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Entomology and Animation: A Portrait of An Early Master Ladislaw Starewicz

Eric Schneider profiles the man who brought stop-motion animation to Russia, Ladislaw Starewicz. Utilizing puppet beetles and dragonflies, he created films which still speak to us today.

As early as 1910 a young graphic artist/entomologist, who had begun to discover the unique possibilities for expression through cinema, sat down under hot lights for many hours tediously manipulating intricate puppet figures. His name was Ladislaw Starewicz, and, in fact, his first attempt at filmmaking was with live stag beetles. The beetles, though, proved too frustrating to control: "I waited days and days to shoot a battle...But they would not fight with the lights shining on them." It took the death of one beetle, under such stress, before Starewicz tried a different approach: "I [created] trick animals...I liked molding them so much that I continued." And he continued until his death in 1965 to produce his distinctive brand of stop-motion puppet animation, along with about fifty live-action films.

Ladislav Starewicz.

Until the 1980s it had seemed that Starewicz was merely a legend to be spoken of, but whose work was never seen. Here in America he was barely even known. His work was first revived at the 1980 Ottawa Animation Festival, but thanks to Jayne Pilling, animator and regional program adviser at the British Film Institute, Starewicz's work received a major rediscovery in 1983 at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Pilling notes, "Recent archival work has enabled a rediscovery, to delight and astonish those privileged to witness a body of work that had hitherto been purely legendary. Bizarre, witty, inventive and often startlingly surreal...Starewicz's films defy conventional expectations of animation." Since then, many of his films have undergone restoration, and have been showcased at various animation festivals around the world. A handful are finally available on videotape.

Becoming A Filmmaker Ladislaw Starewicz was born in Moscow in 1882 to expatriate Polish-Lithuanian parents. He wasn't too fond of formal schooling, but exhibited early graphic ability, as well as a fascination with insects.

While going to art school, and working as a bookkeeper in Vilna, Poland, he was discovered by Moscow producer Aleksandr Khanzhonkov in one of the following two ways (or both?). One account says that Starewicz was looking for funding to make documentary films about the Kaunas region, which eventually led him to Khanzhonkov. Another more detailed account tells of Starewicz's winning first prize three years in a row for the most original costume in Vilna's annual Christmas masquerade. Intrigued by this, as well as his success in art school, and the huge collection of butterflies and insects, Khanzhonkov made inquiries to find out more about him. Upon hearing from the Khanzhonkov studio Starewicz immediately departed to Moscow ready for any type of arts related work.

Once in the studio he instantly took to motion picture photography, and, having no prior experience mastered the tricks of the trade. The Khanzhonkov studio proved to be the perfect place for Starewicz to grow, and, while working regularly as a cameraman and designer, he began to think of ways to combine his entomology and filmmaking interests.

After his misfortune with live beetles, The Beautiful Leukanida (1911) became the first result of his experiments with puppet beetles, and the film that introduced Russia to stop-motion animation. Starewicz did not invent stop-motion animation. It had been utilized in America about as early as the motion picture camera was invented, and Emil Cohl began employing this technique around 1905-07 in France. Starewicz, though, was unique in that he lent personal experience to an art form, which was primarily perceived as simple-minded and comical. He dabbled in drawn animation as well, and established himself as a competent director and storyteller in the live-action medium. However, it was his puppet animation in which he excelled, and brought recognition to the Khanzhonkov studio within Russia and worldwide.

The Dragonfly and the Ant (1912-13) was particularly popular with audiences, especially the Tsar. Taken from a Krylov fable this is the story of an insouciant Dragonfly and a diligent Ant. Their common trait: both are inflexible.

The Ant is gathering wood and making preparations for the coming winter, while the Dragonfly gossips with a beetle friend, frolics in the meadows, plays her fiddle and sings the summer away. The Ant repeatedly asks for the Dragonfly's help, but to no avail. Concerned only with her present state of carefree happiness, the Dragonfly is indifferent to the future. Nearing the completion of his cabin the Ant asks the Dragonfly one final time for help. The Dragonfly sees nothing to be concerned about. Soon, however, the wind becomes chill, the leaves gather in piles, and the Dragonfly puts down her fiddle. She is cold and hungry, so she knocks on the Ant's door. He won't grant her his hospitality, and slams the door in her face. She asks again and again, but he doesn't change his mind. The Dragonfly is left alone in the graying wilderness with only her thoughts.

A scene from the Tsars favorite The Dragonfly and the Ant. Courtesy of Films by Jove.

The saddest tales are always the most poignant, because it is in sadness that we learn our hardest lessons. Starewicz makes this point clearly and elegantly, illustrating his sharp observation of behavior. His insects' nimble gestures lead one through an array of human emotions, and to a heightened sense of sympathy and forgiveness. This may be why his insects and animals are so easy to relate to, and why they are so notably Eastern European. (For example, Mr. Beetle, who is mentioned below in The Cameraman's Revenge, is perhaps the quintessential Russian husband; hot tempered but quick to forgive, and even a little simple minded. No offense Ruskies!) The Tsar enjoyed Dragonfly so much that he awarded Starewicz with a gift, which in turn drew favor toward the Khanzhonkov studio.

Most of Starewicz's adaptations are rooted in Eastern European folktale tradition, and his fervent characters and effectual storytelling strongly reflect this heritage. An excellent example of this genre, but with a modern twist, is The Cameraman's Revenge (1912). This is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle whose home life is rather dull. In search of spontaneity and change, each one cheats on the other. Mr. Beetle meets the beautiful Dragonfly, and heartlessly steals her away from her lover Mr. Grasshopper. The Grasshopper, being a cameraman, begins his plot of revenge by filming Mr. Beetle's affair with the Dragonfly. Before this revenge unfolds, however, Mr. Beetle happens to catch his wife at home with another insect, the artist. The irascible hypocrite that he is, Mr. Beetle throws a fit, smashes things in the house and gets rough with Mrs. Beetle. Eventually he forgives her, and takes her to a movie. Unbeknownst to him the projectionist at the theater is Mr. Grasshopper, who runs the footage he shot of Mr. Beetle and Miss Dragonfly having their fling. The cheering, insect audience loves this spontaneous slice of life, but Mrs. Beetle has other thoughts and chases her husband straight through the movie screen and out of the theater. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle humbly return home content with their old lifestyle.

This simple, common story of betrayal and jealousy is made tangible by insects whose wit and humor we admire, and outcome we care about. Starewicz was acutely aware of strong audience response to situations set within very personal social contexts. The fact that he uses insects in such settings adds a dose of humor, and makes the subject matter easier to reflect upon. Whether or not a problem is solved within a film's time frame there is always growth and change. In Cameraman it is especially gratifying to see scenes from the beginning of the film later reappear projected onto a movie screen in the insect theater. We are brought back to the beginning, but with a new result.

Mr. Beetle catches his wife in the act of adultery. Courtesy of Films by Jove.

The War Years By 1915 Starewicz had more than a handful of films under his belt, and at the outbreak of war a year earlier had begun producing propaganda films commissioned by Russia's Skobelev Committee. One of the most poetic of these projects is The Lily of Belgium released 1916 (?) (a.k.a., The Suffering and Resurrection of Belgium, or An Allegory of Today; most of his films had numerous titles). Combining both live-action and animation (not in a single shot, but rather juxtaposed shots), Starewicz attacks Germany's invasion of Belgium through a stark allegory that is both dark and hopeful:

After picking flowers and delivering them to her grandfather, a little girl inquires of the mysteries of nature. Her portly, sagacious granddad cheerfully acquaints her with an enchanting lily.

We dissolve into a realm of insects and animals where the lily is honored as a personification of springtime joy. Insects fly and dance around her petals during the day, and frogs sing her praises in the evening. A clan of beetles, however, isn't too delighted with their place in the insect kingdom. Feeling alienated from the rest, they decide that they deserve to occupy more land. They form an army and move against their neighbors, ravaging the land as they march. Approaching the river that borders the last territory to be conquered, the beetles encounter the lily. Standing tall and proud the lily refuses to make way for the beetles. They repeat their order for her to withdraw. She does not budge. The beetles forge ahead, plowing through the lily and laying waste to the rest of the land. In the process, though, the land becomes a desert, and consequently uninhabitable for the beetles. Nonetheless, when spring returns the lily is reborn, and the land begins to rejuvenate.

Starewicz's symbolism is quite specific in this film, yet he leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation within themes that reflect the cycles of joy and sadness, peace and war, and life and death. Even at this relatively early stage in his career one can make out a developed point-of-view and style: common characters making consequential decisions to affect the outcome of personal and/or social hardship.

Re-Occuring Themes While thoughtful in his political musings, Starewicz could just as easily return to his childhood innocence and render parables in a purely playful fashion. The Insects' Christmas (1913) and Winter Carousel (1958) suspended his memories on film in timeless, glossy reflection, framing his career with passionate, youthful nostalgia.

In the former we are presented with an idyllic vision of the Christmas season. Father Christmas, a Christmas tree ornament, gathers together all the creatures of the forest to celebrate the holiday. One by one they join the festivities: Ladybug, Miss Dragonfly, Mr. Frog and Beetles too. They dance joyously, ice skate and build a monumental Christmas tree, of which toy dolls also join in to help. Eventually gifts are exchanged and Father Christmas bids them goodnight.

Not necessarily intending to build a story from his memories, he simply preserved a mood and a perception of a time when community and friendship weren't taken for granted, sharing was commonplace and surprises were always a celebrated, magical event.

The latter film, Winter Carousel, produced seven years before his death, is the reprise to The Insects' Christmas. It basically reiterates the same sentiments, but with a much more refined animation style. Years of work give a practiced precision to the dances, gestures and expressions that his animals convey in this later period. Insects are few, with more dynamic puppet animals and a snowman taking center stage. (I suspect the lack of insects has to do with the technical progression of animation techniques. Stop-motion puppetry had become extremely articulate -- Harryhausen models being the prime example -- and it was now easy for puppets to speak with a simple glance or twitch of the mouth. These nuances didn't lend themselves as well to the types of insect puppets he built.) The animals -- a rabbit, bear and lamb -- play hide and seek, parade in the snow, spin on an ice carousel and dance with glee (happy-happy, joy-joy). Spring arrives and the Snowman melts, but nature is in bloom, and squirrels and birds join in on the fun. Soon they all dance to the musical stylings of a grasshopper and his fiddle. The purity and freshness of this fantasyland fuels their elated state of happiness... Okay, it's not this sappy, but the levity of this project was made to balance the gravity of others.

Starewicz brought to his work a balance of life's complexities. He understood that good and bad walk hand in hand, and not without subtlety. If one film portrayed darkness, another must deliver light. No matter the subject, he could provide equilibrium between the reality of harsh situations, and the delight of carefree moments. Often his films encompassed both ends of the spectrum in a single fable. This becomes more evident in later films (such as The Mascot) that he produced after his moveto Paris, where the environment allowed for much greater artistic freedom than the new Communist regime.

Leaving Russia

It was around 1918 that he left Russia, and spent some time in Yalta, and then Italy before settling in Paris within the Russian emigrant community. He employedhimself as a cameraman, and in 1920 founded a small animation studio in Fontenay-sous-Bois. There he remained, and continued with his art, while earning a living making advertising and publicity films.

The Parisian atmosphere was nurturingand supportive. Starewicz often produced two or more films a year; his work growing in scope and content, and drawing heavily from children's literature. One can see how certain stories and characters are universally influential. Film titles such as The Scarecrow (1921), Frogland (a.k.a. The Frogs Who Wanted A King, 1922), The Voice of the Nightingale (1923), The Town Rat and The Country Rat (1926) and The Tale of the Fox (his first and only feature-lengthanimated film produced throughout the 1930s) each invoke memories of such popular children's books as Motorcycle Mouse, The Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte's Web and the Frog and Toad series. The witty, spirited animals in these films and books are endearing, because we are given an opportunity to see them grow and to learn with them.

The Voice of the Nightingale is probably my favorite of Starewicz's work. The Nightingale is a legendary figure in storybook history, known for its mellifluous night songs that influence the dreams of children.

In this lyrical tale, a younggirl discovers a Nightingale accidentally trapped in a cage meant for a mouse. The overjoyed girl decides to keep the Nightingale as a pet and puts it in a birdcage to hang beside her bedroom window. Later, while the girl is asleep, the Nightingale's melodies resonate within her dreams, and it is here in the land of Morpheus that its songs are translated. The first dream is a heroic, fairyland tale where Tinkerbell-sized people live within the Kingdom of Flowers. One particular fairy gets caught in a spider's web, and another must fight the gigantic spider to save her. The second anecdotal dream is a personal account of the Nightingale's own tale of woe.

The Nightingale, we discover, has recently exchanged vows with his mate in a beautiful woodland ceremony. Not long after, a baby bird arrives, and the spring days and nights were theirs to share. One day, while looking for wormsfor her baby, the mother bird stops to chat with a grasshopper who points out a worm in a tree. Sitting in the tree she becomes the target for a boy and his bow and arrow. The arrow only grazes her, but she falls from the tree injured. Back at the nest the father Nightingale is worried, for his wife has not returned. He must leave the baby momentarily to search for his mate. The baby cries, "I am so hungry. Who will feed me?" (Starewicz was an expert at eliciting sympathy from his audience.) The father checks the place where he and his wifewere married. She is not there. He bumps into the grasshopper, who doesn't know where she is, and he eventually comes upon the gardenwhere he is snared in the deceitful trap.

The girl wakes up sad, understanding that animals are not playthings, and decides to free the Nightingale. Upon returning to his nest he finds his wife and child safe and sound, and as a reward to the little girl for her kindness lends her the gift of song.

Fables of Relevance Starewicz wanted his films to appeal to children most of all, and kept the depth of his subject matter simple. In the case of the Nightingale the moral is just as is stated: Animals are creatures with emotions and behavior not unlike humans, and they should be treated with respect. Like poetry, though, this film has many shades of meaning. The bird, for example, is a messenger -- perhaps a divine presence taking on an animal form -- disseminating universal lessons. Its entrapment was its destiny, in order that a young girl could benefit from its life experience. The story is also an excellent example of how spontaneous events, especially unfortunate ones, can lead one on a pathway to greater good; out of suffering comes knowledge and truth.

The aspect of dream, of course, plays a big part in the shaping of the little girl's mind. Like a Shaman receiving prophetic visions, the girl understands the importance of the gift that is being sent to her, though on a much more modest scale. In a way, the Nightingale is the personification of all that it displays: truth, love, knowledge and respect -- a moral outline perhaps of Starewicz's most basic principles. It matters little if all this was in Starewicz's head when he made Nightingale. Intricate weaves of meaning are always inherent in any great artist's work, forming a complete, singular design.

In the farcical politics of The Frogs Who Wanted a King (1922), irony once again makes its voice heard. This film is not so much a critique, but a mocking of the fickleness of societies. It reveals that Starewicz's strengths comprise humor as well as profundity:

In the Frogland Commonwealth things were going pretty well until a whimsical assembly of Wise Croakers got together and proclaimed: "Fellow Croakers! Our democratic formof government is all wet. Let us beseech Jupiter to send us a king!" (Could these be Luddite extremists trying to revert instantaneously to an ancient way of life?) The pompous, inconvenienced Jupiter looks down mightily from his cotton clouds at the foolish frogs, and reluctantly grants their wish. With a flash of lightening the frogs are honoredwith -- the Tree King!, who does nothing but sit. The frogs pleadagain: "Out upon him! He is but a blockhead!...Instead of a King thou sendest us presidential timber!" Jupiter, who could snuff them outwith one shot of lightening, replies: "These frogs know not when they are well off. They are almost human!" He complies, though, once more, and sends a stork this time. "Long live King Stork!," chant the frogs, until, unfortunately, they find out that King Stork has a taste for frog. Jupiter does not help this time, leaving one croaker to pithily proclaim:

"Dear friends, before I make my slide Into this greedy stork's inside, Give ear unto my parting Moan -- Moral: Let well enough alone."

Succinct and to the point. Just the way Starewicz liked it. This film seems to have a sort of homemade blend of storytelling influences. Partisan politics and Greek mythology mix together in a folktale format. It is a unique approach that effectuallybrings together separate generational points of view, perhaps like Homer speaking with Hemingway. As he did with Nightingale, Starewicz has made a story that finds its heart in a child's point of view, and yet maintains its underlying multitudinous design.

I am fascinated with how Starewicz's stories approach traditional myth, and yet, being very grounded in everyday life, also speak of the joys, hardships and neglected truths of present day rural and urban existence. He blends modern events with legendary fairytales, elevating ordinary, modern characters to a generational platform, and grounding personified figures with temperaments that are so believably contemporary. In Nightingale, the bird is no less than human, representing qualities that affect us all. It is no different with the frogs from the Frogland Commonwealth, or the dragonfly who ignored the ant. These historical caricatures could be our next door neighbors, the government under which we live, or ourselves.

The Mascot could be a forerunner to Toy Story. © Disney/Pixar.

Within the delivery truck, on their way to the store, the dolls congregate inside their box. One particularly stealthy, street-wise doll decides that he's going to cut his way out of the box, and produces a long knife from under his coat. He cuts a hole, which leads directly to the outside of the truck, and leaps out. The other dolls hesitate, but soon follow, except for the puppy doll. He completes his journey to the toy store where he is bought, and while perched inside his new owner's car accidentally gets bumped out the window. Out on the urban street he is at first disoriented and frightened by the hustle and bustle. Soon, though, he makes his way to a fruit stand, and takes the opportunity to attain an orange for the little girl. He gets it, and begins to make his way back to the dollmaker's house.

This is where the story gets muddled and out of pace, but what it lacks in structure it makes up for in style. A homeless drunk who tosses his liquor bottle into an alley introduces the night to us. The dark puddle of spilled alcohol mutates into a caricature of the devil, laughing and scheming. This transformation sets the tone for the rest of the night, as creatures of darkness begin to lurk and create mischief. The puppy doll, unfortunately, finds himself caught in the middle of this mayhem. He soon meets up with the dolls he had traveled with, though now they've been seduced by the machinations of the devil and take part in the mischief.

Eventually, the puppy doll escapes the turmoil and finds his way back to the doll maker's house, where he tosses pieces of orange into the surprised girl's mouth.

Even though The Mascot loses its focus, it isn't difficult to discern where its heart lies: in the simple theme of a search for goodness and generosity in the modern world. It seems that Starewicz may have lost sight momentarily of the age-old aphorism "less is more." He knew it well in his previous films, but perhaps for a brief period got caught up in the technical advances of his profession. Nonetheless, this film still displays his flare for building characters through subtle behavior, as well as the ease with which he can move these characters between fear and courage, surprise and familiarity, carelessness and responsibility, and through the decisions they must make to change their situations for better or worse.

The cinematic path that Starewicz began, though a refined one, has progressed throughout the century with the talent of such filmmaker/artists as George Pal, Jiri Trnka, Ray Harryhausen, Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Nick Park, Peter Lord, Henry Selick and a handful of others. Thanks to them, as well as historians and preservationists, the legacy of Starewicz can be remembered and appreciated. These days most people will associate the word animation with Disney or 3D computer graphics, but it is to everyone's benefit to be aware of the impact and inspiration that lesser known animators, especially the pioneers, have had on the art of animation and filmmaking. Everything seen on the silver screen today has its antecedent, and recognition of that strengthens the convictions of new artists to build upon that tradition.

Eric Schneider is a freelance artist in the animation industry. He has produced short animated films, one of which screened in Spike and Mikes Sick and Twisted Animation Festival and another that is currently being presented at Previously, he served as Co-Editor of Kabinet, a grassroots film commentary magazine that was a perfect vehicle for him to discuss his "particular love for unknown, eclectic and misconstrued animated film." He holds a B.F.A. from N.Y.U. in Film.