David Ondříček‘s Zátopek is one of the contenders for the Czech Film and Television Association’s annual Czech Lion Awards, raking in a total of 13 nominations in various categories

Zátopek tells the powerful story of two exceptional athletes, with stellar performances by Martha Issová and Václav Neužil. The film has reaped praise from critics and viewers alike for bringing to life the period in which the story takes place. The film’s authenticity can also be attributed to the work of local studio PFX, which collaborated on the post-production and helped create the atmosphere of some of the film’s most crucial scenes.

“We knew that a difficult task was awaiting us. Not everyone believed we could do it,” recalls Director David Ondříček about the film’s early beginnings. The stadium shots are at the very heart of the story and it was clear that they would call for a tremendous amount of work in post-production. This task was taken on by Czech studio PFX, who joined forces with the filmmakers long before the first scene was even shot. “The half-dilapidated Brno stadium ‘Za Lužánkami’ ended up ‘playing’ stadiums in Prague, London, Helsinki and Berlin. Everything that the viewer sees in the stadium shots – with the exception of the race track – was created by us. The stadiums had to be recreated as accurately as possible, and so we dug deep into the archives and carefully studied hundreds of old photographs and shots,” says VFX supervisor at PFX, Jindřich Červenka.

This was followed by location scouting, shooting dozens of minutes of footage and the first tests. Some of Zátopek’s races have been very well documented and Director David Ondříček strove for a very accurate depiction of certain races in order to create the most authentic viewer experience possible. “That’s why it was absolutely essential that everything was shot from the right angles – what helped us most in this regard were the complex visualizations that we created even before production began,” adds Červenka. “Jindřich was by my side every day that we shot scenes with special effects – whenever I needed to consult something, he was there for us,” says Ondříček of their cooperation on set.

The stadiums couldn’t just stay empty – another key component of the visual effects were the crowds, that is, adding digital audience members to the scenes. The few hundreds of extras on set had to be transformed into a roaring crowd of over one hundred thousand fans. Already during production, 3D scans of the extras were created– in a studio equipped with 116 cameras, 45 extras were each shot individually wearing three different outfits. This resulted in over 130 unique 3D scans of characters which we brought to life using motion capture and then planted in the stadium.

Although it may not look like it upon first glance, Zátopek is a film with a ton of visual effects – the 134 minutes of running time includes 38 minutes of special effects, half of which take place across sports stadiums all over the globe. “When I watched Zátopek on the big screen with other viewers, I was reminded of one of the greatest paradoxes of our work – we pored over these VFX shots for thousands of hours, but our greatest reward is when the viewer doesn’t even notice our work and just gets swept away by the story,” concludes Tomáš Srovnal, producer at PFX. “I’ve seen the film a countless number of times now, and whenever I watch it, I don’t even notice when something has been added in post. The entire thing looks like it’s been shot in a real environment,” adds Ondříček.

400 thousand viewers have gone to cinemas to see Zátopek. At the 55th International Film Festival in Karlovy Vary, the film received the Audience Award awarded by the Právo newspaper. Václav Neužil also took home the award for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role at the Czech Film Critics’ Awards.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.