The onset of animation as a creative Russian art form pre-dates the revolution, with the ground-breaking stop-motion work of Aleksander Shiryayev. Between 1906-09 he created animated ballet sequences utilising posable puppet figures, for largely private films. Having been displayed as a curio to a limited audience, the work fell out of time – lost until a re-discovery in post-Soviet 1995.
Shiryayev’s animated work was perhaps something of an aside to his main career as principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet (now The Mariinsky Ballet). Additionally, he choreographed and taught: a full schedule by anyone’s definition, and perhaps not conducive to a second career as demanding as that of an animator?
Throughout Shiryayev’s absence, the Russian animation scene would develop and prosper, finding a strong foothold during the Soviet years – which may come as a surprise here in the West. Nuclear missiles and Cold-War conflicts are news after all; animation: not so much.
Ladislas Starevich also found his voice in animation independently and indirectly – a curious, creative development of his work as a biologist and entomologist. It’s a macabre deviation from his respectable career, but Starevich’s animated vocation was born out of his educational films that utilised the bodies of embalmed insects as stop-motion puppets!
Having seen Émile Cohl’s 1908 creation Les allumettes animées (Animated Matches), he made a creative leap from the 2D match based line-art featured in Cohl’s work to 3D animated insect bodies that utilised posable wire legs, in order to stage an animated battle between two stag beetles. This creation: Lucanus Cervus or The Battle of the Stag Beetles, ostensibly educational in purpose, is a landmark work, claimed in retrospect to be the first 3D puppet animation with a plot and a narrative.
A crucial first step then, in an art form that is still established today, and indeed has undergone something of a renaissance through the output of Aardman Animations and Henry Selick – who actually directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, amongst others. Even mainstream-cult (?) director Wes Anderson has ventured into the field with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Puppet animation is officially cool and certainly has a place alongside modern computer graphic techniques.
Back in 1911: Starewicz headed for Moscow – he was a native Pole – where he would produce over 20 animated shorts of the stop-motion insect/animal corpse variety for Aleksandr Khanzhonkov’s film company. Khanzhonkov was something of a pioneer in his own right, having produced Defence of Sevastopol, Russia’s first feature. He would also found Russia’s first film studio/factory (also in 1911), leave the country during the revolution and return in 1923 as director of Proletkino, the new Soviet studio. His tenure there would last for a mere three years however, before a corruption scandal at the studio saw his abdication and the end of a brief, dynamic, strange but influential career.
Ladislas Starevich pursued his art, establishing himself as a master of the genre. He would make another creative leap through the introduction of live-actors interacting with his animated narratives – another ground breaking technique at the time.
His operation would transfer permanently to Europe with his arrival in France in 1920, after fleeing the Russian revolution – though not before receiving an honour from the Tsar for his interpretation of the classic fable: The Ant & The Grasshopper (1911). After creating what would become his most famous film: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) and the Milan festival gold-winner Terrible Vengeance (1913, live action) his prolific war-time career would see the production of 60 films for various studios. The Russian revolution prompted Starevich – and most of his film community peers – to side with the Tsarist White Army, ultimately resulting in a swarm of creative refugees fleeing to Yalta in Crimea ahead of the Red forces, onto Europe and out of Soviet animation for ever.
(Photo from Creative Commons source)