The first stop-motion animated films were more than a mere curiosity. Wladislaw Starewicz’s animated insect-puppets set the bar so high for technical mastery and charm that they continue to capture the imagination of artists today.
Starewicz, a Polish photographer and entomologist, was born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882, raised in Lithuania, and moved back to Moscow in 1911 to work for one of Russia’s first great film producers, Alexander Khanzhonkov. There he used wire and wax to make real beetles, dragonflies, and grasshoppers the actors in his comedies and dramas.
In The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), one of his early masterpieces, the bugs enact a comic melodrama in meticulously detailed miniature sets. We meet a beetle couple, Mr. and Mrs. Zhukov (zhuk means beetle in Russian), both of whom are carrying on extramarital affairs. Zhukov wins the affections of a dragonfly cabaret dancer, but flies into a rage when he comes home to discover his wife in the “arms” of an artist (also played by a beetle).
Later, the reconciled Zhukovs go off to the cinema, only to discover that the cameraman (played by a grasshopper) is Mr. Zhukov’s rival for the affections of his dragonfly. He’s not only filmed their tryst (at the Hotel d’Amour!) but is projecting it, as a film titled “The Unfaithful Husband.”
Starewicz uses loving satire of early film conventions—the spouses’ slapstick fighting, the tryst filmed through a keyhole—for comic effect. His lighting creates a whole range of effects, from romance and suspense to drama. But it is the bugs’ remarkably human gestures that make his films so memorable. The Zhukovs perfectly capture bourgeois domesticity, the dragonfly moves with a siren’s lithe sinuousness, and the artist personifies a bohemian dandy in an extravagantly feathered hat.
Starewicz left Russia after the 1917 revolution and settled in France, where he continued to develop the art of stop-motion animation. In 2001, Terry Gilliam singled out The Mascot (1933) as one of the ten best animated films of all time, and The Tale of the Fox (1930) apparently inspired Wes Anderson in making his own Fantastic Mr. Fox. Other present-day Starewicz fans include Tim Burton and the Brothers Quay.
*Correction, April 15, 2013: The post's headline originally designated Starewicz' animations as the "first" stop-motion films.