While its embarrassingly belated due to not having a speck of spare time over Labor Day weekend or much in the past week (man, I hate being busy), this is officially the last post of Silent Stop Motion Month! I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about it. It’s back to “normal” for awhile, but don’t forget…October Is Coming! 😉
In a world overflowing with dinosaur toys, books on prehistory, fossil exhibits, and Jurassic Park movies, dinosaurs are so popular that its hard to imagine life (or our childhoods) without them.
…Some folks have a harder time imagining it than others.
So difficult as it may be, try to picture a time when dinosaurs weren’t rampaging across our screens, a time when the illusion of prehistoric monsters coming to life was something very new…and exciting. After all, the scientific study of dinosaurs as we know it today had only been around since the 19th century, gaining steam during the Gilded Age. It would take a visionary like Willis “Obie” O’Brien to take his boyish enthusiasm for these long-gone creatures and figure out a way to bring them to the big screen.
To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
Skipping madly ahead of the lingering shadow of World War I, the 1920s was a time of optimism, invention, art, and ever-increasing speed. With its marvelous “modern conveniences” and improvements in nearly every aspect of living, it must’ve seemed like a veritable golden age of innovation.
Its atmosphere was also infused with whimsy and wonder. Many people had grown up with “fairy plays” and circuses, and comic strips dabbled in absurdity and surrealism. Puns and tall-tale style jokes were popular, and comedy films needn’t be logical as long as they were amusing.
Logic is never the point.
Only in this atmosphere could someone like Charley Bowers thrive–an animator (and former head of the Mutt & Jeff cartoon studio) whose oddball visions found a perfect home in cutting-edge stop motion animation. A figure only moderately known in his day and then completely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 1960s, Charley appeared in a series of live action “Whirlwind Comedies” enlivened by stop motion–which he dubbed his “Bowers Process.” My personal favorite of the surviving “novelties” is the ever-wondrous and quirky Egged On (1926). Continue reading →
If you were going to pick just one silent era stop motion short to watch–just one!–I’d happily recommend an early work by Ladislas Starevich: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Yes, you’re reading that right–from 1912! Because despite being over a century old, it showcases a timeless skill, serves as an excellent introduction to silent era stop motion, and is pretty funny, if you ask me. Plus, depending on how well you know your classic comedies, the story just might be familiar…!
The Cameraman’s Revenge was part of a series of Ladislas Starevich shorts starring insects–and, by the way, he made the puppets using actual dead insects. He’d gotten the idea while trying to film a stag beetle fight (he was an avid insect collector and reportedly worked for a natural history museum). After some failed tests with live beetles–hot studio lights didn’t put them in fightin’ moods–he decided to recreate the fight with stop motion. The method was macabre, but ingenious: he took dead stag beetles apart and preserved their shells, then pieced them back together with wire and bits of sealing wax. The finished product was, err, a flexible, all-natural, upcycled organic puppet (rebranded for any trendy types who happen to be reading).
In any artistic field–Impressionist painting, modern architecture, ballet, indie folk rock, you name it–there are always a few names more memorable than the rest, and the field of silent filmmaking is no exception. We all recognize the big names like Gance, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Griffith, and so on. But the list of who we personally find most memorable is probably pretty eclectic–my own includes folks like Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Bowers, and Karlheinz Martin (long story). To that list I’m happy to add the name of Ladislas Starevich–or Władysław Starewicz, Ladislav Starevich, Ladislaw Starewitch, or any of his other varied spellings (pick your favorite).
In photos, the somber-looking Starevich seems like he’d be home in a lab coat working on mysterious chemical experiments. You wouldn’t suspect that in reality, he created an imaginative body of work showcasing some of the most whimsical–even slightly macabre–visions in early film. An artist ahead of his time, once you’ve seen his work you won’t soon forget it.
What is the world’s oldest animated film? Or rather, knowing film history–what’s the world’s oldest surviving animated film? Many sources will point to the cartoon Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or “trick film” The Enchanted Drawing (1900), which used stop motion to make a cartoon face change expressions. But chances are you might’ve stumbled across a few sources making the case for an obscure short called Matches: An Appeal–said to have been produced in 1899.
It’s a pretty cute little film, too. Via the magic of stop motion, two small figures made of matchsticks work together to write an “appeal” asking the public to donate money to send matches to needy soldiers. To be precise, they write: “For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside. N.B. Our soldiers need them.” The stop motion is surprisingly sophisticated for its early date–perhaps a little too sophisticated.
Time to fall down a research rabbit hole! Always one of my favorite hobbies. Continue reading →
“Princess Nicotine”! Doesn’t that sound like a relic of old-timey kids’ entertainment that appears woefully inappropriate to modern audiences. Fortunately, the landmark early short Princes Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909) only slightly fits that description. (By the way, I wasn’t sure at first which fairy in the film was Princess Nicotine, but apparently, the older fairy is the Princess. The More You Know!)
This strange but charming showcase for early “trick effects” was made by J. Stuart Blackton, also the brains behind animation milestones like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and The Haunted House (1907). In a breezy five minutes we’re shown a bachelor relaxing at home, filling his pipe before growing sleepy and setting it down as he dozes off. As he snoozes, two fairies hop out of a cigar box and decide to play a prank on him. He awakens, discovers the prank, and a mischievous tit for tat ensues. (And yes, that approximately 12-year-old actress is smoking a cigarette in that one scene.) Continue reading →
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.