Hausboot: Even Animation Belongs in Heaven

04 May 2022

Film Industry

Hausboot: Even Animation Belongs in Heaven

Film Industry

Hausboot: Even Animation Belongs in Heaven

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Vladimír Lhoták, Czech Producer on the Move 2022, is reincarnating the tradition of Czech animation for 21st-century global audiences after producing the biggest and most expensive Czech stop-motion puppet film ever made, one of three nominees for best animated film at this year’s French Oscars.

 

Article by Martin Kudláč for CZECH FILM magazine / Summer 2022

Even Mice Belong in Heaven is an attempt to reincarnate traditional Czech stop-motion animation,” says Vladimír Lhoták, the producer behind the acclaimed animated road movie. EMBH was a major milestone for the producer, who spent nearly a decade working on the project.

The production of the fable—which follows two sworn enemies, Whizzy the mouse and Whitebelly the fox, as they join forces for a romp in the afterlife despite their differences while alive—was also an adventure for the producers. The majority of work was divided between the Czech Republic and France, with shooting taking place in Prague’s Barrandov Studios while the 3D animation and special effects were divided up between three studios in France.

The ambition of delivering an epic stop-motion buddy road movie was matched only by the scale of the tasks required to conjure up a handcrafted animal Elysium. Some European producers didn’t even believe it was possible to make a stop-motion project with over 50 characters and 30 sets. But Lhoták and his producing partners successfully delivered the film, brimming with more than 100 puppets, and out of a total of 1,400 shots, only 30 of them were computer-generated.

Even Mice Belong in Heaven world-premiered at the European grand stage for animation, the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, with the French weekly Le Point naming it as one of the festival’s top five films. The labor of love in this case bore sweet fruit, with the film selling to over 20 territories in the wake of its enthusiastic reception by viewers and critics. To top it off, Lhoták and his coproducing partners were honored as Producer of the Year at 2022 Cartoon Movie, while the film’s French sales agent, Charades, was named Distributor of the Year.

Pulling off the biggest and most expensive stop-motion film in Czech history comes with perks. The experience has invigorated Lhoták to launch a raft of new, intriguing projects with his outfit, Hausboot Production, continuing to revitalize the Czech animation tradition for audiences around the world.

Documentary initiation

Vladimír Lhoták began his career with documentary projects. As a graduate of the FAMU film school and the audiovisual program at Paris 3, Sorbonne Nouvelle, he joined Fresh Films, the company that puts together the Prague-based Fresh Film Fest and is now also engaged in film production, focusing on emerging talents. Coincidentally, Even Mice Belong in Heaven started out as a Fresh Films project, while Lhoták was still cutting his teeth as an executive producer on international commercials.

Lhoták’s early career as a lead producer at Fresh Films revolved almost exclusively around creative documentaries, starting with Hotelier (2013), the feature-length documentary debut by Josef Abrhám Jr. Hotelier depicts a reunion of Czech film and theater stars whose careers were cut short by the Soviet invasion in August 1968. Forty-five years later, they gather at the country house of ailing actor, playwright, and dissident Pavel Landovský to rehearse his play Hourly Hotelier. Abrhám’s docudrama is an intimate portrait-cum-homage to an important generation of Czech thespians.

Following Hotelier, Lhoták produced Rozálie Kohoutová’s documentary film Jenica and Perla (2015), a social probe shot in direct cinema style, centering on two teenage Roma girls growing up in contrasting environments: a slum in Eastern Europe and the low-income suburbs of Paris. Jenica and Perla marked Lhoták’s first coproduction with France, which eventually became the key collaborating country on his projects.

From creative documentary to world-class animation

Even as he tended to his obligations producing documentary projects for Fresh Films, which Lhoták currently co-owns, the rising producer decided to found his own outlet on the side, in 2015. At his new company, Hausboot Production, Lhoták continued to do documentaries, but as circumstances started to shift, he decided to leave his career as executive producer in order to concentrate on ambitious and challenging auteur projects.

Hausboot’s first finished film was a Czech-French coproduction, with French director Joël Farges helming a documentary about one of the founding fathers of Czech puppet animation, Jiří Trnka, aka the Walt Disney of the East. Jiří Trnka: A Long Lost Friend (2019), codirected by Tereza Brdečková, told the life story of this pioneer without shying away from putting his oeuvre in political context, given that the puppetmaker and filmmaker labored under the restrictions of a totalitarian regime.

At the same time he was producing Jiří Trnka: A Long Lost Friend, Lhoták tirelessly continued work on the biggest challenge of his career to date: Even Mice Belong in Heaven. The project had already transitioned to Hausboot and developed into a four-country coproduction, with France, Slovakia, and Poland coming on board. Lhoták continued to serve as leading producer on the project and has since said the experience brought him a wealth of know-how in the areas of stop-motion puppet animation, set fabrication, and special on-set effects, along with the special art department tasks, VFX, and postproduction duties associated with stop-motion shooting.

Yet, even with the knowledge, best practices, and achievements garnered in making his first feature-length animation project, his next endeavors remain a challenge. He has revived a frozen project whose roots extend back to the 1990s. 

Jiří Barta, a protégé of Jan Švankmajer and a master of puppet animation in his own right, spent several years working on an adaptation of Gustav Meyrink’s famous 1915 novel The Golem. Barta’s oeuvre is known for its dark subject matter and animation inspired by German expressionism and surrealism, with his opus magnum, The Pied Piper (1986), recognized as a masterpiece of Czech stop-motion animation. Together with his frequent collaborator Edgar Dutka, the director-animator cowrote the script for The Golem, a dramatic fable about the reawakening of the mythical creature of Jewish lore and its takeover of the city. 

The Golem was announced as one of the most-watched projects at 2021 Cartoon Movie pitching & co-pro forum, and Lhoták is already engaged in negotiations on international coproductions with France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. “This film is pretty complex, with a difficult script, but I believe the visual imagery is more doable now than it was twenty years ago,” Lhoták says.

The Golem’s hybrid storytelling strategy will employ one-third live-action material, with the remaining two-thirds rendered in CG and stop-motion animation, including claymation. Production is tentatively set to begin in August 2022, with release expected in spring 2025. Dark and surreal, Barta’s eagerly anticipated work will mark Lhoták’s first feature-length animation for adults.

In addition to expanding the technical aspects of animation, Hausboot Production aims to transcend the formal boundaries of Czech animation, tipping toward animated transmediality. To that end, Lhoták has teamed up with filmmaker and animator Marie Procházková (Who Is Afraid of the Wolf, Shark in the Head) on her feature-length ani-doc Hidden to Your Eyes, which is being prepared in close cooperation with the Czech National Gallery and state broadcaster Czech Television.

Together, Lhoták and Procházková aim to produce a work of gothic art in the audiovisual medium. As they envision the project, there will be two versions—one for adult viewers, the other for children—as well as an online gallery where the central topic can be tackled in more detail, and a custom-made app. “The project is also a proof of concept of how to work with visual arts in the landscape of audiovisual media, and how to deliver content for galleries and art institutions,” the Hausboot producer elaborates.

A winning team reunited

The decade Lhoták spent on Even Mice Belong in Heaven with the directing-animating team of Denisa Grimmová and Jan Bubeníček gelled the partnership’s creative sensibilities and resulted in a symbiotic artistic collective that is now prepared to take on even more daring projects.

Currently, Grimmová is at work on a short film titled Fear, which looks at the way fear is stoked by information overload. In her film, a schism opens between a husband and his wife as his paranoia worsens due to a deluge of online information. After learning she is pregnant, the wife decides to live outside the husband’s cloistered safe zone and opt for a different reality for herself and her offspring alike.

Fear is a short animated film with no dialogue, a specific genre that has the potential to appeal to a very broad group of viewers practically all over the world,” Lhoták notes. Grimmová will use 2D computer animation with 3D animated features on hand-drawn backgrounds. The film won support from the Czech Film Fund and completion is expected in spring 2023. Like previous Hausboot projects, Grimmová’s short solo effort is being made in Czech-French coproduction, and Lhoták is currently seeking sales agents, broadcasters, platforms, and distributors.

Meanwhile, Bubeníček, the other half of the animation duo, is also developing a project of his own: a kids’ comedy series titled Veggierado. An animated western parody with pistol-wielding potatoes, Veggierado combines slapstick and absurd humor, and is aimed primarily at children aged 10 to 12. Lonely gunfighter Godly Kid arrives at Potatown and leads the Potatowboys in their stand against the dangerous Sombreros, led by the mischievous tomato Don Diablo. The project was already pitched at the Cartoon Forum in Toulouse last year, and Bubeníček is now readying the pilot while penning scripts for all 13 episodes (11 minutes per) of the first season. Lhoták reveals that they will use 3D computer-generated animation with photogrammetric technology and hand-drawn backgrounds. Development is underway as Bubeníček—serving as writer, director, and animator wrapped up in one—continues to tinker with the visual and technological aspects.

Beyond that, the award-winning trio is reuniting for a feature-length animation encore, building on the success of Even Mice Belong in Heaven.

Now Grimmová and Bubeníček are at work on the script for Timeless: a soft-horror mystery for young adults as Lhoták puts it. Czech author and television editor Kateřina Šardická is aiding the directing-animating duo in fleshing out the story of two children who with the help of a magical clock enter into a timeless space where they can find the story of their grandparents. Like the pair’s first feature-length film, Timeless too will employ modern stop-motion animation.

 

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