Interview: Jan Míka

Interview: Jan Míka

07 | 05

Combining puppets with digital animation

At this year's Anifilm you had the chance to see the short film Husa directed by Jan Míka, who also pitched his upcoming project Kill, Kokesh, Kill! at the festival. Jan Míka likes to combine marionettes or animated puppets with other filmmaking techniques – live action or digital animation. In the following interview, he talks about his style and his work on Husa and shares details about “Kokesh”.

What experience with puppets did you have as a child?

When I was little, my parents would take me to puppet shows in Opava, but I was very young and I don't really remember it. But we used to make puppets at home with my sister all the time. Simple ones made of rags and manipulated using a stick. That certainly had an influence on my life later on. But I suppose most kids make puppets

What did you do with the puppets?

We used to put on plays. We had a puppet theatre at home, the kind that came in a wooden box. You pulled out a stage that you could rotate and by doing so change the setting. The set included marionettes manipulated by wires from above. We used to play out fairy tales with them. Whenever we had visitors, they had to watch... Now my kids are the same. They're always preparing puppet shows. They don't have a sense of rhythm and tempo yet, but that's natural, it's just about the sheer joy of putting on a show now. I think a lot of kids play in a similar way... I'm lucky in that I can still keep playing and make a living at the same time.

Did you get to work with puppets during your university studies at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague – or FAMU for short – or at the Film Academy of Miroslav Ondříček in Písek?

Not while I was studying at FAMU, but in retrospect I realize that most of my live-action films always or almost always included some animation. My very first film, which I made by myself at home, was animated. Puppets were hard to come by, and hand-drawn animation was more accessible. Nowadays, there are countless tutorials on how to make puppets using wires, how to animate them... Plus, a puppet can be anything you pick up. It doesn't necessarily have to be a figure. You can work with any object.

And in Písek?

After studying live-action film directing at FAMU, I did commercial commissions and lived in Brighton, England, for a while, earning money for a camera. When I came back, I became active in the film industry again and started teaching at the Film Academy of Miroslav Ondříček, or FAMO, and a higher vocational school in Písek. And since I went there regularly, I decided I wanted to learn more about animation, so I started a master's degree in visual effects and classic animation at FAMO. I finished the programme in 2016 with my graduation film We’re Human, After All, which was co-produced by my studio Filmofon.

In your latest film, Husa, you got back to puppets – this time animated ones. How was the film made?

When making We’re Human, After All, I combined close-ups of a hand puppet with animated wide shots, and I thought it was an interesting approach that could be used with puppets to achieve some nice results. When I started developing Husa, I knew I didn't need to secure money for it. So I wanted to come up with a film that I would be able to make on my own. I would build a set in my studio and create 3D characters on a computer. But the problem with 3D animation is that it can often look too much like a computer animation, especially when it's not done well. It lacks the human touch. I knew from my experience with Zajíc that I could combine technologies. I realized it was possible to use a 3D CGI figure for wide shots and a real puppet for close-ups, where you can see the textures and the material of the puppet. This way the two technologies could complement each other. I figured it would be easy to make; the puppets wouldn't have to be fully functional or have screw-on legs. At the same time, I wanted to build a real puppet film set. In short, 3D CGI characters situated in real sets combined with real puppets in close-ups – that was my original intention, my starting point.

And then?

Then I presented the project at the CEE Animation Forum, where I got in touch with Michal Podhradský from the Animation People studio. Furthermore, by that time, I had already arranged French co-production with the Autour de Minuit studio. As for the Czech team, I left the production part to Michal Podhradský, with whom we agreed that the filming would take place in their studio. Everything was made again, even the puppets. But most of the characters in the film are 3D. The way it worked during the filming was that we always filmed blocking in Prague with real sets, which was animated by Mr Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, who is immensely experienced, and then we filmed the same shot without the puppets. We then sent both shots to France, where the animators superimposed them, inserted a 3D character and played out the actions with it according to the blocking filmed with our puppets.

How do you feel about the filming and the process?

It was all interesting. To try out the technology and see what the result would be. I was on the set during the shoot, that was fine, and I asked the French animators to animate frame by frame, to work with the 3D figures as if they were real puppets, and to manually set each movement stage. Thanks to this the film looks as if it were stop-motion animated. There's a certain imperfection in this look that’s very human though. The usual procedure is that the animator sets two key stages and the animation program then calculates the animation in between, which is more convenient.  It was also difficult to match the work of the two animators so that the final output would look consistent. But they were both fantastic and were patient with me. And most importantly, they did a great job because you can't tell that the animation is digital.

Husa is a film for children. How have they been reacting at the screenings?

So far there has been only one test screening. There were a lot of kids there, but it was organized as a gala screening. I was interested to see what they would say about it, but at events like this, people never tell you what they really think. Instead of asking, I watched the audience during the film to see if the kids would be watching or fidgeting. And I was pleased to see that the kids watched it attentively, that they got startled when they were supposed to get startled, that they laughed when it was intended, and that the time spent watching it flew by, meaning that they didn't have time to get bored. The film is not for very young children. The story switches from dreams and fantasies to reality, which can be a bit hard to follow for smaller children, and there are some narrative leaps that could be confusing to them. The film was originally intended for kids aged seven and up, but we may have pushed this threshold up a year.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming film?

The film will again combine two technologies. There will be live action in close-ups and cutout animation in wide shots. It’s possible that the animation won’t be digital but that we’ll physically situate the cutouts in the sets like puppets. The film is titled Kill, Kokesh, Kill!. It's a very loose adaptation of a short story by Karel Michal. Before he emigrated, he wrote a beautiful collection of short stories Bubáci pro všední den, which was banned by the communist regime. Our film is based on a short story titled Kokesh. It's about a barber named Kotlach, whose customer Hrouda is giving him trouble, and the problems keep piling up until one day this very clean, tidy Kotlach ends up in a dirty, smelly sewer. There he meets a dwarf named Kokesh, who offers to the barber that should he ever need to kill someone, he can call him, and he'll use his mallet to dispose of his problem...