The Bug Trainer
I really like those ‘Burtonesque’ animation films. Puppets, marionettes, stop-motion. I think those techniques when used right, can really take film and cinema back to where they belong. Tim Burton and also Terry Gilliam are among my favorite cineasts. I know the Brothers Quay‘s work from the puppet sequence they did in the motion picture Frida . But I had never heard of Władysław Starewicz …. Now I know where it all began.
Władysław Starewicz (1882-1965), Polish stop-motion animator, puppetmaker and cinematographer.
In 2008 a documentary was made on Mr. Starewicz work, The Bug Trainer. It is rather strange that this man is not more famous, when a layman can see this work is still of great significance to cinema. The most elusive Starewicz films are those featuring bugs and puppets; Frisky dragonflies, buggin’ beetles, philosophizing frogs. Their worlds are brought to life with an immense creativity.
He used real insects to feature in his film, in fact, Władysław found his calling as a filmmaker working in the field of entomology, attempting to film fighting stag beetles. Whenever he turned on the lights to start shooting, the beetles, being nocturnal creatures, would stop their fighting and go to sleep. Władysław killed the beetles and prepared them so that he could mimic their moves and shoot his film. He had made marionettes out of them, using wax and wire to manipulate their limbs. One of Władysław’s films using real bugs, Piękna Lukanida (The Beautiful Leukanida ) (1910), had people wondering however it was possible to train bugs so efficiently :D
We kid about it now, and true, you have to have a love for antiquities to appreciate his fine art, but what Władysław Starewicz did, working with over 50 ‘puppets’ simultaneously on a mini-miniature scale, with little wires seen, his use of effects, still gains the respect of insiders and experts.
Le Roman de Renard (aka Reinicke Fuchs aka The Tale of The Fox) is regarded as Władysław’s biggest work, his first fully animated feature film. Made in Paris, the film wasn’t released due to scoring problems until funding was given for a German soundtrack by the Nazi regime (Goethe wrote a classic version of the Renard legend), this version had its premiere in Berlin in April 1937. The French version wasn’t released until 1941.
The best part of Reynard is the Queen Lioness puppet. Here is a handmade puppet with more expression in her face then many a living actress… Watch this Miaou Miaou serenade, especially towards the end.
The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912, 13 minutes) is the perfect example of a Władysław film, bitter humor and funny moral, personified by very humanlike insects. The meticulous detailing, an overall atmosphere that is both ‘unheimisch’ and cute… And it features his fighting bugs! ;)
The story is about infidelity among insects, which is already priceless as a fact on it’s own! Mr. Beetle goes to town. At “The Gay Dragonfly,” a burlesque parlor he meets a dancer who he takes to a hotel room.
“His business always took him to “The Gay Dragonfly” nightclub.
The dancer there understood him…”
But a grasshopper there wanted her too, and he is mad at Mr. Beetle’s rudeness. This grasshopper happens to be a cameraman…
Another favorite is Les Grenouilles Qui Demandent Un Roi (aka The Frogs That Demand a King, aka Frogland (1922) One of his first puppet films and probably the closest Starewicz ever came to political commentary. The storyline follows Aesop‘s fable of the frogs who demand a king from the god Jupiter and are disappointed by the results. Moral of the story : be careful what you wish for! In 1996 Frogland makes a brief appearance in the motion picture Basquait, which is kind of apt.
Władysław’s mixture of horror and sentimentality is quite unique, bizarre and strangely attractive. His influence is more than present in the work of Tim Burton and Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam picked the Starewicz film The Mascot (1934) as one of the ten best animated films ever. Władysław Starewicz practically invented the genre of stop-motion and should still, after a century, be regarded as a master, a true pioneer and a visionary in the genre.
Magic happens somewhere in between reality and fantasy. To me, Władysław Starewicz’ films capture that beautifully.
An early Starewicz armature from an exhibition at the NY MoMA
Starewicz at U B U W E B (The Cameraman’s Revenge & The Insect’s Christmas in very good quality)
An extensive Starewicz website (including biography, filmography, clips, stills, etc)
Official Starewicz website (French)