KinoKultura: Issue 29 (2010)

Suzdal 2010. The Business of Animation

By Birgit Beumers (U of Bristol)

This year’s edition of the Suzdal Open Russian Animation festival featured a major novelty: a congress accompanied the festival screenings, which was clearly designed to bring the festival onto a new level and include a business component into the programme. The congress was devoted to discussions of production and distribution of animation; the transformation of CGI animation into 3D; new technologies in animation; DVD and television distribution. Moreover, the congress included international speakers and participants, notably from Canada (Toon Boom), India, South Korea as well as Latvia and Lithuania. This initiative is laudable, especially since the new and diverse audience around the presentations could in the long term bring more producers and professionals to Suzdal.

unsad storyAnother novelty was the programme of children’s animation studios from all over Russia, presented in morning screenings. The number of children’s studios has grown considerably in the last few years, especially in Siberia, where the influence can be felt of the quite unique work and determination of Petr Onofrikov, who founded and runs the Studio “Poisk” in Akademgorodok (near Novosibirsk) along with the amazingly talented pedagogue Elena Tikhonova. I had the pleasure of visiting the studio ten years ago, and the quality of the children’s films from “Poisk” remains stunning: a child is never made to conform to an aesthetic or narrative template, but the teachers encourage individual and idiosyncratic expression.

Among the main competition programme was Maria Muat with her Un-sad Story (Nepechal’naia istoriia), a piece of animation that combines puppet animation with drawn backdrops in bright watercolours: red and yellow patches on a white background are filled with pencil drawings. The story is somewhat convoluted: a man and a woman have tea together while the dog chases the cat. The man gets angry and throws his boot at the cat. And from here a series of slapstick adventures ensue, which leave an all too profound and detailed psychological impact on the characters that ultimately prevents them from becoming a series of funny jokes. At the end, the entire family travel peacefully on a train.

rusalkaWith the Night Came a little Rain (So vechora dozhdik) by Valentin Ol’shvang is a variation of the Rusalka story. Olshvang, who worked for many years with Iurii Norstein, has created here a masterful piece of animation, with fine and delicate drawings and using white paste for the effect of the emptiness of space. An old fisherman catches a mermaid, a rusalka, and takes her home to warm her on the stove: she becomes his joy. The jealous cat tries to take a bite at Rusalka and is fended off. Yet in the spring Rusalka pulls the fisherman into the river as she joins the other rusalki. The story here follows the myth: the old man, obsessed with the beautiful maiden, pays for his fascination; but there is also the aspect of Rusalka wanting to keep him company: it is a story more of the incompatibility of two ways of life.

Two films created with great skill the style and atmosphere of the 1920s: Dmitrii Lazarev’s Harmonium (Kharmonium) and Valerii Kozhin’s Quadraturin (Kvadraturin). Harmonium is based on the prose of the great absurdist writer Daniil Kharms. Early on in the film sheets of paper with text create a meta-textual reference to the writing process. The drawings echo the expressionist style of the 1920s, whilst the story draws on the experience of communal living that is parodied. Quadraturin also offers excellent animation through stylish, black-and-white paper drawings in a poster style. A man buys a cream which allows the expansion of his room into a large space that he does not dare show others, thus also addressing the housing issues of the 1920s.

harmonium
quadrat

A further two films impressed through their masterly drawings and a distinct painterly style. Belarusian Aleksandr Lenkin’s Birdie (Ptakha) is a beautifully and finely drawn animation—using pencil drawings—about an old couple and a little bird which the man rears, until one day the bird flies away. Birdie is a nice parable of youth and age, and about the need to let children live their own life. Nina Bisiarina’s Journey to the Sea (Poezdka k moriu) also displays an impressive style of drawing, capturing with a few strokes the characters and settings. Bisiarina uses beautifully drawn images in pastel colours, which are especially effective since the story of the train journey to the sea is told through the eyes of a child. The sense of expectation and duration is rendered exquisitely in the film.

shapochkiA parodic element entered into two competition films: Aleksandr Gur’ev’s Red Riding-Hoods (Krasnye shapochki) transposes several Red Riding Hoods and Wolves into the modern world. The coarse and bold drawings parody the ornamental drawings of classical fairy tales, whilst the original tale is undermined both by multiplying characters and showing the wolves hunted by the police, thus confusing and distorting the original tale into an action genre film with car- and motorcycle chases. Much more daring is Rim Sharafutdinov, who works at the studio of Bashkortostan. His The Side of the Wind (Ta storona, gde veter) is a fast-paced and brilliantly drawn parody, using old, Russian cartoon style. The director offers a most hilarious parody also on the concept of the hero and knight of the Russian bylina, introducing elements of the horror as the legendary knight has to chase after the jaws (or teeth) that signify (vampire-like) power… and eventually transform the owner into a vampire.

The serial genre continues to flourish and produces excellent new animation. Thus, the Ekaterinburg-base animator Sergei Ainutdinov is working on a series of Ural Anecdotes (Uralskie baiki). The first, The Magic Belt (Chudo-poias) is devoted to the myth of the earth’s origin, symbolised through a golden belt. The film is drawn in the style of the lubok, presenting a one-dimensional and flat storyboard that matches the woodcut style. For the story about the discovery of asbestos in the Urals Ainutdinov uses colour drawings to tell of a magic table cloth that is brought to Peter the Great. The third anecdote tells of the inventiveness and ingenuity of the Ural people, who drew a profit from their border location between Europe and Asia.

suslikDmitrii Semenov’s How Khoma-the-Hamster bought Suslik-the-Squirrel (Kak Khoma Suslika pokupal) is a drawn animation with an impressive storyline. Semenov, who used to be video editor at Christmas Films, makes his directorial debut with this film in a series of films about Khoma. When the wolf snatches Khoma’s best friend, the latter goes to great length to buy his friend back: happiness lies not in money, as a Soviet song at the end reiterates.

mashaMuch expected and a little disappointing in the originality and drive of the storyline were the two new series of Masha and the Bear (Masha i medved’): The first, Spring has Arrived (Prishla vesna) by Marina Nefedova, which tells of the Bear’s courtship as Masha egotistically destroys the Bear’s spring love, leaves them walking off together quasi-happily in the end. The film lacks the wit and humour of Uzhinov’s parts of the series. Uzhinov’s own Traces of Unknown Beasts (Sledy nevidannykh zverei) is an amusing tale about the Bear teaching Masha how to distinguish traces in the snow, and contains the wittiness of other parts in the series.

Metronome Film continued with the production of the Lullaby cycle created by Liza Skvortsova and showed a lullaby of the Sephari people and a Portuguese lullaby, now including also a setting of each lullaby in its region. Producer Arsen Gotlib also launched a new series entitled The Full Year (Kruglyi god), from which he showed White Snow (Snegi bely) and Bullfinches and Cats (Snegiri i koty) by Veronika Fedorova, both beautifully made in two-dimensional cut-out animation. The latter tells an entertaining story of the play of bullfinches and cats with each other.

The programme also included a range of advertising clips, from which Ponomarev’s Raskolnikov: The Story could have been Different (Istoriia mogla by byt’ po drugomu) stood out as an amusing piece that rewrites Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And in the serial section once again triumphed the spectacular Aleksei Alekseev with another two parts of Log Jam. About the Beaver (Pro bobra) and Winter (Zima). Both continue the amazing pace, slapstick humour and parody of Russian folk stories. He truly deserves the main award of the festival.

hombaThe festival featured a range of debuts, including Anton Kal’chenko’s debut in CGI animation, Khomba. This is a naive story, told and animated to great effect. A little pink elephant-like creature called Khomba wakes up after a period of hibernation and plants a seed that soon grows to a tree, and Khomba tends to the plant to caringly and lovingly, until the tree produces fruit that attract dinosaurs… Crudely animated and boldly drawn figures endow this parable of the modern world with humour and a degree of emotion that makes the audience laugh and weep until the story turns full cycle—with destruction, as the skeletons and carcasses of the dinosaurs are pulled out of Khomba’s hovel in spring, when a new cycle will begin.

The Petersburg graduate Anastasiia Kopylova showed an impressive piece entitled Behind the Wall (Za stenoi). A man and a woman live on different sides of a wall, which forms a haphazard partition in the landscape. He views her through his imagination: through painting, a looking class and a film camera. The story may be a parable for the fall of the wall, but also for the freedom of imagination. Human movements take place in a two-dimensional space. The world resembles also a two-dimensional poster-like world where the colour flows unilaterally. A projected film offers him a view on to another world: the gritty image on the screen unveils reality. The figure of the young man resembles the style of Soviet posters or advertising of Socialist Realist style. When the wall collapses, the boy is buried under the bricks; when he awakens he sees girl in the colourful world. Ultimately, the boy and the girl are united. Kopylova uses advertising style drawings for her characters, with an emphasis on the story of imagination that is capable of changing the (perception of the) world. The young people’s vision becomes true, dreams turn into reality—offering another parody on Socialist Realism.

barberThe student films, largely from the Moscow Film Institute VGIK and the St Petersburg School SPbGUKiT, were particularly impressive and promising. VGIK’s Svetlana Razguliaeva showed Listen to the Snow Melting (Slushai kak taet sneg), a beautifully made film with drawn and cut-out animation. Although a little weak on the story-line, she impressively works with the style of 1920’s poster art. A window is cleaned, soldiers march in the street, and the letters from a typewriter fly out of the window. It is a writer who creates these letters. Someone removes a poster with lines from Mayakovsky’s poems and posts a note about a found umbrella, leaving the umbrella on a nail on the newspaper column. The story subtly connects the world of the writer and reality, but works on association linked to images rather than a narrative. Another VGIK student is Ekaterina Kolosovskaia, whose Ballad of a Barber (Ballada o tsiriulkike) is made in the style of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings and based on his writings: the story of a hairdresser, styling the hair of a girl and cutting head, thus replicating the Jokanaan story of Oscar Wilde’s Salome which Beardsley famously illustrated.  

look upSvetlana Pod”iacheva’s diploma film for VGIK, Look Up! (Posmotrite vverkh), is a fine piece of animation: it is the story of a girl in a town made entirely of newspaper. Here, notices fly through the air; people read newspapers with their glasses, and letters and words literally mean the world. Pod”iacheva thus creates an image of the logo-centrism and the loss of sense in the modern world. One day, a little girl sticks an autumnal leaf onto a newspaper column: suddenly colour—the yellow, brown and dark red tones of autumn—return to the screen as leaves drop onto paper-town. Dina Velikovskaia’s coursework The Bridge (Most) is a lovely tale with animated white puppets. A little boy’s parents have divorced; he has to cross a bridge on his own to visit his father. The child’s world is disturbed—he sees the world upside down. One day he tumbles into river as the bridge collapses—symbolically rendering the broken relationship of the parents. The boy is rescued by both parents as they jump into the water and travel with him down the river on an ice floe. Other VGIK students included Natalia Korzanova, who showed her film Legs (Nogi), a drawn black-and white animation with sepia colour about a little boy observing life in a sauna through the legs of the visitors. Elizaveta and Polina Manokhina presented Oblivion (Zabvenie), a drawn and cut-out animation about a poet who sells his talent to the rich; when he returns his house, this has turned into a shack in the midst of a modern city and his wife is a skeleton and has long decayed.

bridgeFrom the St Petersburg school SPbGUKiT, Dmitrii Shestopalov presented his film The Raven and the Fox (Vorona i lisa), which reveals clearly the influence of his master Sergei Ovcharov, offering a modern reading of Krylov’s fable with a touch of humour. The film shows a fight over a piece of cheese—presented on plates, pictures, and other visual means. A modern-world raven goes mad and stores masses of cheese. A fox lures the raven away from the cheese and takes the whole wagon, while the raven sits impoverished and lonely on a single tree. The fable is no longer about cunning and scheming, but about corruption and greed. Roman Kazakov, a SPbGUKiT graduate who studied with Konstantin Bronzit and Dmitrii Vysotskii, showed The Forbidden Cake (Zapretnyi tort). This black-and-white drawn animation uses simple caricature style for an excellent and funny story: a birthday cake is made and put in the fridge. At night a toddler tries to pinch a piece of cake and is told off; there follows his sister, the father, the grandma, until the entire family is hiding in awkward places around the kitchen as they stop each other from reaching the forbidden cake. In the morning, as they are relieved from their agony, most of the cake has gone, and grandma’s false teeth stick in the left-over. Yet the mother cautiously placed the real cake in the freezer—and the mother and the little birthday-baby have this cake on their own. Polina Nikiforova, also a student of Bronzit and Vysotskii, was inspired by Boris Grebenshchikov’s song of the same title for her film Hello, Sister (Zdravstvui, sestra!). The computer animation follows an ambulance nurse going around a whole globe of houses to visit patients; at night she wants to go out, but she as she dressed up she is buried under her wardrobe. Then someone else needs attendance for a black eye from the cork of a champagne bottle. When the exhausted and tired nurse falls out of a window, a doctor attends to her—and the romance begins…

sestraLeonid Shmelkov is a talented student of Ivan Maksimov at the SHAR School. His Dog’s Square (Sobach’ia ploshchadka) is drawn in a style clearly influenced by his master. It tells of a dog, who cleans up the mess of other dogs on a square where dogs are taken for a walk, and of the blind dog who is helped by the cleaner-dog at the end of a long day…

Finally, the festival programme included a series of films based on Chekhov, as 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth. These films are produced by the Guberniia Fond and Aleksandr Gerasimov. Oksana Kholodova’s The Procurator’s Son Saves the King (Syn prokuratora spasaet korolia) is based on the story “The House” and is about a father who tells son off when he argues about property. The son’s colourful drawings are animated as the father lectures and promises not to smoke any more. The father falls asleep, and through his own colourful world the son understands the need not to abandon his father: after all, he is an only son. Khikhus (Petr Sukhikh) made Man with a Pince-Nez (Chelovek v pensne), using his usual style of comics for a film based on the early stories: a tale read by two children comes to life in their imagination. The imaginative aspect is emphasised through the use of comics-style drawings for which Khikhus is famous. Entirely different in style is Natal’ia Mal’gina’s Unlawfulness (Bezzakonie), a beautifully drawn piece reminiscent of early 20th century silent cinema and with that, of Nikolai Izvolov’s recently restored filmy-deklamatsii presented at Belye Stolby in 2010 <see kiku>

Most impressive at Suzdal this year, and most promising, was the great number of excellent student films. There is huge potential for original animation, and one would hope to see less of the 3D obsession in commercial cinema: the remake of Belka and Strelka into 3D—created in CGI and then transformed into 3D—just so audiences can see the 3D effect, leaves a number of places in the film where the technical quality is inferior. And wearing 3D glasses may be an attraction for the moment, in the after-math of Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: 3D is good when it is artistically justified and motivated, but should maybe not be used for its own sake. That money would be better invested into young talent, of which Russia clearly has plenty!

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol


Awards

Grand-Prix
Log Jam. Winter by Aleksei Alekseev

Best Director
Nina Bisiarina, Journey to the Sea
Valentin Ol’shvang, With the Night the Rain Falls

Best Visual Art
Production Designer Anastasiia Zhakulina for the cycle The Full Year

Best Animation
Lawlessness by Natalia Mal’gina

Best Sound
Dog’s Square by Leonid Shmel;kov

Best Children’s Film
Traces of Unknown Beasts by Oleg Uzhinov

Best Student Film
The Bridge by Dina Velikovskaya
Ballad of the Barber by Ekaterina Kolosovskaya

Best Serial
Elizaveta Skvortsova for Portuguese Lullaby

Best Advertising Clip
Vladimir Ponomarev, Raskolnikov (The Story could have been different)

Prize of the Guild of Film Critics
Svetlana Pod”iacheva, Look Up

Aleksandr Tatarskii – Maitre’s Award for Maria Muat and Vladimir Golovanov, for the unexpected jump into another space in Un-Sad Story

Audience Rating:

  1. With the Night falls the Rain (233 votes)
  2. Lawlessness (218)
  3. Journey to the Sea (62)
  4. Harmonium (60)
  5. Forbidden Cake (54)

 

Birgit Beumers © 2010

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Updated: 11 Jul 10