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Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date: 1930-1932
In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).
‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.
Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.
The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong communistic character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.
Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.
Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.
Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’
Director: Yuri Norstein
Release Date: 1979
These images are altered with images of a river scene with a.o. a fisherman, his wife and his children, and a giant Picasso-like minotaur skipping rope. Two other recurring images are that of dancing wives losing their men to war, and that of a little boy eating apples in the snow.
‘Tale of Tale’s is regarded as Yuri Norstein’s masterpiece and as one of the best animation films of all time. This does not mean it is the most accessible of all films, on the contrary. ‘Tale of Tales’ is a poetic film, but a confusing one. The nostalgic images seem unrelated, and are shown in a non-linear fashion. In fact, it is very difficult to render a ‘tale’ out of the images, which are intrinsically very strong, especially those of the melancholy wolf cub and of the iconic river scene.
Most of the film is made of muddy images in sepia-tones, rendering a dreamy atmosphere. Many images return, bridged by the wolf cub character, who, alone, seems to live in the present, outside of the images of a childhood long past. There’s some vague sense of a happy childhood being shattered by war and being lost in time.
The film uses no dialogue, and even the music is timid in its evocation of mood. Some of the cut-out animation is superb, however, and the overall imagery one of great virtuosity. The end result is as beautiful as it is overlong and frustratingly incomprehensible.
Watch ‘Tale of Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Michel Ocelot
Release date: 1979
In this film he uses elegant cut-out designs with a stunning virtuosity to evoke the gallant world of the late 18th century. The elaborate and graceful cut-outs recall the works by Lotte Reiniger from the 1920s, although Ocelot uses white laced paper on monochrome backgrounds, opposed to Reiniger’s black shapes.
The story is told with a little voice over, and a small amount of dialogue. The narrator introduces to us a family of inventors, a man, a woman and a little girl whose inventions (a balloon, a knitting machine and an automatic bird, respectively) are misunderstood and destroyed by the fearful, jealous and narrow-minded townspeople. When they try to show a steam engine to their neighbors, things go particularly awry.
True enough, the film suffers from bad sound designs and rather ugly harpsichord music. Yet, the film is not only beautiful to look at, Ocelot succeeds in evoking real emotions of disappointment, loss and fear. Its ending is disturbing enough, making it a true classic from the late 1970s. Indeed, the film won several prizes. Later, Ocelot would become an even greater voice in the animation world, especially with his feature film ‘Kirikou et la sorcière’ (1998).
Watch ‘Les trois inventeurs’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Les trois inventeurs’ is available on the DVD ‘Les trésors cachés de Michel Ocelot’
Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1985
Based on an ancient proverb (which one could translate into ‘it’s dogged as does it’), this film tells about a fisherman who is disturbed by two pelicans and who disguises himself as a scarecrow to catch the two birds.
The cut-out animation of the birds is very naturalistic, yet the backgrounds, based on paintings from the Tang dynasty, are are very graphical. Unfortunately, compared to the stunning animation of the animals, the animation of the fisherman is very crude and primitive, and the film suffers a little from a slow pace and all too present music.
Watch ‘The Straw Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Straw Man’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’
* this film is also known by its French title: ‘l’épouvantail’
Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1983
And like many other Chines films it has a look based on ancient Chinese paintings, it’s set in nature, and it deals with a fisherman.
In this film, a fisherman, a kingfisher and a snipe try to open a giant clam. When the snipe gets stuck, it’s the fisherman who wins the day. The film is based on an ancient Chinese proverb, which can be translated into “two dogs fight for a bone, and a third one runs away with it”.
In ”The Snipe and the Clam’ Hu Jinqing excels in gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, beautiful designs, great silent acting and remarkably naturalistic cut out-animation of the animals. In comparison, the animation of the fisherman is simple and rather crude. The film unfolds at an unhurried, almost meditative speed, which can make it difficult to enjoy.
Watch ‘The Snipe and the Clam’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Snipe and the Clam’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’
* this film is also known as ‘Snipe-Clam Grapple’, and by its French title: ‘l’aigrette et j’huitre’
Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1972
It combines paintings of the Virgin Mary with images of war. Its darkest moment is when a soldier in a gas mask kills a Vietnamese child. The film ends with live action footage of people protesting against the Vietnam war. Clever montage suggests that the protesters are being repressed.
Despite its disturbing character the film is too blatantly propagandastic and too directionless to be a classic. It also uses little animation.
Watch ‘Ave Maria’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Ave Maria’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: 1951
The film shows that Trnka was a master in this technique as well: the animation is superb: the sense of weight, muscular tensions and balance is nothing less than stunning. Moreover, the cut-outs seem to float in mid-air, casting wonderful shadows on the background.
Unfortunately, the film’s subject is not that interesting. We watch circus artists perform, among them two sea lions juggling, a girl on a horse, three trapeze acrobats and an acrobat bear balancing on a chair on a bottle on a glass. Even though some of the shown tricks are quite improbable, the only truly surrealistic act is the fish on the slack-rope.
Despite the lack of story, the film is an enjoyable watch: its visual design is beautiful and poetic, its animation fluent and convincing, and its circus atmosphere well-captured. ‘The Merry Circus’ may not be Trnka’s best film, but it’s only the high quality of some of his other films that makes this one second-rate.
Watch ‘The Merry Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: René Laloux
Release Date: May 11, 1973
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
‘La planète sauvage’ is an old love of mine. I first watched it when I was ca. six or seven. It took me fifteen years before I learned which film I had actually watched, and it would take me another ten years before I could watch it again. However, all the time the film’s powerful images never left me.
‘La planète sauvage’ is a science-fiction feature, which tells about the life of humans (‘Oms’, which sounds like the french word for humans, ‘hommes’) on a strange planet occupied by story-block-high humanoid giants, called Draags. To them humans are no more than pets and pests. By accident, a pet Om, Terr (symbolically named after the French word for Earth, terre), learns the Draags’ knowledge and he leads his fellow humans into an uprising.
However, ‘La planète sauvage’ is not particularly famous for its straightforward and rather cliche plot. Its strength lies in its effective use of Roland Topor’s very surrealistic designs, which makes the depicted planet incomprehensible, foreign and scary. For example, the Draag’s behavior is so strange, that despite their humanoid form they feel very alien, indeed. The film’s original technique of combining drawn animation with cut-out adds to the surreal atmosphere. Even the space funk music accompanying the action sounds outlandish.
Even though the animation sometimes is rather stiff and at times even ridiculously poor, the graphic imaginary is so strong that these shortcomings never spoil the enjoyment of the film. On the contrary, the film’s totally unique and disturbing atmosphere and its philosophical questions about what makes man human make watching ‘La planète sauvage’ a very rewarding experience.
Together with Bruno Bozzetto’s ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976) and Martin Rosen’s ‘Watership Down’ (1978) Laloux’s film must be counted among the most outstanding features of the seventies. René Laloux would make two other science fiction features, ‘Les maîtres du temps‘ (1981) and ‘Gandahar‘ (1988), but these do not reach the stunning originality of the visuals in this film.
Watch the trailer for ‘La Planète sauvage’: