Nightmarish visions at 24 frames per second.

The startling fantasy world of Jan Lenica’s “Labyrinth” (1963) owes a stylistic debt to the earlier Surrealist colleges of Max Ernst.

Like the majority of moviegoers, I’m often bedazzled by the computer-generated worlds created by Pixar and Dreamworks. While it would be difficult to dispute the technical virtuosity of these animation mega-giants, I must admit to having a soft spot for the low-fi underdog that is stop-motion animation. Perhaps because it involves a fully manual approach that relies more heavily on materials than pixels, I feel a greater affinity for it. One of the most basic and “low-fi” of stop-motion techniques is the paper cutout which, as the name suggests, involves drawings or prints on paper that are cut out and manipulated to simulate movement. The high degree of artifice and theatricality associated with the paper cutout makes this technique particularly well suited to animations which are fantastic, dreamlike and surreal. Its relative simplicity enabled many visual artists not typically known as animators to use this technique to create time-based work. Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who had received a very classical training in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, used paper cutouts to great effect in his animated short films Les Astronautes (1959) and Les jeux des anges (1964). Borowczyk capitalized on the anti-realism of the cutout to produce his surreal and frequently nightmarish worlds.

Borowczyk’s compatriot and sometimes collaborator Jan Lenica used paper cutouts for his masterful Labyrinth (1963), an animation that, through its incorporation of 19th-century illustrations, closely recalls the eerie beauty and surrealism of a Max Ernst college novel. Eastern European animators such as Borowczyk, Lenica, and the Czech stop-motion master Jan Švankmajer, were highly influential on the work of contemporary animators/filmmakers Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

The Oms take down a giant Draag in Laloux’s surreal animated feature “Fantastic Planet” (1973). A joint production between France and the former Czechoslovakia, it’s Cold War politics are neatly embedded in the science fiction tale.

One of my earliest exposures to the technique of paper cutout animation was the feature-length science fiction film La Planète Sauvage, (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973), a collaboration between the French director René Laloux, writer/artist Roland Topor and a team of Czech animators at Jiří Trnka Studio. The sophistication of the paper cutout technique is astounding, and the visual style unique and thoroughly memorable. There’s quite a good synopsis of this film, accompanied by several screen shots, at the Twitchfilm blog which I would recommend. The author of this blog ends her/his post with a paragraph about the “adult” content of this film. It is, most assuredly, aimed at an adult audience, and I particularly enjoyed this author’s summary of the many and varied deaths the Oms faced in Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage:

In case you didn’t suspect it yet: this is not exactly a children’s film. Eureka (or rather the BBFC) rates this DVD “PG” but the film was clearly made with adults in mind. Some Draags wear very revealing outfits while the humans are naked, half-naked or wearing rags. Mating rituals of both humans and Draags are shown, but far more disturbing is the seemingly unending variety in which the tiny humans keep getting eaten, squashed, shredded, poisoned, radiated and stomped on by both Draags and the local flora and fauna. — Twitchfilm blog

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