Mother of Animation: The Silhouetted World of Lotte Reiniger

Disney-Rejection-Letter-Woman-1938

Form rejection letter from Disney Studios, 1938.

A copy of a 1938 rejection letter from the Walt Disney Company to a would-be female artist has been making one of its periodic rounds on social media over the last few weeks.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men,” it reads in part. “For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”

If nothing else, the letter a reminder of how much of the history of women seems to include the words “that task is performed entirely by young men.” Change the wording a bit, and you could insert just about any career – with the exception, of course, of “wife” or “mother.”

There were enough women applying to the Disney studios that this was actually a form letter, but that isn’t to say that Walt Disney himself was not entirely averse to hiring women. As the letter notes, women did some of the inking on celluloid, and Carrie Tupper notes in the TheMarySue.com that a handful of pioneering women animators were working in the studio’s story department by the late 1930s. If you were born in the United States in the mid-20th Century, your childhood was animated and voiced by a legion of largely unknown female artists and voice actors.

But where is the origin story? To find the “mother” of animation, we need to look back to Weimar Republic Germany, and the remarkable career of Lotte Reiniger.

Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger became fascinated by the art of Chinese silhouette-cutting as a child and developed exceptional skill at cutting silhouettes to stage elaborate shadow-theater performances, starting at the age of 6. Originally planning to be an actress, she instead joined the experimental animation studio, Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, in 1919. It was here she made her first animated short films – and also where she met her future husband and collaborator, Carl Koch.

Lotte Reiniger at work. Each figure in a scene could be made of up to 50 pieces, articulated with thin wires.

Lotte Reiniger at work. Each figure in a scene could be made of up to 50 pieces, articulated with thin wires.

 

Over the next six decades, Reiniger created 60 animated films, including the feature-length Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Doctor Dolittle and his Animals (1928). Marrying the ancient art of shadow puppetry with the modern technology of animation, Reiniger brought to life an astonishing array of fairy tales and stories using paper, scissors, a light table, and a camera. “No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own,” says the British Film Institute. “[F]or all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger.”

Disney would become famous for its use of the multiplane camera, which moved different layers of artwork at different speeds and created traditional animations smoothness of motion and three-dimensionality. Walt Disney is sometimes credited as the inventor of the multiplane, and certainly his technical staff made significant improvements over the original models, but it was Lotte Reiniger who made the first animated feature film using the multiplane technique, a decade before Disney founded his studio.


Däumelinchen (Thumbelina) by Lotte Reiniger.

Reiniger left Germany for England in the mid-1930s “because I didn’t like this whole Hitler thing and because I had many Jewish friends whom I was no longer allowed to call friends.” After her husband’s death in 1963, she made no films for a decade, living as near-recluse. But in 1970s, her contributions to animation and filmmaking began to draw the attention of a new generation of artists, and is still in evidence today. “As soon as shadow figures appear on screen, her oeuvre comes to mind, as in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” where a fairytale in presented with cutout silhouettes,” writes the website Deutsche Welle. “The animated version of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” also references Reiniger’s techniques.”

Amazingly, she maintained the dexterity to cut detailed silhouettes right up until her the end, making her final film in 1980, the year before her death at the age of 81. A true avant-garde artist to the last, Reiniger never lost sight of her target audience. “I love working for children,” she said in one of her final interview, “because they are a very critical and very thankful public.”

 

Note: Many of Reiniger’s animations are available on YouTube. One critic notes that, because many of her original prints were lost, these are copies of copies, and most are shown at a faster film speed than intended. Her originals were more sharply detailed and smoother.
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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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These are marvelous essays you’re posting, Heather. So well-written and researched.

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