Long before Frozen and Zootopia topped the box offices, filmmaker Lotte Reiniger – commemorated in today's Google Doodle – released the The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926, the first full-length animated film.
It was a version of The Arabian Nights; the 65-minute feature tells the story of a young prince who foils the plans of an evil sorcerer and falls in love with a beautiful princess to the backdrop of an epic battle between good and bad. Even in 1926, it was a classic fairy tale – but one that marked a period of innovation in animated film.
Reiniger pioneered silhouette animation: Hand-making detailed black cardboard cutouts put together with wire hinges, she would bring her puppets to life by capturing small movements frame by frame on a multi-plane camera with a strong backlight. It took Reiniger, and her partner Charles Koch, three years and 96,000 frames to make The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Ninety years later, Reiniger, who would have turned 117 today, still carries a strong legacy among animators, even in movies like Harry Potter.
Reiniger was a self-made wartime artist
Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger always knew she was an artist.
"I could cut out silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors," she wrote. "I could paint, too, and read and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts."
Reiniger originally intended to become an actress, but as a drama student, her talents were quickly noticed. She was commissioned to create the titles for films, and after learning stop-motion animation from her colleagues, she put her silhouettes at the heart of the films.
But her film career was marked by periods of war. Between attempts to escape the prospect of World War II in the 1930s, Reiniger and Koch made their films between London and Berlin. With every move, some work was left behind, until the two were eventually granted asylum in England. The original of The Adventures of Prince Achmed was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.
Over the years Reiniger and Koch developed a large portfolio of animated shorts. Taking from the most familiar fairy tales, like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, Reiniger would bring the stories to life with intricate cutouts.
She tackled the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Her films were silent, with German-language frames and fitted with orchestral sound tracks.
Reiniger's work had an immediate and direct influence on filmmakers around the world, also impacted by the time of war. It was a golden era of animation: What was once seen as entertainment for children quickly evolved into wartime animations and war propaganda videos with adult audiences.
Shortly after the The Adventures of Achmed, Japanese filmmakers began using silhouette animation, a technique later used in the 1943 animated film Momotaro no Umiwashi, a naval-themed feature. In the United States, with a vault full of wartime animation, Walt Disney studios announced its first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1934, eight years after Reiniger's film debuted.
Reiniger's legacy endures today, even in Harry Potter
Reiniger's technique has proved to be timeless. The artistry of the elaborate cutouts is an aesthetic modern-day filmmakers and TV showrunners still strive for. Notable series like South Park have used actual paper cutouts to create flat characters. (South Park used the technique in its first episode before switching to animation software.)
In big blockbuster films like the Harry Potter series, Reiniger continues to inspire.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the producers invoked her silhouette style to animate "The Tale of the Three Brothers":
"One of the things that got me excited about it in the early stages was the question of what it should look like," animation supervisor Dale Newton said. "We knew it was going to be stylised, but not exactly how. The producers came along with the suggestion of creating something in the vein of Lotte Reiniger. ... What we got out of that was a certain simplicity and naivety. We knew it had to be told very graphically with bold silhouettes. But Ben and I were keen to make sure it wasn’t only that, that there was something else we could add."
You can see what they came up with here: