Interview: Zdeněk Junek
05 | 05
A fiddly and often lonely job
Zdeněk Junek talks about amateur animation
What was your first experience with amateur filmmaking?
Since I was little, I was obsessed with recording everything. I would draw and take pictures all the time. I liked cartoon jokes, and when I was eleven, I started cutting out cartoons by Jiránek, Kantorek, Vyčítal, and Renčín and pasting them into my notebook. In the sixth grade, I already had a darkroom set up, and later I joined a photography club and the Union of Czech Photographers. I would draw caricatures of my classmates and teachers, but I was always drawn to the idea that the pictures could move. A friend had an Admira camera, and we started shooting a slapstick comedy together, which we never finished, but I still have some parts, the script, and storyboard somewhere. In my first year of secondary school, I bought my first camera – it was a Russian Quartz, which had a fixed lens and two conversion lenses – and I started making, among other things, my first animated films. I ripped the lined sheets out of a duplicate book and drew figures in individual movement phases on the remaining blank ones. I then fixed the book under the camera, which I put on a tripod, and started taking pictures. It was actually easier than drawing on separate sheets.
How did you learn to animate? Did you read any manuals or did you teach yourself?
I started out as a completely self-taught animator. When I did my first colour animation for the film Hrdinové strakonického nebe in 1976, I realized that I would have to phase movement more reasonably. I was using eighteen frames per second, and at first, I made all the motions too fast and shot each picture separately. Only gradually did I work out that I could shoot some of the phases two or three times. I practiced this by doing a certain motion maybe five times in front of a mirror, timing it and then dividing the measured time, which allowed me to calculate how many frames the motion would require. Thanks to that, my animation started to resemble the animated films that I liked. I would watch them on a German TV station that I was able to tune to in Horažďovice. Disney seemed too fancied up to me. I preferred classic 2D animation – the so-called cartoons. I liked the Hanna-Barbera series the most, for example, The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Yogi Bear Show, Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks, whose style I eventually picked up. The animation seems simple because the animators didn’t use a lot of unnecessary phases.
You started animating when you were in college. What did you study?
I studied aircraft engineering at the Czech Technical University until 1981. During my studies, I made my first animated film that I didn’t animate using those duplicate book sheets but cels. It was called Krmte myši. I drew it in ink, coloured it with latex paints, and I submitted it to the Minutafilm competition in Cheb, where it won second place and was awarded the Silver Camera award. From today's point of view, the film seems too preachy to me because it's about how we shouldn’t waste food, and the sound is a bit too much as well. At the time, I didn't know what other amateur films looked like, and I was trying to distinguish myself from all the commercial stuff. Using the experience I gained making Krmte myši, I made a film called How to Devide People, which I again drew on duplicate book sheets with a marker. I made it harder for myself by repeating frames – I redrew the same picture but made it slightly different, so even though the character didn’t move, the animation looked as if it were sort of "breathing". I liked that look in the films by Koutský and other filmmakers. I finished Jak dělíme lidi while I was still at university, and I won the Minutafilm competition with it. Back then, the cultural centre in Klatovy got me in touch with a young presenter, Petr Jančařík, who recorded a commentary for the film for me on a tape recorder, and we then used it to sound the film with Mr Rentz in Prague. That was also a new experience for me because at festivals, they screened films using a silent projector and simultaneously played the soundtrack on a synchronized tape recorder. This method of coupling sound with the film being screening wasn't exactly perfect.
Amateur filmmakers tend to have regular jobs alongside their filmmaking hobby. So where did you work after school?
After school, I started the then compulsory military service, where I had enough free time to make a film called Pojednání o psech, which had success in several competitions. After I finished my term in the military, I got an offer to work in aircraft engineering in Vodochody, but I didn't want to build planes for Gaddafi. So I started working as a designer of agricultural machinery, which I enjoyed. In the meantime, I made several documentaries and live-action films, the most famous probably being Statisticky průměrný vodák, which has been screened at various events for years. As for animated films, my next piece was Deformation, which I again drew on duplicate book sheets, coloured with chalk, and I used those duplicate frames again.
Deformace caused quite a stir, didn’t it?
It's a movie about the allure of power. And I used the name Havel in it, but the main problem was that one of the characters is an officer who bullies his young subordinates in the army. And then one of them gets promoted, and it goes to his head. That didn't sit well with the people organizing the festival “Mladá kamera in Uničov”, which was otherwise a free festival, but that particular year, the Union of Youth decided that they would keep an eye on it. They banned half of the films from the competition, but their mistake was that they included in the festival catalogue both the accepted and the refused films, including my Deformace. The post-screening discussion with the jury got very heated as there was more discussion about the films that hadn't been screened than about the ones that had. I had the editor-in-chief of the Amatérský film magazine Alena Kučerová and the journalist Josef Chuchma on my side, while one of the jury members, Dr Chocholoušek from the Union of Youth yelled at us that this was not how he imagined an ideologically correct competition. After the competition was over, he came to us and told everyone that the Communist party would hear about all of it. What a deplorable character.
Was Deformace banned from any other events besides the Mladá kamera festival?
Not really. The film was not allowed to compete at any international competitions, and at the Rychnovská osmička festival, Mrs Drahomíra Vihanová told me that it was really quite daring. Deformace was then screened at Haškova Lipnice, where I won the first prize. I still regret not being there because that was the year when Jan Rejžek invited Václav Havel to the stage after many years.
But your animated film Únava materiálu made it to an international competition. What makes this film unique?
It should be in the Guinness Book of World Records because it’s probably the cheapest film ever screened at an international festival. I bought a reel of a 16mm Fomapan Dokument film at a second-hand shop, which I then cut in half, and by doing so, I got two reels of an 8mm film for two crowns. The film takes place at night, so I made it in the form of a negative film, drawing with a black marker on tracing paper. I got the paper for free because I collected it from the bins in our design offices. I finished the part of the film that takes place in the morning on some leftover reversal film that I had at home – that might have cost about a crown. I coloured it with OVO, a paint used for painting Easter eggs that cost about three crowns, and then it cost me twenty crowns to record the sound for the film at Mr Rentz’s studio in Prague. In total, the entire production cost about 36 crowns. Back then, a dollar was still worth nine crowns more than that. So for less than a dollar, I made a film that was shown at festivals in France, Yugoslavia, Austria, and the US.
What other festivals did you participate in besides the ones already mentioned?
Amatrik was good. Not so much in terms of atmosphere, but there were professional animators on the jury. I remember, for example, Břetislav Pojar or Jiří Brdečka. Then there was Mohelnický dostavník, which was a competition that was held as part of a country music festival, where I won the Grand Prix with my films about recreational canoeing, which was very popular. There was also a competition called Filmová písnička in Mohelnice, which Jiří Suchý, who was a great storyteller, used to attend. I participated in several regional competitions, but I competed most often in Rychnov.
Did professional filmmakers go there too?
Mainly those who weren’t allowed to shoot. Mr Krejčík, the director, was amazed at what amateurs could do. Apart from animated films, there were also amazing documentaries made by cavers showing them discovering new domes in the Moravian Karst and films shot by divers. The jury members included Mr Taussig, Pavel Melounek, or Jan Špáta to name a few. Jiří Adamec came once, but he would always leave the discussions after the screenings early to see what they had cut out of his variety shows that he used to shoot for the TV station Nova. We learned a lot from dramaturge Jan Poš as well as editor Josef Valušiak, who would analyse films in great detail and whose textbook on editing I studied. I also remember director Tomáš Tintěra participating... In short, a lot of the directors and filmmakers who couldn't shoot for some reason at the time would take part in the festival.
Which festival award do you personally value the most?
Probably the one from Haškova Lipnice, which took place at a time when you could already feel a change was coming. But I also very much appreciate that my films were screened at international festivals where they were included in Czech collections – even if they weren't awarded. For example, film festivals in Chicago, Bourg-en-Bresse in France, where professional animated films from all over the world were screened as well, or in Ebensee in Austria, where I even won an award twice. In Mohelnice, Statisticky průměrný vodák first won the award for the best film of the decade and then again the award for the best film of the past twenty years. I really appreciate these two awards as far as my non-animated films are concerned.
But you eventually used the experience that you gained as an amateur filmmaker as a professional as well.
After the revolution, we wanted to make a feature film based on Zdeněk Šmíd's book Proč bychom se netopili, which was to include animated passages that I had already drawn. Zdeněk Šmíd had seen my films about recreational canoeing and signed the film rights over to me. While I was consulting with him on the script, Jarda Samson Lenk and the Hop trop band set Šmíd's texts to music and recorded a CD with the songs that were to be in the film. But we didn't get a subsidy from the Czech Film Fund, and before we were able to get the necessary funding, my film rights expired and Šmíd sold them to Czech Television. The last time we saw each other, he told me disappointedly: "I was hoping it would be about water, and it's all about who's sleeping with whom." That was one of my major disappointments. But I founded the company Batic film and made a number of documentaries, for example, the feature-length film Strakonice dnes, which is about 75 minutes long. I did mainly ads, commissioned work, and video clips as well as reports for Strakonice TV, which I co-founded. I still draw for fun, and my last animated piece was a trailer for my book Mezi námi piloty, which was unfortunately published during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it has only sold just over a thousand copies so far.