Ladislas Starevich, Stop Motion Pioneer
Ladislas Starevich set the foundations for the animation technique, and elevated it to the category of art.
There is controversy about who was the first filmmaker to use stop motion. Some attribute it to Spanish Segundo de Chomón, specifically to his film El Hotel Eléctrico, in which objects moved on their own accord; while others believe that the pioneer was J. Stuart Blackton in The Haunted Hotel, which, curiously enough, had the same context as Chomon.
But, perhaps this is not the matter at hand. They all contributed to setting the foundations for this type of animation, and thanks to them it continues to be used nowadays by notorious artists like surrealist Savankmajer.
Ladislas Starevich was one of the greatest impellers of the arduous technique, which generates the illusion of movement from photographs of motionless objects. Entomologist by trade, Starevich discovered the possibilities of stop motion in his frustrated desire to film two stag beetles mating. The intensity of light required to film this prevented these animals –nocturnal by nature– to carry out their lovemaking for his camera, which is why he decided to reproduce it through the manipulation of two dead coleopterons. By manipulating their bodies, moving them minutely and taking pictures of every step, he was able to represent their mating as if it was really taking place before the camera. Thus the document became fiction, and opened an entire field of cinematic experimentation for Starevich.
Without ever walking away from his entomological background, Starevich continued to experiment with insects for cinematographic purposes. Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), one of his most important films, uses vodevil to tell the sentimental vicissitudes of beetles, dragonflies and grasshoppers. Adultery, jealousy, revenge… The anthropomorphic attitudes of insects renders them as ridiculous caricatures of our less refined instincts. While Starevich may not have been the first to use stop motion, he pioneered the use of animals as actors in a cinematographic drama.
Like practically all great visionaries, Starevich was self-taught. Each one of his films was made by a strictly familiar crew and in purely artisanal working conditions. The patient manual work that ends up bestowing life upon his characters invests his films with perennial magic ––a charm that pierces eras and continues to astound new creators. Nowadays, imbued in the unsubstantial forms created by computers, perhaps it’ll be easier for us to approach his works. Nevertheless, in an attentive and unprejudiced gaze, Starevich’s films reveal uncommon human warmth, his dolls are convincing, we hurt and smile with them as if they were human beings.
The validity of his work is proven by homages such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox; which regains the charm of Le roman de renard (1939) in which Starevich used fox-puppets protagonists of his story.
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