Art, limitations, and Lotte Reiniger

I was thrilled to see the Google Doodle celebrating such a progressive woman in the field of animation!

When I got really into animation for awhile last year, I came across Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation Aschenputtel (Cinderella). Today is Reiniger’s birthday—the German genius would have been 117.

Aschenputtel came out when Walt Disney was twenty one, 28 years before his Cinderella and six years before Mickey Mouse was created. It is the epitome of early animation: delicate, short, and soundless.

I love how her animations work within her limitations. Made by moving paper dolls bit by bit (think claymation), the over 40 animations she made over her career took days upon days, and still look great. Stylized, sure, but great.

Artists work wonderfully in limitations. Since art is basically indefinable, there are rarely any limits except those an artist chooses, but when an artist makes their own boundaries the art flourishes like a well-kept garden. Think the strictness of form poetry or the layered meter of Mozart.

If an author were to write words as they flow to their head, the story would be ill-structured, random, poorly-worded.

It’s interesting how something so freeing works so well in boundaries. People like limitations, to an extent. Rules in art are special, as they work just as wonderfully when followed as when broken.

Nonetheless, Reinger worked in a time when animation was young and new, and her limitations were more technical than by choice. However, she managed to create a masterpiece within her limitations of soundlessness and time…but broke the limitation of technology by inventing silhouette animation.

And by the way, she didn’t just beat Disney to Cinderella. She beat him to the first feature length animated film. While Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often given that credit, Reinger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed,  the oldest surviving feature length animated film, came out in 1926, over ten years before Disney’s attempt.

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