By Rosy Rockets

story-of-the-fox-ladislaw-starewicz.jpgThe Story of the Fox, 1937

In the early 20th century, the curator of a natural history museum in Lithuania tried to orchestrate a beetle fight between two nocturnal insects whose snooziness was persistently triggered by limelight. Unable to coerce his performers into rumbling instead of slumbering, Starewicz turned for inspiration to the satirical avant-garde that had recently tumbled forth from Parisian cabaret.

Stop motion animation is almost as old as filmmaking itself. French caricaturist Émile Cohl, one of the earliest pioneers of stop-motion technique, inspired Starewicz to artificially animate his tiny pugilists. He killed and dismantled the beetles, and used wax to articulate their limbs and mandibles. This feature, Lucanus Cervus was released in 1910, made its mark at the first plot driven puppet film, 67 years before Aardman Animations created Morph and 78 years before Švankmajer’s Alice set our teeth on edge. Over the next few years, during the burgeoning of the Russian animation industry, Starewicz worked with Aleksandr Kanzhonkov’s film company. His animations continued to bring together the Victorian love of whimsical taxidermy and puppet theatres, and breathed life into them through this new medium.

Humans have been natural anthropomorphists every since they first worshipped the elements as deities, and any idle observer of nature will have ascribed for amusement great dramatic narratives to the inscrutable interactions of insects and pond life. Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a six-legged soap opera in this spirit. His turquoise tinted The Insects’ Christmas (1913) captures all the fractured logic and darting attention of a child’s game, and exhibits fastidious attention to detail in the application of physics to subtle, incidental movements such as miniature garments blowing erratically in the wind. The toys and ornaments come to life as they would in a dream, interacting creepily and beautifully with our own world and not safely within their own alienating fairyland. A manikin shepherds animated insect carcasses so disproportionate as to suggest prehistoric arthropods, and is soon joined by an unpleasantly zombified frog, whose dispassionate bug eyes contrast with the winsome tomfoolery of the insect guests.

ladislaw-starewicz.jpgLadislaw Starewicz

During World War One, Starewicz became more prolific but was forced to flee the Red Army during the October Revolution of 1917, and moved his family to Paris. His Russian animator contacts dispersed, attracted by studios in Berlin and Hollywood. Starewicz main body of work could be termed light entertainment although his The Frogs Who Wanted a King, filmed in 1922 at the height of the Russian Civil War (1922) was a parable in the fairytale tradition from which political commentary could readily be inferred. Drawing from one of Aesop’s fables, the piece diverts from the Disney leaning toward monarchy or democracy and advocates a libertarian government, depicting a White Army of “Croakers and toad stool pigeons”. The creatures are well cast – where a beetle can evoke many shades of industry and caprice, a stuffed frog poised on its hind legs can’t help but look skyward and supplicant. In contrast, the hand coloured Voice of the Nightingale (1923) mixed stop-motion animals and fairies with live children, one of which was Nina Star, Starewicz’s daughter Irene. It showed around the time Conan Doyle was protesting the authenticity of the Cottingley fairies, and might almost have compounded his belief had he witnessed its skilful animation.

The Starewicz family moved to Fontenay-sous-Bois and continued an independent animation career which was to last the rest of the artist’s life. Meanwhile, the Russian animation industry was beginning to find its feet. It was in the early 1930s that people began to speak of a Soviet Hollywood and a Russian answer to Disney. A representative was sent to America to experience firsthand the techniques and protocols of the Disney studios. Soyuzmultfilm (Union Animation) was an amalgamation of smaller studios which worked according to the super-efficient “assembly line” principles of Henry Ford. Aspiring to this American paradigm, early productions were created purely for entertainment, not as works of art or self-expression. This jarred with the Russian sentiment of the time, and animators who had been drawing from rich sources of inspiration in children’s illustration found themselves compromising their integrity and aping Donald and Mickey. However, wisecracking and sight gags did not come naturally to the producers at Soyuzmultfilm, who recruited caricaturists, circus workers and humour writers and paid them 20 cents premium per “trick”. The problem was that the origin of American animation was rooted in the funny papers, and characters such as Felix the Cat – whereas Russian animation developed from political satire and propaganda. Starewicz’s skiing and sledging beetles had a gentle and enduring pan-cultural approach to humour, but in general, children’s cartoons were intended to be spiritually, morally and artistically edifying.

insects-christmas-ladislaw-starewicz.jpgThe Insects’ Christmas, 1913

As Starewicz’s style evolved, the spidery characters of Tim Burton found their unsung forefathers; although the wipe-clean Jack Skellington and Corpse Bride are shallow and anodyne in comparison to creatures such as The Mascot (1933), an eerie incarnation of Studdy’s Bonzo the Dog. This last, the Toy Story of its day, was cited by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time. It was produced in Paris, where the Bonzo character was known as “Fétiche” – which translates as “Fetish”. Aside from its connotations with erotic fixation, this can be seen to refer to a primitive magical totem – a little doll brought to life by a powerful spirit, or in this instance a mother’s tears of desperation. Starewicz’s way with homunculus eyes and lips is deeply enchanting and deeply unsettling, bringing to mind the goblin paintings of Brian Froud or the iconic intimidating animation of a ventriloquist’s dummy. The horrid realism may in part be attributable to Starewicz’s use of motion blur, possibly achieved by wires. Without motion blur, stop-motion animation takes on a surreal fluidity and clarity which was exemplified 53 years later by Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts.

the-mascot-ladislaw-starewicz.jpgThe Mascot, 1933

As the success of Russian animation increased, the paths of Soyuzmultfilm and Disney diverged and soon Russian animation reached such a level of culture that Shostakovitch was keen to involve himself in what he saw as a compositional opportunity. When Disney’s sole attempt at sophistication and innovation, Fantasia flopped, Russian animators divorced themselves from Disney completely. When Russian artists came back from fighting in the Second World War, they found peace in children’s storytelling. Winter Carousel (1958) reunited some of Starewicz’s favourite puppets, and around this time Soyuzmultfilm branched out into films for adults, many of their animations resembling the pieces Terry Gilliam was to create in the late sixties for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Although Russian animation now had a reputation for spiritual and intellectual integrity, it could hold its own in the mainstream. The Russian and Disney Poohs emerged simultaneously. Tellingly, Khitruk’s Russian Pooh was a perky philosopher, whereas the Disney Pooh was a gluttonous oaf. Behind the iron wall, Sokolskiy’s vastly popular You Just Wait in 1969 was an unwitting (and inferior) counterpart to Tom and Jerry. Today, Russian animation is widely respected and recognised, Soyuzmultfilm animations receiving 11 plaudits to Disney’s 4 at the recent Tokyo Laputa festival, notable nominees being Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales. There is an inexorable veering back towards the commercial, but South Park and Robot Chicken are holding the torch for Starewicz - the rough-and-ready of stop-motion will always be cool.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.