Two silhouetted bird-human figures against a green tropical forest background in a still from The Adventures of Prince Achmend (1926) by Lotte Reiniger
Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed). Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926.
Stories & Ideas

Tue 15 Dec 2020

The lasting legacy of Lotte Reiniger

Animation Craft Film History Representation
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Lotte Reiniger's unique animation style has influenced everything from Disney to Harry Potter.

History hasn’t been kind to female filmmakers, often overlooking them or ignoring them completely. Lotte Reiniger is one of the few exceptions, with her work critically and commercially lauded during her lifetime and her legacy still celebrated following her death in 1981 at 82. The German filmmaker and animation pioneer had a singular, distinct vision that directly influenced creatives from Walt Disney to Francis Ford Coppola. Her film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is considered the first full-length animated feature and one of the first movies ever made. With its stunning visuals, vibrant colours and use of silhouette, it represents Reiniger’s signature style, which captivated audiences and influenced filmmakers during her lifetime and in the 30-plus years after her death.

In 1940, the opening to Walt Disney’s seminal animated feature Fantasia saw Mickey Mouse congratulating conductor Leopold Stokowski in front of an orange and red background. Both were presented in silhouette, with the visual reference to Reiniger’s work brief but clear. A more direct reference was in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – Disney’s first full-length animated film and the beginning of their fairytale musicals – where a multiplane camera was used to create the illusion of depth. This was a technique invented by Reiniger more than ten years earlier in 1923, which she utilised in The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and saw flat layers of artwork moved at various speeds and distances in front of a camera. She also focused largely on retelling classic fairytales from various cultures: an approach Disney would take in their first 50 years as a studio, specifically when it came to animation.

Passing away in her home country of Germany in the early 1980s, Reiniger’s death didn’t mean her work had any less impact. If anything, it was increasingly referenced in the coming decades and not just in animation. Francis Ford Coppola’s opening scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was one of the most obvious examples of this, with the retelling of Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Dracula’s past transitioning from a live action scene to a battle montage rendered in Reiniger’s iconic aesthetic. In the scene, Dracula leads an army against the Turks, with the violence and signature impaling shown only in silhouette before an illuminated colour background. This was a conscious wink by Coppola, who wanted the beginning of the film to not just explain the origin of Dracula, but to do so using techniques from the origin of cinema itself. This meant rejecting computer-generated effects and using old-fashioned ones instead, like Reiniger’s silhouette animation.

Just over a decade later, the live action adaptation of the best-selling book series Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) recreated Reiniger’s style for its closing credits sequence, although without her colour infusion. Keeping in line with the black and white palette beloved by executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, with some additional sepia tones and textures, the five-minute sequence charts the misadventures of the Baudelaire children at the hands of Count Olaf. The characters appear in the foreground and background often simultaneously, with the silhouettes morphing to reflect elements of the story in a way that’s a technological expansion of Reiniger’s core animation elements. A year later, a more traditional take on her work was depicted in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2004) during the musical number ‘Remains of the Day’. Sung by Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, it tells the tale of the aforementioned corpse bride – Emily – with the scenes of her ill-fated meeting, marriage, and then murder, told through silhouette in front of a vibrant green background.

Lotte Reiniger influence on dracula ACMI 2.jpg

A frame from Francis Ford Coppola's 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992)

Given she was one of the first animators in history, it’s fitting her work is so often – and lovingly - referenced in other animated works, like The Princess and the Frog (2009) musical number ‘Friends On The Other Side’ and The Boxtrolls (2014) end credits sequence. Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe (2013–19) dedicated a whole episode to the art style of Reiniger in 2016, titled ‘The Answer’. The 21st episode from their second season, it charted the origins of Ruby and Sapphire’s romantic relationship and was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Yet perhaps the most famous and clear namecheck to Reiniger in film was from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows  – Part 1 (2010). In the movie, events shift from live action to animation as Harry, Ron and Hermione learn 'The Tale of the Three Brothers'. Mimicking the conventions of a classic fable, the producers suggested paying tribute to Reiniger’s iconic way of storytelling for the sequence. Created by Framestore – Europe’s largest visual effects studio – it merged the look of Reiniger’s hand-cut paper silhouettes with the traditional Asian shadow plays that inspired her, for the magical three-minute scene seen by millions.

– Maria Lewis

Join us at Fed Square for a free screening of one of Lotte Reiniger's classics

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