Articles

Lotte Reiniger and the silhouette animation

achmed2teaser-big_905There’s a lot of different techniques that will alone make a great visual experience. One of them goes back almost one hundred years, silhouette animation, pioneered most importantly by a young German girl.

Lotte Reiniger made silhouette animation, because she was good at it. Cutting silhouettes from paper was a common interest of young females in the dawn of last century. Lotte’s skills with scissors was considered above others and with all that enthusiasm this wannabe actress had, it was only a matter of time when she was picked up.

She cut silhouettes of other actors and actresses when she wasn’t on stage herself, and by the stage side she was found by film director Paul Wegener, who asked her to craft title screens for his new film. At that time, title screens were still a noticeable area of work. Alfred Hitchcock for example began his career creating a dozen of titles from 1920 to 1922, before making any films. Though, all of them are lost.

At the time of Wegener’s next film, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln, faith entered the picture. The intended rats did not act like they were hoped, and Lotte cut the rats from paper and animated them on screen. Her first animation work can be thus found on that picture.

Reininger became familiar with other German experimental film makers, and was soon an insider. Pioneers of abstract film helped Lotte start up her professional career by convincing the financiers and helping with the special effects. Carl Koch ended up being not only a collaborator for life, but also marrying Lotte.

After the first short film was made, Lotte had some reference to show and she was hired to do a commercial for Nivea. Faithful to her style, but in reverse method the film had one colored figures on black background, not vice versa like usually.

The commercial helped her finance more short films and after a few fairy tale films she started a project now known as the first existing feature length animated film ever made. It is true, there may have been an Argentinian film made already in 1917, but there’s a little evidence on that. The film is anyway lost and no images are found.

 

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

 

Prince Achmed of course is Lotte’s most famous piece, because it’s a feature length. A longer film is always a process of it’s own, but in this case, greatest technical abilities, musical visualization, fairy tale and humor can be found from her short films.

Especially a sort of sub-plot from Prince Achmed, Seemingly Dead Chinese, shows Lotte’s ability to do black comedy. A drunken Chinese man is thrown from man to man, as they all think he’s dead.

The boldest and most intense film is Carmen, classical opera about a gypsy woman dancing and singing in the crowds, amazingly conducted. In some sense, it’s the very finest piece Lotte ever made. It is fast paced and the animation and rhythm meets in perfect harmony all the time.

Lotte had a long break from animation during the WWII, and moved to England. It was a land of all new oppurtunities for her. BBC ordered a series of classic fairy tales, and in mid-fifties she did dozens of silhouette animations based on Brothers Grimm, H.C. Andersen and other standards.

Many of the most charming fairy tale adaptations can be found there. Among the most beautiful ones are definitely Thumbelina and Snow-White and Rose-Red. Her ability to tell a story and make it beautifully graphic was at it’s best during her most active era.

 

Lotte Reiniger: Thumbelina (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Thumbelina (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Snow-White and Rose-Red (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Snow-White and Rose-Red (1954)

 

In those films, all compositions of nature, human and animals is flawless, each frame is like it was taken from a picture book, animation is smooth, and all is represented in glorious black and white, just like Lotte always though was best for this style.

Lotte also tried vaguely different approach after that. A cut-out animation. Technique of animating wasn’t necessarily all that different, but the looks was. Instead of being just black figures, the characters had actually faces and colorful clothes et cetera.

The fact, that Lotte experimented with cut-out animation is very unknown, but not because those films would’ve been weaker. The cut-out films are actually among the best of her latter works.

Basically, Lotte’s active career ended in the late fifties, but she did come back for two, quarter of an hour long, ambitious and showy pieces for Natioanl Film Board of Canada.

Canada has the most Europe-friendly approach for animated films outside the continent, and therefor it’s no wonder it was NFB that gave Lotte the oppurtunity to show yet one more side of her.

These films parody and satirize romantic epics and fantasy literature. First beinig Aucassin and Nicolette (1975), based on medieval parody of the same name. It was adapted to shadow puppetry for the first time in 1909 by French Paul Le Flem. Last film adaptation Lotte did was based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring from 1854.

Lotte is often said to be the only film maker using silhouettes as the most common technique of professional film making, but the style was popular in Germany for long, even after Lotte left her birth country. All the way from the late fifties to the dismantling of the Wall.

 

Manfred Henke: Ali und Der Hexenmeister (1986)

Manfred Henke: Ali und Der Hexenmeister (1986)

Michel Ocelot: Icare (1989)

Michel Ocelot: Icare (1989)

 

The film studio owned by DDR, called DEFA, actually produced loads of silhouette films for many decades. The most important film makers of this style were Bruno J. Böttge and Manfred Henke. All followers, including them, were true to Lotte Reiniger’s style. Especially the films from the fifties was seeking to be almost exactly the same.

Bruno J. Böttge’s films are equally good from every decade. He never strayed from the path too much, he settled for making Reiniger-pastiches. Some of DEFA directors went too far with the experimenting with the effects and overall image of the films and ruined the whole concept.

Silhouette film became mainly an aesthetic style, not technical. The black shadow figures were soon filled with colorful clothes and pieces of jewellery.

Manfred Henke made a lot of uninteresting basic works, but he also made something great. Ali und Der Hexenmeister from 1986 is one of the greatest hidden silhouette gems. It is practically unknown, yet very nicely crafted, adventurous tale with powerful music and sound effects, a lot of tension, good tempo and great images filled at times with surrealism and psychedelia. It has also a lot of tracking shots, that are not usually seen at all in silhouette films.

Still, the greatest contemporary silhouette animation film maker is French. Michel Ocelot had the idea on a workshop, and flatly copied Reiniger’s style too, but he could bring the whole aesthetic style to this date, with rich details and ornament-like nature design. From the eighties, all the way to this day, silhouette animation stands as his biggest trademark alongside with Kirikou the character.

 

Playdead: Limbo (2010)

Playdead: Limbo (2010)

Buzea: Eroul fara nume (2014)

Buzea: Eroul fara nume (2014)

 

As a style, silhouettes are again a small trend, but the contemporary silhouette animation is being made entirely without scissors. In the world of video gaming and mainstream film titles, the CGI silhouettes have become darker and darker, even more gothic in general. Part of it’s of course amazingly good, but it’s always a pity when a handmade art form disappears.

Silhouette animation cut with scissors is pretty much dead.

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Articles

Death Maze Challenge (2014)

DMC001

 

Even though animation has come a long way, there’s still so much to discover. The formats, the mediums, the people are all evolving, all the time. YouTube is among the most popular medias of this age, and video games are the most inflating forms of entertainment there are. Almost all video games are practically a form of animation itself, but even that considered, there’s some really notable pieces nodding up to some classic animated films too, like Machinarium and Limbo.

What is truly bizarre, is that aesthetics of classic video games have not so much mixed up with the animated films. Until just lately. But while animated films haven’t crossed so much with for example platformers deliberately, some much older techniques have a lot in common with this newer medium. Most distinctly silhouette animation, Lotte Reiniger, Bruno J. Böttge, Manfred Henkel and Michel Ocelot. They’ve all made some fantastic silhouette films that at times have the same aesthetic feel as the platformers. A recent addition to this tradition is a very nice Romanian music video by Stefan & Ducu Buzea – Alex Bratu: Eroul Fara Nume!

Also from Romania, comes this whole new approach on the medium called Death Maze Challenge. A new episode was originally supposed to be screened on every Monday at YouTube, starting from today. Due to all the work load on one-man band behind all this, Virgil Mihailescu, it is now a bit uncertain whether it’s going to last for many episodes that way. The concept is great nevertheless.

What is this all about? I had a chat with Virgil Mihailescu, and you can read all about it after you check out the teaser from here and if you like it, subscribe to Death Maze Challenge.

 

DMC002

 

ea_1 You’re doing an animated series based on the laws and aesthetics of entirely different medium, the classic 2D platformer. It’s a very traditional type of video game standard, and within just around five years it’s been popular again due to successful indie games made by people who grew up playing them.

(I myself played hundreds of video games during the 1990s, I especially loved the platformers, adventure games and strategy games, everything to do with progress of man, mankind and technology. I didn’t like where the gaming industry in general went with 3D at some point, but it was indie-games like Machinarium, Limbo, VVVVVV, Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy and Bindings of Isaac that got me interested again.) So, firstly I’m interested in your gaming history now. What’s it like?

dmc_1My gaming history is not that impressive. I don’t play as much as others. I didn’t even have my own PC until I was quite old.. like 18-19 years old? I was a musician and didn’t care much about spending time on a computer. But even if I didn’t have a computer as a kid, some of my friends did, and I was mesmerized.. I started drawing platform games on paper, sort of like table-top games, and played them with my friends..

My first console [I was about 14] could only play Tetris and the Snake. I didn’t care much for the latter, but I was obsessed with Tetris. It’s only much later though that I had a decent PC to run fancy games. I like lots of games, like shooters, action RPGs, open worlds, sandboxes, a bit of strategy, empire-building games, racing and I’m especially interested in Indie games because they often embody the vision of one person and are born out of passion for games and the need to play a game that doesn’t exist yet, not from the need to make money.

Let’s stay with platformers. Probably the first I ever played was Dizzy. I’ve been constantly on and off platformers, but they’re a recurrent motive.. I played a bunch of NES and SNES games on emulators, on the PC, but I’m more interested in the recent ones. Limbo, VVVVVV, Risk of Rain, Nifflas’ games, Rayman, Broforce, Spelunky, Starbound, N, Super Meat Boy and lots of others.

Nowadays platformers are getting more and more sophisticated, more alive, more dynamic and original, people keep trying new things.. on top of tried and true game mechanics, which is great! I think 2D platformers are a gold mine, like shooters. They have this excellent core mechanic: jumping very accurately, no holding hands here. Being precise when navigating around a death maze.

They still have a lot of potential, I’m sure a lot of things have not been tried yet, and as AI evolves, as computers evolve, so will platformers. I’d love to play an empire-building game inside a sandbox platformer for ex. A 2D platformer where you build your own armies and go conquer a procedurally generated world.

 

DMC003

 

Are you more into the retro platformers or new indie-games, the neo-retro platformers. Or both equally? Your work reminds more of the new ones. And does your inspiration to do this work come more from animation or video gaming?

The main idea for Death Maze Challenge comes from stick figure death mazes. You can find tons of them on YouTube. I only wanted to give them human expression. They’re fancy stick figures with a bit of character, who don’t just fall into a trap, but feel miserable about falling into a trap. And don’t just move from A to B but are happy or excited or unsure or afraid to go from A to B. The inspiration comes just as much from film and animation as it comes from games.

Your idea is fresh and interesting way to explore the medium. It’s also a great example of new kind of influences and way of thinking and possibly story telling in contemporary animation. Traditional animated film makers have been looking up the book illustrations, painting, comic books and different techniques, and not being interested in video games at all. I’m still surprised the video game looks and platformer looks and the whole method of telling a story has not been exploited properly. Do you want to explore the idea further, telling a large scale story, journey or progress of man or another unit or theme in more metaphorical manner? Or do you wish to try completely new things in the future?

Thank you, it’s very nice of you to say that! I hope that I will indeed manage to do some things in DMC that you can’t normally do in a platformer, and take people unexpected places.. We’ll see. I must confess I don’t know where this series is going. And I’m very happy about that. You might find this insane, but I really want to be just as surprised about every new episode as the audience will [hopefully] be. Even more so, I hope there will be a response, and if people contribute with ideas.. that might take the series even further and zanier.

Also, my initial plan was to start working on a feature. And drawing flat worlds and 2D animation that doesn’t move in depth.. is much easier than involving a 3rd dimension. So.. that was the first step, and then I kept drawing and planning all sorts of stories.. like this one: A boy, a girl, 2 swords, 1000 platforms. That was one of the early ideas for a platformer-feature-film. :} They’re going to Candy Mountain to defeat the mean old man who chased them out of Candy Paradise.. or something. And they’re eating sandwiches, sitting on a platform, in mid air. And they help each other climb the mountain of platforms and defeat the tons of buzzing bees defending Candy Kingdom and so on. :} And then I thought of many other such stories, of ‘real people’ having to deal with a 2D platformer. But then for this YouTube series I wanted something simpler, no story, just craziness.

I agree the gameplay isn’t exactly featured in movies often. Strangely enough, since gameplay can be pure visual entertainment. Games on the other hand are trying really hard to become movies. Strangely enough again, since good gameplay is something very different from good storytelling, if you ask me. Story messes up gameplay and vice versa.

I don’t usually see game characters as empathic humans, most of the time they feel just like game objects with a very limited, scripted agenda. They deliver information, puzzles, bullets. It won’t happen that an NPC will simply not be found where expected, because he woke up late, or felt ill, or just didn’t care. I have to be able to rely on that NPC being at work every day.. or I will get very frustrated for not being able to progress in the game.

This is not only nonsense but also really boring for a story, it’s a logical progression, not a chain of unexpected events. I think gameplay is all about logic and balance, story is all about the unexpected. That being said, of course the 2 worlds can happily collide, and I think we’re only starting to understand how games can have real storytelling behind, and the movies, I hope, will also start to pump some more adrenaline or just borrow some fresh ideas from the wild world of games.

 

DMC004

 

How about your history on animation then? How long you’ve been practicing the medium and how?

I started learning animation 10 years ago. I’m a 3D animator by day. I worked in commercials and games, did a bit of freelance, and now I work on the awesome Total War series for the Creative Assembly. I started writing and drawing stories as a kid though. I became a musician then, studied composition, rediscovered the visual arts and here I am, many years later, doing music and drawings. I always wanted to make animated films, still do, but I have no idea how to turn my cartooning into a business, I’m no businessman.

If I make a pilot for a TV series I wouldn’t know how to pitch that to Whichever Network. So I’m starting this YouTube series, I’m happy that it’s my own stuff and there’s no 3rd parties involved. Who knows, if there is an audience for it. It will grow. And then it might be followed by a story-driven series. But for that I will need help.. I won’t do that on my own. I hope a solution will come in time.

How did you end up in the particular aesthetics on your animation?

I like simple drawings, I want to focus on expression.. not on lighting and shading. I want very simple limbs for my characters, so I can draw them really fast. And I thought more seriously about some Rayman-like game-like animation, because it’s easy and fast to animate. I really like what they did in the recent Rayman 2D games, they’re expressive platformers with many simple animations that combine and flow really well.

My stuff is simpler, fewer poses and animations, but I can make crazier combinations and I can adjust things on the fly. I mean a stop/skid/turn pose might be used for climbing or jumping or dodging bullets, you name it. And if I don’t like the face I erase it and pop another one in pretty quickly. Everything is based on a small number of initial drawings, like.. 5 head shapes and 5 body shapes, plus maybe a prop or two. Turn that into a bunch of poses/animations. Go crazy.

I also always loved black and white comics. I think you either do black and white line drawing, or you go with color and think in terms of color, shading, lighting, but not line. I usually don’t like colored line-drawings, I think color often looks kind of cheap and out of place there.. There are exceptions, maybe using colored lines, and I find that hard to draw. I want to be able to sketch things really quickly, focus on ideas, shapes. Keeping things black and white allows me to do that.

 

DMC005

 

Your favorite / most influential films?

Oh man, this is hard. I like lots of things. My favorite directors appeal to the 12-14 year old child in me I guess.. Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa. So let me try a top 10..

1 Alien.
The best SciFi movie ever made. I like that it’s simple and primal, it explains little, it shows you.. not too little, not too much. The perfect film.

2 Jurassic Park.
Grand idea. I really like Spielberg when he is telling stories for kids, like ET, I think that’s where he’s at his best. Jurassic Park is not ET, which I like for its simplicity and emotional moments, but it’s more colorful, exotic, and fantastic.

3 Seven Samurai.
It’s hard to pick my favorite Kurosawa movie. I guess between this and Yojimbo. I like the charismatic.. intense characters, the idea, the setting. It’s a serious film for kids of all ages, which is the kind of stuff that I’m most interested in.

4 Saving Private Ryan.
One of my favorite quests and war movies. Great story, great characters, great idea, great cinematography.

5 Dr Strangelove.
Each Kubrick film is unique and amazing, but this is his funniest. It’s simple and fluid, it talks very simply about a potentially complicated political situation and just focuses on the ridiculousness of it. I love ridiculous and surreal humor.

6 The Lord of the Rings.
The story is silly but.. there is nothing more epic ever made, so far. I’m waiting for better fantasy anyway, something like what Alien is for sci-fi. And I don’t necessarily mean gritty realism, I’m waiting for fantasy that is really fantasy, only.. for the very demanding 21st century audiences. People go crazy for fantastic worlds, but are always afraid that the storytelling will be superficial and silly. Because it usually is, in fantasy at least.

7 Burn After Reading.
I like all Coen brothers movies, and especially this total, crazy, creative clusterfuck.

8 Reservoir Dogs.
Intense.. I guess my favorite Tarantino movie. Yet again, I like that it’s simple and primal.

9 Deconstructing Harry.
Simply because it’s one of Woody Allen’s best films [this one and Annie Hall are my favorites] and Woody Allen is enormously funny.

10 Kung Fu Panda.
One of the best superhero movies ever made, excellent characters and story, really funny. And I had to add an animated film, right?

Your views on animation in Romania?

We have the Animest festival, and we have our animation pioneer, certainly the only famous Romanian animator, Gopo. But what can I say… it’s not doing that great, for the time being. There are very few people working in the field, very few studios.. like FrameBreed for example. They’re some of the best on the Romanian market.

There’s little demand and little offer, and nobody can afford quality animation. Also, not much in terms of learning actual character animation in schools, although that’s generally true almost everywhere. : } People probably mostly learn just like I did, on their own, thanks to the world wide web..

That is very true.

So, all you animation and video game buffs out there, do encourage this awesomeness by spreading the word. If you’re still not sure about it, check out this other teaser here and be convinced. A grim marriage between tension, black comedy and horror soundscapes! Fresh, contemporary, fun art.

DMC006

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