Think of this story as Aladdin: Expanded Universe. The tale concerns all the usual Arabian Nights ingredients: princes, lamps, djinn, snakes, caves, enchanted birds… What makes it significant is the way it is presented: via the dainty silhouette figures created by Lotte Reiniger.
Arabian Nights in Shadow…
Today’s trivia question: Name the earliest full-length animated feature known to exist. Disney’s Snow White? Wrong! The title is currently held by The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which utilized silhouette animation. (I derive a great deal of pleasure from plucking this particular plume from the House of Mouse’s cap. What can I say? I dislike copyright bullies.)
Prince Achmed is widely acclaimed and has a passionate following. So, I decided to do something a little different. Instead of a traditional review, I am going to discuss the film’s gorgeous silhouette animation technique and examine how it is different from other forms of animation and why it is so appealing.
What is silhouette animation and how is it acheived?
Lotte Reiniger’s animation technique grew out of her habit of cutting amusing silhouettes. She had the ability to snip intricate forms out of paper or card. Inspired by the ancient art of shadow puppetry, Reiniger set to work creating its equivalent in motion picture form.
Silhouette animation is a close cousin to stop motion animation. The latter (on display in such films as Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Wallace and Gromit series and all things Gumby) involves the painstaking positioning of models frame-by-frame. The models are often made of clay but that is not a requirement. Silhouette animation involves the painstaking positioning of wire-articulated figures frame-by-frame. The main difference, of course, is that the silhouettes are not three-dimensional figures and depth must be created through perspective and ingenious backgrounds.
It took Reiniger (assisted by her husband, Carl Koch, and a small but dedicated staff) three years to complete Achmed. Koch would operate the camera while Reiniger manipulated her cardboard figures. A strong backlight under the figures gave the frame depth.
Wouldn’t silhouettes be too boring and stark to watch for an entire movie?
Before I saw a Lotte Reiniger film, I thought this would be the case. Here’s how I explain the appeal of silhouette animation:
The great appeal of stop motion animation is the feeling that you are taking a peek inside a doll’s house. Well, silhouette animation is like looking inside a picture book that has come to life. There is a texture to the figures and backgrounds that helps create the feeling of a paper universe.
What made Lotte Reiniger’s work so special?
While her skill in cutting the silhouettes is widely praised, Reiniger’s skill as an animator is really what makes her work special. Her figures are graceful yet also possess a lifelike gentleness.
Animation is a difficult skill to master and requires a considerable amount of patience and artistic vision. Lotte Reiniger’s natural talent is clear; she was only in her twenties when she completed Achmed.
What other films did Lotte Reiniger make?
She continued to make her silhouette animations until two years before her death in 1981.
What is the secret to Prince Achmed’s appeal?
While I cannot speak for everyone who has seen the film, I think that viewers are enchanted by its lovingly handcrafted look. There is a warmth to it that is simply not present in newer, more technologically sophisticated animation techniques. And, while the film has plenty of action and adventure, it also reflects its creator’s gentle, fanciful nature. Gentleness remains a rare commodity in animation, where rapid-fire humor is often the order of the day.
Was the film based on a book?
The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a blending of elements from two Arabian Nights tales: Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp and The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou. It is not a direct retelling of either story, it borrowed scraps here and there to weave a new tale.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection. It features restored tints and a charming documentary about Lotte Reiniger.