Interview with Emily Rawson, Winner of the 2019 Undergraduate Library Research Award

We caught up recently with senior animation major Emily Rawson, who won the individual Grand Prize Undergraduate Research Library Award in May 2019 (previously). Her project “The Golem: An Exploration of Lotte Reiniger and German Expressionism” included a short, animated silhouette film in the style of Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), an extensive bibliography encompassing a variety of sources, and an insightful essay reflecting on her research process. Her work was recognized for its sophisticated integration of artistry and scholarship.

Emily’s project was initially funded through an LMU Honors Program grant, and she continued her research this past summer after being awarded a second grant. This interview was conducted by reference librarian Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet in September 2019.

How did this project start?

Emily: “In Intro to Animation, we’re covering a lot of animation history, and Tom Klein starts talking about Lotte Reiniger. I wrote a paper that really shouldn’t have ended up being about her, but then I really wanted to make it about her. […] Sophomore year I’m looking for inspiration. I started looking to her work more and more and watching more of her shorts. Her shorts are delightful, and there’s a range of them. I started falling in love with a lot of her older shorts because they have so much character in them. […] Then I had to pitch a project [for the Honors class “Research and Exhibition”], and I thought, well, there’s nothing else that I want to really study as much as this person. I think she’s really neglected.”

Tell me a little about how you first started researching Lotte Reiniger’s work and legacy.

Emily: “I read Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler [and work by other film historians]. He’s still one of the seminal film historians, one of the first, and the library has some of his books, which I got to read because you have it here. […] Basic parts [of Lotte’s technique] are very well documented online and in her own writings. The library has a copy of a book that she wrote herself. I don’t yet have a copy because it’s like $80 in the States. Everything [published about Reiniger in Europe] is more expensive in the States. It’s also hard to get books that are translated into English. And I’ve checked that book out of the library like four times. I check it out every year. […] The majority of my research was conducted by watching a bunch of films on Kanopy because we have so much access to these historical films that are really hard to get access to. That allowed me to watch a lot of films of the era… to help inform my understanding of the work in which she was engaging.”

“I started reaching out to different historians. I’ve been mentored by Tom Klein, the department head for Animation, who connected me to somebody he knew in Europe, Dr. Caroline Ruddell, who wrote a book on [Reiniger]. She recommended another book to me. There are 8-10 more books that at least exist in English that I’ll probably be asking the library to get for me [through Link+ or interlibrary loan] soon because I really want to read them. […] Last year especially I started getting a lot of loaned books because I was becoming more involved in reading about the current international academic debate. Some of that’s getting into sources beyond what I used for this first project.”

What about the second part of your project, the work you were doing over the summer?

Emily: “I didn’t want to stop.  Part of it I think comes from wanting to justify my own sense of why she matters, to say that she’s a filmmaker who’s diverse enough and interesting enough that she should still matter today, that she’s not just a relic of history. The reason I was continuing to look for sources was I spent two and a half weeks this past summer in Europe interviewing historians, some of whom I corresponded with via email beforehand, some of whom I had not. I got to interview a variety of historians, professors, a current doctoral candidate who’s doing her entire doctoral thesis on Lotte Reiniger, and also a number of independent filmmakers who are working in the same tradition of handcrafted paper animation. I also got to go to archives in Tübingen, which is an area of Germany where she died, and London, at the British Film Institute, because she spent several years in London. They both have sizable amounts of materials related to her.”

“My first day, I was in the archives of the British Film Institute. I spent five hours there, and I forgot to eat because I was so excited. Because her work is back lit, she never bothered to make things neat, which I think is another part of lovable things about her. She embraced the aspect of craft. So clear pieces of cellophane were taped behind, and when the light shows through, you can’t see any of that awkwardness. She was incredibly detailed with these, and I got to see so many things.”

Where did you go after London? 

“I went from London to Paris to interview [French animated filmmaker] Michel Ocelot. Ocelot makes a lot of silhouette animations but also a lot of flat 2-D films. I got to see the way his puppets were constructed. It was really cool to get to interview him and get to understand him as him instead of hearing about him through Lotte [and the Ocelot-Reiniger influence debate]. […] Then I met another independent filmmaker [Katrin Rothe] in Berlin. I interviewed her because I loved her film. It’s top-lit paper animation with really beautiful character designs. It’s a documentary about the [1917] Bolshevik Revolution and how it impacted artists. Animations serves it well; it’s really beautiful. Getting to interview Rothe was interesting because I asked her about Lotte Reiniger, and she said, ‘I found her work boring.’ My heart broke, but all she’s seen is the most basic and boring of Lotte’s films. She’s not seen the cool stuff!”

“But as a filmmaker, she did take time out of her day– writing a script– to meet me. I know she’s not into Lotte Reiniger, but she is a modern animator I admire. She’s never read anything Lotte wrote. She’s hardly watched any of Lotte’s films, but when you heard her talk about film, what film means, and what she’s trying to do, it’s really similar to the things Lotte wrote.”

“But I did find a few filmmakers who will say, ‘I’m inspired by Lotte Reiniger.’ My first day in Tübingen I interviewed the animator Hannes Rall, an independent filmmaker and university professor in Singapore. He grew up in Tübingen and [became familiar with and knows] the breadth and diversity of Reiniger’s work in a way that Ocelot and Rothe still don’t, so he’s very open about being inspired by her. He’s also inspired by Hanna-Barbera cartoons. When you watch “The Cold Heart,” you can feel the difference of the bright backgrounds, the lack of joints, but it’s also really German.”

“I had a few days in Tübingen and spent a lot of time in [the City Museum of Tübingen]. Most of the archival materials are all in German so I can’t even read them. So, I worked with [museum curator] Dr. Evamarie Blattner on some of them, asking, “Hey, what does this say?” She can read it of course. But also, “Oh, I had heard of this person in London. Have you heard of this person? Do you know who this one is?” Honestly there’s so much comparative work between the two archives that is yet to be done. It could fill in some gaps. I want to go back as soon as I can.”

So, where do you imagine going next with the project?

Emily: “I am currently working on my senior animation thesis. I’m going to make a documentary film very much in the style of [Katrin] Rothe’s film, making the case that Lotte Reiniger’s legacy is relevant to young artists today. […] I’ve received a lot of like negative comments from a lot of animators. I think they’re missing something that they haven’t known about her. She’s getting a lot of love from historians now, but I think even she would’ve cared more about animators knowing her work than historians. It wasn’t about being historic or well known. It was about sharing the work that she made and the love for her work. […]I’m going to do lots of different, experimental types of animation because one, I like to, and two, so did she. That’s the big thing right now. I’m going to work on getting artists to know her outside of her silhouettes.”

Further resources