Ask any average Joe what the world's first feature-length animated film was, and chances are he'll say Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It's true we can't deny the scope and influence of this exceptional motion picture, one of the great risks in animation history that reaped incredible benefits.
However, in 1926, over a decade before Snow White's completion, an independent filmmaker in Germany named Lotte Reiniger released what is now the world's oldest surviving feature-length animated film: The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
To fully appreciate Reineger's art, one must first know her influences. Born in Germany in 1899, Lotte was always drawn to the arts. As a child she loved the art of Chinese shadow puppetry, a visual storytelling technique that dates back centuries--as early as 960 AD. Lotte was so taken with this enchanting medium that she even created her own puppets and performed shadow plays for her family.
It should come as no surprise that Lotte was also taken with cinema, in particular the works of Georges Méliès, a name any self-respecting filmmaker should already be familiar with. (For the uninformed, Méliès was a stage magician-turned-filmmaker who introduced the first major "special effects" to cinema, as illustrated in his famous film Le Voyage dans la Lune, or A Trip to the Moon.) Lotte joined an acting group and was soon creating silhouette title cards for films, an act carried over from her childhood.
Now, as we observe Prince Achmed's unique visual style, it's easy to see both Lotte's early shadow puppet inspiration and her attatchment to the whimsical.
The story of Achmed is simple: the classic fairy tale. Based on several stories from the Thousand and One Nights, it tells the tale of Achmed, who was swept away on a magician's horse to experience a journey of mysticism and adventure. The really wonderful thing about the film is how visually interesting and unique it is, especially considering its age. Years before Disney was using it for his films, Lotte created the first multi-plane camera to create various effects for her animations, such as the misty smoke rising in layers around the evil magician. Lotte was able to take the relatively stiff silhouette figures and create surprisingly sophisticated and emotional movements based on their body motion, an acting technique relied upon during the stage and silent film era which has sadly fallen by the wayside.
Because the film is told in silhouette, it allows for a very dynamic and striking use of color and negative space. The original film prints featured color tinting, a technique that involved soaking the film in dye in order to tint the emulsion. Imagine the audience's reaction, a crowd accustomed to strict black-and-white film suddenly experiencing a silhouette fantasy in rich color. Lotte's talent for framing was considerable, and each shot of the animation looks absolutely stunning--a piece of fine art.
Unfortunately, the original prints for The Adventures of Prince Achmed were lost, but restoration work was done on surviving black and white prints and the original tints digitally restored. Unlike so many lost animation gems, Achmed is available for purchase on DVD, and I highly recommend checking it out. It's an invaluable piece of animation history and an amazing film.