Thursday, April 14, 2005

Prince Achmed

Today I watched "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by Lotte Reiniger.

Work began on this film in 1923 and made it's debut in Germany in 1926. Although many would claim Disney as the creator of the first full length feature animation, that is only if you restrict this definition to cell cartoons that it would be accurate. Even though Prince Achmed was created with paper cut outs, it is very frequently hailed the first full length animation film (60mins). And with good reason. There is also some controversy as to her movie being the first full length animation, or if it is only the first surviving full length animation, this argument would still predate Disney. I could dissect the beginnings of animation, but in lieu of that I will just state that there were people and techniques that came before (even Lotte herself was inspired by Georges Melies), but no one can deny the masterpiece, the length, the effort and frame by frame work produced by Lotte and company. The achievements are astounding, even in today's world, perhaps more so since we have the advantage of technologies that Lotte did not.

When the DVD began to spin and I saw the tiny intricately detailed paper cutouts, capable of extraordinary movements and stunning beauty, it reminded me of some of today's elaborate paper relief art . Her characters are so adorned that they appear to be dressed in lace, this feature transcends to buildings, birds and every object within the scene. There is a fluid style that blends the story together so seamlessly that it is rather like perfection, such perfection that you don't even notice, or stop to think of it. This is the case not just in this piece of work, but in all of Lotte's works. That is what an artist wants, for the viewer to be completely taken into the artists world, to believe the composition.

This movie is based on the Middle Eastern classic Arabian Nights . The Arabian tapestry is felt in genuine form in Lotte's interpretation. In fact Lotte is very talented when it comes to conjuring up a particular time and place in her other works as well. Lotte is a master of creating a dreamy, hypnotic, universe, out of jointed silhouettes. The moving objects morph perfectly into complex shapes, a magnificent bird into a spellbound woman, a magical palace out of fallen stars. The movie is entrancing, beautiful, and ethereal, not just for the time it was made, but even when you watch it now. There is a mood of fairy tales, other worldly, creativity and a genuine success at telling a story, with paper for crying out loud! After watching this animation, the visions will linger behind your sight like a soft daydream glow of a memory.

For you animators out there, this film was shot frame by frame, and consisted of 300,000 camera shots. All of this with every paper cut out, moved by hand, scene by scene, with backgrounds added underneath glass layers for a 3d effect. Makes you think of Photoshop and Combustion layers with a whole new appreciation. We've got it easy in comparison, although I have experimented with frame by frame work . But only a little.

Lotte was a pioneer, this was her vision, and she made movies, commercials and production pieces through out her life. She even worked with one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang, doing special effects work for a dream sequence in Part One of Die Niebelungen . Lotte lived from 1899 to 1981. You can see a list of her works at the bottom of this page.

The DVD version distributed by Milestone Collection, includes some intriguing extras, such as a look back at her career, the technique she used to create her work, as well as her personal life. This documentary segment is worth the cost of the DVD by itself. This version was restored and given colored background tints, in 1998 by the Deutches Filmuseum Frankfurt. They did not have the luxury of a negative, but rather, worked from a frail nitrate print. I've read online mentions that it is rumored the original film was not in color, and there is truth to this rumor, even after Lotte had done color work with her silhouettes, she still preferred black and white, and always had.

If you are a current day animator the results of Lotte's work considering her limited technology, will blow your mind. If you are not an animator, this movie, will blow your mind. Lotte is an integral part of cinematic history.


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