The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 1
The level of detail and subtlety in The Tale of the Fox (Figures 1.1 and 1.2) is outstanding, especially for the time it was made, and the story is filled with humor, action, and a great deal of well-crafted entertainment. The puppets, which Starewitch called “ciné marionettes,” were capable of fantastic facial expressions and varied greatly in size. The smallest puppets were a little more than 1 inch tall, and the Lion King was the tallest puppet in the film, standing nearly 3.5 feet. As many as 75 individual puppet characters were featured in the film, and in many scenes they shared the screen in very elaborate battle scenes, reported to have involved 273,000 different movements. This is even more impressive when considered that it took Starewitch only 18 months to complete the film (from script and scenery to shooting) and that his crew was simply his family. He worked alone with his daughter Irene, who was his lifelong collaborator, and his wife Anna and younger daughter Nina helped when necessary. This is unique considering most features take more time and people to create, even with more technology than what was available at the time. In terms of chronology, The Tale of the Fox was indeed the first fully animated puppet feature to be produced, and technically the first to be released as well, although it was delayed by several years because of technical problems with the soundtrack. Although the animation was complete by 1930, it would not be shown to audiences until 1937 in Germany and 1941 in France. In the meantime, during these delays, Starewitch continued making shorter puppet films.
Starewitch’s The Tale of the Fox finally premiered in Berlin in April 1937, now with a fully funded German soundtrack, and it was a big success. Months later, on December 2, 1937, Germany would see another stop-motion feature released called Die Sieben Raben (The Seven Ravens), made by brothers Ferdinand and Hermann Diehl. Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, it told the story of a young maiden whose brothers have been turned into ravens by a curse. The girl tries to break the spell and ends up being sentenced to burning at the stake for witchcraft. The film mostly featured human puppets, and lots of dialogue (in German, of course) was used to tell the story. The craftsmanship of the extremely realistic replacement mouths, which appear to be done in clay blended into the faces, is stunning for the time it was made. The animation and lip sync are brilliantly done and complement the acting of the puppets for a very naturalistic effect. Aside from a few minor fantasy sequences, the film is mostly simple dialogue scenes with human puppets and has a live-action feeling to the staging, even to the point of matte shots that combine live-action flames next to the puppets. However, an interesting prelude to the film shows a live actor taking a jester puppet out of a box and assembling it, before the jester comes to life through stop-motion and begins narrating the story. It was a common theme of the Diehl brothers to show the process of stop-motion in this manner, as if signaling to the audience right away that they were watching a puppet film. They also used the technique in their short films featuring Mecki the Hedgehog, who would come to life after being sculpted right on his workshop table. Because most films exist only within themselves and would not show the actual process, this was a unique approach to the puppet film. It seemed to suggest to the audience right away what they were actually watching, while at the same time creating a very realistic and believable world in miniature.
The 1940s brought very little to the screen in the format of full-length puppet features, possibly because of World War II dominating at least half the decade in many countries. Ironically the war did play a part in the first stop-motion Technicolor feature to be made in Britain, which was a training film for the Admiralty called Handling Ships in 1945. The film was made by the newly founded Halas and Batchelor studio, which was primarily making propaganda and training films at that time. Handling Ships used stop-motion animation of model ships to demonstrate their proper piloting and navigation. Although never released to theaters and not exactly a “puppet feature,” the film was a landmark for introducing a technique to a country that would become one of the leaders in stop-motion animation.
Another stop-motion feature made in the 1940s that barely had a screen release was a Belgian puppet version of The Crab with the Golden Claws, based on a comic book of the same name featuring a young reporter named Tintin, and produced by Wilfried Bouchery. The film faithfully follows the story of Tintin’s run-in with a group of drug cartels, the introduction of Captain Haddock, and a crime-fighting adventure through the Sahara Desert. The comic characters were realized as very simple puppets that appear to be made of wood or plastic with real fabric clothing; tiny paper mouth shapes appear to have been used for their dialogue. The low production values for the film are obvious—several shots are barely animated at all, with characters simply frozen into poses or sitting still in boats that were shot floating in live-action water. The editing and screen direction were equally crude, with camera angles changing and rarely cutting together properly. All the same, the film was screened to a special group of guests at Brussels’ ABC Cinema on January 11, 1947. Another public screening followed in December 1947, but then Bouchery declared bankruptcy and fled the country. The Cinematheque Royale de Belgique archived a copy of the film, and it was recently released on DVD in France.
The story behind producing the first stop-motion feature in America is particularly unique. It began in the late 1930s with a Broadway producer named Michael Myerberg, who had gained a reputation for lavish showmanship to get his projects off the ground. He had become business manager for conductor Leopold Stokowski and was responsible for getting him involved with Hollywood films, including Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Excited by the creative potential for combining music with animation, he approached puppet animator Lou Bunin to develop an incredibly ambitious animated feature. Starting in 1942, Stokowski, Myerberg, and Bunin would spend 3 years planning a feature film that would adapt Richard Wagner’s 14-hour opera The Ring of the Nibelungen into 4 hours of puppet animation. The project called for extremely elaborate puppets of gnomes, trolls, dragons, Valhalla warriors, mermaid-like creatures called “Rhinemaidens,” and several epic battle scenes. They got as far as a full operatic voice cast, storyboards, sets, several puppets built by Bunin, and a completed animation sequence. Universal was prepared to produce the project until one of its executives raised concerns over the association to Adolf Hitler’s admiration for Wagner’s music. With the country ever deeper in the war effort, the ambitious project was abandoned, and Myerberg and Bunin parted ways.
Myerberg began plans for another stop-motion feature called Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, based on the classic Aladdin tales. With his associates Peter Lanucci and Herb Schaeffer designing the armatures, Myerberg developed intricate puppets that employed magnetic feet that would adhere them to metal sets. The armatures also had a unique switch built into the limbs to help the animator lock them into position after moving them. Clay sculpting and character design by James Summers and foam latex casting by George Butler completed the puppets, which Myerberg called “Kinemans.” Myerberg, in true showman fashion, began embellishing false information for potential film distributors about how the Kinemans were manipulated by a mysterious electronic process that cost thousands of dollars, used secret formulas, and could achieve more than 800,000 human expressions.
After 6 months of work on Aladdin and signing a British actor named John Paul as director, Myerberg abandoned the project and decided to move forward with adapting the story of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which he felt was more marketable. Rather than being based solely on the original tale, it would be an English translation of the 1892 opera version written by Engelbert Humperdink. His crew set up a studio in a synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, partly because it had a balcony that allowed the directors to oversee all the sets from high above. Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (Figure 1.3) would become not only the first American stop-motion feature film, but also the first animated feature produced in New York and the first to be based on an opera. Professional Broadway and opera singers would contribute their voice talents, including Anna Russell as the evil witch Rosina Rubylips.