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.
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.
For you, who are the most remarkable women film directors at the 30s decade?
Great question! There weren’t a lot of women directing in the 1930s and it’s important to look at the historical context to see why. In the 30s American Hollywood was a powerhouse and Germany had the biggest production resources in all of Europe. And what was happening during this time? The Great Depression and the rise of fascism. So the women who had managed to make inroads and become directors in the 1920s (and yes, they actually existed in greater numbers than their 30s counterparts) were mostly pushed out of the director’s chair into jobs like screenwriting and editing which were considered women’s work.
Probably the most famous woman to be directing in the 1930s was Leni Riefenstahl who I don’t talk about much on this blog because the films she made were Nazi propaganda for Hitler. She’s not someone whose films are really watched outside of a scholarly context (I’ve never seen them and I don’t want to either). However her films are still taught in cinema schools, with proper historical context, because two of her films, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia, are considered among the greatest films of all time, not because of their content, but because Riefenstahl pioneered many inventive camera techniques and the films themselves have influenced many classic films (including the original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Great Dictator). There are some pretty interesting articles on her and herfilms on Wikipedia if you want to know more.
There is alsoLotte Reiniger, another German. She’s best known for her 1926 masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the oldest surviving animated feature film) and she specialized in elaborate handcut cardboard figures that she painstakingly photographed to give them the appearance of movement. Reiniger and her husband were liberal politically and with the rise of fascism they fled Germany and spent most of the 30s in exile running illegally from country to country in Europe since they couldn’t obtain permanent visas. What’s most remarkable is that Reiniger continued to work very consistently during this time. You can find some of her 1930s shorts on youtube.
Leontine Sagan was a Jewish-Austrian theatre director who is notable for her 1931 debut Girls in Uniform, which is considered a classic of LGBT cinema and one of the earliest films depicting lesbians. It was banned under Nazi rule and by U.S. censorship but I’m happy to say it is now available to watch and is truly an incredible film, especially given the historical context of what was to come. Sagan managed to flee to England where she made another film that is now lost.
And finally on the Hollywood side of things there is Dorothy Arzner. Incredibly Arzner was the ONLY woman working as a director in Hollywood for the entirety of the 1930s. She had an incredible career that remains unmatched by any woman to this day. She worked as a director in three consecutive decades (20s, 30s, 40s), she invented the boom mic during the filming of her first “talkie” 1929′s The Wild Party. She worked entirely within the studio system making a total of 17 films where she is credited as a director (and no woman since has come close to making this many studio films). She worked with major Hollywood superstars like Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow. She was a lesbian who allegedly had an affair with Billie Burke (that’s Glinda the Good Witch) and once she retired from filmmaking she became a teacher who was a mentor to Francis Ford Coppola.
I find all four of these women remarkable, even the morally repugnant Reifenstahl, for the contributions they made to cinema and the fact that their movies have endured for so long.
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.
Thursday’s Google Doodle is a short, wordless animated tribute to the one of the first female trailblazers in film, Lotte Reiniger. Born 117 years ago June 2, Reiniger’s animations were laborious works of art, consisting of hand-cut pieces of card and air. Watch Google’s tribute and her original work.
Reiniger was a German director and animator who specialized in silhouette animation.
At a very early age Reiniger was fascinated with movies and with Japanese silhouette art. Enrolling in an acting school taught by actor/director Paul Wegener she quickly caught his eye with her silhouetted figures and he commissioned her to make the opening titles of his 1918 film The Pied Piper of Hamelin. She enrolled in the Institute for Cultural Research shortly after and began making short films by making elaborate cardboard figures and scenes and then photographing them so that when played together they formed a moving image.
In 1926 she directed the earliest surviving feature length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
By 1933 Reiniger and her husband Carl Koch left Germany due to the rise of the Nazi party and began living in exile around Europe. Unable to find a country willing to grant them permanent status they were temporarily sheltered by Jean Renoir in France and Luchino Visconti in Italy. They finally returned to Berlin after the end of WWII.
Reiniger is credited as director on at least 55 films. She continued making shorts and features until 1980.
Among her other accomplishments is creating the logo for the National Deaf Children’s Society in the UK and contributing illustrations to Roger Lancelyn Green’s children’s book King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.
“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.
Really really honored to have done the Google Doodle today for one of my animation heroes Lotte Reiniger! She made the oldest surviving feature length animation, and created the predecessor to the multiplane camera, predating disney. Her films still hold up as extremely beautiful and witty fairy tales.
I’m really thankful to my team, who trusted me when I said I was going to build my own rig and puppets and film a 90 second short in a few months.
The evil step-sister fools the Prince by hacking off part of her foot to fit the slipper. (A scene left out of a lot of tellings). He gets halfway back to the castle with her before the birds come and tell him he’s been tricked and the real Cinderella has been locked in the cellar. He goes back to find her.
The amazing animated paper cut films by Lotte Reiniger
90 years ago, in 1926, the first animated feature film appeard in the cinemas preceding Walt Disney’s Snow White by more than a decade. It was Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Ahmed) by Lotte Reiniger, employing motifs from One Thousand and One Nights. She used figures cut out of black cardboard placed on a translucent glass plate and had gathered experience with this technique called silhouette animation making short films since 1918. Numerous fairy tales were filmed that way, including Aschenputtel (Cinderella) from 1922.
Lotte Reiniger left Germany after the Nazis came to power, traveling through the world as long as countries allowed her to stay. During a stay in Italy in 1935, she managed to film a beautiful rendition of the adventures of Papageno, the main character of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Reiniger’s most prosperous time was in the early 1950s when she lived with her husband in London. Although she never acquired funding to produce feature films, she was able to render, amongst others, the fairy tales Thumbelina, Puss in Boots, and Hansel and Gretel.
In 1955, her first colour film came out, featuring the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Only three more films appeared until she died in 1981, partially owed to the death of her essential co-worker and husband Carl Koch. She focused on producing still paper cut scenes from Mozarts’s operas.
Lotter Reiniger died in 1981, two years after moving back to Germany.