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Starewicz, Władysław

Entry updated 13 December 2021. Tagged: Film, People.

(1882-1965) Polish-Russian-Lithuanian-French animator, director and etymologist, also known as Ladislas Starevich. He pioneered the use of stop-motion puppetry techniques and would produce over 60 films (mainly shorts) until his death, sometimes combining animation with live action (see Cinema).

Born in Russia of Polish parents from what is now Lithuania, Starewicz worked for Lithuania's Museum of Natural History – most sources assert he became its Director. Whilst making brief live-action documentaries for the museum, an attempt to film Stag Beetles fighting was stymied by uncooperative leads: so he used dead beetles instead, affixing their appendages with wax and wire, allowing their manipulation for stop-motion filming. The result was Walka żuków (1910; vt Lucanus Cervus; vt The Battle of the Stag Beetles). Seeing the storytelling potential of this technique, he next produced Piękna Lukanida (1910; vt Prekrasnaya Lyukanida; vt The Beautiful Leukanida), 9 minutes: in a Ruritanian setting two swashbuckling beetles in boots fight over a female beetle – there are sword fights, a castle overcome by a siege engine and a gunpowder explosion finale: it has been called the first proper puppet animated film.

There had been precedents: for example, between 1906-1909 Russian choreographer Alexander Shiryaev used stop motion on dolls to film planned ballet routines; Émile Cohl's stop motion Japon de fantaisie (1907) had a brief, very basic scene using dolls; and Arthur Melbourne Cooper's A Dream of Toyland (1908) shows a live-action boy dreaming of a town inhabited by toys, which ends with a vehicle pile-up. As at least 80% of silent films have been lost, other antecedents may have been forgotten or known only from hearsay – exemplified by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith's The Humpty Dumpty Circus, whose release date might have been 1897, 1898 or 1908 (a magazine review of the last date exists), whilst its use of stop-motion and even its very existence have been questioned (though the review seems to confirm both).

Nonetheless, Starewicz's refinement and development of stop motion techniques and commitment to detail and story make him the father of puppet animation. These skills are seen in Miest Kinomatograficheskovo Operatora (1912; vt The Cameraman's Revenge), 13 minutes, where a married beetle goes to a nightclub: entranced by a dragonfly dancer, he pushes away another admirer and takes her to the Hotel d'Amour for a one night stand. However, his rival, a grasshopper, is a movie cameraman – he follows them and films the sordid goings-on through the keyhole (see Sex). Returning home, the beetle discovers his wife is having an affair with a local painter, a cricket in a floppy hat (in an example of Starewicz's eye for detail, we see him painting a canvas), and beats him up. He eventually forgives his wife and they go to see a movie; however, the projectionist is the cameraman, who screens the husband's infidelity ... the wife whacks her spouse with an umbrella. Aside from having an insect civilization, a genre theme concerning a still emergent Technology and its potential abuse with regard to privacy might be inferred (see also Media Landscape).

Early on Starewicz focused on insects, but gradually added stuffed and model animals to his productions, as well as dolls; their genre was mainly Fantasy and/or Horror, though the lost film Puteshestvie Na Lunu (1912; vt A Journey to the Moon) (see Moon) doubtless had some sf interest. The mainly live action Portret (1915; vt The Portrait), 8 minutes, was based on the Nikolay Gogol (see Russia) short story about a painting that comes to life (see Arts); the 13-minute Liliya Belgii (1915; vt The Lily of Belgium) with its invading beetles is an allegory of World War One. In 1919, following the Russian Revolution, Starewicz moved to France, sometime after changing his name to Ladislas Starevich.

Notable subsequent works include Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi (1922; vt Frogland; vt The Frogs Who Wanted a King), 9 minutes, a reworking of one of Aesop's fables [for Aesopian Fantasy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. It concerns discontented intellectual frogs (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF) in a prosperous amphibian democracy who ask Jupiter (see Gods and Demons) to send their nation a king: indifferent, he sends them a block of wood, then a crowned stork – which devours them. In L'horloge magique ou La petite fille qui voulait être princesse (1928), 45 minutes, a fey teenaged girl watches a mechanical clock whose figurines act out a medieval story: her imagination takes over, with a heroic knight defeating a dragon (see Supernatural Creatures). When a skull-headed knight appears the screen darkens, save for his eyes. Panicking, the girl turns back the clock's hands and falls into a coma; hallucinating, she journeys through a strange land – the film's best segment – becoming a princess, until the heroic knight rescues her: the film ends ambiguously with the two as lovers; but the girl is still dreaming (elements of Psychology and Perception may apply here).

Fétiche (1933; vt The Mascot; vt The Devil's Ball), 35 minutes, has a toy dog attempting to get an orange for a poor child – his journey through the City is often disturbing, particularly when he becomes embroiled in a nightmarish ball held by the devil (see Gods and Demons). This was one of Terry Gilliam's ten best animated films of all time: "... his work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary ... This is where it all began". The dog, Fetiche, would appear in several subsequent shorts. Starewicz's first full-length animated feature film was Le roman de Renard (completed 1930, released 1937; vt The Tale of the Fox; vt The Story of the Fox), 63 minutes, where, after his subjects complain of the misdeeds of the trickster fox Renard, the lion king's army attempts to storm his castle, but is foiled by Renard and his family; impressed, the king appoints him as his chief minister (see Politics). Though a straightforward story, the sustained invention of the animation impresses: it was an influence on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (2009).

Along with Willis H O'Brien, Starewicz helped shape cinema's use of stop-motion special effects: the works of Oliver Postgate (see The Clangers) and Tim Burton also show his influence. [SP]

Władysław Starewicz

born Vilna, Russian Empire [now Vilnius, Lithuania]: 6 August 1882

died Fontenay-sous-Bois, France: 28 February 1965


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