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This interesting duo of events celebrating stop-motion animation, in conjunction with the Barbican’s Watch Me Move…exhibition began with Andrew Osmond’s comments on animator Willis O’Brien’s pre King Kong (1933) silent stop-motion short film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915). The film which Osmond dubbed a natural pre-cursor to The Flintstones, due to its family interaction, detailed in this case by subtitles, was the first of its’ kind. It is on show in a room also housing Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the first hand drawn cell animation, which, Osmond observed, influenced Disney, who was eight years old at the time of its’ release. Similarities between M. Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928) and other Disney creatures to follow an Gertie are easy to spot, for McCay’s dinosaur is a lovable creature with distinctly human characteristics. But as Warner Brothers’ legendary animation director Chuck Jones (Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies) said later on, ‘The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney….
A detour in Osmond’s talk that could hardly be termed an inconvenience occurred when Winsor McCay’s animated feature film The Lost World (1925), based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, had not yet reached its relevant dinosaur scenes. Instead, our fairly large group watched Tim Burton’s first solo Disney backed short film, Vincent (1982), featuring the voice of Vincent Price. As Osmond highlighted, Burton’s charming film, centring on the worlds contained within a young boy’s imagination is the definitive forerunner of Burton classics to come, most notably, that beloved stop-motion master-work Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Stopping at the glass cases near the stairs to the upper level, we admired some of the beautiful puppets Ladislas Starewicz and his assistants aka his wife and two daughters, made for his beautiful, amazingly fluid, ahead of their time stop-motion animations. There could have been no better cue to descend the stairs for a look at what is considered one of Starewicz’s finest films, The Tale of the Fox (1930),as the furry star of that film is among the animator’s artefacts on display.
Starewicz’s epic, The Tale of the Fox represents stop-motion animation in its most heightened form. Never before, in any animation, vintage or new, have I seen animals acting more human, with every move of their eyes, arch of the eyebrow, (indicating the inner life of thought) and/or motion of their paws in keeping with each scenario. This unique film is notable too for its many successful ‘crowd’ scenes, featuring animals waging battle and/or succumbing to the charms of music and one another.
The Fables of Ladislas Starewicz (1892 – 1965) are many and varied, and always, so richly detailed and surprising, that they never allow viewers’ imaginations to overtake them. The documentary The Bug Trainer (Rosa Miskinyte 2008), detailing Starewicz’s life and career, tells of his origins and inspirations with several other animators commenting on them, and demonstrates his individualistic animating style via clips from several of his stop-motion films, among them The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) and Frogland or The Frogs Who Wanted a King (1930). However, the seating in the cinema space did not allow viewing of subtitles along the bottom of the screen beyond the first row.
Starewicz’s began to make what he called his ‘puppet films’ in 1910 and continued to make them for the rest of his life. His subject matter and characters – insects, frogs, bears, rabbits, foxes, cats, etc., though aimed at children in his own time, might seem odd and perhaps a bit too mature for children today, though they were considered suitable in his day. His childhood interest in entomology inspired his early films, made in Moscow, starting with a documentary about insects in Lithuania (1909 -10). During that time he experimented with stop-motion techniques using beetles, inspiring his landmark film, ‘The Battle of the Stag Beetles – the first ever puppet – animated film.
.The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is still remarkable for its’ sophisticated story-line and cast of characters - carcasses of deceased bugs, moved into different positions for this stop-motion classic with the aide of pins and sealing wax! One might not picture insects performing clandestine acts in Hotel Amor, though none of us has the imagination Starewicz was gifted with! The fact that such a film still draws laughter, as well as admiration today, is a tribute to its originality and staying power nearly 100 years on. The cameraman of the title, a keen media blackmailer still seems topical today.
Frogland (1922) is about as whimsical as an animation could ever be stop-motion or no. Its frolicking frogs, who pray to Jupiter for all their needs, have surely been the models for lawn ornaments and bird baths around the globe ever since they appeared, not to mention countless animations which followed, with their frogs’ ever so childish way of pleading for their wishes via clasped webbed feet and bubbles blown and directed towards their favourite god’s heavenly cloud. As with all of Starewicz’s animations, cinematic devices, such as close-ups, what seems like tracking shots, key-hole photography and other techniques not normally akin to vintage animations, work their charm.
There are many diverse and fascinating events to come in conjunction with this seminal exhibition, but they're sure to be popular, so be sure to book your tickets ASAP, as in NOW!
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