Władysław Starewicz: The Polish entomologist who invented puppet animation films

A scene from "The Cameraman’s Revenge" (1912) Creative Commons

Nick Park’s ‘Wallace and Gromit’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’ and may well have broken the mould when it comes to animated films, but they may not have been made at all were it not for Polish animator Władysław Starewicz.

Not that he was directly involved, having been born 136 years ago today.

But it was he whose pioneering work lay the groundwork for all future animations.

Born August 8, 1882, in Moscow, Russia, to noble Polish parents young Starewicz spent his childhood and youth in both Lithuania and Estonia.

As a young man he developed an interest in entomology and began collecting and studying insects, becoming a co-founder and later the director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas.

And it was here that he began his venture into animation. In 1909, he decided to make a series of short documentary films, showing the beauty of Lithuanian nature, and in particular his favourite insect – the Stag Beetle.

But after switching on the film lights the beetles froze so he removed their legs and exchanged them with tiny wires attached to their thoraxes.

He then filmed them frame-by-frame as he slowly moved them to make them appear as if they were moving.

And thus was born the first puppet animation film in history. It also inspired Starewicz to change careers and to become a fulltime animator.

He moved to Moscow and joined the renowned Aleksandr Khanzhonkov film studio where, in 1912, he produced one of the first ever animated stop-motion film ‘The Beautiful Leukanida’.

From there his career took off and between 1912 and 1917 he gained international recognition. In 1914 he won the Gold Medal at the international festival in Milan in 1914 and was later decorated by the Tsar as one of the founding fathers of early Russian cinema.

With the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1917, he fled to Paris where he became a member of the White Russian community.

Changing his name to Ladislas Starevich, to make it easier to pronounce, he resumed his work creating some milestones in film history with animations such as ‘The Tale of the Fox (1937), the first feature animation puppet film in the Western World released just eight months before Disney's ‘Snow White’.

An earlier film, ‘The Mascot’ (1934), had put him on the Hollywood radar and years later the film was mentioned by Terry Gilliam as being one of his Top 10 animations of all time.

Despite his successes he died in extreme poverty on February 26th 1965, after more than 45 years of doing animation films in France, but is still considered one of the fathers and key figures in animation.