You can't talk about the origin of the modern animated film without talking about the work of Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981), the German creator of some 40 animated films between the 1910s and the 70s. And you can hardly talk about Reiniger's work without talking about the enchanting art of shadow puppetry, which we mostly associate with traditional cultures like that of Indonesia, but which also inspired her early 20th-century innovations in animation.
This may sound quite obscure, especially when put up against the Disney and Pixar extravaganzas in theaters today, but all these forms of entertainment draw, in a sense, from a common well: the fairy tale.
The creators of today's mega-budget animated films know full well the enduring value of fairy tales, and so continue to adapt their basic story material, layering on both the latest visual effects and smirking gags with up-to-the-minute references in order to keep the obvious entertainment value high. But Indonesian shadow puppet theater has been doing the same thing for centuries and centuries, converting ancient folktales into an evening's (albeit often a long evening's) musical entertainment for audiences of era after new era. And Reiniger, in her day, revived the oldest European stories with technology once as striking and cinematically cutting-edge as today's most advanced CGI.
You can watch Reiniger's 1922 adaptation of Cinderella at the top of the post. "Nobody else has defined a form of animation as authoritatively as she did," writes Dan North of Spectacular Attractions, "and the opening section, where scissors make the first cuts into the main character, conjuring her out of simple raw materials, displays the means by which the story is fabricated and marks it out as a product of her labour." Below that, we have a later work, 1955's Hansel and Gretel, an example of her further developed technique, and just above you'll find that same year's Däumelinchen, also known as Thumbelina.
To get a clearer sense of exactly what went into these shorts (or into 1926's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, her only feature-length film, and first fully animated feature in the history of cinema), watch the seventeen-minute documentary "The Art of Lotte Reiniger" just above. "No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own," writes the British Film Institute's Philip Kemp, "to date she has no rivals, and for all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger" — but the way she breathed life into her material lives on.
You can find Reiniger's films added to our list of Free Animated Films, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.