10 Tragically, Irretrievably Lost Pieces of Animation History

A scene from a lost Russian version of The Hobbit. Photo: YouTube

The annals of culture are filled with what has succeeded and, in some form or another, remained — and yet what we’ve left behind is often as important and instructive as what we’ve kept with us. That goes for the animated arts as much as anything else: While we may have jettisoned Technicolor and the more laborious parts of hand animation, these technologies still made an indelible mark on the medium, and so have many animated works that have been destroyed or abandoned. Many more aspects of animation history, too, showed great promise or potential to be game changers, only to vanish into history’s great scrap heap. Here are some — but nowhere close to all — of the lost cartoons worth remembering.

The Works of Charles-Émile Reynaud

There are more than a few magicians of moving pictures whose turn-of-the-century innovations could make a case for their enshrinement as the progenitor of animation as we know it. But while French caricaturist Émile Cohl is credited today as the Father of the Animated Cartoon, there’s one man who may merit the title more: Charles-Émile Reynaud. The creator of an animation device called the praxinoscope, Reynaud was responsible for the first projected animated short films, a series called Pantomimes Lumineuses, shown in 1892 on his new and improved large-scale praxinoscope, the Théâtre Optique — a device that pioneered the commercial use of perforations, which would become instrumental to cinematography. Of the three animations, only the third, Pauvre Pierrot, survives. Its predecessors, Le Clown et ses chiens and Reynaud’s first animation for the Théâtre, Un bon bock, were both lost before his death in 1918 when a despondent Reynaud, rendered penniless in part by the success of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, destroyed his equipment and sank it into the Seine along with all his work except Pierrot and 1894’s Autour d’une cabine. Each was composed of between 300 and 700 individually painted images and ran between 10 and 15 minutes. The loss of Un bon bock, in which a mischievous kitchen boy discreetly dispatches with a roguish cabaret patron’s beers as he flirts with the waitress and argues with another barfly, is particularly painful.

The Works of Helena Smith Dayton

Animation, especially in the United States, has long held a reputation as a boys’ club, and deservedly so. Still, some of the earliest pioneers were women, and one, Helena Smith Dayton, was vital to the development of stop-motion — or, as she called it, “stop action.” In her home in Manhattan in the mid 1910s, Dayton used clay, a sharpened match, a hairpin, and her fingers to create hundreds of figures inspired by the city slickers of her day. By the end of 1915, thanks to the attention of Puck magazine and a burgeoning Greenwich Village art scene, her hobby had become a lucrative one, and she began to photograph them in varying poses. By 1917, she was showing what were perhaps the first Claymation films ever made at the Strand Theater in New York. Her shorts — an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Pride Goeth Before a Fall, Battle of the Suds, and others — are all presumed lost, and there’s no mention of her films or any copyrights for them in the Library of Congress. (It’s probably safe to blame sexism for that part.) But without Helena Smith Dayton, there would be no skeletons from Jacob and the Argonauts, no Wallace and Grommit, no Coraline.

The Works of Quirino Cristiani

The creator of the world’s first animated feature film was not, as many might reasonably but mistakenly believe, Walter Elias Disney. It is not even Lotte Reiniger, the silhouette animation trailblazer whose 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature-length film. It is, rather, an Italian-born Argentine named Quirino Cristiani. Cristiani cut his teeth drawing caricatures and other political cartoons for newspapers in Buenos Aires before meeting Federico Valle, another Italian, who had worked as a cameraman and documentary filmmaker in Europe with the Lumière brothers and others. With Valle, Cristiani set his cartoons to film. At first, the duo made short newsreels, but on November 9, 1917, they debuted El Apóstol, an animated film using cardboard cutouts said to be composed of 58,000 individually drawn frames and boasting a runtime of an hour and ten minutes, to glowing reviews. It was perhaps the finest day of Cristiani’s career, which was marked, thereafter, by atrocious luck. Cristiani’s second animated feature, Sin dejar rastros, was released in 1918 and confiscated (and presumably destroyed) by the government the next day. El Apóstol was destroyed in a fire in 1926, and while he made a number of other films throughout the 1920s and a handful in the subsequent decades, all but one, El Mono relojero, were destroyed in two more fires in 1957 and 1961. The one film that did survive? It was made using cel animation, not cardboard cutouts, and not at all reflective of his oeuvre.


Walt Disney cut his teeth producing short films in Kansas City, where he spent the latter half of his childhood. He got his start at 18 with satires of contemporary issues, including — wait for it — police corruption, and while the animation was primitive, they were well received at local theaters. So well, in fact, that Disney sold the films to a local theater owner, quit his day job, and launched Laugh-O-Grams Films, which would eventually employ a handful of animators, including the great, and greatly abused, Ub Iwerks. That studio produced, according to Jeff Lenburg’s The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons, six updated interpretations of standard fairy tales, although for “the first Newman Laugh-0-Grams … produced in 1920, when Walt was a member of the Kansas City Film Ad Company, titles and release dates of these cartoons do not exist. Titles are available only for films made after 1922.” One of those titles is Martha, a silent, black-and-white short film, one of two made by Disney in 1923, the final year of his Laugh-O-Grams Films studio — although he would go on to make one more Laugh-O-Gram in 1927, once he was settled in California. There is basically no information about Martha available at all, but here is what we know: It is presumed lost and was billed not as a Laugh-O-Gram but rather a “Song-O-Reel,” adding to the mystery.

The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda 

Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be the father of Russian literature, adapted one of his country’s folk tales, The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda, into verse in 1830, and the poem was animated three times in the USSR. Before those adaptations, though, Mikhail Tsekhanovsky made one grand failed attempt to adapt it in 1933. The film was to be scored by the great Dmitri Shostakovich, but the composer gave up on his task after a particularly damning review of his work — which is rumored to have been written by Joseph Stalin himself, however doubtful that is — ran in the Soviet newspaper Pravda and wreaked havoc on his career. Tsekhanovsky never finished the film after that, and all but one short clip was destroyed in a fire at the archives of a production unit of the Cinema of the Soviet Union during World War II. After Shostakovich’s death, one of his students completed the score at the behest of the composer’s widow. The film itself, alas, was not so lucky.

The Adventures of Pinocchio

Once upon a time, there were two Italian animators named Raoul Verdini and Umberto Spano, and they had a dream: to make The Adventures of Pinocchio, a film adapting the famous 1883 children’s book of the same name by Carlo Collodi. That film, which was to have been released in 1936, would have been the first animated feature film from Italy, and it also would have been the first cel animated feature film ever — thus beating Walt Disney not only to the milestone he achieved with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but also to the story of his second animated film, Pinocchio. The circumstances surrounding the film’s dissolution are as mysterious as its fate, but whatever happened, its strings were clearly severed with finality. The original script and some still frames from the film are all that is left of the project.

St. Francis: Dreams and Nightmares

The name Berthold Bartosch isn’t one most cartoon lovers would know, and yet its bearer’s efforts were seminal for the medium and influential over a number of decades. The man worked with Lotte Reiniger, the great German silhouette animation pioneer, on The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest animated feature film to have survived to this day. He was the developer of an early sort of multiplane camera similar to the one the Walt Disney Company would perfect for the short The Old Mill and its subsequent films. He was a mentor to the animator George Dunning, who would go on to work on Yellow Submarine. And from 1933 to 1938, he was working on a 25-minute antiwar film, at British film director Thorold Dickinson’s request, called St. Francis: Dreams and Nightmares. That film was, in a dramatic turn worthy of a film itself, destroyed by the Nazis during the occupation of Paris, along with the original negatives for Bartosch’s short film L’Idée and a short anti-Hitler film he had not completed. Of St. Francis, only a handful of stills remain.

The Thief and the Cobbler 

Has any animator ever been so robbed as Richard Williams? Well, yes — Berthold Bartosch, by the Nazis, for one. But here’s the thing: If Williams, among the most brilliant traditional animators of all time by any measure, had been allowed to finish this adaptation of the fables of 13th-century Seljuq storyteller Nasreddin, The Thief and the Cobbler would quite likely be in the running for the title of greatest animated film in history. Williams, after all, ushered in a new era of animation when his game-changing work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit hit theaters in 1988. And the scenes and pencil tests from the film that did survive showcase such stunning designs and technically perfected movement that nearly any clip from what would have been the film could prove the point. It was even to be the last film to feature the talents of Victor Price!

Alas, the film holds a different, more dubious honor in our version of reality: the Guinness Book of World Records entry for “longest production time for an animated film.” Technically, the film was released — it just wasn’t Williams’s film. Booted from the project after production costs soared and the schedule lagged, the producer Fred Calvert cut the crap out of it and reedited it into Allied Filmmakers’ The Princess and the Cobbler, which was released in 1993. That film was also reedited and released by a different studio, Miramax, two years later as Arabian Knight. Both sucked. “Over the course of the project’s 31-year gestation, the film underwent several name changes, numerous false starts, and changes in preferred animation techniques,” the film’s Guinness entry reads, “with three entirely separate sets of dialogue being recorded at different points in the production, while lengthy disagreements between Williams and the films distributor, Miramax Films, delayed it even further.” The knowledge of what could have been had Williams finished the thing himself is tragic. A popular fan edit, which Williams himself recognized during his life, did its level best. But nothing compares to the real deal.

The Works

If this film by Lance Williams (who went on to become chief scientist at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 2000s) and the now-defunct New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab in Old Westbury, New York, (where a who’s who of CG animators, including Pixar co-founder Ralph Guggenheim, got their start in the 1980s) had been finished in the early 1980s as intended, Pixar’s Toy Story would not have made our “100 Sequences That Shaped Animation” list. Seriously. The Works would have been the first entirely 3D CGI feature film ever made, following a robot called Ipso Facto and a young woman pilot as they attempt to repopulate the Earth after a world war caused by a malfunctioning computer called … the Works. For a host of reasons — including low morale and some poaching of computer animators from the project by one George Lucas — that proved impossible, and progress on the film, which would have had a 90-minute runtime, never got past the first ten minutes. Regardless, it was quite a generator for computer animation breakthroughs. Maybe it should have made the list after all.

The Hobbit/Treasures Under a Mountain

Far over the Ural Mountains, cold in bunkers deep in Soviet strongholds, there may yet exist more than these six minutes of an unreleased 1991 film that once perhaps could have been: a Russian animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Honestly, though, probably not — as extraordinary as it would have been for the Argus International Animation Studio to have finished this film, that was probably never going to happen after the dissolution of the USSR. A nerd can dream, though.

Train Arrival 

There sure are a lot of lost Russian animated films. It’s almost like the Russians have a reputation for being long-suffering or something. Anyway, far before Loving Vincent, the first fully painted feature film, was released in 2017, there were plans for a watercolor animated feature film: Train Arrival by Aleksandr Tatarskiy, the Russian animator who co-founded the first private animation studio in the Soviet Union, Pilot. The project started in 1986, two years before Pilot was established, and while roughly 40 minutes of the film were made, the work was slow, with financial troubles in the USSR during the unstable 1990s adding to the difficulty of completing the film. The scenes that were completed were highly praised by the leading lights of Russian animation, including the great Yuri Norstein. Then, like something out of a story by Nikolai Gogol — no, not that one, Yuri — the materials for the film were destroyed in a series of floods, rendering them damaged at best and unusable at worst. Stydno!

10 Tragically Lost Pieces of Animation History