Last week we featured 1937's The Tale of the Fox, the crowning glory of inventive Russian filmmaker Ladislas Starevich's work in puppet animation. But he didn't always shoot puppets as we know them; at the dawn of his career — and thus the dawn of Russian animation — he had to make use of what lay close at hand. Today we go back a couple decades further, to the time when Starevich (then known, before his immigration to Paris, as Władysław Starewicz) worked not as an animator but as the director of Kovno, Lithuania's Museum of Natural History. Interested in filming nocturnal stag beetles but unable to get a performance out of them under film lights, he hit upon the idea of shooting not living insects but dead ones, their legs replaced with wire which he could reposition frame-by-frame. The result? Starevich's early, still-entertaining shorts like 1911's The Ant and the Grasshopper (also known as The Dragonfly and the Ant) at the top.
But you haven't truly experienced dead-bug animation until you've seen The Cameraman's Revenge, just above. Starevich made it in 1912, by which time his animation skills had developed to the point that each player moves in a manner both realistically buglike (some contemporary viewers mistook them for trained insects moving in real time) and parodically evocative of human characters. Slate's Joan Newberger describes the plot of this "comic melodrama in meticulously detailed miniature sets" as follows: "We meet a beetle couple, Mr. and Mrs. Zhukov (zhuk means beetle in Russian), both of whom are carrying on extramarital affairs. Zhukov wins the affections of a dragonfly cabaret dancer, but flies into a rage when he comes home to discover his wife in the 'arms' of an artist (also played by a beetle)." But the plot thickens, and this seemingly simple (if obviously complex in craft, especially for the time) tale even uses a bit of cinema-within-cinema at its denouement. Starewicz made early stop-motion for sure, but he didn't make the earliest. Smithsonian.com has a post on that, citing the 1902 Thomas Edison-produced Fun in a Bakery Shop as the first surviving example — but, alas, a bugless one.
Starevich's films can be found in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. Look under Animation.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.