Ladislas Starevich, animation pioneer
Ladislas Starevich (August 8, 1882 – February 26, 1965) was a stop-motion animator notable as the author of the first puppet-animated film. He also used insects and other animals as protagonists of his films.
Ladislas Starevich was born “Władysław Starewicz,” in Moscow, Russia to Polish parents (father Aleksander Starewicz from Surviliškis near Kėdainiai and mother Antonina Legęcka from Kaunas, both from “neighborhood nobility”, in hiding after the failed Insurrection of 1863 against the Tsarist Russian domination), and had lived in Lithuania which at that time was a part of the Russian Empire. The boy was raised by his grandmother in Kaunas, then the capital of Kaunas Governorate. He attended Gymnasium in Dorpat (today Tartu, Estonia).
By 1910, Starevich had been named Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania. There he made four short live-action documentaries for the museum. For the fifth film, Starevich wished to record the battle of two stag beetles, but was stymied by the fact that the nocturnal creatures inevitably die whenever the stage lighting was turned on. Inspired by a viewing of Les allumettes animées (Animated Matches) (1908) by Émile Cohl, Starevich decided to re-create the fight through stop-motion animation: by replacing the beetles’ legs with wire, attached with sealing wax to their thorax, he is able to create articulated insect puppets. The result was the short film Lucanus Cervus (1910), apparently the first animated puppet film and the beginning of Russian animation (now lost).
In 1911, Starevich moved to Moscow and began work with the film company of Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. There he made two dozen films, most of them puppet animations using dead animals. Of these, The Beautiful Leukanida (premiered in 1912), was the first puppet film with a plot inspired in the story of Agamenon and Menelas, earned international acclaim (one British reviewer was tricked into thinking the stars were live trained insects), while The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911) got Starevich decorated by the czar.
But the best-known film of this period, was Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman, aka The Cameraman’s Revenge) (1912), a cynical work about infidelity and jealousy among the insects.
Some of the films made for Khanzhonkov feature live-action/animation interaction. In some cases, the live action consisted of footage of Starevich’s daughter Irina. Particularly worthy of note is Starevich’s 41-minute 1913 film The Night Before Christmas, an adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol story of the same name. The 1913 film Terrible Vengeance won the Gold Medal at an international festival in Milan in 1914, being just one of five films which won awards among 1005 contestants.
During World War I, Starevich worked for several film companies, directing 60 live-action features, some of which were fairly successful. After the October Revolution of 1917, the film community largely sided with the White Army and moved from Moscow to Yalta on the Black Sea. After a brief stay, Starevich and his family fled before the Red Army could capture the Crimea, stopping in Italy for a while before joining the Russian émigrés in Paris.
At this time, Władysław Starewicz changed his name to Ladislas Starevich, as it was easier to pronounce in French. He first stablished with his family in Joinville-le-pont, while he worked as a cameraman. He rapidly returned to make puppet films. He made “Le Mariage De Babylas” (Midnight Wedding), “L’épouvantail” (“The Scarecrow”), 1921; Les Grenouilles Qui Demandent Un Roi (“Frogland”), 1922; “Amour Noir Et Blanc”(“Love In Black and White”), 1923; “La Voix Du Rossignol” (“The Voice Of The Nightingale”), 1923; and “La Petite Chateuse Des Rues” (“The Little Street Singer”),1924. In these films he was assisted first by his daughter Irina (who had changed her name to Irène) who collaborated in all his films, and his wife Anna Zimermann, who made the costumes for the puppets.
In 1924, Starevich moved to Fontenay-sous-Bois, where he lived and where he made the rest of his films. Among the most notable are The Eyes of the Dragon (1925), a Chinese tale with complex and wonderful sets and character design, in which Starevich shows his talent of decorator artist and ingenious trick-filmmaker; The Town Rat and the Country Rat (1926), a parody of American slapstick films – seen below-; The Magical Clock (1928), a fairytale with amazing Middle Age puppets and sets, starring Nina Star and music by Paul Dessau – part 1 seen below-; The Little Parade, from Andersen’s tale The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Six weeks after the premiere of “The little parade”, sound was added by Louis Nalpas companny. Starevich started a collaboration with him, wishing to make a feature full-length film, “Le Roman de Renard”. Today all of Starevich’s films made in the 1920’s are available on DVD.
Often mentioned as being among his best work, The Tale of the Fox (French: Le Roman de Renard, German: Reinicke Fuchs – seen below) was also his first animated feature. The entire film was made in collaboration with his daughter Irene. Production took place in Fontenay-sous-Bois from 1929–1930. When the film was ready, the producer, Louis Nalpas, decided to add sound by disc support but this system failed and the film was not released. German film studio UFA got interest to show the film in two parts. Sound was added in German and it premiered in Berlin in 1937. Later, in 1941, Roger Richebé (Paris Cinéma Location) produced a French sound version, which premiered on April 1941 . It was the third animated feature film to have sound, after Quirino Cristiani’s Peludópolis (1931) and The New Gulliver (1935) from the Soviet Union.
In 1933 Ladislas and Irene Starevich produced and directed a full length film “LS 18,” however, under pressure from distributors, the length was greatly reduced and the film was retitled “Fetishe Mascotte” (The Mascot), and distributed in 1934. Starevich made a contract with Marc Gelbart (Gelma Films) to make a series with this character. It was intended to make 12 episodes, but for economic reasons, only 5 where made between 1934 and 1937 and distributed in all the world. These are “Fétiche Prestidigitateur” (The Ringsmater, 1934), “Fétiche Se Marie” (The Mascot’s Wedding, 1935), “Fétiche En Voyage De Noces” (The Navigator, 1936) and “Fétiche Et Les Sirènes” (The Mascot And The Mermaids, 1937) which was not released because sound could not be added. There also exists the unfinished film, “Fétiche Père De Famille” (The Mascot And His Family, 1938).
In 1954, L. Starevich conceived “The Hangover,” using the images not included in “The Mascot.” Recently, Léona Béatrice Martin-Starevich, the artist’s granddaughter, along with her husband François Martin, started the reconstruction of the original film from multiple copies of “The Mascot” that had been distributed in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and material from the archives of Ladislas Starevich. In 2012 “LS 18” was reconstructed to its original length and montage from 1933. It was named “Fetish 33-12.”
During the years 1937- 1946, Starevich ceased his productions. There was some intents to make commercial films, but none were ever completed.
In 1946 he tried to make The Midsummer Night’s Dream but abandoned the project due to financial problems. Next year, he made “Zanzabelle A Paris” adapted from a story by Sonika Bo. In 1949, he met Alexandre Kamnka (Alkam Films), an old Russian friend, who produced Starevich’s first color film “Fleur De Fougère” (Fern Flower). It’s based on an Eastern European story, in which a child goes to the forest to collect a fern flower, which grows during the night of Saint-Jean, and which makes wishes come true. In 1950, Fern Flower won the first prize as an animated film in the 11th International Children Film Festival in Venice Biennale.
He then started a collaboration with Sonika Bo to adapt another of her stories, “Gazouilly petit oiseau,” followed by “Un dimanche de Gazouillis” (Gazouillis’s Sunday picnic). Again produce by Alkam films, Starevich made “Nose To The Wind“, which tells the adventures of Patapouf, a bear who escapes from school to play with his friends the rabbit and the fox. Also in 1950, Starevich’s beloved wife, Anna, passed away.
Due to the success from the previous film, “Winter Carrousel” was made, starring the bear Patapouf and the rabbit going through seasons. This was Starevich’s last completed film. His granddaughter Léona Béatrice (whose hands can be seen in animation tests from “Like Dog And Cat”, a unfinished film), recalls that his entire family was involved in the making of Winter Carrousel.
Ladislas Starevich died on 26 February 1965, while working on Comme chien et chat (Like Dog and Cat).
- Starevich kept every puppet he made, so stars in one film tended to turn up as supporting characters in later works (the frogs from Grenouilles qui demandent un roi are the oldest in the collection).
- Filmmaker and animation genius, Terry Gilliam, ranks “The Mascot” among the ten best animated movies of all time.
- In 2009, Wes Anderson made tribute to Le Roman de Renard in Fantastic Mr. Fox.