PRAGUE SPRING: IVAN ZACHARIAS' "UNDERGRADUATE" REEL IS A BLOOMIN' MIRACLE.

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For a guy still in school, Ivan Zacharias has quite a reel. He's repped in the U.K. by the very happening Blink (see story on page 48), where he's done spots for hefty clients like Johnnie Walker Red and Leo Burnett, Polaroid and BBH and Whiskas cat food and M&C Saatchi-spots that look like the work of a seasoned London pro, someone with a sensitive painterly touch and a very sophisticated palette.

But Zacharias is only 25, and, moreover, he remains based in his native Prague, not exactly a commercials Mecca. "What I'm doing seems impossible in the States," he says. "Here, though, it's possible."

Chalk it up to the fall of Communism, perhaps, but whatever Zacharias is doing, he's doing it awfully well. His Whiskas commercial, for example, ain't no meow-meow-meow mix; it's a polished, playful art film that sells cats, not cat food, with some of the prettiest distressed footage ever to purr its way into a commercial, via a simple technique that counters hoary feline truisms presented in handwritten type with endearingly contradictory images. "Cats dislike dogs," for instance, is followed by a slow dolly away from a big fuzzy black dog sitting in the rain, while a cute little white cat keeps itself dry between his legs.

Zacharias started out studying documentary film with modest plans to be a DP, and he won't graduate the Prague Academy of Fine Arts till late '98, but he's already produced and sold his thesis project-a 13-minute promotion for Ericsson, which he directed for BBDO/Stockholm. He refers to it as an "emotional and spiritual visual thing," and this extended Felliniesque trip is several light years removed from even Anna Paquin on the dunes. Initially put to work on a six-minute industrial film, he instead presented a dreamlike journey, via internal

voices, into the lives and minds of four unusual characters, spanning the likes of a young Hasidic boy to a Nordic fisherman, all in highly poeticized vignettes. In a parallel with Whiskas, and with most of his work, for that matter, he's not selling mobile phones but the freedom of communication.

Opening and closing with the theme, "Free your spirit," the final VO stanza sings, "You should be able to make your voice heard by communicating with the world about you in your own terms, not the terms dictated by technology . . . in a world that allows the voice to float as freely as thought." Zacharias and his DP, Jan Belieky, traveled around the world to capture their rich imagery ("I spent 170 days abroad last year," laughs Zacharias), and Ericsson bought it. Zacharias is still honing it, however, and he won't turn it in as his final film school project till next year. "It's basically for internal presentations," he says of the lengthy Ericsson cut. "I don't think many people will see it."

Nevertheless, Zacharias needn't worry about going unnoticed. His deft blend of unusual angles, lenses and film speeds, and his gorgeously muted hand-colored frames are hard to miss. Yet even a relatively straight spot like Polaroid-his only dialogue piece, limited to a scant two lines-stands out for its ironic take on the East/West cultural chasm: several Eastern European twentysomethings are preparing a photo for a contest in which the winner gets a trip to the States. When a policeman tries to roust them, one of the girls, clad in gold angel wings and headdress, about to pose at night atop the deserted town square's fountain, explains that she's "trying to get to America." The closing shot of the spot is an errant Polaroid of the policeman turning on the photographer, his head framed with the girl's wings, simultaneously funny and tragic.

While the girl is trying to get to America, so is Zacharias, though he's in no rush about it. He's repped here by Radical Media, but his style seems far more at home in the more rarefied European market. Even the music in his spots has an exotic quality by U.S. standards. "I don't think my style is too different from other directors' work," he says, "though perhaps it's different from American directors' work." Zacharias is not a keen observer of the American commercials scene; unlike the crazy Swedes of Traktor, for instance, he's not a connoisseur of bad American television.

"I didn't know anything about America from behind the Wall," he concedes. "It was five years ago that I just started to discover this stuff." He was distinctly underwhelmed, it seems. "I have to say that I'm surprised at the vast quantity of American commercials-the testimonials and washing powders stuff. My initial impression of American television made me sad. America is such a big country, though, that it has to be like this. I believe there are so many creative people out there, it's just that they can't sell their ideas. It's a marketing problem. The clients seem to be much more critical there. But I have seen many good American commercials at festivals. I have just never seen them on TV.

"I'd just like to show something more of European culture and style, to show that something like that exists," he adds.

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