History of the First Animated Film

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by Jessica Pahutski – Staff Editor

When you hear “first fully-animated feature-length film”, what do you think of? Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, of course! That was the first one ever, right? Wrong. Snow White was not the first feature-length (greater than 40 min.) fully-animated film released in theaters. It wasn’t even the first with sound, though it was the earliest with color and the first done in cels. What were the true ur-examples of feature-length animation?
The concept of animated shorts predates films by a number of years. Feature-length projects began in Argentina in 1917 with Italian-born cartoonist Quirino Cristiani’s El Apostol (The Apostle). A satirical film about the then-President of Argentina, Hipolito Yrigoyen, El Apostol was made using cutout animation (2D puppets with movable parts) and was praised for its biting commentary by those who saw it. Unfortunately, the only known copy was lost in warehouse fire in 1926. All that survives is concept art, newspaper reviews, and a picture of a scale model of Buenos Aires that was set on fire in one of if not the only live-action scene.
Thus, the title of first surviving animated feature goes to Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed). Produced in Germany by Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger and released in 1926, this fantasy film was done primarily in silhouette animation. Thread was used to move the limbs and heads and some sequences used oil and sand. All told, the film took three years to complete as every individual frame had to be photographed. Production also included the first multiplane camera, beating Disney to that technical achievement by almost a decade. Like all films from before 1927, Adventures of Prince Achmed was silent.
A fully-animated film with sound, Peludopolis was released in Argentina in 1931. Another political satire made by Cristiani in the same style as his previous work, Peludopolis had a slightly more complicated backstory than its predecessor. Partway into the film’s production, President Yrigoyen was removed from power in a military coup, leading to several changes in the plot. Sound was synchronized using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process as opposed to the increasingly common sound-on-film. Sadly, it suffered the same fate as El Apostol, with all known prints having been destroyed in two separate fires in 1957 and 1961. Decades after their release, a making-of documentary was unearthed, showing how Cristiani’s films were done in detail.
Though it beat Peludopolis to completion by a year, Ladislas Starevich’s stop-motion, fully-animated Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox) had production troubles that prevented it from being the first fully-animated feature with sound released to theaters. Namely that the original French soundtrack couldn’t be synced up with the film for unknown reasons. After seven years, a German soundtrack was added and Tale of the Fox hit the big screen in Berlin just eight months before Snow White’s premiere in the US. A few years after that, a new French soundtrack was done and the film was finally released in its home country.

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