Ladislas Starewicz is generally acknowledged as the first person to create puppet animation but he is barely known except among other animators, film historians and movie buffs. Yet this self-taught Russian entomologist might be the most brilliant stop-motion artist that ever lived.
I’ll never forget the first time I was exposed to the work of Starewicz (also spelled Wladyslaw Starewitch, among other variations). It was on the USA network’s Night Flight program [1981-1988] which ran on Friday and Saturday nights and introduced viewers to a wonderfully bizarre mishmash of programming that combined avant-garde films, rock documentaries (Another State of Mind  featuring L.A. punk bands Social Distortion, Youth Brigade and Minor Threat), poverty row cinema (Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man  from Monogram Pictures), serials, educational shorts, music videos and more.
One night I caught a condensed version of Starewicz’s The Mascot (1934) aka The Devil’s Ball which was an amazing flight of fancy featuring supernatural creatures made of paper, twigs, wire, bones, glass, cloth and other found materials, all coming together in a madcap witching hour party presided over by a puppet Devil and his talking skull head walking stick.
This nearly ten minute sequence is the dazzling highlight of the 26 minute animation epic which follows the adventures of a young girl’s puppy dog doll as he goes in search of oranges, a request he overheard the child make to her mother. During his late night quest, he becomes enmeshed in the Devil’s Ball and the film erupts into a riot of fantastical images – dancing golems, an exploding hot dog balloon puppet, a skeletal bird that lays eggs, a concertina-playing bedroom slipper, flying fish bones, various wild animals, unruly vegetables, demons and fiends and a drunken monkey trying to ravish a ballerina who is half of an Apache dance team.
It’s no wonder that The Mascot topped Terry Gilliam’s “10 Best Animated Films of All Time” list in an article in The Guardian. Of course, when you see Starewicz’s animation, you’ll see how his work has influenced such acclaimed animators as the Quay Brothers, Tim Burton, Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, Gilliam himself and others.
Like a lot of the shorts and film clips featured on Night Flight‘s eclectic program there was little or no information about this astonishing clip or the animator. It wasn’t until I began renting 16mm shorts from Kit Parker Films (now out of business – he sold his collection on Ebay) that I discovered where The Devil’s Ball clip came from and who created it.
Several of the Starewicz shorts were available from KP Films including The Mascot but I started with The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman (1912) aka The Cameraman’s Revenge, a tale of infidelity involving a beetle, his mistress (a dragonfly), and her jilted lover (a grasshopper). The latter avenges himself by secretly filming the married Mr. Beetle’s illicit tryst with Miss Dragonfly and then projecting the results at the local bug movie palace when the Beetles are in attendance (I wonder if this was the inspiration for Paul Bartel’s delightful 1968 short The Secret Cinema?).
No mere children’s film, The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman provides an amusing critique of marital bliss and the double sexual standard. But, it is the remarkable sophistication of Starewicz’s technique and visual detail for 1912 that continues to amaze today.
Using insect bodies to mimic human behavior, Starewicz painstakingly manipulated their arm, leg and wing movements via stop-motion animation, frame by frame. With such complicated depictions as a grasshopper riding a bicycle while carrying his movie camera/tripod, an insect nightclub with a dancing frog emcee, and a beetle painting an oil portrait, it’s often hard to believe the remarkable agility and fluid nature of his creatures’ physical movements. The inanimate insects come to life before your eyes, inhabiting a bizarre yet perfectly realized world of their own.
According to most sources, Starewicz was born in Vilno, Poland in 1882 and first began experimenting with stop-motion animation in 1910 while he was the director of a natural history museum in Kaunas, Russia. According to an excellent overview of the animator by Eric Schneider, Starewicz’s “first attempt at filmmaking was with live stag beetles. The beetles, though, proved too frustrating to control: “I waited for days and days to shoot a battle…But they would not fight with the lights shining on them.” It took the death of one beetle, under such stress, before Starewicz tried a different approach: “I [created] trick animals…I liked molding them so much that I continued.” And he continued until his death in 1965 to produce his distinctive brand of stop-motion puppet animation, along with about fifty live-action films.
Probably the best introduction to his work on DVD is still the Image Entertainment/Milestone Collection release, The Cameraman’s Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales, which also includes The Mascot but also Voice of the Nightingale (1923), a lovely, hand-tinted fairy tale starring Starewicz’s daughter, Janina; The Insects’ Christmas (1913), Winter Carousel (1958), a lyrical ode to friendship, and the political allegory, The Frogs Who Wanted a King (1922) aka Frogland.
There are still several Starewicz films I would love to see but are unavailable on DVD and may never surface in any format though a few such as Town Rat, Country Rat (1926) and The Tale of the Fox (1939 – ten years in the making!) occasionally surface at film festivals and retrospective tributes to the animator.
There is also a 2008 documentary about Starewicz entitled The Bug Trainer (directed by Linas Augutis, Rasa Miskinyte, Marek Skrobecki & Donatas Ulvydas) that deserves to be shown with a festival of his work at MoMA or Film Forum or some high profile venue but tracking it down could prove difficult.
You can still find DVD copies of The Cameraman’s Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales (mentioned above) for purchase at online video stores. There is also an impressive 5 disc DVD import from France entitled the Wladysalw Starewicz Collection (1882-1965) in the PAL format (you have to have an all-region player to view it.) The 19 shorts collection includes such rarities are Eyes of the Dragon, In the Spider’s Grip and Love in Black and White. None of Starewicz’s work is currently available on Blu-Ray.
Other websites of interest: