Movie sets and miniature cities

The Prague Post

Film Dekor gets ready for World Expo 2010

For some, World Expos might be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but they almost always leave indelible marks. Think the Eiffel Tower, France’s 1889 submission. Seattle’s Space Needle was a huge hit in 1962. And the Atomium, created for the 1958 Expo, is now a treasured part of Brussels’ cityscape.

Film Dekor, a Prague-based architectural studio, is hoping for the same sort of wow factor when it debuts the Czech Republic’s pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. This won’t be the company’s first go on the world stage. Film Dekor participated in the 2000 Expo in Hanover, Germany, and directed the Czech pavilion at the 2005 Expo in Aichi, Japan.

“We were hesitant to complete for Shanghai, because we’d already done the last two and were aware we’d have to come up with something unique,” says Jaromír Švarc, Film Dekor’s co-owner and executive director.

No worries there. The company and one of its co-collaborators – Sial, an architecture and engineering firm – have designed what should be a very memorable pavilion. The facade is decorated with tens of thousands of hockey pucks, laid out to look like an aerial view of Pragues Old Town.

“Hockey is the national sport of Czechs, and the Czech Republic makes pucks that are used in the sport around the world,” Švarc says, explaining the unusual choice of building material for the 2010 submission. “In China, hockey isn’t very well known. As a souvenir for visitors to the Expo, they’ll distribute hockey pucks. In 10 years, maybe the Chinese will beat the Czechs, because they have these pucks.”

The theme for next year’s Expo is “Better City – Better Life.” Švarc and company are choosing to showcase both the pros and cons of modern city life. New technologies, transportation, renewable energy, plus a desire for privacy will all be demonstrated in a fictitious city, completely landscaped inside the 2,000-square-meter Czech pavilion.

“I believe it was our different and creative approach that impressed the board [the Czech Pavilion at Expo 2010 commission],” Švarc says. “The pavilion isn’t just passive consumption but invites people to get more involved.”

World Expos only come around every five years, and, despite Film Dekor’s success, it’s not the company’s full-time gig. Švarc founded the company, which specializes in set construction for feature and TV films, as well as designs exhibitions and interiors, after the renowned Barrandov Studios was privatized in 1990. Švarc had worked for Barrandov and formed Film Dekor with several of his colleagues from the famed film studio.

“I’m an architect by trade. It was a logical continuation,” he explains. “I had no ambition to be a camera operator or director. My choice was dominated by what I was able to do, based on my experiences as an architect at Barrandov. I want to bring to life my ideas and help my colleagues realize theirs.”

Prague’s film heydays of the early ’90s were good times for Film Dekor. The company has worked on films as varied as Casino Royale, Bathory and The Mists of Avalon with Anjelica Huston. Music videos for Celine Dion and Ozzy Osbourne have also been handled by the company, as have commercials ranging from Buick to Red Bull.

“Feature films – there is more time and money,” Švarc says. “For television, you shoot more material in one day than in films, but you have less shooting days.”

As for commercials, they “are the most challenging but also the most fun and interesting,” Švarc says, noting that sometimes everyone has just a couple of hours to pull a shoot together.

Throughout his career, Švarc has been a production designer/art director for 24 feature films, 14 television films and series and 70 commercials. There are a couple projects that stick out in his mind, including the Celine Dion music video and the film The Mists of Avalon.

“Working with Celine was special. It’s been 10 years, and I still remember it,” he recalls. “The director was Nigel Dick, who loved the shoot so much he came back to do an Ozzy Osbourne video with us.”

The Mists of Avalon, which was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding art direction, was another favorite project.

“The camera operator was the very famous Hungarian cameraman Vilmoš Zsigmond,” Švarc says. “He had great ideas and was very creative.”

Who gets the final say about what the castle looks like or how the front of the building will be designed?

“It runs the spectrum. Sometimes you have a director who knows what he wants, and you translate his ideas into reality; plus, there’s a producer who adds input because he’s the money guy,” Švarc says. “The best way is when you can be creative and free. Sometimes you just get an idea and budget, and you decide.”

Švarc has worked with many talented people and learned much from these partnerships.

“If you collaborate with someone who has won an Oscar, he has nothing to prove,” he explains. “It’s nice to discuss things with people who know what they are doing and don’t feel the need to force their ideas on you.”

In recent years, Hollywood’s love affair with the Czech Republic has eased dramatically, and Film Dekor has felt the impact. Švarc says his company used to have 40 employees but is now down to about 20 permanent ones. For big projects, like the 2010 Expo, for instance, the company brings in highly skilled contractors to pick up the slack.

“With movies, it’s either crunch time or dead,” Švarc says.

To compensate for the downtime, Film Dekor is branching out into other related fields.

“We are doing some high-profile specialized interior work for companies.” Švarc says. “It keeps us busy while waiting for film projects and helps to combat the crisis.”

Completed projects include the wood ceiling at Slavia Praha’s new soccer stadium near the Eden shopping mall and the AquaPalace water park in Rícany, about 20 kilometers from Prague. But the Expo is quickly approaching, and Švarc will soon be consumed by that project.

“Logistically speaking, you have to build and test it here, then disassemble it, pack it and put it in containers to ship to China, and then by road to Shanghai,” he says. The project’s budget is 179.5 million Kc, which sounds large but goes quickly.

“The money is used for design, the facade, interior, artists you contract, maintenance during the Expo and removal,” he says. “Transport, translations, insurance … eat up a lot of it. It’s not the actual building and materials that make up the majority of the cost.”

Švarc says his company made a loss on the last pavilion it was commissioned for and is unsure if he’s got another World Expo in him.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now. I’m 66 years old,” he says with a smile. “The Expo is every five years. I’d be 70 next time. It’s always a challenge, but it’s highly unlikely I’d do it again.”