Now playing in Czech cinemas – a feature film about Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A complex portrayal of a young man who made the ultimate sacrifice in his desire to whip the nation out of an occupation coma, conveyed with the help of state-of-the-art technology in keeping with the director’s vision.
Director Robert Sedláček, who shot the film based on the script by writer Eva Kantůrkova, describes his artistic vision: “I want to tell the tragic story of Jan Palach, not as a childish, naïve struggle against totalitarianism, but as an extreme example of what the relentless grip of ubiquitous conformity and complacency can do to a sensitive individual.”
In cooperation with director and cinematographer Jan Šuster, we helped put together the film’s visuals.
“When it comes to period pieces, one must stay true to history and ensure that everything looks authentic and gives the audience a real feel for that particular period in time,” says Tomáš Srovnal, Executive Producer, partner, and Head of the PFX film team.
“The film has a total of approximately 730 shots, 165 of which are visual effects – from retouching non-period elements such as street lights, traffic lights, newsstands etc., to creating and modifying the locations where the story takes place. Many of these locations now look completely different than they did 50 years ago, and filming is often forbidden in these areas.” VFX supervisor František Štěpánek attests to the complexity of this film project.
This was the case for scenes taking place on Wenceslas Square, where it wasn’t possible to shoot due to the sheer mass of the tanks, which would have been a safety hazard for the subway system and also due to changes in road surfaces over the century – in 1968 the square was full of cobblestones, whereas now the roads are mostly paved. Last but not least, stopping traffic in such a busy area is extremely complicated and expensive. Wenceslas Square, as viewers see it on the screen, is in reality a combination of the Pernstejn Square in Pardubice and the tram depot in Prague’s Stresovice.
“We spent hundreds of hours studying old photographs and preparing a model of Wenceslas Square as it was during that time, including the adjacent buildings. One of the biggest setbacks for us was the historical building of the National Museum, which was covered in scaffolding throughout the entire production process. We had to go off of archival materials in order to create a faithful reconstruction of this monument. We also immersed the scenes in smoke, as the exhaust fumes and smoke that came from the tanks were an integral part of the first days of the invasion,” adds Štěpánek.
The film also features several locations outside of Czechoslovakia which Jan Palach visited- for example France and Kazakhstan. We shot the scenes for both places in the Czech Republic, editing and fine-tuning the countryside in post-production.
The final phase of post-production for the film involved color grading – that is, color correction and visual stylization.
“We tried to stay as true as possible to the protagonist when coloring the film. No one really knew Jan Palach, not his friends or even his own family. We wanted to capture his sensitivity by employing a sensitive approach to colors and the overall look of the film,” concludes the film’s colorist, Tomáš Chudomel.
Along with visual effects, color grading helps form the atmosphere of the film. In an ideal scenario, the viewer doesn’t even take notice of such work, but is simply carried away by these elements and immersed into the world of the film.
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