KinoKultura: Issue 23 (2009)

The State of the Art: Russian Animation Today

By Larisa Maliukova (Moscow)

The life of Russian animation over last ten years reminds us of someone jumping on a bouncing castle. During the Soviet era Soiuzmul'tfil'm alone released up to forty ten-minute films per year. But in 1996 for the first National Screenings of Animation in Tarussia we just about found six films. After the economic crisis of the 1990s, not only animation, but all of Russian cinema fell into a lethargic dream, when production and distribution practically came to a halt and the infrastructure of cinemas collapsed.

The process of reanimation began in 2000, when 17 short films were produced with support from the state. The turning point came in 2004. A decision was taken to increase state funding for animation. The result consisted in 68 films made with state support; of these three were full-length films, and three were pilot films for serials. There followed the release of the most popular Russian serial, Smeshariki. The six-minute series intended for family viewing (a total of 208 series are planned) with stylised ball-shaped creatures were loved by spectators of different generations and became the basis of the Studio Petersburg and of a whole industry of franchised goods, including computer games, television and radio programs, toys, books and textbooks. In Saint Petersburg alone five shops trade exclusively with Smeshariki paraphernalia. By the way, Smeshariki have also been dubbed into English. 2004 also marks the birth of the largest and most complicated project in the history of Russian animation: Mountain of Gems (Gora samotsvetov), launched by the studio Pilot. This project continues at present, and some of the films included in this afternoon's programme — for example the plasticine puppet animation by Sergei Merinov, KuiGorozh — are part of the series .

The studio Pilot is the first independent Russian animation studio. According to the plan of its founders, Aleksandr Tatarskii and Igor Kovalev, Pilot was designed to be a laboratory for the creation of auteur films. Here we must note that the studio became a festival champion: the well-known films of Kovalev, Maksimov, and the Oscar winner Petrov were made under its brand. On the other hand the project facilitated a steady stream of films produced for mass audiences, whilst — and this is of huge importance — ensuring professional quality with thorough and fine plasticity.

The studio's activity culminated with Mountain of Gems, which was more than a film project: it was a new brand of Russian animation. Aleksandr Tatarskii, who has inspired this idea, managed to gather most of the best directors of the country under its umbrella: both masters and beginners. Fifty-two fairy tales of the peoples of Russia were produced: such a thing had never been seen in the Soviet era.

This family cycle meant an injection of high-quality cinema for the very little ones and for adults. A vaccine against the infinite phobias, the hatred of “otherness” and other nationalities… The thirteen-minute films were created in the most different techniques and had not only an educational, but also and enlightening value. In each series the trailer told in a humorous manner about traditions, life, crafts and arts of one of the people (for example, it claimed that in Bashkiria there lived the “most correct bees”). The project has already garnered a whole bouquet of awards, and the author of the trailers, Sergei Merinov, has been noted in particular. The project had a happy festival life: About Ivan the Fool (Pro Ivana duraka, 2004) by Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov, The Cat and the Fox (Kot i lisa, 2004) by Konstantin Bronzit, and of course the effervescent, magnificently timed, funny film with a refined visual language — Zhikharka (2006) by Oleg Uzhinov.

I cannot claim that all the films of the cycle are equally talented. There are magnificent works with a picturesque style and professional work, such as Aleksei Alekseev's About a Raven (Pro vorona, 2005), or Andrei Kuznetsov's How the Snake was Deceived (Kak obmanili zmeiia, 2004), but there are also less mature films. However, as a whole, Mountain of Gems is without doubt visible from afar, and it offers a clear and distinct aesthetic leap forward for Russian animators. At last, audiences could watch Russian animation: the films of Mountains of Gems were shown on the First Channel. The cycle continues to develop, and new works have been completed quite recently.

It is in many respects thanks to this project inspired by Tatarskii, who — alas — died last year, that we can speak about a renaissance of the quality of Russian animation and of the restoration of the school of Russian animation. In its aesthetics Mountain of Gems (as opposed to the computer-animated Smeshariki) continues the traditions of the Soviet school of animation of which Soiuzmul'tfil'm could once fame itself.

So, we can say that the landscape of Russian animation today has changed cardinally. What did we have in the Soviet era? There were two main factories or studios in Moscow: Soiuzmul'tfil'm and Mul'ttelefil'm, as well as a small studio in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg). Those are basically the residential addresses of practically the entire animation production created on the territory of the Russian Federation. Today Mul'ttelefil'm no longer exists, and after long squabbles, conflicts, and the departure of many masters the former main studio of the country, Soiuzmul'tfil'm, is now merely one of many studios, and it must be added that the quality of its films has gone down rapidly in the last few years.

The current map of Russian animation dazzles with names of new studios located not only in Moscow, but also in Saint Petersburg, Saratov, Sverdlovsk/Ekaterinburg, Kazan, and Iaroslavl, and the films from these studios are known within the country and beyond its borders.

But before I talk about these studios, I should like to draw your attention to a studio, whose projects have become a historical bridge between Soviet and modern Russian animation. I have in mind the studio Christmas Films and the so-called “large English order”: the basis for production in Russia's animation industry during the transition period. Thanks to the cooperation with S4C BBC (Wales) the studio was formed and began to produce a cycle of films based on Shakespeare, followed by operas. Then came screen adaptations of the Old and New Testaments. Today Christmas Films produces at best two or three projects per year. Recently the studio completed two series of the most popular Soviet film Just Wait (Nu pogodi) — two sequels to the series by the legendary animator Viacheslav Kotenochkin which were made by his son Aleksei. The studio is also busy with the production of the serial About Khoma and Suslik — a 13-part serial about the instructive adventures of the hamster and the squirrel which are captured in the spirit and traditions of Soviet animation of the 1950s. But during the deepest crisis of animation, Christmas Films appeared as the keeper of traditions of Soviet animation. Thanks to the large English commission many leading Russian animators, artists, directors, and master puppeteers found work, while the film process itself could continue without interruption.

How do the multitude of animation collectives survive today? First of all, they exist on the basis of state funding for precise projects. If a studio wants to plan its life for several years ahead, gather a crew of professionals and keep them, then it will be interested in long-term projects.

The studio Animos Film occupies a particularly significant place among Russian studios. The studio has not only created a number of high-quality auteur films, but Animos is almost the only studio that maintains the traditions of classical puppet animation, which today – in the age of the global advent of computer technologies — is already a rarity. Remarkable artists work at this studio, including those who worked with the classics back in the famous era of puppet animation at Soiuzmul'tfil'm: Marina Kurchevskaia and Nina Vinogradova. They pass their secrets and skills to directors of a new generation. The cycle “Russian classics for children” has become the project that defined the aesthetics of the studio. Cartoons based on Aleksei Tolstoi, Samuil Marshak, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Aleksandr Ostrovskii have received awards not only at animation festivals. The most amazing films of recent times are Mariia Muat's puppet animations of Zheltukhin (2002), and The Snow Maiden (2006), or Ekaterina Mikhailova's Little Snout Crumble (Kroshechka-khavroshechka, 2006), The Captain's Daughter (Kapitanskaia dochka, 2005). In The Captain's Daughter, a screen adaptation of Pushkin's story, Ekaterina Mikhailova chose traditional puppet animation combined with modern cinema techniques, such as foreshortenings, close-ups and mystical transformations. Nevertheless, the puppet animation created at the studio today lacks a tenacious modern eye, new rhythms, movements, and a modern montage. And fewer and fewer puppet films are being made. For the next animation festival no entries of puppet animation have been received so far.

One of the most stunning works of the last year is the adaptation of Gogol''s “Old-world Landowners” (Starosvetskie pomeshchiki): He and She (On i ona). Mariia Muat and the designer Marina Kurchevskaia have saturated the space with the love of ageing heroes, which is rendered through the props and objects on the set: the jam, the pickles, the marinades… With a uniquely Gogolian irony and intonation, all these culinary luxuries turn in the hands of the filmmakers into the flickering tension between grief and tenderness. This work is unique and very rare in its professional quality for modern animation, and has been accomplished through an even rarer form of animation: puppets.

A whole range of Russian studios today are formed by groups of “accomplices” who tend to gather behind a master of the art. Thus, the studio Stair is inspired and led by Garry Bardin; one of the most recent projects of the studio is the puppet-animated trilogy about a nanny made from cushions, called Chucha. Currently Bardin is completing work on the feature film, Ugly Duckling. The studio in Iaroslavl, Panorama, is engaged in the creation of the films of Aleksandr Petrov. The maker of the Oscar-winning The Old Man and the Sea (Starik i more, 1999) created in Iaroslavl his delightful film based on a novel by Ivan Shmelev, entitled My Love (Moia liubov', 2006) which was painted on glass. Iurii Norshtein's studio Artel continues to work on the long-term epopee, the screen adaptation of Gogol''s “Overcoat”. During the creation of the film he also made the trailer for the popular Russian television programme “Good night, kids!” and one of the novellas in the international project on variations of haiku about Basyo Matsuo.

One of the oldest animation collectives is the Sverdlovsk animation studio, which honours not only the traditions of the Soviet period. In the past, the studio created the first films of Aleksandr Petrov (The Cow [Korova], 1989; Dream of a Ridiculous Man [Son smeshnogo cheloveka], 1992); Aleksei Karaev's Snichi (1989), and the films of Vladimir Petkevich, Sergei Ainutdinov, Oksana Cherkasova, Andrei Zolotukhin, Valentin Olshvang, Aleksei Kharitidi. Today one of the most talented authors, Dmitrii Geller, continues to work at the studio. Also Zoia Kireeva made her debut film here, one of the most brilliant and paradoxical films of the year, The Silly Girl (Devochka dura, 2006), developing the traditions of modern cinema. The Silly Girl is the drama of unrequited and uncompromising love that unfolds within the precinct of a kindergarten. Zoia Kireeva is the heir of the traditions of a distinct graphic school of the artists Andrei Zolotukhin (who now works in Britain) and Valentin Olshvang. The master Oksana Cherkasova (the author of film Niura's Bathhouse [Niurkina bania], 1995) and her colleagues train new directors and animators, among them also Ol'ga Chernova, who has attracted interest with her fairy tale The Little Mouse and the Fox (Myshonok i lis, 2007), where the life of the little mouse, filled with fears and dangers, is shown like a genuine feat.

If we consider the content of Russian animation of the last year, it becomes obvious that — surprisingly enough — the main theme that inspires artists is love. The Petersburg master Konstantin Bronzit draws with very simple graphic means a love story — with all its grief and irony, as it unfolds in a public toilet. Even the title Lavatory Love Story (Liubovnaia istoriia — ubornaia istoriia) contains a word play: “Lave-story” — from the word laver as in lavatoire. The drawn story of bitter and blind love in Ekaterina Sokolova's talented film The Silly One (Glupaia, 2007) is about a simple peasant woman who does not recognize the love of her drunken husband. This is a fine psychological sketch, linking the relations of the drinking, unshaven husband and tractor driver, his “silly” love for his reckless wife and a silly raven in unrequited love with … the tractor driver's wife.

Aleksandr Petrov's My Love is a 26-minute long fresco devoted to the fragile first love of a schoolboy entering adult life. A highly talented poetic essay of Dmitrii Geller from Ekaterinburg is the film The Boy (Mal'chik, 2007) about a horse that perishes or, to be exact, passes through fire, water and the belly of a whale in order to save through his sufferings the life of a foal. Three Love Stories (Tri istorii liubvi, 2007) by Svetlana Filippova is a free romantic biography of Vladimir Maiakovskii and his amorousness. Archival footage is marked by the author with coal, thus turning the visuals into an unsteady image of a vanishing era.

Attempts to introduce an authorial view and experiments into the field of digital technologies continue. In Vlad Barbe's version, the founder of the studio Classics, the axiomatic tale about Kolobok and his travel become a variation on the biblical theme of the prodigal son. The director populates the stale sphere of 3D space like a deserted and cold world, thus emphasizing the enormous loneliness of the tramp Kolobok.

In 2007, 137 films have been produced with state support, among them one full-length feature and nine serials. The arrival of a young generation in animation has been aided by the “green light” contained in the state program for debut films. The work on Smeshariki and Mountain of Gems continues, as well as such film cycles as Hamster and Squirrel.

In 2008 a total of 109 films were made with state support, of them twelve (!) full-length features, and the work on serials continues. Approximately 25 % of films are made with partial support from the state. The state does not fail to support studios, distributing finances to concise projects in different regions: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, the Urals, Kazan, Yakutia, or Saratov.

In the next year financial support is expected to remain approximately at the same levels (although the current economic crisis may reduce the volume of state finance). However, it is planned to focus on features (currently over 14 (!) feature films are in production), and also on serials. I think that this highlights a flaw: debuts and films for children are funded at 10 %, and there is a danger for auteur and festival cinema. But time will show…

 

This paper was delivered at Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol on 19 November 2008 during a visit sponsored by BASEES Study Group for Russian Culture and the Media.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Larisa Maliukova
Moscow

Larisa Maliukova© 2009

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Updated: 07 Jan 09