The Short Films of Jan Švankmajer

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, David Guerrini-Nazoa. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Jan Švankmajer is a renowned Czech filmmaker, who has been continually cited as an immensely influential Eastern European animator. His influence can be said to have had an impact on the western cinema of animation as a whole, even though at the start of his career as a filmmaker his work was screened by the Czech communist government, and later nearly completely repressed from 1970s to the 1980s – in fact it was only after that period in which he expanded from his short films into full feature-length films. In terms of origins, his inspirations rise from his childhood experiences, Czech surrealism, communist censorship suffered and the folk tradition of Central Europe, especially notable for drawing on gothic influences. In fact, Švankmajer tells that his artistic interests began when he was given a puppet theatre for Christmas as a child; one especially can see an obvious link to this in his first short film, The Last Trick (1964).

Figure 1

Here two magicians, with heads made out of papier-mâché and clockwork machinery, take turns performing tricks on a bare wooden stage against a pitch-black backdrop. The film concludes on a rather violent note, as after a series of particularly aggressive handshakes the pair quite literally tears each other apart, till all that remains are two floating arms fiercely grasping each other (Fig.1).

This film shows some of the themes that would reoccur in his later work – violence, destruction, and a breakdown of communications, the style of film that can be noted to prelude his turn towards surrealism. However, while there is stop-motion animation in this film, it is hardly to the same extent as used in his later ones, with the majority of this in live-action with the tricks of magical movement done in koroko style utilising the black backdrop. The resulting film creates somewhat unsettling images, which are repulsive and fascinating at once, such as the one created by the fat black beetle crawling out of ears and on pictures of ladies combined with a series of visuals with added layers of depth and meaning. This is not simply some ‘trick’ film, but a combination of humour and the grotesque.

The degree of progression from this early film, and the influence of joining the Czech Surrealist Group and his marriage to Eva Švankmajerová, a surrealist painter, can be observed in some of his later work, such as Jabberwocky (1971). This film utilises a variety of found objects not made for the film, brought to life via a wide variety of stop-motion animation techniques. Starting with Lewis Carroll’s poem being read out by a child to the scene of a wardrobe moving through a forest, the film is set within the space of a child’s play area (Fig.2), within which, a series of what could be called ‘adventures’ or events occur using inanimate items brought, rather bizarrely to life, that result in the symbolic growing-up, or an escape from childhood.

Figure 2

The impact of surrealism makes it difficult to summarise this film, much is occurring amongst scenes of violence and destruction, in which toys are constantly created and destroyed or changed, with the last scenes having the picture of the father figure vandalised by a blob of ink escaping a maze and the room via the window. This, as described by Nottingham, can be seen as a commentary on the repression of the communist regime and the censorship imposed on freedom of expression (the blob of ink running away, having the last laugh by vandilising the picture).

Also quite present, and arguably present even in The Last Trick even if to a much lesser degree, is the subject of food. Švankmajer openly talks in interviews about his ‘obsession’ with the subject of food within his films stretching back from his childhood as a ‘non-eater’. In Jabberwocky, this can be quite plainly observed in the scene of ‘doll cannibalism’, where dolls at a table are seen to be cooking and eating smaller dolls, which has also been seen as a metaphor for Švankmajer view of the Czech socio-political during the communist government’s ‘normalisation’ period (Fig.3).

Figure 3

Thus, Jabberwocky is another sinister yet fascinating creation; unfortunately, in conjunction with The Ossuary, it was perceived by the Communist Czech government to have an undermining message and sparked the repression and censure of his film making. And it is the latter that would confine his work and reputation to Czechoslovakia till about the 1980s.

Today, Švankmajer is well known for his use of stop-motion animation particularly with clay, otherwise known as claymation. This is mainly due to the fact that when he did become more known to the Western cinema as a whole, one of the first widely distributed was Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

Figure 4

This film is a trilogy of different types of discussions, presented through a media of claymation. ” Exhaustive discussion”, “Passionate Discourse” and ” Factual Conversation” (Fig.4)  are portrayed through absurdity of surrealism and the cultural background of heads styled similar to Arcimboldo’s (an Italian artist who worked in the courts of Prague during the 1500’s and admired by surrealist artists). It also hinges heavily on images of the mouth, eating and food. Also, violence and destruction are also at the fore in each of the discourses, whether it be figures consuming, tearing, or exhausting their partners in various forms. Due to his then recent liberation from political repression, this topic easily links back to a newfound freedom that enables Švankmajer to actually engage in discussion without state-enforced limitations.

While Švankmajer made many more films, not all animated or short, arguably one can capture the progression he made as an artist, noting the continuities and changes over the course of his career, via a selection of his short animated films. And even though the context in which he made his films has changed dramatically, mainly due to the collapse of communism, his films to this day continue to demonstrate the same gothic and macabre style, pioneering novel styles of stop-motion animation that are fascinating to watch.

Works Cited


©David Guerrini-Nazoa, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen turns 90 years old today. One of the most important exponents of stop-motion animation and its integration with live-action footage, Harryhausen has more than earned the retirement from the industry he has enjoyed since 1981’s Clash of the Titans. His menagerie of mythical beasts, living statues, warrior skeletons and alien invaders set the gold standard for special effects animation: inspired by, but undoubtedly building upon, the work of Willis O’Brien (who mentored him on Mighty Joe Young), Harryhausen’s creatures were endowed with a distinctive inner life that manifest itself in nuanced mannerisms or full thespian emoting. These miniature models were made to give fully rounded performances that invariably overshadowed the lunky performances of their human costars. A relentless populist with a boyish imagination, you could tell that he was driven by a desire to bring his mind-load of beasts into full-colour motion as directly as possible.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Harryhausen at a book signing. Arriving a little late, I was shocked to find him alone next to a pile of books and DVDs. Where were the legions of geeks? Could it be that his appeal had not filtered down to younger generations who hadn’t grown up marvelling at Saturday afternoon Sinbads and Bank Holiday Argonauts? My own affection for Harryhausen’s work had taken me by surprise when I welled up at the sight of one of the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons at a public talk he gave during the Animated Exeter festival a few years back. So, that should tell you something about the level of critical distance I’m able to take here. Anyway, I had a little chat with Ray and asked him to sign my copy of his book, and my old VHS of Jason. “Is this your favourite of my films?” he asked me. A bit sheepishly, I replied: “I have a bit of a soft spot for Earth vs the Flying Saucers.” Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, and I soft of speaking, he asked me to repeat myself, and in the middle of a quiet city-centre Waterstones I found myself loudly declaiming my appreciation of the 1956 alien invasion epic for which he supplied peerless animation and compositing in scenes of gleeful mass destruction. Since I plan to spend my autumn years shouting at people in bookshops, it was good to get some practice in, and to shake the hand of a man whose films still provide a little corrective every time my cinematic diet gets a bit too dark and heavy.

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen. My humblest of gifts is a slideshow and gallery of some images and posters that should remind you of some of his achievements. View the slides above or click on any image below for a larger view:

See more Spectacular Attractions galleries here.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: The Other Toy Story

Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.

Click here to read on…


Fantastic Mr Fox

[This post follows up on an earlier one which you can read here.]

In an earlier post, I quoted from an interview with Tristan Oliver, director of photography and Mark Gustafson, animation director, on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. They were bemoaning Anderson’s like of feeling for the medium of stop-motion animation, and the ill-feeling that bubbled under the surface of their back-handed complements was palpable. Quite a few other sites picked up on this as evidence of a “troubled shoot” (see, for instance, here, here and here);  doesn’t everyone like to hear tales about a “troubled shoot”? It’s one of those terms that hints at  exciting tantrums and passionate disagreements over a project’s creative direction. Either that, or celebrity gossip about a diva refusing to come out of her trailer, a leading man disguising his tranquiliser addiction etc. It’s all part of the lead-up to that moment where you find out whether a film is actually any good or not. It elongates the experience of a film, because you get the chance to think about it and speculate about it even before it’s finished, but backstage gossip is rarely a good indicator of the quality of the finished product.

Fantastic Mr Fox

My original post was not supposed to be a gleeful prediction of Wes Anderson’s exposure as some sort of charlatan (though I would like to see more prominence given to the animators in the film’s promotional material – I couldn’t see Gustafson’s name on the UK poster at all), though I’m aware that some were looking for ammunition against him. There’s no need to take sides, and however it got there, Fantastic Mr Fox turned out to be a delight, the best film Anderson has made since Rushmore. As many reviewers have noticed, it manages to retain many of the director’s trademarks: a retro rock soundtrack, for example, and louche dialogue delivered by a cast of favoured performers. These casual line-readings are a nice contrast to the mannered perkiness that characterises so much voicing of kids’ animation, and make a surprisingly perfect match with the sometimes coarse stop-motion visuals. Anderson’s love of lateral tracking shots and cross-section compositions (remember the set of the ship in The Life Aquatic?) are also present and correct.

The film looks beautiful in its autumnal colours (you can almost smell the scrumpy!), and the roughness of the characters’ movement is not evidence of a sloppy or demoralised labour force, but a natural side-effect of a process that requires fingers and thumbs to tease out expression and nuance from inert models. There are some superb close-ups of the puppets that have been made to respond to the subtleties of the voice cast: Meryl Streep’s Mrs Fox has an aching, wistful yearning for a quiet life with her husband that is being slowly extinguished by his self-absorbed, wayward behaviour; you can hear it in her voice, and see it in “her” eyes”. Jason’s Schwartzman’s surly son Ash, desperate to please his illustrious dad, acts out a series of furious looks in close-up, his body tight with pent-up frustration – these are keenly felt, fierce emotions that are effortlessly conveyed by the delicate work of the animation team, who know when to use big gestures, but are trusted to deliver character information without too much arm-waving.

Fantastic Mr Fox

The comedic high points are those moments where the animals suddenly slip back into their animalistic ways, scarfing down their lovingly-prepared dinner with maximum noise, mess and lust. It’s a nice commentary on the anthropomorphisation of critters for our amusement, a quick reminder that beasts are beastly, even if the ultimate message of the film is that humans are even more so for their ruthless greed, their comparatively joyless need to consume and control their surroundings. Mr Fox is a suave hero figure, good in a fight and deft with words, but like so many Anderson protagonists, he’s prone to self-doubt and bouts of melancholy. I’ll be interested to see how kids respond to this stuff, but I was rather enthralled by it. I should say that the Roald Dahl book was never read to me as a child, so I can’t comment on the adaptation. Maybe in a later post, when I’ve got round to the audio book.

King Kong Randomised

King Kong Poster

king kong concept art

It’s been a very useful film for me in so many corners of my research, as well as being a childhood favourite of mine, so it seems natural to turn to King Kong (1933) for the latest of my Randomised posts. Randomly selected frames provide a point of entry for discussing aspects of the chosen film. What could be simpler?

The random number generator is requesting 38, 47, 61 and 80.  Yes, four frames this time. Kong is special. Holy mackerel, what a blog…

King Kong 38th minute: Fay Wray

Fay Wray could never get away from the legacy of King Kong. With over 100 screen credits, some of them pretty damn good, such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game (shot after hours on the Kong sets), the most common publicity photographs show her cowering in terror at the sight of some offscreen horror, or dangling like a ragdoll from the big ape’s fist. One might get the impression of a passive figure, prostrate and helpless, and to some extent this is true – Ann Darrow needs rescuing, and screams her way through most of her later scenes, showing little in the way of fleeing ability. She is a beautiful object at the centre of a four-way contest, between film-maker Carl Denham, who wants to use her to attract dumb, slavering audiences to his documentary film, Jack Driscoll, who wants to domesticate her, the Skull Island natives, who see her as an invaluably exotic sacrificial artefact, and King Kong himself, who wants to keep her and stroke her and smell her on his fingers. She is subject to a multi-pronged attack of desires, into which her own impoverishment has led her to blunder. Where is the space for her desire? I’m pulled between chiding the film for its objectification of its leading actress, and acknowledgement of how it lays those processes of objectification completely bare, showing her complete disempowerment amidst the pull and push of rampant masculine exploitation. This particular shot tilts me in favour of the latter interpretation. Ann has just been kissed by Driscoll, and their romantic bond is forged: for the rest of the film, it is his duty to rescue, protect and eventually marry her. Everything else in the plot is an obstacle to that union, but their connection is never in doubt. But check out the look on her face. Holding up her hand in the same swooning gesture that accompanies her helplessness in the face of Kong-sized threat, she is overwhelmed by a sexual thrill that leaves her not defenceless, but wanting more. The camera doesn’t follow him offscreen, but lingers on her lascivious look of erotic desire. The blank blackness of the night sky behind her, the diagonal perspective and the straight line of the side of the ship (plus the instructive lighting that makes her glow), all lead the eye to her face. That is a look of lust. Everything that follows is a catalogue of male ignorance of that desire, and her simple wish to select a man to gratify her gets lost amidst their inflated battles to use her for their own fulfilment.

King Kong 47th minute

Kong is ready for his close-up. The camera pushes in to a full-frame view of the monster’s visage as it breaks through the trees. It looks to me like they’ve got some three-point lighting going on the big guy, like any other star being introduced. The facial expression is meant to be fearsome, but the raised eyebrows make a little quizzical.  If you didn’t know the context of the film, and I told you this was a shot of a big monkey who’s just seen something terrifying through the bushes, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe, I bet. There are only a few shots like this in the film, using a large-scale mechanical model of the beast’s head (they also made a giant hand for shots where we see Fay Wray sitting in his palm), and the technique doesn’t really blend effectively with the more nuanced physical performances given by Willis O’Brien‘s stop-motion miniature version. This shot attempts to impress with its sheer scale, while O’Brien’s modelwork tends to emphasise Kong’s gait, his pugilistic skill and his proud but sometimes reluctant responses to threat. Everytime I see Kong this effect is jarring, like they’ve used an inappropriate stunt-double or overdone the soft focus on a homely lead. But it is a big reveal, so whatever makes it happen, it at least has an eye-opening impact. The push-in close-up, emphasising Kong’s massive teeth (for the rest of the film it is usually his arms that do all the damage), is a good way to mark him out as the monster of the piece, but it is at odds with the film’s reception and legacy. Who doesn’t sympathise with Kong? There’s little in the film’s construction to show him as anything other than a mortal threat – he abducts a woman and destroys all who try to take her back. He stomps on innocents and trashes public property, and there’s little ceremony about gawping over his smashed corpse on the street. It is only in the emotional clues and complex mannerisms given to Kong by Willis O’Brien that the spectator can come to see him as a fully-rounded character, an aspect that was probably not built into the script, which keeps referring to him in the bluntest, most fearful terms. The big scary head of the giant Kong model is residue of those original intentions, fixed in a rigid expression, captured in a conventional monster mugshot, and unable to fully communicate his plight to the audience.

King Kong 61st minute

One of the aspects of King Kong that will always remain extraordinary is the creation of a complete, enclosed fantasy world on Skull Island. This dreamlike space, a fantasy imagining of a lost world rather than a geographically specific location (the position and ethnic constitution of the place is obfuscated in the plot, hybrid in the visuals), is rendered with immaculate set design: see how the backgrounds extend into a dense, misting distance as one layer of jungle gives a glimpse into the next and so on.  The variations in vegetation create an overwhelming sense of vivacious biodiversity: vines, trees, leaves, moss, fronds all growing in different directions. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of creatures hiding in those complex pile-ups of shadow and foliage. The visual effects are masterful (must stop gushing, sorry…), precisely combining the elements to make it look as though Kong can really reach out and clutch Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), even though they are filmed as separate elements in separate time zones.  Lacking a snappier term for it, I’ve referred in the past to this as “transphotographic” contact, one of those moments where an illusion of co-existence is reinforced by having figures, photographed separately, appear to touch or interact.  By playing on the awareness of their essential difference (one live, the other animated), yet flaunting their apparent proximity, the spectacular effect is heightened, even as it purports simply to depict a narrative event. Cabot, though, is reduced to the status of a scuttling pest, a little thing to be grabbed and squashed. Kong is not predatory, in fact he is contrasted with the more insidious dinosaur attackers that share the island with him – he is consistently aggravated by disturbances of his peace.

King Kong 80th minute

I didn’t recognise this shot at first, perhaps because of the unusual perspective, which looks down on the scene as from Kong’s-eye-view. It is a view of the village on Skull Island as Kong pounds on the doors (I’m sure there’s a good proverb along the lines of “those who do not wish to be visited by giant apes should not put giant-ape-sized doors on their property”). It is from the top of this gateway that the shot is taken. The villagers are rushing to the barricades in defence of their homes while, in the centre of the frame, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray are walking away: you can just see him in pale shirt and dark trousers, his arm around her shoulders. The battle is not over, but they are already leaving it. With Ann rescued, Jack wants no further part in the scene. It could almost be the end of the film, with the lovers’ unity encapsulated in their movement against the stream of bodies, setting off into a metaphorical sunset, from the darkness at the bottom of the frame, to the light at the top, but of course, there is much more to come. Their isolation from the action might also say something about the visitors’ attitude towards the island: they show up, cause mayhem, then walk away. For a film of ballyhoo, bluster and big boasts, there’s a remarkable sensitivity to subtleties of shadow in King Kong, with deep dark areas in so many frames punctuated with outcrops of architectural or natural scenery, all of it potently artificial and nightmarishly inescapable: there is only temporary flight from one danger to the next.

Dr Livingstone, I Consume?

Livingstone Lion

Visitors to the David Livingstone Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland will have had trouble failing to notice the large bronze sculpture of the famous explorer being chomped on by a lion. This was based on an actual incident in 1844 where Livingstone shot a lion that had just killed a woman in the village of Mabotsa, in what is now South Africa, where he had been serving as a missionary. Before it keeled over and died the enraged cat managed to leave some serious, permanent teethmarks in the shooter’s arm, which was never the same again. What we don’t see is the African teacher who distracted the lion away its meal and himself suffered severe injuries, saving Livingstone’s life in the process. This dramatic scene, enshrining the explorer’s courageous credentials (see how the natives fall helplessly to the ground!), was designed by none other than Ray Harryhausen, a fond favourite here at Spectacular Attractions, creator of stop-motion animation sequences for films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans… In partnership with his wife Diana, who is Livingstone’s great-granddaughter, Harryhausen funded the statue and crafted a miniature version to be built by sculptor Gareth Knowles, who worked on it for four years before it was unveiled in 2004.

If you’ve ever seen any of Harryhausen’s miniature model figures on display, you’ll have noticed that most of them are sustained on dynamic poses, about to attack or be attacked. His mythical beasts are, more often than not, built for combat, and their physical properties are best displayed when grappling with other creatures or when precisely composited with human co-stars, some of whom are bound to get picked up and chewed at some point.


The Livingstone statue has much of the old-fashioned adventurism of his earlier work, celebrating dangerous encounters by staging them as pitched battles of strained sinew and flesh-tearing weaponry. But at least it shows, long after he retired (following Clash of the Titans, in 1983), that he still has an animator’s eye for a static scene that could at any moment be brought to life – every element is caught in mid-motion: not about to pounce, fall or claw, but pouncing, falling, clawing.


Fantastic Mr Fox

[See also the follow-up post here.]

The self-conscious whimsy of Wes Anderson‘s films was starting to seem a little forced, as if he just wanted to put pretty pictures to a collection of his favourite songs. So it’s good to know that he’s probably refreshing himself by trying something new. Fantastic Mr Fox will premiere at the London Film Festival in October (Americans will have to wait another month to see it, I’m afraid) and, as you’ll notice when you watch the trailer, is entirely composed off stop-motion puppets. Very old-school:

I seemed to remember hearing with deadening regularity that stop-motion animation was dead, that the ease and efficiency of CGI had superceded it and rendered it obsolete. This couldn’t be less true. Actually, this decade has seen more stop-motion feature films made than in any other. Ever. And by a long distance. In the 20th century, there were around 71 stop-mo features. I only say “around” because I don’t trust my own counting, but I think it’s accurate. Since the year 2000, there have been 27 released, with a further 19 in production. It’s certainly true that digital tech makes it easier to capture and edit stop-motion footage, but there’s no getting around the longform, hands-on, painstaking process of moving the models incrementally and photographing them one frame at a time.  It feels like rather an artisanal activity to be overseen by a major studio and dropped into the multiplexes: CGI seems far more suited to the slick packaging of contemporary Hollywood.

Look at the movement of of the animals in the trailer. The fur ruffles, the movement is a little jerky, and faces are not crazily expressive like they tend to be in CG animation.


These side effects of the stop-motion process might be seen as deficiencies, revealing the touch of backstage personnel whose traces are supposed to be wholly effaced. I won’t indulge in any more of my pre-judgements by predicting that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will have none of the creepy tactility of Jan Švankmajer’s version, but I bet it turns out to be true. Animation is a folk art prone to industrialisation. Stop-motion may have become the mark of soulful indie filmmaking, a neo-Luddite (I don’t use that term in the pejorative sense it was intended to carry) response to the digitisation of cinema. It’ll be interesting to see how the technique meshes with Anderson’s louche dialogue, much of which has reportedly been recorded on location rather than in a controlled studio environment.

Fantastic Mr Fox

But where is Wes Anderson in all this? Originally signed on to oversee the animation, Henry Selick left the project to make Coraline (probably a good choice – innovating an art form rather than referring nostalgically back to its past), and Mark Gustafson took over as animation director. But, according to an inadvertently extraordinary (assuming they didn’t intend to make Anderson look like a clueless buffoon) interview with the animators in this month’s Empire, he’s keeping his distance from the set and directing via e-mail, sending in his favourite DVDs to give an impression of what he’d like to see. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver, asked about his working relationship with Anderson, replies:

I think Wes doesn’t understand what you can do, and he often wants us to do what you can’t do, and the length of time the process takes … I don’t think he quite comprehends that, and how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. It takes a big amount of someone’s time to change a very small thing. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. An animator is an actor. And this is the secret to animation: you direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying “that arm movement is wrong.” But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.

Even without an absent director, animators must already be wound pretty tight. Reminds me of this:

Twin Animators

The Fall (Tarsem, 2006)

There’s a scene towards the end of Tarsem’s The Fall, an exhaustingly aestheticised excursus on mythology and storytelling, when one of the lead characters (the incredible Catinca Untaru, giving surely one of the most natural and riveting performances by a child on film) suffers a head injury. The operation she undergoes is represented in stop-motion animation, a fluttering montage of cowled doctors, dolls and opened skulls.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Immediately, I assumed this was the work of the Brothers Quay, who produced a sequence for Julie Taymor’s Frida, also representing the woozy trauma of major surgery, using puppets to portray the hallucinatory in/out-of-body sensations of heavy sedation, extreme pain and semi-consciousness after Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is injured in a road accident:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The sequence from The Fall is credited to Christophe and Wolfgang Lauenstein, twin animators from Germany, and being a suspicious chap prone to the charms of even the tiniest of conspiracy theories, I presumed that this was a pseudonym for the Quays. There couldn’t be two sets of twin brothers working in stop-motion, surely?

Turns out I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. There really are two sets of stop-motion twins out there, though closer inspection of the Lauensteins’ back catalogue reveals their work to be considerably cuddlier than the Quays. Their short film Balance won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1989. Accessible allegory abounds:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Honourable mentions must go to the Chiodo Brothers, sibling puppeteers of the Critters films, Team America and a load of others. See their stop-motion showreel here. Also the Bolex Brothers, makers of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, though they’re not actually brothers at all. I once met the Quay Brothers, and found them to be entirely personable (that’s not a euphemism, and there’s no “but” coming), but (oops!) there is something undeniably fascinating about the closeness of their relationship, the way they communicate with great empathic sensitivity; that’s not exclusive to twins, but it does chime with the image we tend to have of stop-motion animators practising an art that requires preternaturally intense focus and a seemingly occult power to make dead matter come to life. That’s certainly an air that has formed around the Quays, while the resolute gravity of their work has siphoned off any residual sense that there might be some fraternal japery during their sessions around the animating table. The silly superstitions around telepathic twins, confusing close interpersonal bonds with psychic ability, just feed the mystique about the powers of incarnation wielded by animators.

A Tale of Lotte Reiniger


For your reading pleasure today, a delightful anecdote from Lotte Reiniger, still best known for her achingly beautiful silhouette film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926), the oldest surviving animated feature film. In this tale, she talks of her first experience as an animator, working with her idol, Paul Wegener, an actor who had espoused the potential of animation for many years. She joined his acting troupe, the Max Reinhardt Theatre, and managed to get a chance to create title cards for Wegener’s films. Here, she talks about how stop-motion effects came to be selected as the best solution to a production problem on Wegener’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918), and thus expresses her own passion for the process:

With the invention of cinematography an entirely new kind of puppeteering came into being. This was called animation, which meant giving life to otherwise immovable objects. As you have heard the myths which are supposed to have given birth to the shadow-play, you may like to hear a story about animation also. This is no myth, but the pure truth which I witnessed in the year of 1918 in the town of Bautzen in Germany and which was my first encounter with this new medium when I was a young girl.

Lotte ReinigerAt that time a great pioneer of film-making in Germany was producing a film there of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. This was the famous actor Paul Wegener, who was fascinated by the fantastic possibilities of that medium ‘film’, until then little explored. In his films he used them lavishly, making people vanish, having objects moved by invisible men, and all sorts of other improbable things which could be done by the camera through the medium of trick shots. In this film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the famous occasion when the rats which plagued the town of Hamelin were lured out of the town by the piper’s piping, was one of the key scenes. The film was shot in the town of Bautzen and not in Hamelin, for that town offered the more picturesque medival views.

It was Wegener’s idea to have the movement of the rats done with wooden rats, using ‘stop motion’, that means taking only one frame of film at a time, and moving the objects in between. The producing company thought quite rightly that this would take up an enormous amount of time and labour and so it was decided to do the scene with real rats.

A quaint little medieval street was chosen and all the members of the unit (including me) were given a basketful of rats and were hidden in the cellars of the street. Early in the morning the street was cleared of traffic and Wegener in his Pied Piper costume passed along it, piping enticingly. Then a revolver shot was fired, a common practice for distant signals in those days of silent film, whereupon we all opened our baskets and let the rats escape through the cellar windows. And escape they did! None of them thought of following the Pied Piper. They whisked across the road and vanished in an instant. When the scene was projected you could hardly see them at all. In spite of the fact that the Pied Piper, so far from freeing the town of Hamelin from a plague of rats, had infected the town of Bautzen with another, we were not much concerned. we had to think of something else.

Now we took guinea-pigs instead. These poor guinea-pigs were painted grey and were adorned with long tails, and again each of us took a basketful into his cellar. The same scene was repeated, the Piper piped, the shot was fired and the guinea-pigs released through the windows. But unlike the rats, the guinea-pigs did not escape. They, unaware of the script, sat cheerfully down in the middle of the street, played with each other, lost their tails and amused themselves as best they could. But none followed the Pied Piper.

So it had to be wooden rats and stop-motion. We were again hidden in our cellars, loaded with wooden rats this time. The Piper piped, the shot was fired and we put our rats out of the window and withdrew hastily. We came out again, moved our rats a fraction, withdrew again, and doing this from five o’clock in the morning until the sun was setting we really had moved our rats all along the street.

The projection was a triumph. Those rats really moved as erratically as you would expect panicky rats would and they folllowed the Piper all right. But, as we had been busy all day producing this miracle, the shadows of the medieval gables moved along the houses opposite as well. They, too, had been animated. A remedy for this mishap was soon found: a shot was made of clouds, passing the sun, tinted with blue ‘virage’ so that it looked as if it was the moon. This was cut into the scene and added to it a lot of poetic feeling, which was highly praised by one and all.

Lotte Reiniger at workThis was my first encounter with animation, which I will always remember with great tenderness, for it was that film which gave me my first film job, cutting out silhouette titles for each reel. In those days films were projected in reels and the more artistically ambitious pictures adorned the titles for each reel with artistic frames. Furthermore, it was that same Paul Wegener who introduced me to a group of young artists and scientists who were opening up an experimental animation studio and persuaded them to let that silhouette girl make her silhouettes movable so as to make a silhouette cartoon.

[Lotte Reiniger, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London: B.T. Batsford, 1970, 82-84.]

Ladislas Starevich had a similar anecdote about adopting animation due to the insufferable intransigence of animal actors, when he couldn’t get beetles to fight properly. I wonder if it’s a recurring theme for a lot of animators, when creatures that won’t take direction need to be replaced by a manouevrable onscreen proxy.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

This was one of those films that I saw about fifteen years ago, and which had become one of those hazy memories where you wonder whether or not it really happened. My memory was not helped by the film’s surreal, dreamlike quality, created primarily through the use of pixilation. This rarely used animation technique is nothing to do with computer animation (that’s a different kind of “pixel”), but a way of moving live actors frame by frame as if they were stop-motion puppets. Norman McLaren used this effect in Neighbours (1952). One can only imagine the discomfort of actors required to hold their position between exposed frames while their bodies, faces and surrounding puppet models are incrementally moved with painstaking care.

The Adventures of Tom Thumb may be just a simple tale of a little guy who, separated from his parents, goes on an odyssey, escaping from a grotesque laboratory (featuring creatures that look rather like extras from Quay Brothers or Svankmajer movies) into a quasi-medieval miniature world that is in conflict with the giants who have birthed Tom. But it suggests that more is going on. The opening shots show the fertilisation machines that send Tom down a conveyor belt to be delivered to his mother in another dimension. Animation, dealing as it does with the incarnation of things as living beings, is the perfect medium for such a mechanistic image of conception. Tom is tiny, like an undeveloped foetus. They seem surprised to find him alive. His parents inhabit a grim and grimy post-industrial town that looks like the worst of British social realist depictions of Northern working class squalor (enough adjectives in that sentence?). The simple happiness which Tom gives to his new folks is disrupted when he is abducted and taken off to a vivisection facility, from which he is shown an escape route into a toxic waste dump peopled by medieval peasants his own size, who live in fear of the giants (who are portrayed, like Tom’s parents, by live actors). Befriending Jack (the Giant Killer), Tom is reunited with his parents, before finding himself back in the “laboratorium”, where, from what I can work out, he is able to be reborn, full-size, to the same parents in more illustrious circumstances. Did I get it right? If anyone has a different understanding of events , please let me know. Sometimes the intricacies of plot escape me when I’m entranced by the animation.

Pixilation is a strange thing. Ordinarily, when live and animated performers share the screen, they are recorded separately then composited using optical processes. They therefore occupy distinct spaces and express very different modes of being and moving. When the human actors are also moved frame-by-frame, the effect is unsettling, a jerky unnatural kind of movement. It brings puppets and people onto the same ontological plane. Watching it for a while, it put me into a kind of trance with the uncanny oscillation that occurs when familiar things are rendered strange by a trick of the eye. Model animation can make objects seem haunted. The presence of the animators’ hands, edited out of the process to leave only the interstitial images that comprise the finished film, can be sensed but not detected. It is stranger still when applied to people. When objects are brought to life, there’s a powerful display of the power of moving images to instill the inanimate with the illusion of being, but with people, the effect is deaden them, to make them seem somehow less alive. The animated object and the objectified actor meet somewhere in the middle, on equal ground.

See also: Frankie Kowalski, “Instinctive Decisions: Dave Borthwick, Radical Independent.” Animation World Network.