The stop-motion animation of Ladislas Starevich

Feature Aliya Whiteley 2 Sep 2014 - 06:28

An early pioneer in stop-motion animation, Ladislas Starevich's strange, touching films work still entertain today, Aliya writes...

Even in this age of digital manipulation, stop-motion animation holds a fascination for movie audiences, and there have been some brilliant examples through cinema’s history. From the year 2000 alone we’ve had Wallace And Gromit’s The Curse Of The Were Rabbit, Corpse Bride, Mary And Max, A Town Called Panic, and Fantastic Mr Fox, to name but a few, and The Boxtrolls is not far away. Not bad, for an animation technique that hasn’t changed much such it was first used in 1897.

Perhaps it has retained its popularity because it requires so much skill. Making a stop-motion movie has always taken months of precise, painstaking work. That’s not to say that modern filmmaking is a walk in the park, but I think we have a clear, romantic view of the effort involved in stop-motion: making each model with such care, moving them in tiny increments, making sure every image is perfect in order to create an illusion of life. It’s a level of craftsmanship that speaks strongly of what one person can achieve if they put their soul into something.

But if it appeals to us on a human level nowadays, it’s impossible to imagine how it struck early cinema audiences. It must have seemed like a form of magic – inexplicable, delightful, more than a little scary sometimes. Those early stop-motion films remain strange and beautiful to watch, and don’t seem dated to me at all; at least, the work of Ladislas Starevich doesn’t. He wasn’t the first stop-motion animator, but he was the first to give personality to his creations, and to invent strong storylines about them. When you watch his films, you see his influence clearly on modern animation, but you also get sucked into a huge imagination and an utter dedication that stretches across the decades.

Starevich was born in Moscow in 1882, and by the time he was 28 years old he was the director of the Museum of Natural History in Kovno, Lithuania. He made his first films there, using the new cinema technology to capture animal behaviour. He wanted to film stag beetles fighting, but as soon as he turned on the stage lighting the beetles, who are nocturnal, went to sleep. So Starevich decided to recreate the fight using the beetles’ carapaces. He replaced the legs with wire, held in place with sealing wax on the thorax, and used stop-motion techniques to bring the battle to life.

In 1911 he moved to Moscow and made a lot of films, live action and stop-motion. He often used dead insects as his characters in his animations, but after World War One he emigrated to Paris, and started to make longer, fantastical films using puppets. He began to experiment with sound and colour, and he mixed live action with stop-motion. Any place that his imagination took him, he managed to recreate on the screen. His films saw success around the world. He died in 1965.

Here’s a look at three of his short films:

1. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)

We often think of animation as a genre for children, but this film is definitely not in that category. It’s a surprising, humorous look at the lies we tell, and also at how the invention of film can capture us in the act of lying.  

Mr and Mrs Beetle live quietly, and both are really bored with their relationship. Mr Beetle is having a fling with a dragonfly who works as a cabaret artiste in the city. While visiting his girlfriend, he gets into a punch-up with a grasshopper over her affections. What he doesn’t know is that the grasshopper is a cameraman who makes moving pictures. The grasshopper follows Mr Beetle to a seedy hotel, and there makes a film that Mrs Beetle will find very interesting…

When Starevich’s insect films were first shown in London the newspapers reported that living insects were trained to play the parts, and you can see how that would seem to make sense, much in the same way that flea circuses were believed to be real. How else could they drive cars, have fights, paint pictures, serve drinks on little trays, even kiss each other? But, of course, it’s the manipulation of these insect corpses that gives the whole thing a bit of a macabre feel now. Those black wiggling legs give me the shivers, but add an element of fascination to it.

So The Cameraman’s Revenge is topical, still relevant nowadays, and it has a brilliantly understated sense of humour that really makes me laugh. It must be one of the first films that watches the watcher – it reflects on the role of cinema in society, and it asks questions about how it will change us all.

2. Frogland (1922)

One of Starevich’s puppet creations from Paris, Frogland (also known as The Frogs Who Wanted A King) has real charm, but also a sharp point to make. The frogs are a lazy group who hang around the pond and make up problems to worry about. They decide they need a king, and so they appeal to Jupiter, up in the heavens, to send them one. He sends them a log. The log is uninterested in their problems, and things go downhill from there. This is not a short film with a happy ending.

It’s a tale with a moral – think carefully about what you want before you ask for it, because you might actually get it. The reason it stays involving even though it’s quite blunt in its message is, I think, the huge personalities that Starevich managed to cram into his puppets. Jupiter is bored and annoyed, and the frogs are all, appropriately, jumped-up little pontificators. It also has some puns that will make you groan, but I love a good pun so I’m not complaining. Clever, political, and very funny, it’s just lovely.

3. The Mascot (1933)

The idea that toys could come to life is a really, really old one. This version is a lot more creepy than Toy Story, but it also has a stuffed puppy protagonist that I liked a lot more than Woody or Buzz. Brought to life by the tears of a mother, the puppy realises that the little girl who owns him is really ill. And all she wants to make her feel better is an orange. If only the mother could afford it.

The puppy, called Duffy (he appears in other Starevich adventures) sets off to find her an orange. Along the way he strays into traffic, risks his life, ends up at a party filled with demons, and meets Satan himself. He is one brave puppy.

The film uses sound, and also mixes real-life and stop-motion techniques in a way that is staggering. I can’t imagine how it was achieved. The longest section of the film deals with the demons’ party – you can sometimes find this as a separate film under the title The Devil’s Ball – and it reminds me of the Night On A Bare Mountain section of Disney’s Fantasia (1940). So many strange creatures create havoc, each one more grotesque than the last. It’s an amazing sequence.

Duffy is the outsider, and we see the world through his eyes. We see the pain of the mother, the suffering of the child, and then the busy, uncaring people outside. How weird life is, from demons to the everyday. It’s all inexplicable to Duffy, but he’s determined to get that orange back to his little girl, and that makes The Mascot one of the most endearing animated films I can think of. It’s such a small thing, but it means everything to him.

Starevich made many films, and they are so important in the history of animation that it seems a shame to me that his name isn’t more widely known. It’s worth seeking these out just to see the influence he had on the people in his field who became household names. Some of his films are over 100 years old now, but they retain the qualities that make stop-motion such an enduring success: some remarkable inspiration, followed with a lot of perspiration. Each of his films is a labour of love, and when you watch them, that is impossible to forget.

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