Czech puppetry for all generations

One of the Czech Republic’s most prolific studios for animation, MAUR film, has finalized work on the stop-motion puppet film with working title Of Unwanted Things and People, bringing to the silver screen the stories of beloved Czech author Arnošt Goldflam. The story follows three children witnessing their widowed grandfather’s sadness, each in a way that reflects their age and personality. Capturing Goldflam’s signature blend of quirkiness, magic realism, and satirical exaggeration, the film’s exploration of loss, nostalgia, and the transformative power of storytelling will hold appeal for viewers of all ages.

Czech animation boasts a rich tradition, and is currently being energized by a spark of new activity from the younger generation, garnering international acclaim for their work. MAUR film, one of the Czech Republic’s most prolific animation studios, presents five of its films at this year’s edition of the world’s leading showcase for animation, Annecy International Animation Film Festival. The studio is actively engaged in production of animations, in a variety of formats, techniques, and lengths. Among its feature-length projects now approaching completion is the puppet animation with working title Of Unwanted Things and People.

This new project is based on a collection of fairy tales by the popular playwright and author Arnošt Goldflam, who also serves as inspiration for one of the main characters, known as the Grandad. Martin Vandas, the film’s producer, acquired the adaptation rights after being captivated by Goldflam’s book while reading it to his youngest daughter. He was struck by the tales’ originality, sensitivity, poetic flair, and cinematic potential.

Four stories from four countries

Of Unwanted Things and People follows three siblings, Derek, Suzanne, and Tom. Brought to their grandfather’s home as he copes with the death of his wife (their grandmother), the children find themselves immersed in a world where stories are both a treasured legacy and a comfort. Their grandmother had a charming tradition of telling fairy tales based on three randomly chosen words placed by the children into a straw hat—an imaginative ritual that Suzanne, in the absence of their grandmother, decides to uphold.

As Suzanne steps into her grandmother’s shoes, she weaves tales that not only enchant but serve as a gentle balm to her younger brothers’ heartache. The stories—about a magical aunt-cat that helps to fill the space of absent parents for two siblings; a mystical garden tended by a magical grandmother, preserving her traveler husband’s inheritance; and a solitary grump named Bohdan, who learns to fly and finds joy as a king of birds in an exotic jungle—parallel the siblings’ journey through their real-life grief and discovery. The film’s adherence to magic realism, a key aspect of Goldflam’s writing, ensures the tales’ charm and complexity come through in animation.

Of Unwanted Things and People is the product of a quartet of teams, each hailing from, and working in, one of the coproducing countries. For the Czechs, animator and director David Súkup (Fimfarum: Third Time Lucky 3D) co-penned the segment The Orphans with Marek Král and Petr Krajíček, and also directed; for Slovenia, Leon Vidmar (Farewell) helms the story Yesterday’s Newspaper, written by Kaja Balog and Maja Križnik; for the Slovaks, filmmaker Patrik Pašš (cowriter on 3D animation Journey to Yourland) wrote and directed The Old Apple Cores; and for France, Jean-Claude Rozec (The House of Dust, Specky Four-Eyes) is director of the connecting story, written by Blandine Jet.

The film makes use of contemporary fairy tales to delve into intergenerational relationships and the complex emotions of grief and joy, aiming to connect audiences of every age. This enhances its appeal, facilitating meaningful family discussions and broader viewer engagement, the varied settings and detailed puppetry serving up a visually engaging cinematic journey for adults and children alike.

Innovating the tradition

Production of the film required detailed planning and collaboration across four countries, achieving a unified visual and thematic presentation in spite of the diverse directorial visions. Although financial and logistical hurdles, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, did at times complicate cross-border cooperation and timelines, the production teams’ dedication and history of working together helped to foster a creative synergy, enabling them to overcome the obstacles that arose at every phrase.

A large part of achieving consistency across the project involved synchronizing story lines and aesthetics, with a focus on creating relatable puppet designs. Patricia Ortiz Martinez, who worked on MAUR film’s previous animated project, Fimfarum – Third Time Lucky 3D (2011), served as the lead visual artist. Her role was crucial, bringing depth and subtlety to the puppet characters, which acted to amplify the work’s emotional resonance. This attention to detail extended also to set and costume designs, whose authentic, lived-in appearance was achieved through the use of aged materials and handcrafted details. On art direction, French director Rozec took the lead, adapting yet contrasting with Martinez’s style to delineate the narrative layers—one story line plays out in a timeless setting and another in a contemporary context, each distinguished by variations in color styling and puppet design.

Of Unwanted Things and People’s allure is enhanced as well by its strong ties to the illustrious tradition of Czech puppetry. The film’s dedication to authenticity and quality is evident in the bespoke puppet skeletons, crafted with materials and techniques specific to Czech artisans. This commitment to creating custom, articulated puppets enriches the characters’ expressive potential and brings a nuanced physicality to the storytelling. Similarly, the work’s distinctive visual tempo derives from animating at 12 to 18 frames per second, rather than the standard 24.

For visual reference, the film’s producer opted for aesthetics closer to The Nightmare Before Christmas (to offer an international comparison), though the poetics are more akin to those of his previous project, Fimfárum (2002), a portmanteau puppet film based on the stories of Jan Werich, the beloved actor known for his beguiling and whimsical humor. Integrating fantastical elements into the everyday lives of its characters in a way both subtle and metaphorical, the work encourages viewers to see magic in the mundane.

Also noteworthy is the project’s incorporation of advances in puppet animation, continuing the innovative legacy of Czech tradition. Working under conditions of a pandemic underscored the team’s adaptability and creativity, in particular Martínez’s contributions to puppet design and mechanism. Her integration of technological advancements, using magnetic faces capable of a broader range of expressions and latex for realistic textures, marry traditional artistry with contemporary techniques to produce a distinct visual style for the film.

Animated synergies

With shooting fully complete, the producers are now aiming for a fall 2025 release. With its nonexclusive, equitable coproduction model, Of Unwanted Things and People challenges the traditional approaches to European cinema production and distribution. This strategy prioritizes creative contributions over financial investment, fostering mutual respect among the collaborators, and promoting a more inclusive and diversified moviemaking environment.

Vandas said their objective is to showcase the work at prestigious film festivals, not limited to those focusing on animation or youth. He considers it suitable for the Berlinale, citing its appeal to multiple generations. He also cited several factors that make this four-country project worthy of note: it’s Slovenia’s first full-length animated film; it features equal production contributions from every country involved; and it’s based on mutual trust and partnership, extending to shared rights across all the territories.

In addition to the Czech studio MAUR film, which has extensive experience with animated projects, Of Unwanted Things and People is coproduced by the Slovak company Artichoke, which collaborated on the recent MAUR film endeavor Electra (2023), an award-winning hybrid animation, and whose own recent work, the animated sci-fi White Plastic Sky (2023), was nominated for both the European Film Awards and the Annie Awards. The Slovenian collaboration partner is studio ZVVIKS, with two decades of experience under its belt, and the French coproducer is the celebrated studio Vivement Lundi !, which boasts a long pedigree of animated projects, including the award-winning ani-doc Flee (2020), nominated for Oscars in three categories.

The project has garnered support from various funding bodies, including Creative Europe–MEDIA, the Czech Film Fund, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, the Slovenian Film Centre, Bretagne Cinéma, and TVR Tempo. It was also honored with the Eurimages Co-production Development Award at Cartoon Movie 2019. With distribution rights secured in all coproduction territories, the producers are currently in talks with international sales agents.

Source: Czech Film Center