Who is he?
Russian-born director of immensely inventive animation films who made over 60 pictures between the first and the sixth decades of last century. Starewicz was a stop-motion animator of objects and started out with dead insects, which he would “fix” with wax and wires prior to animating them, before moving on to puppets during the later part of his life in France. The earliest audiences that saw his movies thought he had trained live insects to act in his films.
Why is he of interest?
Not only has the pioneering work of Starewicz’s cinema in stop-motion animation and model-based animation, in general, been of influence on later-day animation filmmakers and animatronics specialists, but his morbid and surreal vision has found its way into the world of underground and experimental cinema as well. American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s hypnotic Mothlight (1963), for instance, is a direct descendent of Starewicz’s theatre of the dead.
Where to discover him?
The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a 12-minute drama of marital discord involving unfaithful beetles and vengeful grasshoppers. Not only does the film reveal a sophisticated understanding of the grammar of narrative cinema, but it also employs a range of cinematic devices much before their popular acceptance. Hysterical, awesome and even shamanistic, Starewicz’s ageless film strikes right at the theoretical heart of what makes cinema tick — the reanimation of objects dead and buried in time.
What are his films about?
In a way, Starewicz’s cinema has its roots in fairground attractions and freak shows, and promises the film audience a glimpse of a world beyond the ordinary. A large part of his filmography is based on popular folk stories and moral tales, and is faithful to the original children’s material. His most enduring films, however, have a dark, disturbing bent to them and are marked by grotesque characters, unsettling situations, bizarre animation and a strong comic undercurrent.
Starewicz’s painstaking methodology involved continuously photographing insects and puppets by changing their facial expressions and positions in space incrementally with the help of surgical tongs to give the appearance of smooth movement. The resulting intermittence of movement produces a fascinating mixture of the comic and the gothic. His films became progressively more complex, with the later films having more intricate set of expressions, massive set-pieces with dozens of puppets, and shots ranging from extreme close-ups to long shots.