Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Animation Techniques: The Mascot

Polish writer/director/cinematographer Wladyslaw Starewicz was a master of puppetry and stop-motion animation. Even following his immigration from the Russian Empire to France as a white émigré in 1920, Starewicz continued to make many short films featuring bizarre-turned-beloved characters including everything from insects and taxidermied animals to cutlery and bits of rubbish. Both his imagination and his storytelling abilities rivaled that of Walt Disney, and it is argued that his articulation techniques have surpassed those of anyone else's before or since. Oddly, however, Starewicz is not very well-known. I myself only happened across a couple of his creations during a concert held by The Hot Club of San Francisco wherein they featured Cinema Vivant. The gypsy jazz band provided musical accompaniment to several black & white silent films, two of which—The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman and The Mascot—were created by the genius himself. The latter became so popular back in the day that it was turned into a series with the lead, Fétiche (known as "Duffy" in English-speaking countries), starring in four more short films following the original's release in 1933.

The Mascot's story centers around an ill child and her destitute mother, the latter of whom makes ends meet by manufacturing toys. One of these playthings—Duffy the stuffed dog—comes to life and, at the child's behest, goes on a journey to find an orange. The other dolls made by the mother come to life as well and, when they are in transit to a market the following day, they break out of their crate and escape to wander the streets of Paris. Duffy remains behind and eventually arrives at a shop where he is sold as a decoration for a car's back windshield. It is from this vantage that the dog spots his creator, makes a break for it, and tries to follow her home.

He becomes lost along the way, of course. While avoiding city traffic and the shuffling feet of passerby, Duffy finds himself in a street market where, lo and behold, a ripe orange drops from a nearby stand. Mission accomplished! Or not, for the night is dark and full of terrors. When the sun goes down, who else should come to town but...Satan and his demon posse? Sure. They're all roaming free and having a helluva party, and that is very bad news for poor lil' Duffy, unfortunately.

All the city's trash join in the devil's festivities, and it turns out that Duffy's ol' pals have already found their way to the most happenin' sector of the city. While he fends off the fiends who try to steal his orange, the other toys experience a night of drunken revelry and become...not as friendly as they once were. Dawn couldn't arrive soon enough, but when it finally does so do the police. They aid in Duffy's escape. He makes it home, gives the child the orange, and lives happily ever after.

As can be seen in the above gifs, Starewicz employed some extraordinary approaches to capture his subjects' movements. One of these was to maneuver the puppets during the film's exposure so as to create a blurred effect. This allowed each gesture to appear natural and, in some instances, almost like CGI. He also adopted rear-screen projection reminiscent of today's chroma key compositing, i.e., green screen. At the HCoSF concert, I remember one of the members telling the audience that while everyone could try to figure out the mechanics of the piece, he suggested just watching and "believing in the magic" Starewicz had summoned. My eyes were glued to the screen as the picture played, and the effects truly were enchanting.

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