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Seattle International Film Festival. © Digital Kitchen 2009

I was pleasantly surprised to come across this beautiful piece by Digital Kitchen, Seattle International Film Festival 2009. Not for its intentional reference to and inspiration from Lotte Reiniger’s work, rather it is the technique that grabbed my attention.

For the production of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Lotte Reiniger, Carl Koch, Walter Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch had developed a special multi-plane animation table built from a wooden frame that held a number of glass frames at different levels from the camera. (A technique often and wrongly associated with Disney as the pioneer.) Using various layers and playing with the distance from the camera, a wonderful effect of depth could be created within a scene. The multi plane also enabled many special compositing effects, Bartosch being the specialist in this domain, using sand, soap and other materials to create varying textures and light diffusion effects. These helped in intensifying the magical quality of the scenes as well as in developing starry skies, magnificent sea journeys and dream-like scapes.

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Production Still © Digital Kitchen 2009

It is clear that Digital Kitchen used the exact same multi-plane technique in creating the festival teaser. No soap or sand seems to have been introduced but they had used a diffuser layer of glass as part of their process. What I find surprising then, is that they actually did this in a time when AE would have reproduced a similar, albeit less attractive, effect. I have no recollection of contemporary animators using this technique, nor do I believe it has been reproduced since Reiniger’s creation on such a faithful scale. The results, of what must have been quite a painstaking procedure, clearly demonstrate a beautiful piece and one that perhaps nods to a gaining interest for more analog work.

>>> Insightful post on the making of here
>>> The Art of Lotte Reiniger – A short documentary



Magic as a Means for Motion

The idea that magic could be an underlying driving force in artistic creation, especially in the domain of the moving image, may seem at first sight a far fetched thought and one that has little foundation. It is, however, a serious bundle of thoughts that have remained in a minute pocket of cellular space, ever since I came across the work of Michel Gondry back in 2006. It was during an editing session of an interview with Gondry that the name Méliès popped up regarding narrative in film. The forerunner of film narrative, Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938), had gained many a title in the history of cinema. It is perhaps his lesser talked about mastery of illusion however that leads us to a fascinating facet of the French innovator and one that links itself both to Gondry and a whole generation of film makers.

Creation of the moving image relies heavily on the capacity to manipulate images with editing, compositing and the use of special effects. Filming techniques that all have their origin in the work of Georges Méliès. Aside the technical implementation of such effects I wonder on the deeper level of creation and ask, is there a little magician in all of us then ? One who drives our desire to make images appear, disappear, animate or transform, helping us transcend reality and evoke the more magical realms of our imaginations ?

In the opening chapter of Elizabeth’s Ezra’ study on George Méliès, she describes the first (paying) public demonstration of the Lumière brothers cinématographe in Paris 23 December 1895. She particularly expresses the sheer awe, amazement and even fear amongst the public as they watched an ordinary Parisian street scene ‘come to life’ before their very eyes. The effect was magical, an illusion of the highest form, due in part to its ‘realism’ and in part to the public’s ignorance of the technology. It was however that very magical side that inspired the beginnings of a certain young man to take Lumière’s invention beyond simple scientific demonstration; one that gave us some of the first examples of the moving image as a means to tell stories based on our wildest imaginations. That particular event marked the beginning of Meliès’ career in cinematic storytelling. It was however not the beginning of his career as such.

Magic was a fundamental link to Méliès’ life and a strong link with how he would develop a narrative use of the Lumière’s cinematographe throughout his film making career. He had been drawn to the theatre at an early age, and more specifically to the art of conjuring. He had had the opportunity to attend shows by the great English illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne during a sojourn in London in 1884 and on his return to Paris later acquired the famous French illusionist Robert Houdin’s theatre which became his place of work as director and performing magician. After acquiring his first camera in 1896, he began filming his illusions and projecting his first films at the theatre. It was however a sudden turn of fate that would turn his little box of film into an immense box of tricks. A turn that would help him take illusion a step further.

There is a wonderful anecdote about Méliès and his ‘stumbling’ upon his first camera effect. Outside the majestic Opéra in Paris, Méliès was one day carefully filming a typical street scene when suddenly his camera jammed for several minutes. He managed to get the film to work again and resumed filming. On viewing later, he realised that other subjects turned up suddenly on the screen at the time the film had jammed. This of course was due to the time lapse between the end and restarting of filming and which visually created a stunning effect of disappearance and sudden appearance of horse carriages and people. This little accident became known as ‘substitution splicing’ and was the start in a number of visual effects that Méliès was to develop: Superposition, matte, transparency and indeed editing. These techniques can be seen in a large number of his films: Un Homme de Têtes (1898), Affiches en Goguettes (1905) and Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Some of which had also taken direct inspiration from stage magic classics: Les Cartes Vivantes (1904).

These are today common video and image compositing techniques, the complexity of which, compared to Méliès’ time, have lost their sense in today’s push button society yet I believe have not lost their importance as a means for image manipulation, movement and ultimately storytelling. We are perhaps no longer dupe to illusion yet strangely this does not take anything away from our emotional involvement and indeed illusion often solicits our intellect to question the more bedazzling of effects in todays ‘eye candy culture.’ And that underlines the fact that the spectacle of illusion still does have power amid the spectator as it does essentially amid the creator. The technology of film is in fair share an extension of this desire, a desire to perform tricks and tricks that become part of the bigger story.

To return to the work of Michel Gondry, it can be noted that he uses a number of ‘artisan,’ home made techniques in his film. Everything from stop motion animation to make shift stage sets and mechanical contraptions, that strive not for realism but rather have more to do with the sense of the stage illusionist who wants to awaken the freer side of our imaginations, beyond the shackles of our practical realities. His mention of Méliès was perhaps more than just a historical wink at cinematic narration, it was also an acknowledgment of his own desire to perform magic on screen. And who has never wanted to perform a magic trick, whether it be to entertain or to understand the workings of the art of illusion.

There is currently a major exhibition on Georges Méliès at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, along with the publication of two special edition box set dvds and a 350 page illustrated book. With an important presentation of newly acquired artifacts, this is the best exhibit there has been on an undeniably crucial figure of not only cinematic history but of creation of the moving image at large.

>>> Méliès at La Cinémathèque française

>>> Georges Méliès. The Birth of the Auteur. Manchester University Press 2000. Ezra, Elisabeth

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Gitane Catch… 1961. Production La Comète. Dir. André Sarrut et Jacques Asséo

Where would the advertising world be without animation ? That is obviously a question to be turned around too, each having fed and nurtured their forms reciprocally throughout their long collaboration. The communication and advertising agencies of today are more or less tightly linked with design and animation studios. Their history is a fascinating perspective on how animation has developed and may help pinpoint a particular shift from what was initially pure character driven cartoon animation to the more graphic design informed domain of motion graphics which seems to have taken hold as the dominant force in the advertising world of today.
After a return visit to the exhibition in Paris, ‘La Pub s’anime’, (Animated Ads), I wanted to jot down a few key moments along with the people that paved the way towards our present day marketing world. This is obviously a focus on the history in France but the question begs : How did advertising and animation develop in other developing countries ?

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Gitanes La logique de Toto 1926. Robert Lortac & André Payen

** 1918 – 35 **

Robert Collard (1884 – 1973),often named Robert Lortac, sets up Europe’s first animation studio in Montrouge in 1919. The studio is reputed to have created quantitatively the greatest number of animated films in France and remained active up until 1945. Amongst the first 15 employees, a certain Raymond Savignac who was already a well known poster artist of the era. To begin with, animated ads were informed by graphic design and the poster format. Illustration and typographic elements were often taken from existing poster ads and animated, finishing off with a fitting slogan and the name of the product.

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Gitanes La logique de Toto 1926. Robert Lortac & André Payen

** 1936 **

Animated ads were first screened as intervals for the cinema, however ad agencies wanted to keep people in the cinema during the breaks. Enter the cartoon character and storytelling. From this point on commercials become closely tied to
traditional cartoons and develop into saga long commercials that entice as entertain the public.

Paul Grimault (1905 – 1994) and André Sarrut ( ) set up Les Gemeaux production house. However….

** 1950 – 68 **

….in 1952, after misunderstandings, the two associates split and Paul Grimault opens, Les Films Paul Grimault and André Sarrut starts his own studio, La Comète, with animator Jacques Asséo.

In the fifties, France develops as a consumer society and the budget for ad agencies doubles. Consequently their is a mushrooming of production houses, some of which dedicate their activities purely to creating commercials. This is the case for Sarrut’s La Comète which made more than 2000 commercial films exporting 80% of their output and became the most important film company for animated commercials in Europe at the time.

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Air Wick Pour ceux qui ont du nez 1955. André Sarrut & Jacques Asséo

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>>>Watch Gitane Bleue

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Gitane Bleue 1958. André Sarrut & Jacques Asséo


Total Oil 1958. André Sarrut

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In 1953, Jacques Forgeot (1923-1969) opens Les Cinéastres Associaciés and employs some of France’s and indeed Europe’s leading animators : Raoul Franco, Etienne Rajk (1904-1976), Paul Casalini (1933 – ) and the Bettiol brothers. Not forgetting Alexandre Alexeieff (1901-1982) who had just come back from a passage in Amercia and had already a rich and innovative background in working for commercials.

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Le Parisien Concourt 1960. Production Jean Mineur. Dir. Raoul Franco

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EDF/GDF. Eau Chaude 1961. Production Jean Mineur. Dir. Raoul Franco

** 1970 **

Remains a minor period with struggling output due to high costs, competition from television ads and a return to live action.

** 1980 **

This is a major period of technological change – the arrival of digital imaging and the development of 3D. Exmachina becomes the third largest production house in special effects in the World. The likes of Pierre Coffin (1967..), Pascal Vuong (1960..) and the H5 Collective push forward the form and major production houses such as TBWA and Buf set up business specializing in CGI visual effects and animation.

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Restore L’homme moteur synthétique 1984. Agence Hautefeuille. Dir. Jerzy Kular

>>> Watch a selection of French animated ads
>>> 1950’s Commercials
>>> Animated Logos

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Video Still. The Marquise’s Secret, 1920

” Paul Wegener saw me cutting silhouettes behind the stage in Reinhardts’s theater, and he became interested. He liked my silhouettes; he thought they showed a rare sense of movement. He therefore introduced me to a group of young artists who had started a new trick (animation) film studio. Here, I first began to photograph my silhouette figures, just as drawings are photographed for the cartoon film, and I was successful in making a film with my shadow figures.
This was in 1919, and the work was so interesting that from that time I have rarely done anything else. In the meantime I married one of the artists and we started working together as we have continued to do till the present time. That is my story.”

Sight and Sound, Spring 1936

Lotte Reiniger had devoted her life to silhouette figure animation, creating, directing and completing the first feature length animated film in 1926 after three years work. I was surprised to come across “The Marquise’s Secret” which is an early cinema commercial for Nivea soap which had been created for the Julius Pinschewer Agency in 1920.
For further information on Lotte Reiniger, there is a dvd edited by the British Film Institute that contains her masterpiece, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” as well as a one hour documentary on her life and work, written and directed by Katja Raganelli.

>>> Watch Here (Via NoFat Clips)
>>> Short Article by William Moritz

…..animation is not all about characters and gags. Experimental expression has always been a way forward.

>>> Mr Amidi points out
>>> Colour is the Keyboard
– Essay on the link between music and the visual arts.

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The Film Library (BiFi) is the main center for documents on movies in France and it has become a personal place of refuge amongst the plethora of historical information at hand. There is no single document, to my knowledge, that attempts to trace the development of motion graphics from its origins. A virgin landscape lies before me, which makes research in the subject problematic yet stimulating. What has become undoubtedly important though in my research, is the fact that motion graphics is directly linked with film and animation history, especially in terms of technique, and this gives plenty of scope for sifting out key people and perspectives that may have played a part in the development of the discipline.
This month, the Film Library is presenting a retrospective on French animation, from its origins up to 1940. There will be screenings of some of the first ever animations with Emile Reynaud, finishing off with Paul Grimault’s essential work in the genre. I highly recommend to anyone interested in animation history, and who may find themselves in Paris this month, to take hold of this rare opportunity.

>>> More Info Here (in French).

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Symphonie Diagonale 1924

The Swedish painter Viking Eggeling was considered highly amongst his contemporaries. Laszlo Maholy-Nagy notably gave him praise for his work in the graphic arts which focused on developing a new universal language in film. A language that was based on plastic abstract expression and one that ultimately opened up new territory for graphic art to exist in the film medium.
Amidst strong opposition, Eggeling completed his film, Symphonie Diagonale after four long hard years. The piece was groundbreaking work for the time and is arguably the first attempt to develop a new field in the graphic arts that laid the path for future artists working in the medium. Hans Richter had been introduced to Eggeling by Trisatn Tzara in early 1918 and both men shared their work and ideas.

“Like me, he had arrived at his theory by way of music, and always explained it in musical terms.”
Hans Richter. (From Dada: Art and Anti-Art, McGraw Hill 1965)

>>> Watch Symphonie Diagonale

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