Inspired by the Oscar, Hardened by the Marketplace: On the Everydays and Holidays of Russian Animation

By Natalia Lukinykh (Moscow)

For Russian animators, who live—like the rest of the world’s animation community—according to the rhythms of their workplace and their profession’s unique calendar, the autumn and winter seasons of the past decade have been a time of special hopes and anxieties. By each December, Russia’s animators have amassed an impressive annual collection of new international prizes and honors, which range from yet another nomination for an Oscar (Russian animation films made the final list for this highest award three times in the 1990s; the golden statue was finally bestowed on Aleksandr Petrov’s auteur film The Old Man and the Sea in 2000) to prestigious awards at the famous animation festivals in Annecy and Hiroshima, in Zagreb and Stuttgart, at the Fantosh festival in Switzerland and at the domestic festival KROK. It is specifically in the winter—when the time comes to gather the latest Russian animation films for the annual professional screenings in Suzdal—that animators begin to be tormented by the thought that the new “harvest” for February might either turn out to be meager or unworthy of our celebrated art of animation.

But let us take everything in order. The ten-year-long history of the Tarusa-Suzdal animation screenings now provides an opportunity to cast an analytical view on our eternal doubts about our own strengths. Indeed, when the Open Russian Festival of Animation Films was just born—in a sense, continuing the tradition of the annual professional seminars organized for Soviet animators in Bolshevo (outside of Moscow)—there were many reasons to be uneasy. The first screenings of domestically made animation films, marking a new era in Russian history after the collapse of the USSR, occurred in February 1996, six years after the last seminar in Bolshevo. Back then, Russia’s independent film industry was threatened with total destruction, and all of the accomplishments in animation films were achieved despite the difficult circumstances of life. It is still a wonder that during this period of a sharp impoverishment in film production, it was specifically animation—which had lost access to the outfitted studios set up in church buildings; which had lost many highly qualified specialists because of mass emigration to the West; and which depended heavily on government subsidies and sponsors—that was able not only to survive, but also to maintain its leading position as a national film school on the world’s festivals screens.

Nevertheless, despite the pause of many years, this first domestic screening of animation films in the Birch Grove, the provincial House of Leisure near Tarusa, unexpectedly put together a program of worthy films by talented directors and showed the potential to reanimate creative forces. The organizers of the first festival in Tarusa decided to screen for the jury of professionals—without recourse to a Selection Committee—all of the new animation films made in the Russian studios and by independent animators, including commercials, clips, and even computer exercises by neophytes. Despite this littered flow, however, the accomplishments of talented post-perestroika animators were evident year after year, testifying to the formation in Russia of a new generation of masterful experimenters who had enormous creative potential and a happy future ahead of them: Aleksandr Petrov’s The Mermaid (Rusalka, 1995), Irina Evteeva’s Elixir (1995), Mikhail Aldashin’s Nativity (Rozhdestvo, 1996), Andrei Zolotukhin’s Grandmother (Babushka, 1996), Valentin Ol'shvang’s The Pink Doll (Rozovaia kukla, 1997), Mikhail Lisovoi’s The Major’s Nose (Nos maiora, 1997), Ekaterina Mikhailova’s Night before Christmas (Noch' pered rozhdestvom, 1997), Vladislav Bairamgulov’s Down by the River (Daleko vniz po reke, 1997), Sergei Ainutdinov’s Comic Dance (Shutochnyi tanets, 1998), Andrei Ushakov’s Socks of a Big City (Noski bol'shogo goroda, 1999), Dmitrii Geller’s Greetings from Kislovodsk (Privet iz Kislovodska, 2000), Stepan Biriukov’s Neighbors (Sosedi, 2001), Aleksei Demin’s Cats in the Rain (Koshki pod dozhdem, 2001)… These and many other films by Russian animators who have since become well-known started their successful festival careers on the modest screen in Tarusa. The screenings in Tarusa also strengthened the workshop traditions of Russian animators—evaluating the achievements evident in the new films in the festival programs not only on the basis of the judgments by a jury of professionals, but also on the basis of the ratings accorded by the audience of professional filmmakers. Not infrequently, it was specifically the high ratings of the festival audiences that gave the directors of new films a legal justification in undertaking new creative projects and the right to count on government support.

Russian animators were able to survive this most difficult time for this branch of the film industry because of these gatherings, at which they shared general problems and hopes. Over the years, the Tarusa festival was transformed from a homey resort-gathering into a site for serious screenings of domestically made animation films. At the start of the new millennium, however, the festival found itself in need of new venues and different forms of professional activity. After surmounting the diseases of poverty and artistic chaos that characterized the 1990s, the Russian film industry entered the new era with a long-term program backed by government support for national cinema. Animation studios, encouraged by government support, strove to catch up with and to surpass “America” in their commercially competitive productions, while the newest recruits in mastering computer programs actively immersed themselves in applied animation. The growing number of enthusiasts for and participants in producing animation films could barely be accommodated in the peaceful guesthouse outside of Tarusa. So, in 2002, the animation festival moved to the comfortable tourist complex in Suzdal, the famous Russian city-museum, and the animators quickly felt themselves at home. At the same time, the scope and quality of the rapidly increasing output of animation films forced the organizing committee to adopt a more demanding approach to setting up the festival’s program of screenings—it established a Selection Committee. For several years now the competition of animation films gives audiences in Suzdal the opportunity to watch a select collection of the newest Russian animation films, chosen from amongst independently produced or studio-released works of the highest quality.

This year, as the festival starts its second decade, there were also cardinal changes in the traditional system of judging films. Under the continuing leadership of the President and Director of the festival—Alexander Tatarsky and Alexander Gerasimov respectively—the organizing committee eliminated its usual five- to seven-person jury, transferring this function to 33 authoritative experts from among the festival participants, whose evaluations also had an impact on the traditional audience ratings of the films. These revolutionary changes in the procedures enabled the festival to avoid the usual practice of secrecy surrounding the jury’s decisions, providing maximum transparency to the principle of “secret balloting” by the audience. Because the members of the jury had to cast a numerical vote on every film, each expert was confronted with a very responsible task: to establish honestly the professional (artistic) quality of each film while at the same time taking into account the complexities of the working relationships within the creative community of animators. Despite the inevitable problems and surprises of such a procedure, the results demonstrated the high collective expectations of the experts and the indisputable merits of the competition program.

Igor' Kovalev’s Milk (Milch [Moloko], 2005) received the award for best film, collecting the highest number of points in the vote by the 33 experts. A star of national and world animation, and a former member and one of the founders of Pilot Studio, Kovalev, who since 1992 has worked in the American studio Klasky Csupo, had aspired for a long time to be included in a Russian festival. The voting showed that the newest film by the famous émigré director, financed by his Russian sponsor Genrikh Padva, was emotionally very much in tune with Russian viewers at the festival. An auteur film about family life, permeated with powerful, mature passions and timid, childhood sensations, it impressed everyone not only with its artistic mastery, but also with its profound nostalgic subtext—with hints at a childhood in Kiev and almost painful details of our daily life. The very presence of Kovalev’s masterful film in the Suzdal competition raised the professional level of the entire program.

All of the films that received awards at the festival and the highest rankings by the jury of professionals were striking auteur films that either sprang from their directors’ serious creative attempt to make sense of our lives or marked a creative breakthrough for the directors. This is true of Dmitrii Geller’s refined confessional film Confession of Love (Priznanie v liubvi, 2006); Aleksandr Bubnov’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Sherlok Kholms i doktor Vatson, 2005) based on Conan Doyle’s famous characters; Ekaterina Mikhailova’s original puppet-mation interpretation of Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (Kapitanskaia dochka, 2005); Aleksei Demin’s elegant animated version of Guy de Maupassant’s novella Buatel (2006); the expressive lyrical etude City (Gorod, 2005) by debut filmmaker Petr Bronfin; Elizaveta Skvortsova’s collection of musical miniatures, Lullabys of the World (Kolybel'nye mira, 2005); and, naturally, the latest series of animated fairy tales from the series The Mountain of Gems (Gora samotsvetov, aka The Pile of Gems), created by the masters of the Pilot Studio under the leadership of Tatarsky. The sheer quantity of these outstanding animation films, so markedly different from the mass consumption productions of the video industry, testify to the vigor and independence of the contemporary Russian art of animation.

Especially inspiring were the achievements in auteur cinema by young animators, whose talent and professionalism are already beginning to determine the quality and future prospects of contemporary Russian animation. If the merits of Skvortsova’s—a recent graduate of the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK)—Lullabys of the World could have been anticipated because of her successful students films Rain (Dozhd', 1998) and Wait, Please (Podozhdi, pozhalui, 2002), then the creative potentials of the new courses for female students at Shar School-Studio or the debut films of Ekaterinburg’s Sneg Studio were pleasant surprises. The very fact that a good half of the competition program consisted of high-quality films by students or recent graduates of film schools is not only a source of joy, but also a cause to contemplate dividing the competition program in the future into at least two parts—for professional and for student films. Promising films by beginning filmmakers took a very prominent position in the festival competition—Anastasiia Zhuravleva’s Caution, the Doors are Opening! (Ostorozhno, dveri otkryvaiutsia, 2005), Mariia Sosnina’s About Me (Pro menia, 2005), Irina Litmanovich’s Khelom’s Customs (Khelomskie obychai, 2005), Nina Bisiarina’s Sparrows are Pigeons’ Children (Vorob'i — deti golubei, 2006), D. Sil'nitskaia’s What Grandfather Didn’t Know (O chem ne znal dedushka, 2005), and others. The main laurels went to Zhuravleva’s diploma film made at the Shar Studio, Caution, the Doors are Opening!, which received the award for best debut film. It is a clever composition featuring buttons on the Moscow metro and it immediately started to travel around the world’s festivals.

If the fate of contemporary Russian animation was determined by the quality of the Suzdal festival’s program, the lives of our animators would be virtually without a cloud. The cruel laws of the film and video marketplace, however, impose a powerful corrective on the lives of animators outside festivals. It is not surprising that conversations about money and popularity ratings—so uncharacteristic of this creative community—have become a major topic in many professional discussions. Even with stable government support for cinema, the way show business works leaves Russian animators increasingly fewer and fewer opportunities to preserve their creative independence within the profession because producers and television, traditionally oriented towards profitable commercial productions, restrict the development of auteur cinema, whether they do so intentionally or not. The greatest economic problems and artistic disappointments now originate from films that are brazenly commercial (both feature films and serials), in which the role of the producer is much more noticeable than the work of the artists. And yet, it is specifically these types of films that are touted by show business as the main achievements of contemporary animation, while the real gems that are fit for festival screenings remain unknown to the general public.

Seeking to create commercial, “long-running” projects that are profitable for distribution on the film, video, and television markets, studios or producers deliberately lower their aesthetic criteria, opting for a faceless style and choosing beginning filmmakers who are easier to work with, but who unfortunately are unable to guarantee professional quality and the success of the project. In their attempt to imitate the kind of middle-ground that is characteristic of commercial cinema worldwide, our animators are beginning to make banal “American” comics or bad “Japanese” serials, but in doing so they are wasting the professional traditions and aesthetic priorities of our native film schools. Even the full-length feature animations that preserve a level of quality, like Il'ia Maksimov’s A Dwarf Named Nose (Karlik Nos, 2003) or Konstantin Bronzit’s Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei, 2004), are still unable to compete in distribution with the feature films released by studios abroad, let alone on festival screens. It is possible that such films bring their makers immediate economic dividends, but they fall out of the context of festival art films, which had always determined the path of professional development and international authority of any national school of animation.

A very rare exception in the production of serial animation is the work of the animators and directors at the Pilot Studio and at Animos, who have undertaken educational projects based on national fairy-tales and literary classics for children. Their films do not really fit into the category of traditional serials or commercial productions because of their high level of professionalism and the individuality of the filmmakers in their approach to their material. The expressive auteur films of the fairy-tale cycle The Mountain of Gems [international release title: The Pile of Gems] from Pilot Studio and the animation adaptations of literary classics from Animos—Mariia Muat’s Zheltukhin (2002), Ekaterina Mikhailova’s Godmother's Present (Gostinets ot krestnoi, 2003), Natal'ia Orlova’s Chestnut (Kashtanka, 2004)—have received the highest awards at the last several festivals in Suzdal and have represented contemporary Russian animation at prestigious international screenings. It is reassuring to know that these studios are preserving the continuity of generations and the internal creative discipline that are so important for our domestic animation industry, and are not lowering aesthetic qualities for the sake of commercial benefit. Yet these famous studios and the recognized filmmakers working on independent projects, as well as the talented young filmmakers just beginning their professional careers—all must now compete for government support, for influential sponsors, and for popularity with anyone who wants to make the animation serials and blockbusters that the market demands. This is the severe social law that governs the everyday life of Russian animators.

Naturally, it is very difficult today to make up for the many professional losses suffered by the once imperially powerful Soviet animation industry, which used to be able to unite and define the fates of studios and individual animators, of recognized masters and beginning professionals. But practice shows that, despite all of the difficulties of life under the conditions of the marketplace, it is highly unlikely that our animators will turn their backs on creative and economic independence. Whoever has chosen to make animation a life-long profession must continue to do honest labor, believing in his personal strength and ideas. So it is worth hoping that none of the socio-economic changes of the new marketplace epoch will again test the steadfastness of the masters of the most magical branch of our film industry, whose profession and life accustom them more than anyone else to hard work, endurance, and optimism. It is precisely these attributes that help Russian animators survive—with professional merit, a sense of humor, and a rich fantasy—the long periods when they lack money and do not have the attention of the public. Without these attributes, at the end of each year in preparation for a new round of professional screenings in Suzdal, our animators would merely be cataloging their losses, rather than new awards and creative ideas.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Natalia Lukinykh
Film Critic, Moscow
Program Director, Open Russian Festival of Animation Films in Suzdal

Natalia Lukinykh© 2006

Updated: 10 Jul 06