Jan Bubeníček: The Simplest Way to Achieve Quality Is to Use Authentic Material

Jan Bubeníček rose to prominence through the stop motion animated film Even Mice Belong in Heaven (2021, Myši patří do nebe), which he directed together with his partner Denisa Grimmová, inspired by the children’s book by Iva Procházková. The film won a Golden Goblet award at the Shanghai International Film Festival, was nominated for a European Film Award and, due to French production participation, was nominated at the César Awards – not forgetting to mention that it won both Czech Lion and Czech Critics awards.

But behind the colorful tale with beautifully stylised animal models, there is a lot of hard work and technical ingenuity. During his masterclass, Bubeníček talked about the way the world of animation is built from the ground up. “With animated film, you are never in a situation where you can use existing space as with life action cinema, where you just get to a room and start shooting. Here, you need to create everything from scratch.” For every short scene, every camera movement, every additional idea, the filmmaker needs to create everything – and needs to spend time thinking about the best way of doing it.

That could prove a Herculean task, since the craft of stop motion animation might have a long tradition in Czechoslovak cinema, but has not been kept alive since the end of the 80s. “After the fall of communism, animation in Eastern Europe fell into disrepair. People here don’t possess the necessary know-how, so they have to discover the craft as they go.” For that reason, it is useful to work with colleagues from abroad.

Bubeníček also talked about the obvious economic limitations. “You want to make things as cheaply as possible, but also exactly the opposite,” he proposes. “I knew that if we put enough money, time and effort into the product, we would be able to export it to the whole world without needing to say ‘We’re the guys from the Czech Republic’ and prompting lower expectations.” That’s why he decided to invest as much as possible in the creation of big, well lit sets.

When he visited the studio where Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was being made, he soon learned he needed to stop comparing the amount of time and money his team was able to afford. “What they can repeat three times, we must do in one take. Therefore, we must create a good set and use the quality of the models, lighting and shadows to our advantage. This is because our animation itself can’t really compete with the complexity and perfectionism of high budget American film.”

He warns that the most important scale for the model is a human hand. “You have to create in such a way that you are physically able to put and hold the camera in place, which can prove more difficult than expected. You can learn that you need to fill the whole room with the set,” he continues. The team often needs to use a fake horizon and, of course, a blue screen and other digital tricks to achieve all their goals. But Bubeníček also insists that: “The simplest way to achieve the desired effect is usually to use authentic material.”

He wants the viewers, consisting mostly of children, to fully accept the movie as a real world with real characters. “We didn’t want to go too far with expressive style. Usually, an artist can create water in stop motion through some kind of artistic shortcut, but we decided not to. We concluded that, when we couldn’t avoid it altogether, the water would be realistic and computer generated.” Finally, Bubeníček stresses the necessity of using all the tools available, from handmade to digital, while learning useful shortcuts that allow you to focus on those aspects of production that are needed to maintain high production values.