A pioneer and a virtuoso of time-lapse puppet films, he was born in 1882 in Moscow, died in Fontenay-sous-Bois, France.
The first Polish animator and one of the first animation makers in the world, Władysław Starewicz was an ingenious experimenter, an expert in novel special effects and an enthusiast of entomology from which he started his adventure with animated films. He created several dozen original, very elaborate and technically innovative time-lapse puppet animations that brought him recognition and success.
He was born in 1882 in Moscow to a Polish family (through his places of residence and work he would become acquainted with Lithuanian, Russian and French cinematography). He spent his childhood and youth in Kaunas in present-day Lithuania where, as a four-year-old boy, he was adopted by his mother’s parents after she died. Early drawings revealed his significant artistic talent - he liked photography and was interested in cinematography, which at the time was still an innovation, as well as nature, particularly in the insects which he so passionately collected.
The latter interest, combined with the future director's extraordinary ingenuity and talent, brought about the creation of Walka Żuków / The Battle of the Stag Beetles, in 1910 his home workshop in Kaunas - his first animated film. The protagonists were dissected stag beetles put back to life by the artist. He used wires to put their limbs back on, dressed them in knight outfits and then moved them, capturing individual movement phases frame by frame. It was then that he invented the technique of animated film - discovered a little earlier by artists from France and the U.S. - and realised one of the world's first puppet animations.
The director was amazed by the effects of his work and began making another film, the first with a slightly more developed plot – Piękna Lukanida / The beautiful Lukanida (1910). Its premiere, deemed a great success, took place in March 1912 in Moscow. The same year, invited by renowned Moscow producer Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, the gifted young director moved with his wife, Anna, to Moscow, where he worked in the producer’s studio for two years.
Animated films created at that time are testimonies to the technical mastery of Starewicz: Konik polny i mrówka / The ant and the grasshopper (1911), Boże Narodzenie w lesie / The night before Christmas (1912) and Zemsta kinooperatora / The cameraman’s revenge (1911). The latter is a parody of a graphically refined melodrama, full of cinematic tricks like filming a love scene through a keyhole, funny and whimsical. The success of The ant and the grasshopper is also worth mentioning – an adaptation of a fable by Ivan Krylov that, thanks to a record 140 copies, was seen by viewers all over Europe and America. One copy, packed in a silver box, was given by the producer to a successor of the Russian throne, Alexei Nikolayevich Romanov.
Starewicz used innovative special effects in all of his films – viewers were amazed by the conjured Christmas tree and the words above it in The night before Christmas, or the scene of butterfly’s flight in The ant and the grasshopper. Starewicz’s masterpieces are characterised by refining the details of scenery, its wealth, attention to detail, fluidity and dynamics of motion – he also used slow motion, evident in The ant and the grasshopper when tree leaves slowly fall down.
While Starewicz was still working for Khanzhonkov, he began his adventure as a director and camera operator on feature films. The first live-action film in which he also adopted his cinematographic talents was Podróż na Księżyc / A journey to the moon (1912). He also used his skills in an adaptation of Pushkin’s poem Rusłan i Ludmiła / Ruslan and Ludmilla (1913).
At the start of the First World War, he left Khanzhonkov's studio and began creating films at the feature-film department of a Russian charity organisation, making parodist social dramas including Lilia Belgii / The Lily of Belgium (1915). His themes at the time were fairy-tale fantasy or alchemy, and he displayed his extraordinary skills in cinematography along the way. In adaptations of Gogol’s works – Straszliwa Zemsta / The terrible vengeance (1912), Noc Przed Bożym Narodzeniem / The night before Christmas (1912), Noc majowa / May night (1918) and Soroczyński jarmark / The Sorotchninsk fair (1918) – his versatile talents allowed for vivid representations of folk and fable-fantasy themes.
In Cagliostro (1918) he made an interesting use of optical effects. During this time, he brought Jerzy Żuławski’s drama Jola (1918) to life as a film, as well as the novel Mistrz Twardowski / Pan Twardowski (1917) by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski. The fairy-tale world created by the director contrasted with the cruel reality of a global conflict and civil war caused by the October Revolution. The latter made him escape to Yalta with his family, then to leave Russia, concerned about the approach of the Red Army.
In 1920 he went to Paris, beginning a new chapter his life and of his creative career. It was a journey back to his roots, to what was closest to him – animation. Following initial satiric productions, Starewicz produced what is considered his finest work, full of wonder and fable charm. The new films had soundtracks and led to a peak of recognition and popularity, not only in Europe.
He returned to animation with Dans les Griffes de L'araignee / In The Claws of the Spider (1920) , in the style of his early works. In 1922 he created another fable – with a touch of political satire – Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi / Frogland. The latter was popular as far away as China, where it was shown on many occasions.
Amour Noir et Blanc / Love In Black and White (1923), featured a puppet figure of Charlie Chaplin, and was in turn a parody of the Western genre, mocking the customs of Hollywood. Another animation was made in 1923, one of the more beautiful films by the director, La voix du rossignol / The voice of the nightingale. It is a fairy tale about a girl who releases a nightingale from its cage and in returns it gives the girl a beautiful voice. The animation received a Riesenfield award for best animated and non-American animated film in the U.S. The film’s success provided the director with many admiring reviews and opened doors to Hollywood – offers he refused, remaining in Paris.
Starewicz's style influenced on this decision, as it differed from that of Hollywood. He created films in the cosy atmosphere of his home studio in Fontenay-sous-Bois, where he resided with his wife and daughters, who were also his production team. His wife made outfits for the puppets and helped with their crafting. Like his daughter Irena, the younger one, Nina, often performed with the puppets for their father’s animations.
In a small studio near Paris, Starewicz conjured his most beautiful films. In the 1920s, apart from the aforementioned films, his more fable-like animations were created, like La Petite Chanteuse des Rues / The Little Street Singer (1924), Les yeux du dragon /The Eyes of the Dragon (1925), Le rat de ville et le rat des champs / The Town Rat and the Country Rat (1926), as well as L'horloge magique / The Magic Clock (1928), based in the medieval period. Starewicz’s animations were carefully worked out masterpieces. These included The Voice of the Nightingale, which showed the animated dreams of a girl, and The Town Rat and the Country Rat, a film about drunken delusions. Films like The Voice of the Nightingale presented the audience with a combination of techniques, cleverly intermingling live acting with stop-motion animation.
The great masterpiece and crowning glory of Starewicz’s creative work was a full-length puppet animation – the word’s first full-length animation – The Tale of the Fox, which the director started in 1926. He completed the animation, based on Reineke Fuchs by Goethe, in 1930. The search for a producer to cover the costs of creating sound for the film, which the artist couldn't afford, took a long time. To earn part of the sum, he adaptated fairy tales by La Fontaine: Le Lion et le Moucheron / The Lion and the Fly (1932) and Le Lion Devenu Vieux / The Old Lion (1932).
Seven years later, The Tale of the Fox – already complete – was bought by a German studio, and sound was added to it. The premiere took place in Berlin, then its French-language version was created in 1941. The Tale of the Fox featured Starewicz’s wonderful puppets, now bigger than usual (as high as 80 cm), and with exact facial expressions. Special mechanisms allowed the face of the Royal Lioness, one of the characters, to express a broad variety of feelings and emotions. The film was outstanding due in considerable part to the finely crafted dolls, unique at the time.
Starewicz also created a series of stories about the adventures of Fétiche, the last films the director made before the Second World War broke out. In those films, he used ideas such as placing the action inside a bottle, capturing the moment of a ship’s sinking, showing an underwater world or picturing the dreams of a young couple who see newborn babies with the passing birds. After the war ended, Starewicz created films including Zanzabelle a Paris / Zanzabelle in Paris (1947), Fleur de Fougere / Fern Flowers (1949), Un Dimanche de Gazouilly / Gazouilly’s Sunday Picnic (1955) and Carrousel Boreal / Winter Carousel (1958).
He died in 1956 at his home near Paris, leaving the unfinished film Comme Chien et Chat / Like Dog and Cat (1965). He died in poverty, despite success and popularity he had achieved both in Moscow and, in the 1920s and 1930s, in France. In large part it came from the director’s choice not to take up offers from film studios – he wanted to make his films on his own, helped by a small team of family members.
The director and animator's name has passed into cinematographic history in Lithuania, Russia and France, where he lived and worked, but he is all but forgotten in Poland. He has been made more familiar by the film Treser żuków / The Bug Trainer (2008) – a Polish and Lithuanian co-production – which recounts the life and work of the great magician of animation, and tries to recapture the fabulous, magical world of the films of the precursor of puppet animation.
Starewicz was that great magician of film, and a great craftsman who created that magic with his own hands. A comprehensively gifted person, he created the scripts of his films, crafted wonderful dolls and impressive set designs, as well as operating the camera, often in a very inventive way. He was an editor and director and did what he loved through his life, creating around 70 films – including over a dozen feature films.
It is not the impressive numbers that are most important about the director’s achievements. It is the fabulous, sparkling cinematography that lets us watch the funny melodrama of beetles, adventures of a rat driving a car, a dog visiting an underwater world, an elephant’s flight over a town, and the vivid dreams of numerous characters.
Just like classic fairy tales, Starewicz's films are full of fantasy and wisdom and do not lose their value. The stories of animals and insects shows us what we know from the human world, giving us universal messages or morals.