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Image: Stadtmuseum Tübingen

Animation began with scissors

Helga Spannhake / kjb
August 7, 2012

Lotte Reiniger used paper, scissors and a special table to create the first animated films. Today, her work is better known abroad than in her native Germany.


They're nothing more than shadows - of people, animals, and plants. But Lotte Reiniger found a way to make them come alive. Born in 1899, the Berliner would painstakingly cut each frame by hand and film the small movements of the paper. It took three years for her to create the 66-minute film "The Adventures of Prince Ahmed," the first full-length animated film ever made.

For each second of film, 24 individual pictures needed to be cut, which made for a total of around 100,000 slides. It was very detailed work: Each figure had to be moved very precisely in front of the camera so that the movements would appear fluid and not stiff or choppy.

Lotte Reiniger
Lotte Reiniger at workImage: Stadtmuseum Tübingen

Lotte Reiniger's films were an amazing feat, but she has nevertheless been forgotten in Germany. Students and lecturers at the media sciences department of the University of Tübingen wanted to change that with their documentary film "Tanz der Schatten" (Dance of the Shadows).

The secret was the table

For lecturer Susanne Marschall, Reiniger was an innovative force in developing animation techniques. "Together with her husband Carl Koch, she developed a special table with multiple levels, over which she hung her multiplane camera," explained Marschall.

Reiniger's table had a hole in the middle that was covered with a piece of glass. She put transparent paper over the glass and the cutout figures on top of the paper. Then she shined light through the glass from below, so that the silhouettes of the shadow figures became clear.

By putting multiple sheets of glass on top of each other, the depth of the scene could be increased and it would look like the figures were moving through a dimensional landscape. This method was particularly useful for creating waves, for example.

Lotte Reiniger - Pionierin des Trickfilms

Cutting out the classics

Lotte Reiniger grew up in the 1920s in Berlin, which was an especially exciting and lively city at the time. Numerous artistic films originated on her table, including "Cinderella" (1922), "Carmen" (1933), "The Stolen Heart" (1934) and "Papageno" (1935). Reiniger often used fairytales, myths and opera libretti as the basis for her storylines.

"I am obsessed with ballet, film and theater and have a fable for Mozart," she described herself.

Reiniger died near Tübingen in 1981. She is better known abroad than in Germany. "The Adventures of Prince Ahmed" can be seen at Goethe-Institutes all over the world and is among the most frequently borrowed silent films.

From Asia to Harry Potter

In Southeast Asia - in Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, where shadow puppets have a long tradition - Reiniger's work is an inspiration to young animators who carry on her style. Susanne Marschall and her colleagues found out on a visit to India that Reiniger's work is highly respected there as well.

A scene from the 1935 film 'Papageno' by Lotte Reiniger
A scene from the 1935 film 'Papageno'Image: picture-alliance / KPA/TopFoto

"We had brought 'Ahmed' along as a present and we didn't have to explain to anyone what it was because everyone saw the first picture and said right away, 'Oh, Lotte Reiniger,'" said Marschall.

Reiniger's work is often quoted in films from all over the world. As soon as shadow figures appear on screen, her oeuvre comes to mind, as in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" where a fairytale in presented with cutout silhouettes. The animated version of Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" also references Reiniger's techniques. It's about time, then, to rediscoer her work.

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