Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop-Motion Animation: A Brief History Part 1

To follow up my previous post on stop-motion special effects, I have put together a 'brief' (two part) article about  the usage of stop-motion in purely animated productions. Although stop-motion may be deemed 'primitive' or may be seen as less refined when compared to computer animation, the technique has a very rich and complex history and is still utilized today. Stop-motion's scope ranges from the cheery Christmas specials of Rankin-Bass to the strange, twisted films of Henry Selick and Tim Burton. It is popular not only with big producers, but also with filmmakers using shoestring budgets on Youtube. Perhaps the medium's appeal lies in building real-life worlds or creating tangible characters. Which ever the case, there is no denying the huge amount of labor and creativity that goes into creating a stop-motion film.

Ladislas Starevich: The Overlooked Innovator

Amazingly enough, these detailed figures were made over made over 75 years ago.

If you were to mention the name 'Ladislas Starevich' to one of your friends, you probably would be met with a confused look, even if they happened to be knowledgeable about animation. Despite this, however, Ladislas Starevich is a crucial figure in the history of stop-motion. He was one of the first filmmakers to perfect the technique, his earliest work dating back to the, now lost, short film "The Beautiful Lukanida" (1910). Starevich had an intense fascination with the natural world and many of his early films utilized dead insects and small animals as puppets (Starevich first chose to do so because he found live insects incredibly difficult to film). Within a year, Starevich had garnered attention throughout all of Poland. His 1911 film, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", was even honored by the tsar. Starevich also produced several other successful films up until 1920, when he and his family were forced to emigrate to France due to The Russian Revolution.

Starevich's later work became increasingly more sophisticated and surreal. He and his family made all of their film's sets themselves and began to construct their own handmade puppets (no longer from dead insects). His quirky and sometimes dark sense of humor, attention to detail, and portrayal of emotion transcended across demographics. Much of Starevich's work was not simply 'childern's stuff.' Indeed in the moral story, "Frogland" (1922), the foolish and greedy protagonists wish for a better king. But the king ends up being a stork, who proceeds to eat all of the frogs. Although American producers became interested in his work, Starevich was fiercely independent. He chose to make films completely within his own control, despite being offered large sums of money.

By the beginning of 1930s, Starevich had started transitioning to sound and his daughter, Irene, began to increasingly help him make (and appear in) his films. "The Old Lion" (1932) was the impressive result. The film encouraged Starevich and his small crew to start working on a feature length  production. At the same time, he made several successful shorts about the misadventures of Duffy, a small stuffed dog, beginning with "The Mascot" (1933), which remains, perhaps, his most famous piece. Starevich's 65 minute epic, The Tale of the Fox, was finally completed after ten years in 1937. Although it proved to be quite successful in its homeland, The Tale of the Fox remains rather obscure in many Western countries due to France being under German control at the time. Starevich continued to make films up until his death in 1965, although none of them meet the same acclaim his previous efforts met. His final film, Like Dog and Cat, remains unfinished.      

Yes, he used dead bugs. But they made good puppets!

Other European Pioneers

Lotte Reiniger produced the oldest surviving animated film and was one of the first female animators.

Several other people living throughout Europe made stop-motion films during the first half of the 20th century. Lotte Reingier's intricate use of silhouette cutouts made her productions quite unique and beautiful to behold. Today, her best known work is the 1926 animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Reingier lived in Germany until 1933, when she and her husband fled the country due to their involvement with left winged politics. Reingier kept herself busy throughout the 1950s by making short adaptations of Grim's Fairytales for BBC and Telecasting America. Another notable film from Germany was The Seven Ravens (1937), an adaption of the folktale of the same name.

 The Crab with the Golden Claws (Belgium, 1947) was notable for being one of the earliest movie adaptations based upon a popular comic character. Although made on a tight budget, the film was fairly loyal to the original Tintin strip. Unfortunately, The Crab with the Golden Claws was only screened twice before its producer went bankrupt. Czechoslovakia director, Jiri Trnka, made several stop-motion shorts and features throughout his life in addition to illustrating childern's books. The Emperor's Nightingale (1949) an adaptation of the Han Christian Anderson story, his version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959), and the anti-totalitarianism short, "The Hand"(1965), have all met great acclaim throughout Eastern Europe and at film festivals.  

Tintin's film debute was far less elaborate than the recent Spielberg production.  

Popular Russian Shorts and the 'Golden Snail'

Meet Cheburashka, Russia's most popular whatchamacallit.

Soyuzmultfilm of the Soviet Union made several notable stop-motion puppet films throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s. Roman Kachanov's movies remain widely watched by Russian audiences today. His wordless short, "The Mitten" (1967), centers around a young girl with a bookish mother and a large imagination. The girl fantasizes that a mitten she finds on the ground becomes the pet puppy that she always wanted and she enters it in a dog fetching contest. Kachanov meet even greater success with his film series (made between 1969 to 1982) centering around the childern's book character, Cheburashka. Cheburashka is small imaginary teddybear-like creature with a childlike innocence and youthful personality who turns up one day in a box of oranges at a grocery store. His neighborhood adventures with his friend Gina the Crocodile and the cranky old lady, Shapoklyak, are quite popular in many countries outside of Russia as well, particularly in Japan. 

Another notable filmmaker is Yuri Norstein. Norstein is one of the world's most renowned animators. After working many years at Soyuzmultfilm, he began producing films on his own. Although he has only made seven films in total, each one his lovingly crafted with extreme attention to small details. Yuri's small but impressive output earned him the nickname the 'Golden Snail'. His work stands out not only due to his unique use of cutouts and glass layering, but also due to their wide range of subjects. Norstein's "The Fox and the Hare" (1973) and "The Heron and the Crane" (1974) were based on well known Russian folktales and aimed at a general audience. Likewise, his best known short, "The Hegehog in the Fog" (1975) was about a small hedgehog overcoming his fear of getting lost in the woods in order to meet with his friend, Bear. Norstein's other shorts, "The Battle of the Kerzhenets" (1971) and the acclaimed "The Tale of Tales"(1979), were more complex dramas adressing historical and contemporary events and issues in the Soviet Union.

"The Fox and the Hare" is a fable story in the finest tradition.

Although the heyday of Russian animation is long bygone and many artists have had a hard time finding sufficient funding since the fall of the Soviet Union, stop-motion films are occasionally still made. Yuri Norstein has kept busy on his feature length picture, The Overcoat, which has been in troubled production since 1981. "An Autumn Moon" (1993) recalled the wordless shorts of Roman Kachanov and The Ugly Duckling (2011), adapted the famous fairytale of the same name for a theatrical release. Another upcoming feature of note is Gofmaniada. Set to be released in 2014 by Soyuzmultfilm, Gofmaniada was initially planned to premiere in 2008. However, the ambitious project has proved to be very expensive and time consuming for the once successful studio.      

Entry into the USA

 Gumby, everyone's favorite...piece of living celery?

Up until fairly recently, stop-motion animation (outside of special effects) was less prominent in the United States than it was in European countries. Hungarian-born George Pal is often credited for introducing stop-motion shorts to the USA. He created several of his Puppetoons films from 1934 to 1947 before moving on to produce several live-action features. Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954) was an another early effort. Although it remains a little known curiosity today, the 72 minute movie was notable for being one of the few non-Disney features made at the time.

Arguably, the Gumby series (1955-1969) and Rankin-Bass's various Holiday specials (i.e. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer [1964] and A Year Without Santa Claus [1974]) really helped cement the presence of stop-motion animation in America. They were often played over television airwaves and became a staple part of many people's childhoods, even if they were lacking in budget and limited in their resources. Will Vinton also met some success with his short films (including the Oscar winning "Closed Mondays" [1974]) and the various TV spots he made for California Raisins. He also directed the ill fated The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) which is chiefly remembered for its overwhelming bizarreness and the many liberties it took from its source material.

Because of Rankin/Bass, everyone associated stop-motion with Christmas specials.

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