Scissor Craft — How Lotte Reiniger Makes Silhouette Films (1936) 🇺🇸

Lotte Reiniger |

January 27, 2022

The Victoria and Albert Museum are to be thanked for their recent exhibition of Lotte Reiniger’s designs, notes and silhouettes, for their exhibition made it possible for the first time to understand the extraordinary craftsmanship which goes into the shortest and simplest of her films.

Moreover, it was interesting to see the development of her work from 1919 when she made her first picture, The Ornament of the Loving Heart, which was sixty metres long and had but two figures and no background to her last picture, the miniature opera, Papageno, based upon music from The Magic Flute.

This exhibition, even more than her films, showed that Miss Reiniger is a unique artist in an industry which depends almost as much upon the assembled work of different departments as the manufacture of a motor car. Out of nothing but thin black cardboard and semi-transparent tissue paper twenty-five films have emerged which are her creation and execution from beginning to end. Her only assistant is her husband, Carl Koch, who arranges and synchronises her films.

Lotte Reiniger finds that her themes are invariably suggested by music, and having worked them out in detail, she makes a series of sketches, conceived in colour in order to give a sense of background to each episode.

The preliminary work completed, she develops the characters in a number of pencil studies which are sometimes actual portraits. Everything which appears in the film is then cut out with nail-scissors.

The background, either as a kind of back-cloth, or as a panorama to be unrolled like a Chinese painting and moved along the table on which the scenes are ‘shot’, is cut in semi-transparent tissue paper, one to eight layers. These again are cut in different shapes in order to give the effect of varying tones. The use of any other material would be out of harmony with the scenery and figures in the foreground. The immovable objects such as houses and trees are cut in black paper; while the movable figures are in thinnish black cardboard.

The table on which the film is made is 4 feet by 3 feet, and has a frosted glass top. The lights (mercury lighting) are underneath, the camera directly above. The camera can be adjusted horizontally and vertically.

For close-ups, instead of moving the camera nearer the silhouettes on the table, Lotte Reiniger replaces the small figures used in the long shots by larger ones, the largest being two feet high. She does this because the small figures, when enlarged by a close-up shot would appear too crude; while the expression of the face could not be sufficiently detailed.

The heads used in close-ups have jointed features and eyes which can be opened and shut; while the largest silhouettes have even jointed fingers, so that they can be manipulated in an infinite variety of movements.

Finally, each shot has to he taken singly, so that for the full-length film, Prince Achmet, made in 1926, at least a quarter of a million separate photographs were taken. The actual photographic work is based on a mathematical calculation worked out from the music, which, to quote Eric White in his book Walking Shadows,’ is subdivided as accurately as possible into phrases, these phrases into bars, the bars into notes and the notes into frames representing one twenty-fourth of a second.”

Every figure and object  in these silhouette films has to be created in two dimensions, and yet appear to the audience as though conforming to the law of a world in three dimensions; moreover, they are manipulated on a horizontal plane. Only the movements and the lines of the profile” can give the characters individuality and convey their thoughts. Out of black paper a gallery of delightful characters has been created. Figures of grace, like the heroine of Prince Achmet, and the more recent Galathea, of fantasy like the cheerful birdcatcher in Papageno: of quite remarkable flexibility and pathos like the little chimney-sweep in the picture of the same name.

Not only is Lotte Reiniger a good producer, or to be more accurate, choreographist, who pays great attention to details of setting and decor and historical accuracy, but she is a good dramatist. Her dexterity in developing quite a complicated plot in twelve to sixteen minutes, is no less important than her characterisation. In characterisation she excels in the creation of humorous and commonplace figures, such as the ribald old men in Galathea, and the parents and gangsters in The Little Chimney Sweep.

Like the two great artists Chaplin and Disney, Lotte Reiniger’s work, though the form is fanciful, is grounded in the observation of how people behave, and not in any film theory. Though Lotte Reiniger is a German (and Aryan) she is an artist of whom no country can base the monopoly.

Her new film, Dream Circus, will have a fantastic sequence in colour. The story, a small boy’s dream of a circus, was suggested by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella music and it is being made in this county for the Facts and Fantasies series produced under the auspices of Thorold Dickinson.

Source: World Film News and Television Progress, October 1936