The Father of Stop-Motion Animation
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A Secret Polish History, Film director Władysław Starewicz on set of 'The Tale of the Fox', 1930. Photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, wladyslaw-starewicz-opowiesc.jpg
Compared to Walt Disney in his time, animator Władysław Starewicz was proclaimed a genius and magician, even though he never gained the fame he deserved. Similarly, little is known of Starewicz’s Polish background and its impact on his work.
Dubbed ‘The Magician’ and ‘The Bug Trainer’, Starewicz was a pioneer of stop-motion animation, one who pursued his idea of art in a remote area of Eastern Europe without looking up to the thriving centres of the new medium in the West. He is credited with making some of the first puppet animations in history – films that still, 100 years on, capture the imaginations of viewers. In his day, his art caused sensation and disbelief, while he himself was considered an eccentric who animated insects and animals.
Today, Starewicz is referenced as the author who infused the genre of stop-motion animation with a haunch for surrealism and the macabre, making him a precursor to such artists as Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers and Wes Anderson. But back in his day, Starewicz had to struggle with a lack of both interest and understanding for his art, as well as economic difficulties. Even today, he remains among the most under-appreciated figures in film history, let alone remembered as having important roots in Poland.
Kaunas: a fawn, Chopin & films in book margins
Władysław Starewicz (known also as Ladislas Starewicz) was born in 1882 in Moscow. His parents Aleksander Starewicz and Antonina Legiecka both came from Polish nobility in the Kaunas region (present-day Lithuania), which at the time of Starewicz’s birth had been part of the Russian Empire for close to a century (under the administrative name of Northwestern Krai). In 1886, following the death of the young Władysław’s mother, his father Aleksander, who was a patriotic Pole and an insurgent during the 1863 uprising, decided that his son should be brought up by his Polish grandparents in Kaunas – he resented the thought of the boy’s Russification, an inevitability were he to stay in Moscow. It was here, in the house of his grandparents in Sadowa Street (today: Kęstučio), that Władysław spent most of his childhood and adolescence.
Starewicz would later recall the exceptional atmosphere of that house: where all the members of the family loved each other and where the ‘quiet warmth of a lamp under a painting prevailed’. One of the extraordinary features of the Legiecki home were the wild animals which walked freely around the house. They included a grouse, a magpie and a starling to whom Władysław’s grandpa (who was also a painter) played waltzes by Chopin. There was even a cute tamed fawn. Essentially, it was a seemingly perfect childhood environment for a future film animator.
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In Kaunas, Starewicz attended the Russian middle school and made his first quasi ‘stop-animation’ there. Inspired by a book he had found in a local bookstore, he started drawing little figures in the margins of his school books – flipping the pages, one could see a figure seemingly move as if alive (although, one has to admit, cartoon animation would turn out not to be Starewicz’s thing). Much to the dismay of his teachers, very soon the whole class contracted the flipbook bug.
The boy was also interested in drawing and theatre (Polish theatre was forbidden under the Russian administration) and showed a talent for bricolage by constructing magic lanterns, which were an early form of projector. One of his childhood inventions was a model shooting range on the house veranda. It had moving figures, one of them depicting the figure of General Muraviov, the infamous Russian responsible for brutally putting down the November Uprising. Thanks to the model’s ingenious design, when the general’s figure was hit, it would suddenly be hung by the neck (a reference to Muraviov’s favourite method of executing the Polish insurgents of 1863). Such devices naturally worried his grandparents – they knew that under the Russian regime even innocent pranks could lead to real problems, like being sent to prison.
A martyr to faith?
Władysław Starewicz, with friends and family members: Anna Starewicz, Maria Skórska, Adela Skórska, Kaunas, 1910. Photo: reproduction by culture.pl
These worries partially materialised in the second grade when Starewicz was expelled from school for skipping the obligatory Orthodox mass (a typical Russification method in the regions of the empire that had a large Catholic population). Instead the boy went to the countryside to chase butterflies, his greatest passion. His grandma and family never held it against him, as they considered little Władek a great Catholic and brave patriot, almost a martyr to the faith.
Starewicz continued his education in Dorpat (present-day Tartu in Estonia). Here he ran a school newspaper called Karakuli i Kljaksy (in Russian) in which he first revealed his talent for satire and caricature. Around 1903 or 1904, he moved to Vilnius where he studied painting for a year – but this was the only professional art training he would have. A couple years later, he moved back to Kaunas where he found employment as a clerk in the Treasury Office. During this time, he also painted churches, as well as made postcards and film posters for the local cinema (in return, he was allowed to watch all the movies, his favourites being the fantastic films and trick production style of George Méliès).
Starewicz was also very fond of nature and the local culture of the region, where there was a mix of Poles, Lithuanians and Belarusians. He used a work excursion to the Suwałki area (where he was gathering data for Warsaw’s Agricultural Society) to also document photographs of local folk rituals, monuments and landscapes, which he then offered to the ethnographic department at the Kaunas museum.
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The bug trainer
In 1909, Starewicz bought a camera in Moscow which he then used to shoot an ethnographic film called Nad Niemnem (which he also offered to the Kaunas museum). That same year, drawing on his lifelong passion for entomology, he also shot films documenting the life of insects: The Life of the Dragonfly and The Scarabs. But it was in June of the following year (1910) that Starewicz shot what turned out to be one of the earliest stop-motion animations in history.
Whenever I tried to film live stag beetles battling over a female, after switching on any illumination, they would always just freeze motionless. So I came up with the idea of putting my little knights to sleep. I separated their legs and jaws from their abdomens, and then put them back in place with the help of thin wires. This way I could dress the beetles in costumes, knee-high boots, and put swords in their hands.
The film, called Lucanus Cervus (Latin for ‘stag beetle’), is sometimes credited with being the first puppet animation in history. Starewicz further developed the stop-motion technique as well as the plot lines in his next films starring insects. In The Beautiful Lukanida (which premiered in Moscow on 26th March 1912), he once again used stag beetles and the story leaned on the Greek myth of Paris and Helen of Troy.
The Cameraman's Revenge (1912) animation
Perhaps the most famous and accomplished of them, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), was an ironic tale about a ‘man’ (actually, a stag beetle) who cheats on his wife, before being caught out by a cameraman (a grasshopper) who records it on tape and screens it in a cinema. Starewicz’s animations were so realistic that some viewers were tricked into thinking that the bugs were live trained insects, thus earning Starewicz the moniker of ‘the bug trainer’ or a ‘magician’. The reputation of a magician or eccentric alchemist who brings to life dead objects in his home laboratory would accompany Starewicz for many years.
Starewicz continued his work in Moscow where he now engaged in multiple productions, working as scriptwriter, director, cameraman, painter, scenography, costume designer and animator, while also continuing to improve his equipment and techniques. He also started shooting regular films with actors, like dramas, comedies and fantasies. Some of them featured Polish actors who often came to Moscow, like Cyprian Edward Puchalski (Ruslan and Ludmila, 1914, based on Pushkin’s poem), Stefan Jaracz (Na Varšavskom Traktie, 1916), Halina Starska (Nočnyje Priklučenija Dariat Nam Naslaždienija, 1916) and Fryderyk Jarosy (Kaliostro, 1918).
Uncompromising in France
Starewicz on the set of 'The Tale of the Fox', dir. by Irena and Władysław Starewicz, 1930, Photo: Se-ma-for Łódź
Following the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Starewicz decided to leave Russia. Via Crimea and Italy, he eventually settled in France in 1920. Despite initial language issues and feeling alienated at first (problems his daughter attributed to Starewicz being ‘a man of purely Slavic culture’), Starewicz soon started to continue his career as an alchemist-animator. He settled in Fontenay-sous-Bois where he developed his atelier. In France, he created some of his greatest films, like La Voix du Rossignol (1923) and The Story of the Fox (1937), which after ten years in the making, became the first full-length animated film.
Singing Cat, from Starevich's Le Roman de Renard Tale of the Fox) upload
During all those years, Starewicz struggled with economic difficulties. His technique was extremely time-consuming and very expensive. Despite numerous offers from America, he repeatedly refused to ‘industrialise’ the production process. He was the director, screenwriter, set designer and ‘puppeteer’ for all of his films. Working alone, he could shoot at most 120 metres – 6 minutes – of footage per month.
Starewicz consequently declared himself to be an ‘artist with a calling’, who had little respect for commercial productions and Hollywood. One of the few concessions he made to the American rules of the movie business was the creation of a series with a protagonist (like Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse series), a dog called Fetiche (dubbed Duffy the Mascot in America).
In press interviews, he presented the persona of an uncompromising artist irreverent about the laws of the film industry, claiming he was not afraid of ‘Mickey, or theatre, or competition with cinema – with its artists so difficult to control’. He considered his financial predicament part of the deal. Above all else, he cherished his artistic independence. As the critic Paweł Sitkiewicz concluded, Starewicz didn’t want to be a businessman, but a magician.
Polish heritage to the end
Despite spending most of his life in Russia and France, Starewicz always identified with his Polish background and considered himself Polish. His memoirs written after World War II (in Polish) can be seen as a testimony to his ongoing relationship with his Polish heritage. This relationship can also be traced back to his art, with its interest in plots inspired by Slavic folklore and fairy tales as well as direct impulses coming from Polish literature (among the examples are Pan Twardowski (1917) based on a story by Ignacy Kraszewski, and Ijola (1918) by Jerzy Żuławski). Similarly, it would be tempting to see his inclination for the Aesopian and allegorical as a distant reflection of the use of the Aesopian idiom in Polish arts and literature during the partitions era.
In interviews given to the Polish press, he repeatedly returned to the idea of returning to Poland. In 1927, he declared his willingness to come to Poland in connection with the planned adaptation of Janko Muzykant, a didactic novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz, so that, as he explained, he ‘could check out and explore some things on the spot’. Ten years on, he declared he would like to move to Poland, and live in the countryside: ‘The nature is different there. And I would still like to draw from nature’.
In the late 1930s, he said to a Polish journalist:
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I’ve been living in France for 18 years already and I haven’t naturalised as a French citizen because I consider myself Polish – and as such I will die.
The last of his Polish plans coincided with the outbreak of World War II. In mid 1939, Starewicz signed a contract with the Polish production house Kohorta, run by the Katelbach brothers. Starewicz was supposed to run the company and direct films: the first one, Pani Twardowska, was to be based on Adam Mickiewicz’s poem. The Katelbachs were also meant to fund the construction of a puppet film studio in Żyrardów near Warsaw. But with the outbreak of the war later that year, none of this ever materialised.
Starewicz continued to shoot his uncompromising films until his death in 1965. In 1949, he made his first colour feature film, Fleur de Fougère, based on Ignacy Kraszewski’s fable Kwiat Paproci (Fern Flower) and a popular motif in Slavic folklore. He worked on an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but never finished the film. Also, his most ambitious project, The Creation of the World, on which he had worked since 1930, was never realised. Władysław Starewicz died on 26th February 1965 while working on the film Like Dog and Cat.
Almost forgotten after the war, Starewicz has only recently been given his due place in film history. The critics point to the fact that despite having been a pioneer of a whole new genre of film, his works were never simple or naive, and his poetics seemed fully-fledged right from the start. Also some of his contributions to the genre, like the realism of the presented world, the smooth animation of puppets, as well as the scale and scope of his productions, have all remained fresh in the era of digital special effects. As animation expert Jayne Pilling puts it, ‘Bizarre, witty, inventive and often startlingly surreal… Starewicz's films defy conventional expectations of animation’.
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polish animation film
Starewicz is also credited with infusing the stop-motion animation with a haunch for the surreal and macabre, which makes him a precursor to such artists of auteur cinema as Jan Švankmajer, Tim Burton, Henry Selick and the Quay Brothers – all of whom carried his influence. The latter twin brothers dedicated their early film Ein Brudermord to his memory. Terry Gilliam included Fétiche Mascotte on his list of the ten best animations of all time. While another giant of original animation, Wes Anderson, mentioned Starewicz’s The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard, 1930) as inspiration when making his own Fantastic Mr. Fox. And judging from Anderson’s 2018 stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs – and seeing it against Duffy the Mascot – one can say that Starewicz’s influence is a strong one.