Dec
04
How stop motion animation began


This beetle is going into the city to see
his lover. She’s a dancer. But this 1912 film is not just a staggeringly
weird tale of insect infidelity. It’s the true kickoff to a stop motion tradition
that has given us a ton of wildly different movies. But this invention didn’t come from Hollywood. It was made by an obsessive insect collector
in Lithuania who wanted to see insects dance. Stop motion is this combination of simplicity
and very, very tedious work. “Ah f..” An animator arranges objects in poses and
takes a picture. You move the object slightly and take another
picture. Played successively, it looks like motion.” You can tweak the process in a lot of ways
– adding more frames – and more precise movements, will make for a smoother animation. The potential of this illusion of movement
was obvious really quickly, like in 1908’s The Sculptor’s Nightmare, where busts briefly
moved or A Dream of Toyland, likely from the same year, which made toys come alive. But it took a European collector to elevate
it to an artform that changed the movies. Wladyslaw Starewicz was born in Moscow and
bounced around the pre-revolution Russian Empire, ending up in Kaunas – a city in modern
day Lithuania, then called Kovno. Some sources say Starewicz was a Natural History
museum director there (others say he just had a huge insect collection). Either way, he had a problem. As he revealed later, he was commissioned
to make educational films “to show the life of the stag beetles.” He “waited days and days to shoot a battle
between two beetles, but they would not fight with the lights shining on them.” So he started experimenting with making stationary
insects look like they were moving. He started with that stag beetle, which he
called by its scientific name: Lucanus Cervus. The goal was to show its fighting behavior,
but his next insect movie leapt to fiction to tell the tale of Helen of Troy. In 1912, The Cameraman’s Revenge — that
insect infidelity movie — became his most influential early work. See how this artist is actually painting another
beetle? Or how this grasshopper, filming Mr. Beetle’s
affair with a dragonfly, look how his tripod has individual legs. These miniscule touches were everywhere. He said he did it by installing wheels and
strings in each insect, and occasionally replacing their legs with plastic or metal ones. He used black threads to help move them. And it worked. After the Russian Revolution, Starewicz fled
to Paris. He continued making films. By the time he made Frogland, he’d changed
his name from Wladislaw to Ladislas to make it easier to pronounce in French. He continued to make incredibly influential
art — with stop motion — because “actors always want to have their own way.” He had a host of popular films and stop motion
quickly influenced popular art and special effects. Starevich’s stop motion inspired the work
that was done in King Kong. Terry Gilliam — the director and animator
behind the surreal Monty Python stop-motion animations — said Starevich’s The Mascot
was one of the best animated films of all time. And Starevich’s masterpiece, Le Roman de
Renard clearly inspired Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” This combination of wild invention and obsessive
detail created a new art form. At the end of The Cameraman’s Revenge, the
grasshopper screens the movie he filmed through a keyhole, the one of Mr. Beetle cheating
on his wife. She hits him with an umbrella. The movies changed forever. The beetles spent the night in jail. That’s it for this one in this series about
big changes to movies that came from outside Hollywood. Stop motion’s a really global form, so I
want to know some of your favorite examples in the comments. I also want to leave you with a testimony
to Starevich’s work, which is that in some of the early reviews, people were very very
impressed with how well he had “trained” his beetles to move around, and I honestly
don’t know if they were joking.