Friday, September 11, 2020

Indie Features, Part 1: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

I could talk endlessly about independent animated features - but I won't waste your time with my rants about them right now.  But perhaps someone should write a book about the subject - within the last 30 years there has been an explosion of wonderful animated indie features.

In Europe, of course, a lot of the feature films get their funding through local governments, and so it's somewhat easier for filmmakers there to raise money to finance their films.  And the quality of the films is usually quite good.

But, as you may know, here in the USA, the government doesn't really support the arts (and I've got a separate rant about that, also) so almost all of the indie animated films made in the U.S. are labors of love, and self-financed or crowd-funded.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to discuss three indie animated feature films - Lotte Reiniger's "Adventures of Prince Achmed" (1925), Chris Sullivan's "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" (currently in production) and Signe Baumane's "My Love Affair With Marriage" (also in production).

Right now, TCM - my favorite channel - is airing a retrospective of female directors throughout film history and this includes some of the more obscure ones.  For example, I was watching this morning and up popped "The Adventures of Prince Achmed", directed by Lotte Reiniger.  Over the years, I've seen excerpts of this groundbreaking film at festivals and such, but I'd never seen it broadcast on TV - and there it was!

This classic film is important because it's essentially the first (oldest) surviving animated feature -  Disney's "Snow White" came along 11 years later.  Plus, it was animated by just one person.  There was an animated political feature film from Argentina that pre-dated it, but apparently that was destroyed in a fire.

I was very impressed with the craftsmanship and artistic power of the "Prince Achmed" film.  It uses cut-out articulated paper, moved around under the camera.  But the characters had such grace and beauty that I forgot how it was created, and just enjoyed the story.

A little bit about the technology of the film - it was created between 1922 and 1926, so four years total in the making.  Reiniger created all of the characters with paper and scissors, all by herself, and then she manipulated all of the characters under the camera, while her cameraman handled all the technical aspects of filming them. And some of the sequences had multiple characters, sometimes up to 10 moving characters at a time!  Whew, what a job!

The print I saw had orchestral music, which of course was added later - plus there was limited color throughout the film, which added to the dramatic storytelling.  From what I understand, Reiniger had some rich patrons that helped finance the film, and although it was a critical and public success, she didn't get rich from it.  But as soon as Hitler came to power, she refused to work in Germany and became a vagabond animator, creating numerous shorts up until the 1960's.  As the first indie animated feature, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" is really a landmark film!

I'll discuss one of the other features next time - but here's this week's gag cartoon:

--Bill P.

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