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Digging for Square Roots

June 9, 2010

Hi, all. This is my first post as a regular contributor here at IMFiB. When Snarky invited me on board, I was flattered and excited. Also a bit nervous. As regular readers have noticed, the folks here know a lot, and they write with authority on all sorts of different subjects. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my life, it’s that I don’t always know what I think I know. I keep unexpectedly finding some new information that changes my view of the way things are. Here’s an example.

I’ve been into animation since I was a small child, and while I was growing up, I heard over and over again that Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) was the first animated feature film ever made. I never heard the Disney Corporation do anything to discourage that understanding. After all, it makes an excellent marketing tool. Then, some years back, I was watching Turner Classic Movies late at night when they showed Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, a German feature-length animated movie from 1926. Based on “One Thousand and One Nights”, it’s a rollicking tale of heroism, romance, combat and sorcery. It’s got some crude ethnic caricatures that aren’t much fun to watch, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it as entertainment, but it is a historically important work.

Why is it so little-known here in the U.S.? For one thing, it uses cut-paper animation, basically the same technique as Terry Gilliam’s cartoon interludes in Monty Python. Reiniger’s work is remarkably sophisticated, bringing in the full range of visual effects that were available in her day, but the style can take some getting used to for an audience. Also, it’s a silent film, which automatically knocks it out of consideration for mainstream distributors. And it doesn’t help that it’s by a female director. At any rate, I was upset that I hadn’t heard about this picture before, but glad I had discovered it. Now I knew what the true first animated feature was.

Except it’s not. Two years ago I was reading “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince” by Marc Eliot, a most unflattering biography of Uncle Walt, and I came across a footnote mentioning Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani’s film “El Apostol”: seventy minutes long, made way back in 1917. It’s virtually forgotten, and that’s not surprising. After all, it’s from a Third World country, and there’s a general unspoken belief here that such countries would never achieve any technical milestone ahead of the industrialized world. On top of that, tragically, the negatives and all known prints have been lost to fire. It’s hard to interest people in a work they have no chance of seeing. So unless a hitherto unknown copy surfaces in some dusty attic or closet, this film will probably remain no more than a historical footnote.

What I’m getting at is this: I try to be sure that I’m on solid ground whenever I make a statement, but I’m still learning. I hope people will feel free to point out when they think I’ve overlooked anything. Dialogue is great! Let’s have some.

In closing, as a new member of the team, I’ve been considering what it means to fry one’s writing in butter. I think it means to write with crispness, with extra-rich flavor. To write prose that sizzles, that goes down smoothly and leaves the reader full for a long time. That’s a high standard, and I’ll do my best to rise to it.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. raymondj permalink
    June 9, 2010 11:54 am

    welcome aboard, Heather!! I have two animation collaboration projects I’m beginning to start work on, one is stop-motion animation and the other is shadow puppets, so I appreciate the history lesson, as I’m a total newbie to the genre who is collaborating with experts.

  2. June 9, 2010 12:19 pm

    Awesome post, and welcome aboard, Heather!

    I probably caught the same showing of “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” as you, and I had the same reaction.

    I love your “frying in butter” analysis! I’ve started a butter-rating system for things I read; the highest is a European butter, like Lurpak–ultra-rich and creamy– while the lowest is something along the lines of Parkay. This also might be because I’m a Paula Deen/Julia Child disciple, and think that everything can be made better with good butter.

  3. evmaroon permalink
    June 9, 2010 12:26 pm

    Woo hoo, Heather! Great post! I think many “firsts” were just the ones that had the best marketing, and not the actual earliest date. Such liars, all those firstists!

    And I also love your butter conceptualization. Nicely done!

  4. June 9, 2010 1:03 pm

    Wonderful introductory post, Heather!

    I was a bit of an animation geek growing up — I used to make claymations on Super8 film, watched National Film Board of Canada shorts, all that — but I’d never heard of nor seen any of Reiniger’s work, so this was educational for me besides cluing me in on your blogging approach.

  5. June 9, 2010 1:10 pm

    This post was AMAZING. Thank you. I had started to learn more about Disney’s checkered history as it relates to appropriating other people’s work for their own – I see you, Lion King – and I had not heard this story before or seen clips. I’m really hoping there’s a copy of “El Apostol” hanging out in someone’s attic.

    Wonderful introduction and welcome to the frybutt family, Heather!

  6. June 9, 2010 1:59 pm

    Awesome post, Heather. Welcome to Fry Butter!

  7. evmaroon permalink
    June 9, 2010 2:04 pm

    Also, very cool animation. I don’t know anything about Lotte Reiniger, so now I have to look her up. You also reminded me that I recently saw a Nazi-era German film about the Titanic, which, when I was shivering from the propaganda messages, had me in stitches with the inaccuracies and anti-British sentiment. I think Germany in the 20s and 30s was a very challenging environment for artists, but that’s the understatement of the week.

  8. irishup permalink
    June 9, 2010 3:16 pm

    “…fry one’s writing in butter. I think it means to write with crispness, with extra-rich flavor. To write prose that sizzles, that goes down smoothly and leaves the reader full for a long time. ”

    Just put *this* on a plate and sop it up with a biscuit. Love it.

    Ok so in this post I learned about erased early German and Argentine animation. Evmaroon brings up Nazi Germany and it’s legendary film propaganda tradition. Many Nazis fled to Argentina post WWII. My favorite lines from Yellow Submarine, an animated film, come near the end:
    Chief Meanie “It’s no longer a blue world. WHERE can we go?”
    Max: “Argentina?”

    Coincidence????

  9. June 9, 2010 5:05 pm

    Oh, irishup, you’re my hero.

    Speaking of animation, propaganda, and Disney: they have an amazing anti-Nazi propaganda film from WWII called “An Education…FOR DEATH!” The animation for part of it is just…amazing, and better than a lot of stuff that I’ve seen in my life. The whole thing is on youtube.

  10. June 9, 2010 5:59 pm

    @evmaroon: I think many “firsts” were just the ones that had the best marketing, and not the actual earliest date. Such liars, all those firstists!

    Totally. “The almost first” doesn’t sound as snazzy on a press release.

    @redlami: Yay! Another kid animation geek! I used to draw flipbooks endlessly. I’d practice moving clay figures one frame at a time even though I didn’t have a camera to photograph them with. And I got my parents to take me to the annual Center Screen festival in Boston a couple of times.

    @Snarky: I also hope someone finds a copy of “El Apostol”. A print of the original cut of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan Arc” turned up more than fifty years after it was thought to be gone for good… so who knows what could happen?

    @evmaroon: I think Germany in the 20s and 30s was a very challenging environment for artists…

    Yup. It had far-reaching consequences, too. The era that’s often called “the Golden Age of Hollywood” (roughly 1935-1945) happened largely because of the huge influx of talented filmmakers fleeing the Nazis.

  11. June 9, 2010 6:19 pm

    Yup. It had far-reaching consequences, too. The era that’s often called “the Golden Age of Hollywood” (roughly 1935-1945) happened largely because of the huge influx of talented filmmakers fleeing the Nazis.

    Same with art, music, literature and graphic design.

  12. June 9, 2010 6:22 pm

    Good point. It was pretty much across the board.

  13. June 9, 2010 6:42 pm

    You’re point was great. I loved what you said. It made me think about that. I think that was the only thing I learned in Graphic Design 101.

  14. June 10, 2010 6:55 am

    Same with art, music, literature and graphic design.

    And science and technology! Physics, space program, military…

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