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

by Eric Schneider

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.

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