Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing & Illustrating, with Ludmila Zeman

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Ludmila Zeman

Film-maker, author and illustrator Ludmila Zeman talks to Open Book about her creative process, her current exhibitions and the techniques she used to illustrate her adaptation of one of Shahrazad's most famous tales, Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, which was recently published with Tundra Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.

Ludmila Zeman:

One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights is a collection of ancient stories originating in the Middle East and South Asia. The tales have been translated into most languages of the world and are considered classics. They continue to influence artists, writers and filmmakers as they have for centuries. I love the stories and believe that children should be familiar with them. From visiting schools to present my Gilgamesh trilogy, I have found that children know Aladin from the Disney movie, but they have no idea that the story was originally from the famous collection of fairy tales that the clever Shahrazad told to King Shahryar in order to save her life (as the story goes).

This was one reason why I chose to introduce the famous storyteller Shahrazad in the books — to explain why we call this collection of fairy tales One Thousand and One Nights. To make these stories new and visually interesting I based Sindbad’s voyages on real discoveries by sailors and archeologists — I wanted to give children a sense of history and geography. I also studied Persian miniatures and scripts to create illustrations that resemble Persian carpets.


Out of all the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights, why did you decide to focus on the Sindbad tale?


The voyages of Sindbad the sailor have been retold many times in books and films. I chose to retell this famous tale for two main reasons. First, as a child I loved Sindbad’s voyages — they were my favourite stories from the One Thousand and One Nights. These stories were full of adventure and wisdom. They give not only knowledge and entertainment, but also the opportunity to gain an understanding about life. Second, I had previously participated in the retelling of Sindbad’s voyages in an animated film version created by my father, Karel Zeman, in the 1970s. I was the head designer in this film series. Although the design I created for the book is different, I was inspired by the action and movement that we created in the film.


What was the most challenging aspect of retelling a well-known story?


I believe that the best way to attract today’s young readers to these valuable classics is through pictures. However, it is a great challenge to find a new visual form without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative. I wanted a visual form that would communicate in pictures the same values that the written masterpieces have communicated in words. My goal was to create an authentic vision of that period, and an original, compelling design to honour the One Thousand and One Nights.


When you are writing and illustrating a book, do the words come first for you, or the images?


The images come first. But prior to the images comes months of reading various versions of the tale, creating sketches and researching the history, culture and geography relevant to the story.


What medium do you prefer for illustration, and why?


I use a combination of black graphite pencil, dry chalk and water-colour paints. The black pencil allows me to include a lot of detail, which helps to bring the story to life and to express elements of culture. I use the paints and chalks in light colours at the end to complete the mood and atmosphere of the picture.


You are also a well-known filmmaker. How does your creative process differ when you are working on a book versus a film?


The beginning of the process, whether for a film or a book, is the same. I start with a storyboard. I draw a series of small pictures that tell the entire story like a comic book. Getting the whole of the story down in basic images at the start is important for a film as well as for a picture book. Then I translate the storyboard images into pages of a book or scenes in a film. Here the thought and work processes differ. In film, most things must be expressed by movement, therefore the design must be modified to satisfy the limitations of animated film. In picture books, it is opposite — the illustrations are static, and therefore more story elements must be expressed in each illustration.


What are you working on now?


Following a successful exhibition in Japan, I am now preparing another exhibit of my illustrations, books and films to be held in Dubai. I am also continuing to work on the film version of the Gilgamesh trilogy and a documentary film about my father, Karel Zeman.

Accomplished filmmaker, author and illustrator Ludmila Zeman was born in the Czech Republic. She is the daughter of well-known Czech film director Karel Zeman. Ludmila worked on major motion pictures early in her career and went on to create her own short animated films, including the award-winning Lord of the Sky for the National Film Board of Canada. Besides films, Ludmila’s storytelling talent and unique design has been expressed in countless children’s picture books. She’s received numerous awards as the author and illustrator of The First Red Maple Leaf and the Gilgamesh and Sindbad trilogies. Ludmila received a Governor General’s Award for Illustration for her book The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. Ludmila lives in Montreal, Quebec. Please visit her at her website.

For more information about Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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