Karel Zeman inspired Kung Fu Panda’s director

John Stevenson is the godfather of the restoration of Journey to the Beginning of Time

Karel Zeman’s classic 1955 dinosaur adventure film Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku) has just undergone a digital restoration and is now available on Blue-ray (with English subtitles) and online streaming. It will also be released to Czech cinemas April 25.

The color film follows four boys who ride a boat down a river back in time to discover a world of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

The “godfather” of the restoration was British director and animator John Stevenson, who began his career with The Muppet Show and is best known for directing Kung Fu Panda. He spoke about the project and Karel Zeman’s legacy at a press conference at the Karel Zeman Museum next to the Charles Bridge. The Blue-ray version and a new poster are already available at the museum.

This is the third of Karel Zeman’s films to be digitally restored, after Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) and An Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy), and it was also the most difficult. The original negative is lost, and all copies are faded, with various degrees of scratches, tears and dirt.

The best elements had to be scanned frame by frame and then and retouched one at a time to remove the flaws.

Stevenson said that Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time inspired him to become a filmmaker. “This film was my first exposure to the work of Karel Zeman. When I was a child [in the 1960s] the BBC showed a small extract of the film, the boys climbing on the back of a stegosaurus,” he said.

“I didn’t know what that film was or who made it. I loved dinosaurs and wanted to know more, and that is where my interest and obsession with Karel Zeman started. I didn’t know his name and because it was the 1960s it was difficult to find anything out. There was no internet,” he added. “It took me many, many years to find out anything about Karel Zeman’s films.”

He added that the BBC would show quite a lot of Czech animation in their children’s shows. “They would show films by Jiří Trnka and Břetislav Pojar and [Zdeněk Miler’s] Krtek. So I was very familiar with Czech animation but not Karel Zeman,” he said.

“I think it wasn’t until I came to America, so it was probably in the mid-1990s, that I first saw his films on a very bad videotape. They did a US version [of Journey to the Beginning of Time] where it was dubbed in American and they added new scenes with American kids,” he added.

“After that, I wanted to find out more, and eventually DVDs came out and I would correspond with people around the world and they would say a Karel Zeman film came out in France or Germany, and we would ask which one has the better picture quality,” he said.

Journey to the Beginning of Time before the restoration always had the worst picture quality. “All the versions I had ever scene up until the restoration was faded, had virtually no color, often very spliced and damaged. … I’ve never seen it look as beautiful as it does now,” he said.

Stevenson looks on Zeman as a major figure in world cinema who has been unjustly overlooked.

“I find Karel Zeman as a filmmaker to be an extraordinarily inspirational figure. He helped inspire me when I was beginning my first feature film. When I finally could see semi-decent versions, the best versions available were from Japan, I could not believe the dedication, the courage that I saw in his films,” he said.

“To make films the way Karel Zeman made films not only took technical and artistic skill, it requires so much courage to embark on a film that is so difficult technically and stylistically so different than anything being made. And that is what I took from Karel Zeman, and have to this day: to be fearless, to have an idea, to commit to it completely and be fearless,” he said.

Stevenson found many of the effects in Zeman’s work to be hard to figure out from a technical standpoint.

“I spent a lot of time looking at Karel Zeman’s films trying to figure out how he did what he did. The techniques he uses have been around since the beginning of cinema but he puts them together in a way that nobody else ever did. He puts a lot of things together in a frame in a way that other filmmakers don’t, so I spent a lot of time going through the film's frame by frame asking how did he do that,” he said.

One effect in Journey to the Beginning of Time was so simple, it took him years to figure out. It involved a painted banner with the background behind the boys, so they could stand up in front of it but still have the river visible. The usual way of doing the scene would have involved what is called a matte painting and superimposition, but this wouldn’t have let the boys move in the frame the way they did.

The restored films are part of the Criterion Collection, a brand that sells many classics of world cinema on DVD and Blue-ray, and now via streaming.

“I hope that through the work of the Karel Zeman Museum and the fact that now his films will be part of the Criterion Collection, which is the gold standard for classic films, that Karel Zeman’s reputation will grow internationally,” Stevenson said.

“I think because his films were so hard to see for so many years he sort of became forgotten at least in the West and he should be up there with great film magicians like Georges Méliès, Ray Harryhausen and George Pal. And he should be a name that is known to people who love movies and to film students as much as those people,” he added.

Stevenson is not the only person inspired by Karel Zeman’s legacy. “I hope that the work the museum is doing and Criterion and people like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson and myself and other people who have worked in films and have been inspired by Karel Zeman will make sure his name lives on,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson would like to see all of Zeman’s work restored, beyond these three films.

“Maybe you can help, because Karel Zeman is a national treasure and all his films should be available to the world in beautiful editions like these first three. I think it is very important that the rest of his catalog should be restored and it should be in the Czech national interest that his work should be preserved,” he said.

“I encourage you to help raise awareness and help see if you can get the Czech arts people behind the restoration because he is unique among world filmmakers,” he concluded.

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