7) Contemporary Czech Animation: The Digital Revolution

'Geri’s Game', photo: © Pixar Animation Studios
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The 1990s were a turning point in the history of Czech animation. The decade marked the beginning of computer animation, which gave filmmakers opportunities that changed the way animated films were made forever.

Animated films – whether made in 2D, 3D, or using rotoscoping – are often made using cutting-edge technology. The advent of computer animation increased the options available to filmmakers in a way no one previously thought possible. And, to the benefit of viewers, the animated film industry experienced a new boom.

Czech and Czechoslovak studios have produced loads of quality animated films that garnered international success. Directors such as Karel Zeman and Jan Švankmajer came to be known abroad despite not having a wide selection of animation technology at their disposal. Perhaps that is why their films are a source of nostalgia for some, as their making required a creativity that is simply missing from today’s digital animation.

Michaela Pavlátová,  photo: Martin Melichar / Czech Radio

Radio Prague International spoke to director and animator Michaela Pavlátová, who is the head of the Department of Animated Film at the Film and Tv School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU).

According to Pavlátová, the availability of personal computers caused a significant change in the animation industry. With access to a computer, anybody could start making animated films.

“Thanks to new technologies and computers, animation experienced a rapid change during the 1990s and after the year 2000. It all started much earlier in America, of course, but it quickly spread here as well. It had an impact on the big studios as well as on individuals because now anybody could have a computer. Therefore, one was no longer dependent on the studios. Before, you could make animated films if you had studied animation and had access to a camera. Now there was suddenly this amazing freedom. It influenced animation in all sorts of ways, good and bad.”

In the days when computers were not widely available, animators had to be much more thorough in their work in many regards. Every detail had to be carefully planned if one did not want to lose time because there was not an unlimited amount of trial versions. As Pavlátová explains, this advantage that modern technology provides had both a positive and negative impact on filmmaking.

“The positives definitely prevail. But I should also mention the negatives. One of them is the beloved ‘undo’ button. It allows you to keep on altering your work forever. And you can make an unlimited number of versions. That’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. Sometimes it’s easy to lose yourself in it. As for the negatives, before computers were used, I could, and had to, remember a whole film. You really had to think it through well because you didn’t want to animate something which would not be used. As for the work itself, since we couldn’t do trial versions, we had to prepare everything beforehand and go straight for the final take. That had a charm to it and usually turned out well.”

'Words,  Words,  Words',  photo: Czech Television

Michaela Pavlátová knows what she is talking about. She belongs to the generation of Czech filmmakers who experienced the rise of computers first-hand. Pavlátová, who in 1992 received an Oscar nomination for her film Words, Words, Words, nonetheless admits that computer animation is a big timesaver.

“I am a big fan of computers in the sense that animation is a very long work process. So, personally, I think that every second that you can save is for the better. That is what the computer enables. In my work, I mainly focus on drawn animation, where it used to be that you had to scan drawings onto a computer or a camera. After that, they could not be moved or resized, so it was very hard to work with them. But when you are drawing the animation straight onto a computer, it is constantly alive and allows you to step into the process at any time and use different loops. It is an enormous timesaver.”

One should nonetheless avoid getting the mistaken impression that the rise of computing means that animators don’t have to do any work. Creating pictures and concepts still depends on filmmakers’ abilities and selected techniques. The process from shooting to screening is very long for 3D films, for instance, adds Pavlátová.

'Geri’s Game',  photo: © Pixar Animation Studios

“On the other hand, I would like to add that it’s not like the computer does everything. It is a big help, but it obviously won’t think up an idea for you. For example, I still do mainly drawn animation. But now I do my drawing on a tablet with an electronic pen, which is really a substitute for drawing on paper. Except it is much quicker, more comfortable, can be coloured in faster and so on. And I know that in 3D animation it takes an insane amount of time to make a model which can be worked with and animated reasonably well. It takes time to create that model. It is not like you press a button and that’s it.”

The history of animated film can be roughly divided into an era before and after Pixar’s Toy Story, which came out in 1995. It was the first animated film ever to be made using only computers.

Czech talent also played a role in making Pixar a giant in the world of animation. Director and writer Jan Pinkava got an Oscar for the studio with his 1997 short Geri’s Game. In the coming years, Pinkava took part in the making of other unforgettable films by the Hollywood studio, such as Bugs, Toy Story 2, or Monsters Inc. He even wrote the original script of Ratatouille before being controversially replaced as the film’s director. Nonetheless, he was eventually acknowledged as a co-director. Pavlátová also adds that the late 1990s gave rise to an interesting tendency to use much simpler techniques. Partly because it was so difficult to beat Pixar in 3D animation.

Jan Pinkava,  photo: Kay Pinkava 2007,  Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

“The first big Pixar movies came out in the 1990s and around the year 2000. And that was a huge revolution. Back then, everyone who knew how and had access to the right software wanted to animate in 3D. But as with everything, it was a wave of interest that receded in a short time. It’s very difficult to use that same style when there is someone who does it as perfectly as Pixar did. You’re not going to do it any better. It’s better to do it differently to hide the imperfection and show that there is a different idea behind it.”

According to the director, filmmakers even started trying to make their movies as simple as possible. Partly because not much more could be done with the available software. But it was also a way to be distinctive.

The spread of the internet was another factor that helped with the proliferation of animated content.

“One great tool was the small format, which allowed films to be compressed and posted on the internet. That was another very important aspect that came with computers. It meant that you were no longer dependent on the festivals, even though festivals and the inspiration and interactions you gain from them are invaluable. But not all creators and viewers can get to a festival. So the opportunity to place films on websites, which appeared around the year 2000, and the increase in internet speed also opened up a lot of space.”

'Daughter',  photo: Czech Television

This democratization, as Michaela Pavlátová calls the process, greatly influenced the aesthetics and content of animated films. Simple animations were so in vogue that filmmakers often tried to make their films look ordinary and primitive.

The simplicity of early computer animation sparked the production of films that were, in large part, comedic. That fit perfectly with the mood of the mass internet public, which wanted to watch fast and entertaining content.

“Computers in the 1990s also had an interesting impact on the visual, aesthetic side of films. Because until then, there were certain ideas about how art or an artistic picture should look like, even if it was simple; a certain aesthetic judgement of what was pretty and what wasn’t. The change was caused firstly by the democratization that computers brought. They enabled people who did not have an art education to start animating. Secondly, a lot of animating was done in Flash, which only supported simple, primitive animation. I noticed that that had a big influence on many people, including me. We suddenly adjusted not just our aesthetic style but also our content to the new technology. Short gags worked much better with it. Because if you want to do something more artistic, sad, serious, or deep, then you want a more detailed style that leaves an impression on the viewer with its depth and beauty. But people have shorter attention spans on the internet, so short gags worked the best.”

'Ant Hill',  photo: Czech Film Center

Czech animation has been able to hold on to its magic and continues to produce numerous works inspired by the surrealism that was typical for the golden age of Czechoslovak animation.

It is not unusual to find Czech names among the filmmakers nominated in the animated shorts categories at renowned European festivals, such as Cannes or Berlinale. In 2020, the Czech film Dcera (The Daughter) was even nominated for an Oscar for best animated short film. Michaela Pavlátová says that contemporary technology allows for a style that combines different types of techniques. And today’s young directors are not afraid to try new approaches.

“I think that today it is a mix of everything. Different types of techniques are used at the same time. And new ones are appearing constantly. I usually learn about those from my students, who are quickest at adopting them. For example, they discover a great way to easily add an aquarelle texture to moving figures, and there are other techniques which are too numerous to mention. Now it’s in style to do 3D animation without it looking too much like 3D. It’s a bit of a trend. The big studios, mainly American ones, or big productions of feature films make their animations look nice and smooth. Beyond that, there are a lot of short films where the filmmakers purposefully leave it a bit rough around the edges, a bit imperfect. And sometimes it’s intentionally very imperfect. Or they use a 3D technique but make it look like 2D.”

'Even Mice Belong in Heaven',  photo: Fresh Films

Besides festivals, current Czech animated films are also promoted by various cultural institutions. One of those is CEE Animation, which supports filmmakers from the Visegrad Group countries and Slovenia. Pavlátová considers the role of festivals to be indispensable and mentions other initiatives connected to Czech animation.

“Anifilm is the biggest animated festival held in the country. Sometimes they put links to different films on their website, and you can stream them online when they are played at the festival. Another excellent site is called Aniont. It was started by Anifilm, and you can surely find the address on their website. There you can watch different animated films mostly by Czech but also foreign filmmakers. It is open for all audiences interested in animated shorts. It’s a fine place.  And when I am in the mood for some animation, I, like anybody else, can go on Vimeo, where they have “staff picks” from the animation category, and those are very good. When an author sparks your interest there, you can keep on discovering more and more similar content.”

'My Sunny Maad',  photo: © Negativ

My Sunny Maad, directed by Michaela Pavlátová, is about a relationship between a Czech woman and an Afghan man. It is one of the upcoming Czech animated films worth looking forward to. Another one is the psychedelic-looking Ant Hill made by Marek Náprstek. In the realm of 3D and computer animation, Even Mice Belong in Heaven, made by the duo of Denisa Grimová and Jan Bubeníček, is another eagerly anticipated release. It was shot using a combination of stop motion and puppets, a Czech speciality technique. The interesting work of young Czech female directors, such as Kateřina Karhánková and Bára Anna Stejskalová, is also worth watching.

But, in a country like the Czech Republic, which has such a strong connection to animation, the list could go on forever. Especially since new talents come out of institutions like FAMU every year. The names mentioned above are just some examples and can serve as an entry point into the genre for anybody with an interest in Czech animation. From there, scores of interesting films await to be discovered.

Authors: Enrique Molina Ruiz , Vojtěch Pohanka