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The insect collector who gave us stop motion

He collected beetles and changed the movies.

He changed everything — with beetles.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Insect adultery was the start of an animation revolution.

In this episode of Vox Almanac, I explore the delightfully strange beginning of stop motion animation. In a stop motion movie, an animator arranges an object, takes a picture, slightly adjusts the positioning, and then does it all over again. When the pictures are played in succession, it looks like motion. Though people have been experimenting with stop motion since the beginning of film, the new art really took off when an insect collector named Wladyslaw Starewicz wanted to see his beetles move.

His 1912 film, The Cameraman’s Revenge, was the most significant of those early experiments. By that time, he’d been discovered as a precocious museum director in a Lithuanian Natural History Museum, and that enabled him to make movies. The Cameraman’s Revenge was his boldest experiment yet, depicting a tryst between star-crossed (bug) lovers.

As the above video shows, he employed technical innovations to do so, including strings that controlled his unusual puppets. He also occasionally replaced legs and augmented their bodies with wheels to enhance his stop motion process. The results are strange, hilarious, and changed the medium.

Starewicz went on to animate many other classics in the genre, influencing filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson. And that legacy all started with the improbable story of cheating bugs and the museum director who loved them.

Further reading:

  • For a good overview, check out Puppet Animation in the Cinema by L. Bruce Holman. It’s a great tool to delve into the long history of puppet animation.
  • American Cinematographer has a nice 1930 interview with Starewicz about his work.
  • The Magic Mirror by Denise Youngblood is a history of Soviet film from 1908 to 1918 (including Starewicz and even some of the propaganda films most historians believe he was drafted into making).

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