If you think Walt Disney was the first person to create a feature length animated film you’re wrong. The first person to do it was a woman – Lotte Reiniger. See more about how her silhouette stop motion worked.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed. 1926. German. The oldest surviving animated film in history.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (German: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) is a 1926 German animated fairytale film by Lotte Reiniger. It is the oldest surviving animated feature film; two earlier ones were made in Argentina by Quirino Cristiani, but they are considered lost.The Adventures of Prince Achmed features a silhouette animation technique Reiniger had invented which involved manipulated cutouts made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera. The technique she used for the camera is similar to Wayang shadow puppets, though hers were animated frame by frame, not manipulated in live action. The original prints featured color tinting.
A few of my friends have recently gotten into animation! But there’s so much dreck in the animated world that it’s difficult to know what to watch. With that in mind I put together a quick guide of some of my favorite non-Pixar animated movies. Maybe you’ll like it too?
Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997)
Let’s start with the obvious: Studio Ghibli. Since the late 70s director Hayao Miyazaki has created gorgeous animated movies with an incredible eye for action and detail. Miyazaki’s movies often depict the struggle to remain pacifist in war-torn worlds. Such is the case in Princess Mononoke, where a young prince of a dying people is caught up in a war between the engines of progress and the forces of nature.
While Ghibli is considered an arthouse studio in the USA in Japan it’s known as a broad-appeal blockbuster maker. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke means “monster” btw) was Ghibli’s first mainstream overseas hit, and actually sparked a very brief infatuation with anime cinema in the US (which was destroyed within months by X: The Movie).
Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Celestine, 2012)
France has an amazing animation industry that, unfortunately, is largely ignored in the US. A handful of French animated films, primarily the films of Sylvain Chomet, have a small following stateside, but far more go ignored. It’s really to our detriment, as France makes some gorgeous movies.
Ernest & Celestine is the story of an unlikely friendship blossoming between two very different people. The animation style is especially striking, every frame of Ernest & Celestine looks like a beautiful watercolor out of a children’s book.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, 1926)
Aww yiss, let’s get cultured all up in this bitch! The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving (possibly first!) feature-length animated movie, and it’s good! A retelling of several of the stories in 1001 Arabian Nights, the most striking thing about APA is its distinctive silhouette style, done entirely by hand.
The movie was written, directed, and painstakingly animated over 3 years by Lotte Reineger (a straight-up pioneer-innovator in animation), and features a gorgeous accompanying score by Wolfgang Zeller (remember, this was the silent movie era). You will be stunned when you see the level of expression and communication Reineger gets out of paper cut-outs.
Mary and Max (2009)
Ernest & Celestine’s gloomier, more depressing cousin, Mary and Max also depicts the blossoming of an unlikely friendship, this time between an awkward little Australian girl and an obese autistic American man. The humor is black, the movie gets bleak, and the ending will make you smile through your tears.
It’s also entirely done with claymation, contrasting lumpy, exaggerated human figures with intricate sets. Almost like a Tim Burton movie, only much better.
Akira! Everybody knows about Akira, it was one of the three anime movies that were advertised by those sketchy mail-order businesses in the 90s. What you might not know about Akira is that it’s better known for its visual innovations than its story (which, with the exception of a few iconic scenes, is actually very slow and dull). Come for the gorgeous visuals, some of which we now take for granted, and feel free to pause when it gets boring.
Oh! The story: A delinquent biker gang becomes entangled in a dangerous military operation, and in the process brings about the end of the world. It’s the last days of a dystopian future, and it doesn’t end well for anyone.
Have you ever seen a photo from pre-revolution Iran? You might mistake it for America, with all the giant lapels and floppy hairstyles. While Persepolis is technically the autobiography of Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi, it also tells the story of the Iranian cultural revolution. See it through the eyes of someone who grew up with it, and slowly saw her rights eroded as her government devolved into a theocracy.
Equal parts funny, sad, wince-inducing, and inspiring (the way every honest biopic should be).
Porco Rosso (Kurenai no buta, 1992)
You didn’t think you were getting away with just one Ghibli movie, did you? Porco Rosso is one of the lesser-known but no less stunning Studio Ghibli films, having the bad luck to premiere in the early 90s (after the big anime boom of the 80s, but before its resurgence in the late 90s).
Smaller in scope than your average Ghibli film, the world doesn’t hang in the balance in Porco Rosso. Instead you get to see an often forgotten place and time, the Adriatic Sea between WWI and WWII, a region that briefly became notorious for its abundance of aircraft and veteran pilots.
The titular Porco is one of the more notorious WWI flying aces now working on the adrianic, cursed with a pig-form as penance for his role in the war. While Porco is content to live out the rest of his life in obscurity the world around him conspires to shove him into the limelight.
A frequent joke during the film’s release was that Porco Rosso was an excuse for director Miyazaki to display a lot of his intricate aircraft designs, one of his passions. You can really tell, PR has some of the most gorgeous aircraft ever shown on screen.
Watership Down (1978)
Something was in the water in Britain in the late-70s. Something that made for incredibly dark, unsettling cartoons. The animated Lord of the Rings is just the tip of the iceberg, let’s talk about one of the scariest animated movies of all time: Watership Down.
Based on the acclaimed book of the same name, Watership Down is about bunnies… and their terrifying, brutal lives as they desperately seek refuge from human encroachment. Do not approach WD lightly, it gave an entire generation of children nightmares.
Stripped of its artifice Watership Down is a fascinating look at what happens when a primitive culture encounters an more advanced one, with equal parts heart-rending realism and fascinating mysticism.
Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Almost as if they were making up for the 70s, the 90s featured a lot of charming and hilarious British cartoons. At the top of the pile, the inimitable Wallace and Gromit.
This is the one with the criminal penguin. You know the one. It’s fantastic.
Claymation as a medium has always had a hard time breaking into the mainstream. It was the original bearer of the uncanny valley burden, and unfortunately the simplicity and flexibility of design required to animate a figure (at this time, at least) made for very exaggerated, often ugly character designs. What makes Wallace & Gromit so special is creator Nick Park’s ability to hurdle both of these problems and really define his creations as a cute, charming cartoon.
The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa, 2013)
If it seems like there’s a lot of anime on this list, it’s because Japan is one of countries where animation has been a respected medium for decades. Collectively they’ve got a huge body of work to draw from.
My personal favorite movie by Makoto Shinkai, the Garden of Words is about two people finding comfort and refuge from the wider world with each other, in an ephemeral and gorgeously-rendered setting. Shinkai writes stories about people falling in love and then realizing they can never be together, so prepare your body (for tears).
There’s a healthy dose of melodrama to this movie, but it doesn’t take away from the gorgeous visuals and the tone this movie sets. You can almost smell the ozone.
Take a Magic Carpet Ride with Prince Achmed by Susan Doll
I confess I am tired of the look and tone of computer-generated animated features, which are dominated by simplistic narratives aimed at children. I have seen computer animation by senior students at Ringling College of Art & Design that is stylish and creative as well as serious in tone and content, so it is possible for this type of animation to be more challenging than the latest releases from Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks. But, kids and their parents are accustomed to the Pixar style and associate it with contemporary commercial animation, so the formula remains unchanged and unchallenged.
If you are interested in animation that is an alternative to the norm, then I suggest you start with THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Lotte Reiniger used the lost art of silhouette animation to depict the story of the title character, a prince from an exotic land who is tricked and manipulated by a sorcerer. The stories were based on The Arabian Nights, specifically “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou.” The narrative begins as Achmed is whisked away on a magical horse to an enchanted island where he falls in love with a princess. The sorcerer interrupts Achmed’s happiness by kidnapping the princess and carrying her off to China. In true fairy-tale fashion, the Prince pursues his beloved to the ends of the earth.
The magical atmosphere is enhanced by the use of silhouette animation, in which the characters were rendered as articulated cut-outs reinforced with tin. The figures, which are black like silhouettes, were tied at the joints by wire or thread so their limbs could move and change positions. The arms and legs were moved only a fraction at a time by assistants while Reiniger shot each change in movement one frame at a time. It took Reiniger and her associates three years to shoot and complete PRINCE ACHMED. The original release included color tinting in which vivid backgrounds behind the black silhouettes created a rich effect.
For many years, Disney enthusiasts touted SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (‘37) as the first animated feature, but, PRINCE ACHMED, which is 65 minutes in length, preceded it by a decade. Reportedly, at least two feature-length cartoons were produced in Argentina even earlier, but PRINCE ACHMED is likely the oldest existing animated feature. SNOW WHITE has also been credited as the first cartoon to be created with a multi-plane camera, but PRINCE ACHMED was also made with a version of the multi-level animation stand. Reiniger was assisted by Walter Ruttmann, who is better known for his work in experimental filmmaking, and Berthold Bartosch, who experimented in animation. Ruttmann created special effects on one plane of the stand, such as the grotesque transformations in a scene where monsters battle, while Bartosch animated the waves in the sea or the stars in the sky on another level and Reiniger manipulated her silhouetted figures on a third level. As such, THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED represents a unique collaboration by some of the biggest names in avant-garde cinema.
Unfortunately, avant-garde film has always lacked the organized distribution and exhibition systems of commercial narrative filmmaking. Haphazard distribution and scattered screenings limited PRINCE ACHMED’s exposure to specialized audiences. However, Reiniger’s little film did have a knack for attracting friends in high places. PRINCE ACHMED debuted in a theater in Berlin. Legendary playwright and director Berthold Brecht arranged for the press and members of Berlin’s thriving art scene to attend. The film also opened in Paris, where it ran for six months at Louis Jouvet’s Champs-Élysées Theatre. French directors Jean Renoir and René Clair saw PRINCE ACHMED during its run at Jouvet’s theater. Renoir lauded the film for its imagination and because it exhibited “a spirit and grace … a fine feeling for detail…”
I envy Reiniger and the artistic circles she travelled in. She experienced firsthand two of the 20th century’s most significant eras in art and cinema, German Expressionism and the Lost Generation of Paris. She was mentored by Expressionist theater director and filmmaker Paul Wegener for whom she created her first animated work. In 1918, Reiniger constructed the wooden rats for Wegener’s version of THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN and was also allowed to animate the film’s intertitles. With the success of PRINCE ACHMED in the mid-1920s, she cultivated friendships with Renoir and other artists and filmmakers living la vie bohème in Paris.
Experimental films are not part of an organized industry that might support their care and upkeep, so their preservation has been spotty. Over the decades, all original prints of the German version of PRINCE ACHMED were lost. Fortunately, during the late 1990s, British and German archivists restored the film using nitrate prints from later decades, even recreating its original color tinting. Poetic, enchanting and colorful, THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED is as timeless as its source material.
We were sitting in the writers room breaking the story for The Answer. The story became more and more fairytale like, and I recall Rebecca coming up with the idea that the episode could look like a story book. I did these quick roughs in marker which eventually became the foundation for the look of “The Answer”. I did these on the spot while we were still figuring out the story, so the events in these drawings don’t specifically line up to anything in the final… but I guess some of the concepts ended up getting used.
After seeing them, Rebecca brought up the works of Lotte Reineger, the german animator. This fit perfectly, we had both studied The Adventures of Prince Achmed and her other films in college and Lotte Reineger is a huge inspiration. Not only are her films hauntingly beautiful, she created the first ever animated feature film and the first multi-plane camera way before Walt Disney did. She’s an unsung animation pioneer.
I originally thought the whole thing would be in silhouette but we allowed the main characters to have interior detail with limited palettes. I love limited palettes!!! Rebecca oversaw the resulting design process with our art director Jasmin Lai and I really think it came together great. In the final episode, the Shadow Puppet section is boarded by Lamar Abrams and he completely made the whole thing work which was not an easy feat. There’s some really inventive stuff in there.
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film. It features a silhouette animation technique Reiniger had invented, which involved manipulated cutouts made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera.
The story is based on elements taken from the One Thousand and One Nights. Prince Achmed is swept away by a flying horse, the doing of a magician who wants to marry Achmed’s sister. Achmed finds and falls in love with Peri Banu, and must rescue her and return home. Along the way, he meets Aladdin, and with the help of a witch, they defeat the evil magician.
Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger was the foremost pioneer of silhouette animation, and made over 40 films over her career, all using her invention. She fled Nazi Germany with her husband, Carl Koch (he worked on her films as well), and somehow managed to make 12 films between 1933-1944. She died in 1981, at the age of 82.
Although the film failed to find a distributor for almost a year, once premiered in Paris (thanks to the support of Jean Renoir), it became a critical and popular success.”
The full film is available on Vimeo, but with a different soundtrack. As it’s a silent film, there’s written dialogue, and it’s in German.