Eastern European artists have long won over filmmakers from the West with masterful production and costume design — generally at a fraction of the cost of comparable work done by U.S. specialists — and recent projects that span other worlds and ages have raised the game to new heights.
Prague’s Barrandov Studios, a pre-WWII facility that found new life after Czech production incentives were instituted in 2010, has been crawling with creatives of late. “Underworld 5” demanded fantastical designs for its tale involving epic werewolf-on-vampire combat.
Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, who set the look of other Prague-shot work including the “Missing” TV skein, “Snowpiercer” and “The Illusionist,” was brought in for “Underworld 5” to invoke a strange and fearsome setting for the Kate Beckinsale-starring franchise.
Producer-helmer Anna Foerster found Nekvasil’s sensibility for the surreal just right, teaming him with Serbian master costumer Bojana Nikitovic, whose work on “A Good Day to Die Hard” and “Coriolanus” showed a flair for bristling, militaristic regalia.
Nikitovic says the two distinct vampire tribes inspired starkly different looks while the Lycans offered more freedom still for wild innovation. “So many details and accessories,” she says. “I always try to make as many new costumes as possible. In ‘Underworld 5,’ we made everything in our workshop and that’s something we are all very proud of.”
The project, which wrapped in January, was just one of the alternate worlds setting up shop in the Czech capital this past winter. Across town, New Zealander Niki Caro was overseeing the conjuring of wartime Warsaw in the streets of Prague, helming “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” banking on scene designers and costumers well-acquainted with the details of Nazi occupation.
Marching Wehrmacht soldiers, swastikas and refugees filled the location shoot, bringing painstaking detail to the adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book, about a couple who manage to hide Jews in the Polish capital’s zoo under the noses of Third Reich commandants.
The pic, considered a possible contender for next year’s Oscar race, brought Jessica Chastain and Daniel Bruhl to the Czech Republic, along with armies of extras fully kitted out in WWII-era garb, with production designer Suzie Davies (“Mr. Turner”) overseeing the look and feel of the production.
Her resources were substantial; Eastern European visual artists specialize in war stories, with Barrandov’s vast costume department often called on to outfit everyone from Hitler’s top brass to frontline grunts.
It’s a strength well-known to Prague-based line producer Czech Anglo Prods., the increasingly busy venture that, along with Scion, backed “Zookeeper.”
Czech Anglo focuses on working with local talent and producers from abroad, including BBC series “The Musketeers.”
The historic architecture of Prague is another draw for foreign productions looking for authentic locations, such as “Anthropoid,” the true story of Czech paratroopers assigned to assassinate a high-level Nazi. Sean Ellis-helmed period thriller, backed by U.S.- based LD Entertainment and Prague-based Lucky Man, stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the resistance fighters.
Over in Poland visual artists are increasingly joining forces with engineers, with post-production houses such as Platige Image on the ascendant.
The Warsaw-based shingle is developing “The Witcher,” a project based on the video-game hero Geralt of Rivia, creating the pic with U.S.-based Sean Daniel Co. (“Ben-Hur,” “The Mummy”) to be scripted by Thania St. John (“Grimm,” “Chicago Fire” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).
Proactive Hungarian studios are also on the rise, with the entertainment sector basking in the glory of Oscar-nommed “Son of Saul,” which was also the country’s first Golden Globe winner.
Inward-bound productions remain strong, drawn by Hungary’s 20%-25% cash-back incentives, on which the Czech incentives were modeled. The system has helped put Hungarian artistry into sequences in “The Martian,” “Spy” and “The Coldest City,” with the country next looking forward to biz from Ridley Scott-produced “Blade Runner 2.”