It’s a long-lamented fact that female filmmakers don’t get enough credit. Two new picture book biographies are doing their part to remedy this historical oversight by spotlighting the life and legacy of Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), a German film director and animator best known for creating the oldest surviving animated movie: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, released in 1926. In celebration of this literary double feature, we asked Fiona Robinson, author-illustrator of Out of the Shadows: How Lotte Reiniger Made the First Animated Fairytale Movie, and C.E. Winters, author of Cut!: How Lotte Reiniger and a Pair of Scissors Revolutionized Animation, to interview each other about the behind-the-scenes process of bringing Reiniger’s story to life for young readers.

C.E. Winters: Our Lotte Reiniger picture book biographies are releasing just under a year apart from each other, so I’m curious if we both developed an interest in Lotte’s story around the same time.

Fiona Robinson: Yes, I feel we may have created the book equivalent of waiting for a bus for hours, then two or three arriving all at once! But the more books about Lotte the better, because she should be known, especially to children interested in animation.

Winters: Yes, definitely! One of the reasons why I wanted to write about Lotte was because there didn’t seem to be enough books about her.

When and how did you first learn about Lotte, and what made you decide to write and illustrate a picture book about her?

Robinson: I can’t remember when I first heard about Lotte. It’s strange, because I usually have a freakishly reliable visual memory. I’m fantasizing now that she must have whispered to me when I was unaware, “You know, you really should make a book about me, because I am fascinating!”

I do remember, though, that at art school I was especially enamored of Weimar culture. I loved learning about the Bauhaus, so-called “degenerate” art, and the German silent movie scene with all its gothic horror glory. Fabulous stuff. Those artists were so adventurous and unconventional, and Lotte was part of that movement. All of them knew that as the Nazi wave grew, they were dancing “around the edge of a volcano,” as one historian said. Sometimes artists are really brave, and Lotte and her beloved [husband] Carl were especially so.

I was also drawn to Lotte because she was a storyteller. Storytellers are my favorite people. And storytelling seems to me to be the essence of being human. Lotte was a very colorful character—talented, funny, and eccentric. And despite her obvious talent, she remained impoverished. She had no business brain; she was simply an artist whose work was all-consuming. And this may be controversial for me to mention even, but there’s a hilarious photo of her in her 80s, holding up a cutout, with a big smile and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. I love that photo! Unlike some other animators, she remained an individual, not a brand.

Winters: I’m familiar with that photo. It’s fantastic!

Robinson: It’s sad that I didn’t know about Lotte when I was a young girl. Having her as a female role model might have given me greater self-belief to become a storyteller. I do hope with our books that more children might believe that they can perform, write, animate, and tell their own stories.

Winters: That’s my hope, too. Learning about Lotte’s determination to create her art on her own terms is quite empowering.

Robinson: So, C.E., how did you first come across Lotte, and what was it about her that inspired you?

Winters: I didn’t learn about Lotte until I saw a short animated film called Lotte Reiniger: The Unsung Heroine of Early Animation, created by Anna Humphries and released by BBC Ideas in 2018. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved learning about the behind-the-scenes secrets of moviemaking, and I’ve always been fascinated by film history, including the history of the silent film era. However, I didn’t hear about Lotte Reiniger until I was already in my mid-40s! That didn’t seem right.

Like you, I wished I had learned about Lotte as a child. In both the second and the third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Martin, who taught us how to do shadow plays and stop-motion animations. Even then, I had no idea there was an esteemed female filmmaker in Germany who had spent decades creating stop-motion films using shadow puppets. This was in the late 1970s, so Lotte was still alive—and still making films—at the time. I also put on numerous plays in my living room with my sister and cousins. When I learned about Lotte’s childhood love of entertaining her classmates and family members, I felt she was a kindred spirit.

Robinson: Oh, I love that you put on plays like Lotte!

Winters: My immediate thought after watching that 2018 film was, “I want to write a picture book about this woman.”

Robinson: The BBC film is a great intro to Lotte. I remember one of those daily Google mini animations that I enjoyed too. How did you start your research?

Winters: I started by watching as many of Lotte’s films as I could find online and looking for copies at my library. Then I turned to Whitney Grace’s excellent 2017 biography, Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Animation. Another early find that proved helpful was a recorded 1976 interview with Lotte that’s available through the online archives of the University of Southern California. Filmmakers Elizabeth Beech and Carla Patullo, creators of the 2018 short documentary film Lotte That Silhouette Girl, also proved to be extremely helpful early on. Eventually, they sent me a treasure trove of Lotte’s childhood photos that I passed along to Matt Schu, the illustrator of Cut!

What about you, Fiona? What were some of your favorite sources for research? Because you also illustrated your book and had to think about the visuals in addition to the text, how did studying Lotte’s distinctive silhouette films influence the way you approached your artwork?

Robinson: As you mentioned, Whitney Grace’s biography is excellent. And it especially helped to read or listen to interviews with Lotte, like the one in Jayne Pilling’s Women & Animation: A Compendium, to really get a feel for her personality. Lotte told the most fabulous anecdotes, with this down-to-earth, no nonsense jolliness. And I think that sense of her was what steered my story.

I really love research. It’s like being a detective! I cast a wide net and try to draw in as much as possible. The tricky part is stopping myself from going down too many rabbit holes, and refining the information I have. Thank goodness for my editor Erica Finkel!

Researching and completing the illustrations for Out of the Shadows was the hardest part of its creation. At first I thought I couldn’t do it—who was I to imitate this marvelous artist’s work? But then, I realized that I didn’t have to imitate her, just make sure I was telling her story in a manner sympathetic to her. I knew I wanted to convey flow in static print and using loops of film reels across pages helped. I also wanted to give the book the feeling that you were watching a movie, so I used intertitle pages and silhouettes of audiences.

Winters: Your use of silent film intertitles between the different sections of the book is so clever! I felt you beautifully conveyed the feeling of watching a movie from Lotte’s early years of filmmaking.

Robinson: There were several moments of frustration. For Lotte’s first animation, when she directed the stop frame sequence for The Pied Piper of Hamelin, I really needed an image of the wooden rats she’d used. I contacted several film institutes—in Dusseldorf, Berlin, and the BFI in London—but had no luck. So I left those illustrations on a back burner, hoping something would turn up. Ultimately the rats-on-wheels appeared on the Instagram posts of Tubingen Museum, which made sense because Lotte had left artwork to them!

Winters: I can definitely relate to the challenge of needing to track down elusive photographs! One of my side gigs is working as a freelance fact-checker of children’s nonfiction books, and I’m often asked to compile reference images for illustrators. I decided to compile such a reference file for Matt when my editor, Martha Mihalick, brought him on board as the illustrator of Cut! I remember using some in-depth detective work, including figuring out the translations of a few German phrases, to find a sample photo of Louis Hagen, the man who financed Lotte’s first full-length animated film. It’s an amazing feeling when such photos suddenly make themselves known!

Robinson: That’s great that you found a picture of Hagen—I was unsuccessful! Lotte said she had based Prince Achmed’s profile on his, so I tried to envision him through her cutout.

Winters: There’s a definite likeness!

Robinson: C.E., I’d love to know how you felt, when you first saw what Matt was creating from your story, your words? It must have been exciting!

Winters: It was magical! Matt’s ability to transform the black-and-white reference images I sent him into intricate illustrations, as well as his mesmerizing use of shadow and light, blew me away. Much like you, I originally imagined the illustrations being done entirely in Lotte-inspired silhouettes, but because the book contains so much technical filmmaking info, Matt’s detailed images were better suited for demonstrating Lotte’s animation process—and yet his illustrations also managed to capture the essence of Lotte’s silhouettes and backgrounds.

I think both you and Matt skillfully and wonderfully figured out ways to pay homage to Lotte’s artwork while also incorporating your own artistic styles.

I’m so thankful I had this chance to talk to you about our Lotte Reiniger picture book biographies, Fiona!

Robinson: Me too, C.E.! And congratulations on Cut!

Cut!: How Lotte Reiniger and a Pair of Scissors Revolutionized Animation by C.E. Winters, illus. by Matt Schu. Greenwillow, $18.99 Jan. 24 ISBN 978-0-06-306739-4

Out of the Shadows: How Lotte Reiniger Made the First Animated Fairytale Movie by Fiona Robinson. Abrams, $18.99 2022 ISBN 978-1-4197-4085-5