BEETLESAND WIRES. THE STOP MOTION IS BORN! THE BIRTH OF STOP-MOTION. PART I
My gratitude to Isabel, responsible of this amazing meeting.
Sometimes life kisses us in the mouth, in a surprise. And that is the most beautiful day.
Usually, most of the articles are written by filling them with dates, names and places that can easily be found online. But, I always wonder what kind of information the reader can achieve with that.
To me, names, dates, and numbers are almost impossible to be remembered . However, I never forget a man’s story, and that feeling I get when I understand his work. It is not possible to appreciate someone’s work if you know nothing about the author. I love to study about stories, fantasies and narratives because I really believe that every meaning of human life is in there. We need to realise that these meanings are the basement of the human soul.
AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER
A couple of days ago, Isabel, a friend, invited me to visit the local village’s museum, Nogent Sur Marne Museum. She insisted. I am a writer, so I am always curious. You never know what is around the next corner waiting to surprise you. The Nogent Sur Marne Museum is a little space with some pictures from the XIX century given by the local generosity, showing country scenes.
At this moment, and until 31th May, there is a small temporary exhibition about the history of the cinema in the area; I will share that interesting part with you some other day.
Here is the web of the museum of Nogent Sur Marne.
I walked to the end of the exhibition where a small space hides a surprise inside a couple of glass cases. Like some lost treasure from a pirate’s map, quietly protected behind the glasses a century old piece of animation looked at me silently. I could not believe what was before my very eyes! The old Lion Queen herself from the Tale of the Fox, Le Romand de Renard, 1930, joined by her loyal troubadour cat who carries on playing and singing his sweet love song always close to his beloved queen.
….. You know how much I love you, meow, meow, I won’t go away, meow, meow, as you know, you own my heart give me yours. Tonight, in the moonlight with ecstasy, meow, meow, I want to say you’re my only love, meow…..
I still can hear the magical sound coming from the cat’s instrument.
They are not alone, with them are a couple of rats from The Town Rat and the Country Rat, 1926; some diabolic creatures from the hell from the glorious The Mascot, 1934, and a couple of insects from earlier legendary films like The Cameraman’s Revenge, 1912– a century old.
Like an old Norma Desmond walking down through the stairs, shining again for a second under the camera lights, at the end of the (also forgotten)
Sunset Boulevard, these old puppets pose for my camera-phone smiling again as if the times of their greatest moments had come back (thanks to my honest admiration).
I wish to ask them for an autograph, have the opportunity to sit down and talk. I cannot even imagine what kind of amazing things these old puppets could explain if they could talk. I would give a hand to have the opportunity to take pictures of these puppets properly, making them sparkle again.
I was a professional photographer once, and now I feel like a child putting the objective of my spontaneous camera in front of the display trying desperately to steal a smile from these old characters that I know well from years ago. Just as if I was five, and that was a shop window in Christmas, and I was wishing the toys inside would be mine but now I know that I can have them. I have come back a couple of times to visit them again at the museum, only to be sure that I was actually watching the real ones.
Ladislas Starewitch is a man to be remembered, and today I want to honour him, one of the main, but forgotten, master of animation and cinema the world has ever known.
SO, WHO ARE YOU, STAREWITCH AND WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT YOU?
Well, guys, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the real father of STOP MOTION !
Ladislas Alexandrowitch Starewitch was born on 8th of August, 1882 in Moscow. Son of Alexandre Starewicz and Antonina Legiecka, members of the small Polonaise aristocracy from a village then called Surviliskis in Lituania, then part of the Russian Empire. Alexandre, his father, took part in the January Insurrection of 1863, and because of that, he had to go into exile to Moscow, where Ladislas was born. After the death of his mother and his sister’s too, his father decided to send him to live with his maternal grandfather in Kaunas where he grew up in a feminine universe. Probably was there where his love for fairy tales started.
I imagine him like a little stubborn kid, expelled from school because he was too independent; and he had a critical mind. Interested in almost everything, he was a self-taught man; always curious, always wanted to prove and taste everything. He knew pretty well what he wanted and he was always ready for doing whatever was necessary to achieve it.
Later it was in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he got married to Anna Zimmermann, and where his first daughter was born , Irina- his future assistant director, and his passion for cinema.
The director of the Kovno Ethnography Museum, Tadas Daugirdas, asked him to photograph the countryside and film folk ceremonies. There, he shot his very first live-action film, Beyond the River Niemen, in 1909. In 1910, he became director of the museum as well. Starewitch carried on making films, sometimes ethnographies, and sometimes about the life of the insects like Zukow Walka, The Dragonfly life in 1909. Always with the support of Daugirdas, he decided to make a film about a combat between the beetles Lucanus cervix with a pedagogic objective for the museum. But that kind of insects have a night life and they did not always want to fight in front of the camera; other times they simply died under the intense lights of the stage.
AN INGENIOUS FRENCH SOLUTION
At that time, cinema was as young as extended everywhere, especially French cinema.France was the motherland of the invention and in the first decade of the 1900s, the French companies, like Gaumont and Pathé, were the kings of the business, known all around the world. In 1907, Pathé had a Russian branch in Moscow. There, Joseph N. Ermolieff was hired as a projectionist to later become director of Pathé-Russia. Pathé, Gaumont and Eclair hoarded until 1910-11 75% of the films produced and distributed in Russia. Emile Cohl, so called the Father of the animation, became a start for Gaumont; later he worked for Pathé, both of them with an office in Russia at that moment. Thus, it’s not surprising that Starewitch watched Emile Cohl’s rudimentary but effective 2D animation work and a stop motion animation made out of paper cuts in the local cinema.
That was an inspiration for Starewitch and his beetle problem; he decided to work with the dead beetles filling them with wires so he would be able to move them like Cohl animated the paper cuts in his film. Then, with the patience of Jacob, and some dead beetles filled with wires, he produced a film, shooting picture by picture. That innovative way of moving his characters meant the birth of a new kind of cinema making. Piękna Lukanida, Lucanus Cervus in 1910 was his first movie. The Stop Motion Animation had been born!
Animated by the success of his first film, Starewitch wrote and directed his first scripts. Until the beginning of the war, there were three companies that dominated the Russian market: the Russian subsidiary of Pathé, Thiman & Reinhardt, and Kanzhonkov.
Kanzhonkov was the most important pre-revolutionary cinema entrepreneur. From a newspaper publication Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, the most relevant Russian director and producer of films at that moment, found out that a certain young clerk in Lithuania had been taking prizes for fancy Christmas dresses made of wrappings and hay. Not knowing exactly what it could come out of this offer, Khanzhonkov immediately invited Starevich to Moscow. Starewitch worked with him until the Revolution of October forces both of them to leave the country.
This was a great period. Starewitch made two dozen films; most of them animating dead animals as a puppets. La Bella Lucanide 1912 inspired by the opera bouffe, The Beautiful Helena by Jacques Offenbach, gave him international fame. The result was above all expectations – many of the viewers were convinced that the insects on the screen were real trained beetles.
And after that, The Ant and the Grasshopper, a version of the Aesop’s fables, was the first film produced by a Russian company and distributed around the world. More than 140 copies were made. Zar Nicolas II offered a reward to Aleksandr Khanzhonkov who worked on it as the producer, and to Starewitch as director, which allowed him to go ahead with his work and have a better live. That was the first time the Zar gave such an honour to anybody. It was a remarkable success.
In 1912, he had his own movie studio inside his home in Moscow. Working with Khanzhonkov as the producer, he makes The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman, 1912, the best-known film of this period.
It was a beautiful time for him. His second daughter, Jeanne, who would be known as Nina Star for being the main star of most of his films, was born in 1913.
I love watching this little girl in Starewitch’s movies. I can imagine the whole family working on it together. The mother made the costumes for the puppets. The sister was the assistant director and she was the main actress. Everyone had a role in this game. That is a great childhood.
During those years, he worked with real actors as well, and made live action films but, unfortunately, not one of those films survived. When the World War I broke out, he had already directed more than twenty films with some of the most famous Russian actors of that era, like Ivan Mozzhukhim. Particularly remarkable is The Night Before Christmas, 1913 that is an adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol story. His film Terrible Vengeance, 1913 won a gold medal at an international festival in Milan in 1914, being one of the five films which won awards among 1005 contestants.
PUPPETS, FILMMAKERS, REVOLUTION AND WAR.
The start of the twenty century was a hard time. Everything was changing; new countries like EEUU were emerging; new technologies; new communication systems; new philosophies, and new working class system too. New revolutionary ideas were springing up everywhere. It was a convulsion. In 1914, the first global war in the history breaks up, and in 1917, the Russian Revolution. The revolution hampered Khanzhonkov’s business. Ladislas Starewitch lost his comfortable life and tried to go ahead by working for other diverse producers. In Russia, the situation became hard day by day and Starewitch, like thousands of other cinema workers, decided to go out of the country in 1918. In 1920, the Red Army won and Lenin set implementation of a decree on the nationalisation of film industries. The studio team of Ermolieff, the old chief of Pathé branch, decided to go to France, via Constantinople.
Starewitch left Moscow in 1918, going to Odessa first, and then to Yalta, Crimea, where Khanzhonkov had also gone to. But before the Red Army conquered Crimea, he decided to go to Italy. It was not too long when he opted to go to Paris like thousands of Russians did.
After the January Insurrection, 1863 a big number of Russian refugees had gone to France; to the Paris suburbs. In the 1880’s there were an estimated 5,000 Russian emigrants in or near the French Capital. Maybe because of that, after the new revolutionary moment, Russians turned their eyes to Paris again. On the other hand, before the World War I, this area was the European Hollywood, thus made a lot of sense that the community of Russian cinema workers decided to choose the place.
In 1922, there were approximately 70,000 Russian exiles in France, and the number reached a peak of 175,000 in 1930. Starewitch and his family arrived in 1920, to Joinville-le-Pont first, also called “the little Hollywood”, the most important centre of French cinema production at that moment, but finally he settles in Fontenay-sous-Bois, which is really close to where I am living right now. He lived in Fontenay until his death in 1965.
It was then when Владисла́в Алекса́н дрович Старе́вич, or Vladislavas Starevičius, changed his name to Ladislas Starevitch, as it was easier to pronounce in French and in English. However, he used to sign with Starewitch, that being the reason I am using this version. I saw his signature and I prefer to respect his own way.
I am pretty sure that I am walking the same streets that Starewitch did. Since I met his puppets, I look for him in every corner. I can imagine his arrival. The Spanish and the French are “cousins”. All of us are Latins, sons of the Romans. Our cathedral, our medieval streets and our passion for food is the same. However, I am an outsider here, an outlander. My problems are things like pointing my finger at the right cake in the bakery or not feeling too ridiculous trying to pronounce correctly the few French words that I know when I need it.
How it would have been if you were Russian, in a world just after a world war, almost one hundred years ago, I wonder. That I cannot imagine.
I have been a script teacher for a while. I have always felt that when we are teaching dates, names, and places, we are not actually “teaching” anything at all. When you tell the young ones that “Starewitch was the father of the stop motion” they feel invidious and small. “Starewitch and the others were great men, you are not”; this is what they hear. Nobody is showing them the real, human part of the history. Looks like one day someone wakes up and become the most famous director ever; invents stop motion; builds Disneyland from nowhere, or discover the relativity because today is the day. Being famous is the only thing that is important nowadays. Some idiot will call it “success”. But life is a process; a complicated, private and long one. And money is only a tool, not a goal. Unfortunately, we are hiding this part as if it was something dirty and shameful. However, if you ask me, this part is the only really interesting one.
New pictures appear every day!