Monday, June 09, 2014

Toons Around The World, Stop-Motion Style: The Incomparable Wladyslaw Starewicz

Since the 2014 International Festival Of Animated Film at Annecy is presenting a retrospective of stop-motion master Władysław Starewicz (1882-1965), Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog blog shall also pay tribute to this visionary filmmaker.

It is noteworthy that the late, great producer-director-animator and historian Michael Sporn devoted his October 3, 2007 post to Wladislaw Starewicz, A.K.A. Ladislaw Starewicz, Ladislas Starevitch, Ladislaw Starevitch and Ladislaw Starewitch.

Michael wrote, "When I was young I had a 16mm print of The Revenge of the Kinematographic Cameraman, and I think I must have watched that print a couple of hundred times. I was absolutely intrigued with the accomplishment he had done in 1912 and felt, then, that it was on the same level as Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur."

Sporn continues, "I’ve seen a number of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and was completely taken with his technique and craft in the film, The Magical Clock (1928) (aka The Little Girl Who Wanted to Be a Princess). The film includes some amazing combinations of Live Action with stop motion animation."

When someone innocently asks this blogger, Paul F. Etcheverry (A.K.A. Psychotronic Paul), "what's your favorite film?" one response that always gets the conversational ball rolling is, "that love triangle tale in which all the characters are dead insects - LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT!"

Now generally that will stop the boring conversation dead in its tracks and enable Your Blogmeister to grab a few more pungent cheeses and hors d'oeuvres (and as long as no one actually finds out this blogger's favorite films would actually be gorgeous, pristine uncut 35mm nitrate prints of the entire Starewicz film series featuring Duffy The Mascot, A.K.A. La Fetiche).

On the rare occasion that someone follows up by asking who would actually make a movie starring dead insects, the short answers go something like this:

  • Moscow-born innovator of stop-motion animation
  • Produced films in Lithuania, Russia and France over six decades
  • An entomologist by training, inspired to make animated films by the groundbreaking works of fellow visionary and filmmaking/animation pioneer Émile Cohl

That would be the incredible Władysław Starewicz.

Fascinated by zoology, Starewicz began his career as a documentary filmmaker for the natural history museum at Kovno, Lithuania.

Starewicz wanted to dramatize a fight to the finish between stag beetles, but the bugs, nocturnal creatures that they were, fell asleep whenever the lights came on. Solution: make dead insects into puppets by replacing the beetles' legs with wire, attached with sealing wax to their thorax. It worked - and started Starewicz on a new career in animation. Stop-motion technique was born - before Willis O'Brien, before Charley Bowers.

The finished film, "The Battle of the Stag Beetles", A.K.A. Lucanus Cervus, released by the Aleksandr Khanzhonkov studio of Moscow, followed the masterpieces by Émile Cohl among the first animated films.

In 1911, Starewicz left the Kovno natural history museum, moved to Moscow and began making stop-motion animated shorts for Khanzhonkov. The best known of these early Starewicz films is still the 1912 insect infidelity tale The Revenge Of The Kinematograph Cameraman.

The beetles (not Beatles), grasshoppers and more would be the unwitting and unlikely stars of numerous Starewicz films in 1911-1914, including Insects' Aviation Week, Four Devils and Voyage To The Moon.

He made the transition to live-action features and would be a prolific live-action director in the World War I years, before the Starewicz family fled Russia during the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Władysław would resume his animation career in Paris, setting up shop in the former studio of Georges Méliès.

Władysław Starewicz changed his name to Ladislas Starevich, moved into a villa in Fontenay-sous-Bois, and spent the rest of his life there, continuing his work as a filmmaker, inventor, puppeteer and originator of stop-motion animation technique.

One of the studio's most ambitious films is The Tale Of The Fox, A.K.A. Le Roman de Renard, a feature that took took ten years to plan and eighteen months to produce.

Assisting in many of the elaborate stop-motion animation productions: Władysław's daughter, Irina Vladislavovna Starewicz.

After acting as Nina Starr frequently in the studio's silent films, Irina would contribute both animation and story to many of its brilliant sound movies.

Favorite of all the delirious, wildly imaginative fever-dreams of the great Wladislaw Starewicz? The answer remains The Mascot (A.K.A Duffy The Mascot, La Fetiche).

The epic stop-motion film remains the closest thing imaginable to a Hieronymus Bosch painting translated to the medium of puppet animation. Even though The Mascot post-dated Rene Clair's Entracte, and the Dadaists and Surrealists, it could teach all of them a thing or two about how to be truly surreal.

Léona Béatrice Martin-Starewitch has been the caretaker of her grandfather's legacy; she maintains the archives and preserves his original puppets and writes the official Wladyslaw Starewicz website.

She is responsible for curating several DVDS released in France by Doriane Films, including the feature The Tale Of The Fox. Due to the Region 2 encoding, these WILL NOT play on the Region 1 DVD players that are the standard in the United States and Canada.

One will require a region-free or multi-region PAL/NTSC DVD player to view these official releases from the Starewicz archives.

Monsieur Blogmeister appreciates what Doriane Films is doing and includes these releases, along with any retrospectives of The Morecambe And Wise Show, as persuasive reasons to purchase a region-free DVD player!

For stop-motion animation mavens here in the U.S. who do not have multi-region PAL/NTSC players, there was a DVD release available from Milestone Video - now, unfortunately, out-of-print - which featured a selection of the Eastern European stop-motion master's filmmaking genius. It's well worth scouting around for a used or remaindered copy.

These DVDs and occasionally a used copy of The Cameraman's Revenge And Other Fantastic Tales are available for purchase from Amazon. They also can be ordered from the Doriane Films website.

Era Film produced a documentary about him titled The Bug Trainer. Don't know if it has been released theatrically or on DVD in the United States yet, however, but look forward to seeing it.

After the Annecy Festival, there will be screenings by Institut Français of “Les Fables de Starewitch d’après La Fontaine” at the Yokohama Festival in Kanagawa, Japan, which transpires from June 28th to July 4th.

Wladislaw Starewicz remains one of the singularly most brilliant, original and innovative minds in the history of animation.

No comments: