration: “No one but Zeman could have pulled that off. It was a technically amazing feat accomplished before the CG era” (Film Adventurer Karel Zeman). This paper explores the animation techniques Zeman pioneered and traces his work’s influence on other filmmakers. It asks: What is Mystimation? What are its identifiable techniques? How has Mystimation influenced other filmmakers since Zeman?
What is Mystimation?
Mystimation refers to the process of combining live-action and animation techniques, including hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, stop-motion and cut-out animation, as well as extensive matte paintings and miniatures. This is to achieve an effect not only to mystify the viewer but also to emulate and adapt artworks and their mediums to film. I would not say that Mystimation is strictly defined by specific animation techniques, such as in Zeman’s feature The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1962), where Zeman utilizes new techniques such as ink in water to create dynamic backgrounds. Instead, due to Zeman’s constant experimentation and tinkering, I argue Mystimation is defined by the pursuit of emulating and adapting artworks into the moving image using whichever technique was available at Zeman’s disposal. Employing a gimmicky branded name to advertise to US audiences, the posters for the 1961 US release of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (Vynález zkázy) announce that it is “[t]he first motion picture produced in the magic-image miracle of Mystimation!” The release also included redesigned English-language opening credits with reference to the “new motion picture technique Mysti-Mation” and a new filmed segment with American television host Hugh Downs introducing the film and highlighting “the miracle of Mystimation.” Charles Silver (2012) of New York’s Museum of Modern Art designates American film producer Joseph E Levine as the originator of the term “Mystimation” in the notes accompanying the 2012 screenings of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne[i]. There is no evidence of the term being used before Joseph E Levine adopted it for the US release. In an attempt to reclaim the term for Zeman, I argue that Mystimation is a style in itself, developed by Zeman from his earliest films to his latest works.
What makes Mystimation a distinct style?
Films that incorporate mixed media, such as live-action with animation, have been classified as a hybrid form (Litten 1). According to her typological system for classifying hybrid mixed media filmmaking, Franziska Bruckner categorizes Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne within the A3 classification, meaning Zeman’s works incorporate 3D stop motion techniques such as “object animation, pixilation, puppet animation, claymation” (25). I suggest that Zeman’s work goes beyond this classification in its execution and subject matter. Bruckner points to elements that are not included within the scheme categorized as “non-animation” elements, such as stills, photos and drawings, that “can neither be categorized as live-action images nor can they be attributed to a certain animation technique, because no movement is inherent in these images. Nonetheless, they are part of the film” (37). These non-animation elements are also utilized by Zeman within his hybrid live-action and animation works. What further sets Zeman’s Mystimation apart as a distinct style is the usage of original artwork, such as Léon Benett’s nineteenth-century illustrations for Jules Verne’s works, as both source and content. I would argue that this style is seen across Zeman’s entire body of work and has been adopted and evolved as a style by filmmakers directly influenced by Zeman. Therefore, Zeman’s incorporation of animation and non-animation techniques combine to create a unique and distinct style that can be described by the umbrella term, Mystimation.
Zeman’s reference of the original medium of the artworks he chooses to animate is hyper-noticeable, pointedly making the audience aware that they are witnessing the application of hybrid special effects. In this way, Zeman operates differently from other hybrid techniques, such as Ray Harryhausen’s DynaMation. In DynaMation, a miniature set is created in front of a filmed rear projection in order to synchronize stop-motion animation into the live footage. Harryhausen sought to “establish a new division between cartoon and 3 dimensional animation,” with a particular focus on marrying the way that the puppets “acted” in sync with filmed live human actors on screen (452). Harryhausen’s vision with Dynamation, Joe Fordham (cited in Prince 190) argues, was to seamlessly “integrate his stop-motion puppets … dexterously with [the human] performers”.
In contrast, Zeman is uninterested in making the animation stylistically fit the live-action, making instead every part, including the actors, fit the particular style of the film. Zeman, Hames states, argued that “[a]s the world of the ﬁlm is so stylized, he also aimed for an acting approach somewhere between pantomime and ballet. The stylization becomes apparent on the levels of both acting and design” (198). In addition, Zeman animates the original 2D flat, drawn artwork but never to the point of losing sight of the original medium. In this way, live footage is co-opted into the animation rather than the animation becoming part of the filmic realism. As Michael Atkinson (2020) states:
[Zeman’s] style is a unique mixed-media vision, daringly co-opting nineteenth-century graphic illustration not by aping it or evoking it but by using it as literal building material, mastered out of scores of overlapping techniques, from stop-motion to double exposure and superimposition to Schüfftan mirrors and traveling mattes and stock footage, often in an integrated storm of craft that defies dissection.
Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958), based on Jules Verne’s Facing the Flag (Face au Drapeau, 1896), never loses sight of Benett’s illustrations for the original edition. In his animated and live-action feature, Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955), Zeman “deliberately avoids any naturalistic integration” between the animated creatures and the actors (Hames 196). In his review of the film, Atkinson (2020) maintains that:
Zeman’s textures are the money: even the sea rocks at night and the pounding engine pistons are made by classic-engraving draftsmanship, and the roiling sea is evoked with undulating pen marks, all of it both 2D and 3D at once; the uncanny mixture of layers and effects and forced perspectives is so carefully and inventively executed, it generates a sense of fanciful astonishment that has almost nothing to do with the story.
As an example, the sepia-toned On the Comet (Na kometě, 1970), again based on Verne’s novel Off on a Comet (Hector Servadac,1877), emulates nineteenth-century panoramic photographic postcards. The effect on the audience is an immersive experience stepping into a widescreen vista of an epic historical moment. However, there is no pretense that the animation is not an artwork or somehow “real”. It continues to exist as a self-reflexive, three-dimensional extension of its original medium of a postcard. At one point a building disintegrates as riders and horsemen thunder past; the effect is as if the building is coming away from the paper it is printed on. Dan North suggests that there is “a widespread impression that the development of special effects has been driven by a series of incremental improvements and modifications moving towards a capacity for absolute simulation and imperceptible illusion” (4). In contrast, there is no “imperceptible illusion” in Zeman’s work. Instead, the aesthetic objective of Mystimation is to call attention to itself as a representation; its visual effect techniques are self-conscious and self-aware. Gilliam, in particular, adopted Zeman’s non-illusory practice for his animation for the Monty Python series.
In scrutinizing The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), one finds that specific and clear-cut techniques combine to make up Mystimation. The most striking visual component of the film is its evocation of Victorian line engraving illustrations. In Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Filmmakers, Zeman says:
My film reaches the imagination through the engravings of Benett and Riou who illustrated the novels during his lifetime. In some scenes cartoons and puppets are used alongside live actors. I have stylised even the smallest details (410).
Zeman’s stylization extends to animating the live footage; the sea, the costumes, and the sky are all subject to augmentation. Facing the Flag (1896) is the primary influence for the story in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. However, narrative and visual elements from Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires sequence of novels are present, including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870), Robur the Conqueror (Robur-le-Conquérant, 1886) and The Mysterious Island (L’Île mystérieuse, 1875). Zeman said of his rationale for employing specific techniques in the film:
The magic of Verne’s novels lies in what we would call the world of the romantically fantastic adventure spirit; a world directly associated with the totally specific which the original illustrators knew how to evoke in the mind of the reader … I came to the conclusion that my Verne film must come not only from the spirit of the literary work, but also from the characteristic style of the original illustrations and must maintain at least the impression of engravings (Osmond 61).
Throughout The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman employs many additional special effects techniques to achieve his unique look. Zeman creates an “intentionally naive composition” combining live-action and animation (Bruckner 24). Zeman employs techniques such as hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, stop-motion and cut-out animation, and extensive matte paintings and miniatures to accomplish the line-engraved style. As film historian Bill Warren (690) notes, this line-engraved woodcut look can be seen on the actors themselves. Zeman includes printing anomalies such as negative patches in the shading where the ink is missing. In live-action scenes “of the sea, birds, seals, and so forth, a lined filter is used in printing, to make those scenes—which often have etched, matted-in skies—look like woodcuts as well” (Warren 690).
These techniques and attention to detail are employed throughout Zeman’s body of work and make up the distinct Zeman style. The style of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne had a clear connection with audiences of the time. Alice Šikošová of the Czech Film Foundation, a foundation dedicated to digitally restoring older Czech films, states that The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is “considered to be the most successful Czech film in history” (Hronová). In his review of the film when it screened at the BFI to mark the Zeman centenary, Alex Barrett noted Zeman’s “faithful recreation of the feel and look of Victorian illustrations,” and wrote of its techniques:
[T]he film combines all manner of tricks and effects – double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylized matte-paintings, and who knows what else – with its live-action footage to create a seamless blend of startling, crisp, black-and-white material … the outright brilliance of the Mystimation process ensures that things never get too dull, while moments of poetry (such as one in which two fish swim into each other, their tails joining to form a butterfly) imbue the film with a charm which goes beyond that of its visual aesthetic.
Although there is no evidence that Zeman referred to the term himself, “Mystimation,” while fanciful and likely coined as an advertising gimmick for American audiences, aptly captures the unique, fantastic and mystical style Zeman employs in his films. When compared to his body of work, it could be considered that The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was not “[t]he first motion picture produced in the magic-image miracle of Mystimation” as Joseph E. Levine’s posters proclaim. In fact, three years previously Zeman had produced the feature film Journey to the Beginning of Time using Mystimation techniques of live-action, animation and adaption of artworks into the film. Instead of emulating the look of black and white Victorian wood engraving, however, Zeman chose to adapt Zdenek Burian’s paintings imagining pre-history. Animals including woolly mammoths and dinosaurs are animated with a combination of puppetry, hand-drawn, cut-out and stop-motion animation. Extensive use of matte paintings and split-screen photography can also be seen. Oldrich Fejfar, Professor of Palaeontology at Prague’s Charles University, was a student while Journey to the Beginning of Time was made. Fejfar recalls that “[i]t was, I think, the same tradition to ‘reconstruct’ extinct animals that was started by Josef Augusta and Zdenek Burian in the 1940s” (Velinger)[ii].
In a departure from the fantastic and fictional adaptations of his previous features, Zeman’s film, A Jester’s Tale (Bláznova kronika, 1964), is an anti-war satire of the Thirty Years’ War which raged over Central Europe from 1618 to 1648. A Jester’s Tale is notable as Zeman’s only collaboration with the Czech New Wave filmmaker Pavel Juráček. Juráček’s 1970 anti-authoritarian satire, A Case for a Young Hangman, was banned by the government resulting in the end of Juráček’s film career. Returning to black and white cinematography, Zeman combines all of his previously used Mystimation techniques to evoke the engravings of Matthäus Merian found in the Topographia Germaniae series of 1642. The film’s nature as an original anti-war satire appears to allow Zeman more freedom in constructing his images than before while also pushing further into the absurd, comedic imagery that Mystimation techniques can provide. In an example early on, when a battle takes place, smoke from cannon fire obscures the battlefield for a moment before revealing each of the actors replaced with cut-outs, their heads flying off as they are hit with cannonballs. The absurd, comedic use of cut-out animation in A Jester’s Tale bears a striking resemblance to Gilliam’s animation segments in Monty Python productions.
Zeman’s following two feature films, The Stolen Airship (Ukradená vzducholoď, 1966) and On the Comet, mark a return to adapting the stories of Jules Verne and the illustrations found in the novels at the time. A master in his techniques of Mystimation and an extremely accomplished fantasy film storyteller, Zeman includes elements from his previous films in On the Comet, including a section with puppeted and stop-motion Burian-esque dinosaurs, recalling Journey to the Beginning of Time. An extended segment of On the Comet takes the characters to a boat and back to the engraved line style of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. The film moves between a monochromatic color scheme and a palette awash with color using techniques Zeman learned while making The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. After On the Comet, Zeman returned to his pre-Mystimation days, animating feature films predominately using paper cut-outs.
Who are Zeman’s successors?
Zeman’s body of work was produced entirely in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. David Vichnar suggests that the reason fellow Czech animator, and part successor to Zeman, Jan Švankmajer, remained relatively unknown in the West for most of his career was, “of course, due to politics” (71). In resistance to the crushing of the Prague Spring protests, Švankmajer gave up filming for seven years. His first film after his self-imposed break, Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, 1982), received universal critical praise internationally (Vichnar 72).
Renowned in his native Czech Republic, Zeman has not had similar enduring recognition internationally despite the occasional success breaking into the United States market. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace Zeman’s influence through the evolution of Zeman-like techniques and processes, dubbed Mystimation. Many contemporary filmmakers, such as Gilliam, Tim Burton and Švankmajer, have directly acknowledged the debt they owe to Zeman. Gilliam concedes that he acquired and developed his style by studying Zeman’s work (Film Adventurer Karel Zeman). Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, cite Gilliam as influential, stating that “stylistically it’s obvious that we’re most influenced by Terry Gilliam” (cited in Pond 74). This passing of the baton from one generation to another demonstrates the evolution of Zeman’s Mystimation style. Using Mystimation techniques within his work, Gilliam does not merely appropriate Zeman’s style. On the contrary, Gilliam’s work demonstrates a pattern of influence and practice that represents a continuation of Zeman’s Mystimation. This visionary aesthetic is fantastical and dreamlike, using methods described as ‘mix-and-match effects’ (Osmond 61). As Osmond describes it, Zeman’s filmmaking is surrealist and unique in its intermingling of multiple techniques:
In one shot, we might be watching a photo of the hero sitting inside an animated steam car. In the next, we’re looking at the real actor sitting in what’s apparently a real vehicle, though we quickly lose track of which bits of a shot are ‘real’ and which are miniatures, trompe l’oeil scenery, mechanical props, cut-outs or stop-motion puppets.
Examining Zeman’s influence on Gilliam’s work as a case study within this paper will provide an exploratory introduction to Zeman’s work and trace his animation style through the history of film, highlighting how it was adopted by others and evolved to the present day. Zeman’s Mystimation style is not only a stated influence by film directors internationally but is also an established style still in use today.
The history of artworks adapted to film, and filmmakers responding to each other by re-adapting and evolving previous entries, stretches back as far as the earliest films. These early films are still referenced in cinema today. There is an established tradition of Munchausen films, with entries directed by Georges Méliès, Zeman and Gilliam, each responding to the formers’ works over time, with new entries in the mythos of the great Baron Munchausen. Each director utilizes and evolves the effects and techniques of the previous entry. However, Zeman’s Munchausen clearly demonstrates the development of Mystimation animation and film techniques. Gilliam’s Munchausen clearly shows elements of Zeman’s Mystimation techniques revealing Mystimation as an unmistakable style recognizable beyond Zeman’s works.
In 1911, French filmmaker Méliès released Baron Munchausen’s Dream (Les Hallucinations du baron de Munchausen), considered the first film based on Rudolf Erich Raspe’s novel Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785). As Jack Zipes notes, “[Méliès’] film has little to do with the fairy-tale novel … Méliès decided to turn the book of preposterous tales into a series of nightmares experienced by the Baron … creating a fairy-tale dream sequence.” (43)
Méliès’s short describes Baron Munchausen experiencing a night of vivid dreams and nightmares after an evening of drinking with friends. Méliès draws on his extensive theatre experience when staging scenes in Baron Munchausen’s Dream by framing a stage within a mirror next to Munchausen’s bed. Using jump cuts and dissolves, Méliès transforms scenes from one location to another while still existing entirely within Munchausen’s mirror. Hammond (90) suggests Méliès incorporates a range of ‘tricks’ into this early hybrid filmmaking: ‘Not only statues but scarecrows, snowmen, dummies, skeletons, figures in paintings, posters, photographs, playing cards and book illustrations, pulsate with life, through the camera’s stop-motion capability’.
In 1962, Karel Zeman released The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Much like the way that Méliès utilized his special effects knowledge and unique film-making style when making Les Hallucinations du baron de Munchausen, Zeman’s film reflects the fifty years of progress film had undergone in that time. Sadoul compares Zeman to Méliès in Dictionary of Filmmakers:
A filmmaker who has widened the horizons of the eighth art, animation; in his later, and best, films he is justly considered Méliès’s successor. He undoubtedly brings the old master to mind, not only because he is an artisan impassioned by art, creating his “innocent inventions” with infinite patience rather than with large budgets, but also because of his ingenuous and always ingenious fantasies (295).
While Zeman may have been influenced by Méliès, Michaela Mertová argues that Zeman “used his own technical, technological and artistic possibilities and thus created a method entirely his own” (cited in Fraňková). Zeman’s Munchausen not only adopts some of Méliès’s tricks but also clearly demonstrates his stylistic choices utilizing Mystimation. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen combines live-action footage with several highly stylized animation techniques. Zeman was well suited to adapt Gustave Doré’s wood engravings of the tales of Baron Munchausen using his Mystimation style, expanding the wood-engraved illustrations to larger-than-life sized set extensions. Zeman’s film more closely adapts the exploits of the literary Baron Munchausen than Méliès’s Les Hallucinations du baron de Munchausen. Cerise Howard argues that Zeman’s Munchausen “remains the most novel, formally and narratively … its imagery tinted like Victorian postcards and with color applied with Expressionistic gusto … it melds live-action with cut-out and other forms of animation, rhyming all awhile with a dreamlike Zdeněk Liška score.” Howard asserts that Zeman’s film was shaped “by the illusionistic practices and ingenious special effects across his colossal oeuvre more broadly” (Howard). Zeman’s style explicitly adapts artworks into films using Mystimation techniques.
Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen was released in the United States in 1964. The production of this film includes the same combination of techniques as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and Journey to the Beginning of Time. Zeman now heightens and introduces more techniques and trick shots to the mix. In another evolution of Mystimation, Zeman now has complete control over color. Where Journey to the Beginning of Time was filmed in full color and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was shot in black and white, a new bipack camera system facilitated a new type of effects shot for Zeman. Colored ink was used to create dynamic and fantastic backgrounds. Warren notes that “[t]he illustrations are also colored in a style reminiscent of the hand-tinting used on Méliès’ films, and is as splendidly imaginative, if not more so, than [The Fabulous World of] Jules Verne” (692).
Beginning his career as a cartoonist and animator, Gilliam “always aspired to direct live-action features” (Sterritt and Rhodes vii). Moving from the United States to England in 1967, Gilliam worked as an animator in British television before joining Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969). After co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Gilliam moved to solo directing with Jabberwocky (1977). Roger Ebert notes that “Gilliam has always been a director who fills the screen with rich visual spectacle … his world is always hallucinatory in its richness of detail.”
Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen had a significant impact on Gilliam. Impressed with the effects Zeman created, Gilliam states that, “he did what I’m still trying to do, which is to try and combine live-action with animation. His Doré-esque backgrounds were wonderful. The film captured the real spirit of the character” (Sterritt and Rhodes, 132-133). Gilliam went on to direct The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). While adapting the tall tales of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam’s film includes references to previous adaptations of the text and its adaptors. The film begins with a theatre production of the work. The production is a heavy-handed melodrama that uses similar techniques and production designs as Zeman while also adapting designs such as the specific look of Zeman’s giant fish. In the middle of the production, the “real” Baron Munchausen bursts through the theatre doors, complaining that it is inaccurate before deciding to narrate the show himself with the”’true” story. Gilliam also adapts elements from Josef von Báky’s 1943 German film, Münchhausen, by including the sultan bet sequence and the concept of the moon king and queen having separate heads from their bodies.
Tracing Zeman’s influence
A line of influence can be drawn from the work of Karel Zeman and his Mystimation style through subsequent generations of filmmakers, leading up to the present day. I argue that the bricolage of elements pulled together by Zeman created the Mystimation style, an approach that subsequent generations of filmmakers have emulated. Zeman’s “unique style of visualization, storytelling and animation have survived him” (Harryhausen and Dalton 166). Mystimation as a distinct style is recognizable even though some of us may have never seen a Zeman film.
Švankmajer is a creator recognized internationally. Gilliam credits Švankmajer as making one of the top ten animated films of all time, Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) (Gilliam). Jan Uhde writes:
His style is unique but his professional background links him with the centuries-old traditions of Czech folk puppetry. Moreover, he had first-hand experience with the experimental 3-D animation of his famous compatriots of the preceding generation, Karel Zeman … and Jiri Trnka … Comparing and confronting them has helped in forming Svankmajer’s own style (60-71).
Through his animated shorts and feature films, Švankmajer combined the tradition of Czech folk puppetry with animation to develop further the visual innovations established a generation earlier by Zeman. Similarly, Zeman’s fondness for adapting the works of literary figures is emulated in Švankmajer’s works. The latter has also adapted literary works. As Vichnar argues, Švankmajer “adopted, for his feature films, the methodology and poetics of loose literary adaptation” (72). Švankmajer, Vichnar states, “combined the tradition of Czech folk puppetry with animation to develop further the visual innovations established a generation earlier by Czech animators Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka” (71). In short, the techniques of combining the elements of stop-motion, live-action and animation. What makes it Mystimation is the adaptation of established works plus the adoption of art into the animation. Vichnar makes the case that Švankmajer is influenced by surrealism and develops surrealist techniques in his adaptations. Švankmajer’s first feature animation, Alice (1988), was a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Švankmajer blended stop-motion puppetry, live-action sequences, and animation “while distorting and intertwining these elements to create an almost tangible feel of the Freudian uncanny” (72). With his 1993 adaptation, Faust, Švankmajer gave “a new spin to the familiar tale of the Faustian bargain,” noting the animator’s “meta-approach” in including other adaptations in his work such as Poe, de Sade, surrealiam and the Gothic (72).
If Zeman is to be considered the father of Mystimation, then Gilliam is his true successor in employing Mystimation techniques in his work. In an interview with Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015), Gilliam discusses homages he has included to Zeman’s work in his films. Gilliam singles out Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen as highly influential, noting Zeman’s use of “cut-outs … and building them into multi-plane shots”. Gilliam states that Zeman’s technique “has been such an influence on me that when I made The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I have a scene where a character goes through the mirror and he’s in a world of two-dimensional things in a 3D space … so that’s completely from Zeman.” Gilliam goes on to state: “His influence on me is continual … I would actually like to see Zeman’s film [The Fabulous Baron Munchausen] again to see if there’s even more I stole from it … I’m sure I stole a lot!”
In separate interviews with Matt Zoller Seitz, filmmaker Wes Anderson references Gilliam and the Quay Brothers. When discussing the “danger of devising a style that is extremely designed and very front and center, where the personality of the filmmaker announces itself”, Anderson speaks of being a fan of Gilliam (Seitz 191). In an interview discussing stop-motion animation in his films, Anderson professes a love of the Quay Brothers, among others (Seitz 191). The Quay Brothers are noted fans of Švankmajer, so much so that they named a short of theirs The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984). In The Wes Anderson Collection, Seitz notes many of the ‘visual quotes’ Anderson uses of scenes from films he is a fan of within the films he creates. It may be suggested that scenes from Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) include “visual quotes” of scenes from Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. It may also be suggested that Karel Zeman’s images partly inspire the vision of Europe that exists within Wes Anderson’s. Zeman originated and developed his technique into the Mystimation style, and it is this distinct style that has been adopted by many filmmakers. Thus, a network of influence can be traced from Zeman’s Mystimation through Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, and Gilliam, to Wes Anderson. Scholars have acknowledged Zeman’s influence on filmmakers like Gilliam and Anderson (Owens 2020).
Parker and Stone have also cited Gilliam as a stylistic influence. In particular, they cite Gilliam’s cut-out animation technique for their animated comedy series South Park (Pond 74). As Gilliam has, in turn, cited Zeman as a significant influence in adopting Zeman’s techniques that include his style of cut-out animation, through multiple works of his, a distinctive association of influence directly from the work of Zeman to Parker and Stone is refracted through Gilliam’s Monty Python animations.
Nicholas Bell suggests that scenes from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) visually quote scenes from Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time. In his review of the Criterion remaster of Journey to the Beginning of Time, Bell notes that “Zeman’s lavish set pieces of various creatures rival the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and one can see how the boys’ journey in this film is later mimicked in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993).”
Burton has cited Zeman as inspirational to him when shaping his approach to animation. Burton says of Zeman:
His films, like [The Fabulous] Baron Munchausen … And I remember some dinosaur series with kids in it [probably Journey to the Beginning of Time] … And I remember where I grew up in Burbank there was a documentary on Karel Zeman that showed his creative process and that was extremely inspirational to me … I think he and Ray Harryhausen were probably two big inspirations in terms of doing stop motion and a more handmade quality … Karel Zeman did that amazingly (Willoughby 2014).
Karel Zeman’s animation and filmmaking technique must be considered a significant influence on animation from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Zeman’s development of techniques into a distinct style of Mystimation has become an iconic style of film and animation technique seen in many of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ avant-garde creators. Gilliam, in particular, articulates a confessed indebtedness to Zeman. The hybridity of mixed media forms of animation using live-action, animated sequences, animatronics, stop-motion, puppetry, a hyperreal color palette and cut-out in the style of Zeman’s Mystimation lends itself to Eisenstein’s concept of the “plasmaticness” of animation (21). Eisenstein states that “the ability to dynamically assume any form … [the] seemingly strange traits which permeate folk tales, cartoons, the spineless circus performer and the seemingly groundless scattering of extremities in Disney’s drawings.” This hybrid style also lends itself to the concept of absurdity through the juxtaposition of the real world and the irrational and injects a surreal, fantastic quality. This is the essence of Mystimation. Animation and live-action are fluidly synced with inspiration directly from artworks to create a surreal, dreamlike quality, a fantastical explosion of movement, rhythm and color. Gilliam’s Munchausen, nevertheless, represents an evolution of Zeman’s Mystimation style. Therefore, Zeman must be considered the master of this particular animation style. Mystimation, a term first coined to advertise Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in the US in 1961, is an apt descriptor of a style that has endured and also underpins the work of many acclaimed filmmakers today.
Emmett Redding is an animator, filmmaker, podcaster and puppeteer with a core focus on playful and reflective storytelling. He recently completed a Master of Animation, Games and Interactivity, RMIT, Australia.
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[i] In the American release of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ‘Mysti-mation’ is spelled with a hyphen in the English language opening credits. In Levine’s posters for the film, ‘Mystimation’ is spelled without a hyphen. In Silver’s MoMA blog post, ‘Mystimation’ is again spelled without the hyphen. I have followed Silver’s spelling.
[ii] A notable and perhaps serendipitous aspect of the choice of style for Journey to the Beginning of Time is that Burian had illustrated a Czech edition of the Jules Verne novel The Vanished Diamond (1884), Hvézda Jihu, published in 1948.