November 17, 2008
This year’s Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema kicked off last Thursday night with a screening of Europe’s first animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Arbenteuer des Prinzen Achmed). Considered Europe's first animated feature film, it is 81 minutes long, and was made in 1926 by Lotte Reiniger (along with her husband and two others).

Reiniger made the film with paper cut-out shadow puppets – apparently over 100,000 of them. What was particularly special about Thursday night’s screening was the live soundtrack performed by Miles and Karina, who were commissioned earlier this year by The Northwest Film Forum to compose a new score for this amazing piece of cinematic history. I lost myself in the story – a tale based on 1001 Arabian nights – partly because the beautiful details of the animation worked so well at propelling the story, but also very much because the music was such a brilliant complement to the visuals… Miles and Karina’s music evoked the moods and humor of the story beautifully – and so subtly that I completely forgot the music was being performed live!

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November 1, 2008

I first saw The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2005 during the short film competition on Saturday night. I remember that particular program was exceptional, but this short was the most remarkable of the lot for me. It appeals to several biases: it has both a steampunk and a gothic horror motif; the story has excellent pacing and takes it time, but ropes you in; and it looks gorgeous, using a silhouette animation style reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger, but refined for our times with motion graphics and digital compositing.

This short, directed by Anthony Lucas, is supposed to be the first of a trilogy. Last week, the distributor Monster Distributes put the entire short up on Youtube and quite deservedly, it is one of the featured shorts in the Youtube Screening Room. Perhaps the short will gain new fans, hastening the next installment.

As if this weekend wasn't creepy enough. Check this out.

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January 31, 2008
Last week Friday, the Children's Film Festival Seattle kicked off its 2008 edition and there is lots of animation in its program. It's still not too late to catch some wonderful events:

The opening film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, will be showing again this Sunday with a new score commissioned by the Northwest Film Forum. This feature was created in 1926, 11 years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by German animator Lotte Reiniger. Her silhouette animation is gorgeous and will easily captivate an audience in 2008.

All the remaining feature-length films are live-action, but preceded by animated shorts. The short programs include some animated shorts, and two are devoted specifically to it: Saturday's two Awesome Animation programs feature recent shorts from Sweden, including the very sweet Aston's Stones and a Will Vinton retrospective.

Will Vinton will actually be present at the festival, and he will also be conducting a workshop discussing his personal experience in both clay and 3D animation.

(Thanks to Plexipixel, also a festival sponsor.)

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April 20, 2007
In my view, there are two types of people in the world: those who are in love with Lotte Reiniger's films, and those who haven't seen them yet. If you're unfamiliar with Reiniger's films, the image at left should give you an idea of her style: she was a pioneer of silhouette films, in which the characters and objects were hinged cutout figures manipulated on glass and lit from underneath.

I don't use the word "pioneer" lightly. Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often labelled as the first feature-length animated film, but Reiniger's 65-minute The Adventures of Prince Achmed was completed in 1926, while Walt was still working on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts. And creating images based on layered cutouts necessitated a setup quite similar to a multiplane camera. You can see images of Reiniger at work on this excellent German website.

Prince Achmed was incredibly ambitious, especially considering Reiniger had fewer than ten films under her belt at the time; but if you have the good fortune to see it on the big screen, you realize how much she was in command of her art. None of the fantasy, wonder, romance or whimsy of 1,001 Arabian Nights is lost. And, amazingly, she continued to produce enchanting films for another fifty years.

Which brings me to a recent release I just head about, Musik und Zaubereien (Music and Magic), the third in German company absolutMEDIEN's series of DVDs featuring Reiniger's work. (It's region-free, but it's in PAL, so if you don't have a multi-format DVD player, you can at least watch it on your computer screen.) You won't find The Adventures of Prince Achmed there—that's a separate absolutMEDIEN release, with more extras than the American DVD—but you will find two discs of her work spanning from 1930 to 1971, with her pre-WWII films on one disc and post-WWII films (made in England) on the other. The discs also come with a 27-page booklet (in German), including such things as copies of the censorship cards for some of her films.

It's almost twenty years since I first saw a Reiniger film—it might have been one of her National Film Board of Canada shorts—and about fifteen since I saw The Adventures of Prince Achmed on the big screen at the Cinémathèque Québecoise. While other filmmakers have made excellent silhouette films, they seem incomplete compared to Reiniger's. Michel Ocelot's Princes et princesses from 2000, which incorporates his 1987 short Les Quatres voeux, has the humour, Zumbakamera's Bendito Machine has the bizarrely fantastic imagery, but in all this time I've never had the sense of completeness I get with Reiniger's films. If you haven't yet fallen in love with Lotte Reiniger's work, Musik und Zaubereien is as good a place as any to start.

[Thanks, Society for Animation Studies.]

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