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Stop motion animation all but ceased to exist during the Stalin-era Disney-inspired animation with extensive use of rotoscope technique. A Cloud in Love, with its eclectic mix of puppets and hand-draw animation, became an aesthetic pivot point for Soviet animation that turned to its avant-garde roots during the Khrushchev Thaw and well the 1960s.  Stop-motion animation was usually considered subpar by children but highly valued by critics. Nikolay Serebryakov’s cartoon Ball of Wool is based on a poem by Ovsei Driz, a notable Soviet Jewish poet who wrote in Yiddish and worked primarily for children. Ball of Wool like many of his works was translated into Russian by Genrikh Sapgir, a prominent poet and author of many cartoon scripts, including such classics as Losharik.  Serebraykov literally spins this story using a magic ball of wool that an old woman finds in the midst of the winter storm. She starts to knit her small world where soft woven objects are juxtaposed with harsh, edgy features of puppets. A mix of puppet and woven animation create a unique environment of this parable.

klubok1

Ball of Wool (Клубок)

Soyuzmultfilm 1968

Wordless

About halfway between Western and Orthodox Christmas (January 7), it is worth to remember some of the Christmas-themed cartoons. The very first Christmas animated short was made by the stop-motion pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz back in 1913. The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса) tells a dreamy story about a toy Father Christmas (Jack Frost, Дед Мороз) who leaves his Christmas tree and visits a frozen forest to bring the holiday spirit to creatures who live there. A frog, a ladybug, a dragonfly, and other insects join the party, get presents, skate, and have fun.

The Insects’ Christmas 1913

Silent, with English subtitles

Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz

Produced by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov

Update: another translation

The Forest Creatures’ Christmas

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hl0QecN15I]

 

One of the most beloved New Year cartoon is Last Year’s Snow Was Falling (Падал прошлогодний снег) by Alexander Tatarsky. It’s a stop motion claymation loosely based on Russian folktales and featuring such folklore characters as the Fool, the Pike, the Hut on Chicken Legs, and many others. The main character tries to find a proper fir for a New Year celebration in a magic wood. The cartoon is full of absurd humor and became a source of multiple quotes. Tatarstky filmed several popular films in this technique, including Plasticine Crow. He went on to establish Pilot, the first independent Russian animation studios. In his late years he directed Gem Mountain, a brilliant series of cartoons based on folklore of peoples of Russia.

Ekran, 1983

Russian with English subtitles

part 1

part 2

The Bug Trainer is a documentary film about Starevich produced in Lithuania. Interviews with film critics from Russia, Poland, Norway, and Lithuania are joined by an animated quest of the puppet Bug who falls in love with another puppet, the Lion Queen (uniting Starevich’s early films featuring bugs and his later masterpiece, The Tale of the Fox). The film is a mixed bag, and its animation  – unlike the one of Starevich – is the weak link. There is even an effort to depict Starevich himself to create surreal cinematic environment that does not look too convincing. On the other hand, the film features some rare shots of Starevich, fragments of his works, and brief bio. Sadly, his work during the 1940s-1950s is barely described. The film is serves as an introduction to works of the inventor of stop motion animation and tries to engage viewers describing the world of animated puppets. Recommended with reservations.

Over a century ago viewers already enjoyed animation in Russia.  Ladislas Starevich (Władysław Starewicz, born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882) was a photography and entomology enthusiast. Employed by the Museum of Natural History, Starevich, passionate about new media, created a series of documentaries. For one of the films about stag beetles, he had to create puppets out of insects. Lucanus Cervus shot in 1910 was the first stop-motion effort of Starevich. The animation effort was highly praised by one of the first Russian producers, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Soon other animation shorts followed featuring puppets created out of insects, wire, and wax. Early viewers sometimes assumed that films featured live insects were trained by Starevich

The first feature stop-motion film by Starevich

1910 – The Beautiful Lukanida (Прекрасная Люканида, или Война усачей с рогачами), a parody on early history blockbusters.

1912 – The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора), a parody on melodrama

1911 – The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса)

1913 – The Ant and the Grasshopper (Муравей и Стрекоза) based on Aesop’s fable

Like many artists, Starevich moved to France after the Bolshevik revolution. Unlike many Russian directors and actors, Starevich built a successful career in cinema and animation in the interwar period. Some of his works include:

1923 – The Frogs Who Wanted a King – based on the fable by La Fontaine

1930 – The Tale of the Fox / Le Roman de Renard  – the first full-length animated film

1934 – The Mascot – a story of a  puppy that was so popular that Starevich was asked to create a series with the same character.