Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Birth of the Robot and the stop motion of Len Lye

Image from the Harvard Film Archive

New Zealand-born Len Lye is best remembered for his 2D abstract films, but in 1935 he directed a stop-motion puppet film entitled The Birth of the Robot.

Promoting Shell oil, the film is themed around machinery: even the Universe is mechanical, hand-cranked by Father Time. Meanwhile, a man resembling something out of a Trumpton/Only Fools and Horses crossover drives merrily around Egypt only to run out of petrol and die in the desert; the goddess Venus, represented as an automaton on Father Time's machine, takes pity on him douses his skeleton with Shell oil. He is revived as a robot (apparently this was Shell's logo at the time, although I have come across no other usage of the character), the desert is paved with a motorway, and he jets into the sky in a swish new automobile.

The film was scripted by someone named C.H. David while the puppets were designed by John Banting. According to Screenonline Lye felt the brief to be too restrictive; the film is certainly unlike most of his work. It may possibly have been influenced by the advertising films that George Pal was making for British audiences at around this time, although as it uses conventional stop motion puppetry rather than substitution of models the actual animation style is very different.

As far as I know, Lye directed only one other stop motion film: a two-minute independent short identified by its title card simply as "Experimental Animation, 1933" (it is also referred to as Peanut Vendor, after the song which it is based around). It features a strange dancing monkey character who prefigures Jack Skellington in his lanky design.

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