ANIMATION REPORTER, December 2008, pp. 59-60. Mumbay, India .

The master trick puppeteer… by Nikita Banerjee

 

Twenty-eight-year old Ladislas Starewitch, a graphic artist, sat for many hours under lights to manipulate intricate puppets. These puppets were live beetles and Starewitch was trying to shoot a battle scene with the insects. However, this turned out to be a time consuming and tedious process. The beetles would not fight when the lights shone on them. Finally, a beetle died and Starewitch decided to use a different approach to film the battle scene. 

 

The different approach he used was to create trick animals or puppets to film the sequence. This was in the year 1910. And Starewitch introduced the style of stop-motion puppet animation to  Kovno , Lithuania . He continued to use this technique of animation film making until his death in 1965.

 

Ladislas Starewitch was born in 1882 in Moscow to Polish-Lithuanian parents. As a child, he was not fond of regular school but had an artistic inclination. His fascination for insects also began from early childhood and he had a huge collection of butterflies. He also acted in many plays. He started to make a living by selling his pictures. In 1906, he married Anna Zimmerman and a year later , their first daughter Irene was born. Later Irene acted in the films Lily of Belgium and others.

 

In 1911, Starewitch moved to Moscow and began working with Aleksandr Khanzhonkov

At the studio, Starewitch was involved with stop-motion photography and cinematography. At this time, he began to think of ways to combine entomology and filmmaking. This thought led to his experiments with puppets and resulted in The Beautiful Lukanida, (1911). Although stop-motion animation was done in America before, Starewitch’s style was simple and comical. His second film, The Dragonfly and the Ant (1912) was quite popular. It is Krylov’s fable and the story revolves around a diligent ant and a lazy dragonfly. This film became an international success.

 

Most of his films were reflections of his eastern European heritage. The best example of this was the film, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). The story of the film revolves around the dull lives of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle. However, Mr. Beetle cheats on his wife when he meets a lovely Dragonfly. The beetle steals the dragonfly away from her lover, Mr. Grasshopper. The Grasshopper, being a cameraman, begins his plot of revenge by filming Mr. Beetle's affair with the Dragonfly. However, Mr. Beetle happens to catch his wife at home with another insect, the artist. Mr. Beetle feigns to throws a fit, smashes things in the house and gets rough with Mrs. Beetle. Eventually he forgives her, and takes her to a movie. However, the projectionist at the theater is Mr. Grasshopper, who runs the footage he has shot of Mr. Beetle and Miss Dragonfly. The cheering, insect audience loves this spontaneous slice of life, but Mrs. Beetle chases her husband straight through the movie screen and out of the theater.

 

The Lily of Belgium (1916) is Starewitch’s most lyrical and poetic project. In this film, he combined live action with animation and the shots were juxtaposed in the film. The film lampoons Germany 's invasion of Belgium through a stark allegory that is both dark and hopeful.

A nine year old Irene acted in this film.

 

Starewitch left Russia in 1918. Before settling in Paris within the Russian emigrant community, he had spent some time in Yalta , Ukraine and Italy . In 1920, Starewitch arrived in France and settled in the suburbs of Paris . In 1924,  while working in his own movie studio in Fontenay-sous-Bois , he directed and produced films which he distributed to various companies. This was the period when Starewitch only directed animated puppet films. Thirteen short films were made in this decade and some of them included actors. He also wrote the scripts for his films. Some of these films were Claws of the Spider (1920) ,The Scarecrow (1921) in which he himself shared screen space with his puppets. He described these as ”ciné-marionnettes” that is puppet films. His film, Love in Black and white (1923) starred Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Ben Turpin, The Little street singer(1924) had Nina Star, who was his second daughter Jeanne. Starewitch also illustrated famous European authors such as La Fontaine in Town Rat and Country Rat(1926), Lithuanian author Kraszewski in Fern Flower (1949 and German author Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe in the film  The Tale of the Fox (1929-1930).

In 1950, the film Fern Flower was awarded the first prize for the Best Animated Film at the XI Children’s Film Festival in Venice . The Tale of the Fox, which was his first and only feature-length animated films produced in the 30s.

The film, Voice of the Nightingale(1923) is another acclaimed film by Starewitch. In the film, a young Nina Star, discovers a Nightingale accidentally trapped in a cage meant for a mouse. The girl decides to keep the Nightingale as a pet and puts it in a birdcage to hang beside her bedroom window. Later, through her dreams the girls realizes that animals are not playthings and therefore, lets the Nightingale go. Starewitch was awarded the Hugo Riesenfeld’s Medal as The Most Novel Short Story Subject In Motion Picture in the United States of America in 1925.

 

Although Starewitch’s films were meant for children they appealed to all age groups. The subject matter of his films was simple and yet profound. The onset of sound and colour in films upset the puppet animator’s film making process. It had become difficult for him to find financers for his films. But Starewitch continued making films. In 1947, his film Zanzabelle was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice festival for the best children’s film.

Ladislas Starewitch had a huge body of work in animation. Only a few films were screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 

The complete restoration of his films was undertaken by François Martin and Léona Béatice Martin-Starewitch who is grand daughter. They began the restoration work in 1980 and it was only completed recently in 2008. Fifty films made by Ladislav Starewitch have been restored now and from 1979,his family has been responsible for showcasing his works throughout the world. Most recently in November 2008, Starewitch’s films and puppets were screened in Dublin , Ireland at the Museum of Modern Art .

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Animation reporter

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