Steampunk robot photographer one of many Christmas season attractions at Karel Zeman Museum

Photo: Miloš Turek

With the Christmas season underway many of Prague’s museums and galleries are offering special events and programs, among them a museum dedicated to the seminal works of the great 20th century animator and film director Karel Zeman - behind films like Journey to the Beginning of Time and Baron Munchausen. The Karel Zeman Museum has plenty planned for each advent weekend, including a steampunk robot photographer ready to snap visitors’ pictures.

Karel Zeman Museum,  photo: Miloš Turek
I spoke to co-founder Ondřej Beránek about the museum about this year’s Christmas program, Karel Zeman’s legacy and why tourists shouldn’t pass up the chance to visit.

"You know, Karel Zeman was hugely popular in the last century and his films were a part of our childhood for several generations. But then his films sort of disappeared from TV and certainly from the cinema, and then we met the director's daughter Ludmila and we wanted his films to be released on DVD so that they would again be widely available in the Czech Republic. And she told us about this exhibition of his work which was on at the time in Japan and had proved incredibly popular. We were quite surprised that he was so popular elsewhere, yet was work wasn't properly represented here in his homeland. So the first idea was to create a museum which would highlight his work, to show to Czech children the work of a great artist known all around the world."

And pat of the mission also became the actual digital restoration of his films...

"That came next. The success of the museum made it clear that people were interested in his work and that they could and should be shown again in cinemas, so we started work in that direction and it's great that we already have two films completed which went around the world to different festivals and now are distributed in the UK, Japan and France and will also soon be distributed in the United States as well."

And the films we are talking about, and correct me if I am wrong are Journey to the Beginning of Time and Baron Munchausen?

"The films are Baron Munchausen and The Invention of Destruction - or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne as it is known in the US - and Journey to the Beginning of Time is the last one which is undergoing restoration now and will soon be complete."

“The aim of the museum is to show to Czech children and foreign visitors the work of a great artist known all around the world."

So that will be ready soon. When I moved to the Czech Republic in the 90s "Journey" was still aired with some regularity and it was quite amazing. You could imagine at it had made quite an impact and I read later that apparently Spielberg saw it before he made Jurassic Park.

"Yes that's right and it could have inspired him as well because it is said that he asked for a VHS of the film before making Jurassic Park. We also have director Tim Burton who presented an exhibition in Prague several years ago who talked about how much he had been inspired by this film. It was shown as a six-part series in the US in the 1960s and this and Baron Munchausen and 'Invention' as well as the films of Ray Harryhausen were the greatest inspirations for him when he was a kid and he said he had decided to become a filmmaker because of them."

There are so many moments of ingenuity in these films: Journey to the a Beginning of Time sees children travel backwards through time, through pre-history and the time of the dinosaurs back to the waves of the primordial sea. Many of the tricks or animation methods Mr Zeman invented or perfected are highlighted in the museum. How fascinating is it for children and their parents to see how those worked?

Karel Zeman Museum,  photo: Miloš Turek
"Kids who come here with their parents or schools are able to see up close how some of these tricks were done and our intention was for it to be very hands-on, analogue not digital, so they could try things for themselves. They bring the digital aspect with their iPhones and tablets and so on and take pictures or try tricks even themselves. So I think that the museum works very well in the digital era and that visitors can 'step into' scenes from the films and can try animation tricks by themselves."

If I remember correctly, having visited the museum on numerous occasions, there is a breakdown of a famous shot from 'Journey' which shows how it was done, through a number of layers: there is a wooly mammoth maquette in the foreground, a matte background of some prehistoric hills or mountains, and in between earlier footage shot of the four boys traveling back through time on their raft or boat. At least for some kids who visit, I guess that lights a spark, thinking so that's how that was done, maybe I could do something like that one day...

"Yes. I believe that is the case and it is the reason why we began offering workshops on animation and film tricks at the museum which have proven very popular and they are not just for children but for adults as well. But that's how it starts sometimes: parents will come up and say my daughter or son really would like to try something like this and that is great for us."

“Visitors can 'step into' scenes from the films and can try animation tricks by themselves."

Obviously you have great source material, very visual and inspiring; nevertheless, was it hard to carve out a space on the market given that Prague has so many attractions as well as many different museums now?

"As you said, it helps that we had great artwork to build on and that Karel Zeman's films remain popular with Czechs. So in the beginning, Czech interest helped us get off the ground. But from the very beginning we wanted the museum to be for everyone including foreigners coming to Prague. It was quite difficult in the beginning but we are quite satisfied where things stand at the moment. Interest is high and growing every year and it helps that we have very good reviews on Trip Advisor and that we are on the top 10 of Prague museums and people enjoy it.

“The museum is a bit differ in that here you can touch everything, you can try everything, you can take videos and photos and so in. if there are foreigners come here without ever having heard of Karel Zeman they are surprised and I think we give them a very good look at his work and they respond and that attracts more and more."

Karel Zeman Museum,  photo: Miloš Turek
I guess that close proximity to Charles Bridge also can't hurt in attracting visitors but when we are talking about visitors from abroad, how much do you rely on the social networks to reinforce the message? How have those helped?

"Of course they have helped. But the most important or best thing is when people snap photos and put them up on Instagram or facebook, recommending people to visit, telling their friends about it. That is by far the most important thing in attracting visitors when it comes to being online. As for the Charles Bridge, that is useful but also can be a detriment because there is so much around to see. So, more and more we are taking things outdoors, having events and workshops in the courtyard or nearby to attract attention.”

The holiday season is upon us: what have you got planned for this year? I have heard about the robot taking pictures there… And how important is Christmas in terms of business?

“Director Tim Burton talked about how much he had been inspired by Karel Zeman when he was a kid.”

“Christmas is huge. The summer and Christmas together are big but Christmas is very important for us. Each weekend before Christmas Eve we have special events and special workshops. People can make their own decorations with Karel Zeman motifs, we have the steampunk robot made by two photographers which takes pictures on his home and can print them so people can take them home. We have light screenings from the movies on the building and puppet shows and more.”

In this field it’s important to keep moving, by the sounds of it, to be planning ahead and have something always bubbling…

“Yes certainly. The permanent exhibit is one thing but we are installing stalls beyond the museum such as at Prague Zoo. So we want to present Karel Zeman’s work in other ways as well.”