History of Russian animation

History of Russian animation

The history of Russian animation is a very rich, but so far nearly unexplored field for Western film theory and history. As most of Russia's production of animation for cinema and television was created during Soviet times, it may also be referred to as the History of Soviet animation.


The first animator in Russia was Ladislas Starevich, who was of Polish descent and is therefore also known by the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz. Being a trained biologist, he started to make animation with embalmed insects for educational purposes, but soon realized the possibilities of his medium to become one of the undisputed masters of stop motion later in his life. His first few films, made in 1910, were dark comedies on the family lives of cockroaches, and were so revolutionary that they earned Starevich a decoration from the Tsar. Starevich's 41-minute 1913 film "The Night Before Christmas" was the first example of the use of stop motion and live action in the same scene.

After Starevich's emigration following the October Revolution, animation in Russia came to a standstill for years. Only by the mid-to-late-1920s could Soviet authorities be convinced to finance experimental studios. These were typically part of a bigger film studio and were in the beginning most often used to produce short animated clips for propaganda purposes.

In doing so, these early pioneers could experiment with their equipment as well as with their aesthetics. Creators like Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Mikhail Tsekhanovsky or Nikolay Khodatayev made their debut films in a very fresh and interesting way, aesthetically very different from American animators. As Ivanov-Vano recalls in his mémoires, "Kadr za Kadrom" ("Frame by Frame"), this was partly because of the general atmosphere the Russian avantgarde created around them and partly because they were able to experiment in small groups of enthusiasts.

Important films of this era include Ivanov-Vano's "On the skating rink" (1927), Tsekhanovsky's "Post" (1929) and Khodataev's "The barrel organ" (1934).

Another remarkable figure of the time is Aleksandr Ptushko. He was a trained architect, but earlier in his life had worked in mechanical engineering. In this field, he is known for the invention of an adding machine that was in use in the Soviet Union until the 1970s (an example of it can be seen in Fyodor Khitruks first film as a director, "History of A Crime" of 1962). When he joined the puppet animation unit of Mosfilm, he found an ideal environment to live out his mechanical ambitions as well as his artistic ones, and became internationally renowned with the Soviet Union's first feature-length animated film, "The New Gulliver" (1935). This film mixes puppet animation and live acting. It rewrites Jonathan Swift's novel to become more communist, but does so with a didactic verbosity that makes it sometimes hard to bear. It nevertheless is a masterpiece of animation, featuring amazing mass scenes with hundreds of extras, very expressive mimics in close-ups, and innovative, very flexible camera work combined with excellent scenography. Ptushko became the first director of the newly founded Soyuzdetmultfilm-Studio, but soon after left to devote himself to live-action cinema. Still, even in his feature films he showed a liking for stop-motion special effects, e.g. in "Ilya Muromets" (1956).

ocialist Realism

In 1934, Walt Disney sent a film reel with some shorts of Mickey Mouse to the Moscow Film Festival. Fyodor Khitruk, then only an animator, recalls his impressions of that screening in an interview in Otto Alder's film "The Spirit of Genius". He was absolutely overwhelmed by the liquidity of the films' images and enthusiastic about the new possibilities for animation that Disney's ways seemed to offer.

Higher officials shared this impression, too, and in 1935, the Soyuzdetmultfilm-Studio was created from the small and relatively independent trickfilm units of Mosfilm, Sovkino and Mezhrabpromfilm in order to focus on the creation of Disney-style animation, exclusively using cel technique.

Already since 1932, when a congress of Soviet writers had proclaimed the necessity of Socialist realism, the influence of Futurism and the Russian avant-garde on animation had dwindled. Now, esthetic experiments were shoved off the agenda, and for over twenty years, Soyuzmultfilm, as the studio was called from 1936 onwards, worked in a taylorised way, using cel technique and division of labour. It became the leading animation studio in the Soviet union, producing an ever-growing number of children's and educational animation shorts and features, but the experimental spirit of the founding years was lost.

One of the most alarming examples of the transformation that not only the studios underwent, but also the artists were succumbed to, is Mikhail Tsekhanovsky. The Leningrad-born artist made a name for himself in book illustration and graphics. He found animation to be an ideal medium to transfer his style to and develop his artistic vision further. He became internationally renowned by his film "Post", shot in 1929 and earning him a number of prizes at international film festivals. With the establishment of Socialist realism, he had to abandon his innovative and highly convincing style for the then general practice that in Russia has come to be known as "Éclair": The filming of live action, followed by a frame-by-frame projection that had to serve the animators as their only source for the realization of movement (in the West, this is known as rotoscoping). A striking example is the following comparison of two screenshots, taken from two of his films. The left one is taken from the unfinished 1933-1936 film "The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda"; the right one from "The Tale of Fisherman and Fish" of 1950, both based on poems written by Aleksandr Pushkin. The differences in visual decisions are clearly visible and characteristic for the transformation not only Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, but Soviet animation as a whole had to go through during that time.

Many artists did not withstand these changes, though, and left the industry for other fields like painting or book illustrations. An example is the ingenious trio of Yuriy Merkulov, Zenon Kommissarenko and Nikolay Khodataev, who after finishing their last film "The Barrel Organ" (1934) stopped working in animation.

For two decades, the studio confined itself to sober and to an extent tedious adaptations of folk tales and communist myths. An exception might only be found in wartime propaganda spots, shot during evacuation in Samarkand 1941 - 1943, but their humour is arguably unintentional. Nevertheless, directors like the sisters Zinaida and Valentina Brumberg with films like "Fedya Zaitsev" (1948), Ivan Ivanov-Vano with 1954's "Moydodyr" (there is a first version from 1927, but it lacks the fluidity of the later version) or Lev Atamanov with "The Snow Queen" (1957, told after Hans Christian Andersen's tale) managed to create masterpieces of their genre that have been rewarded various prizes at festivals all over the world and have taken a lasting place in animation history.

From Khrushchev Thaw to Perestroika

When Khrushchev in 1956 proclaimed the end of the personality cult about Stalin, he started a process of political and cultural renewal in the country. Even though animators still needed a while to free themselves from the long tradition of "Éclair", from the 1960s onwards, animation films gain completely new qualities.The starting point for this was Fyodor Khitruk's film "History of a Crime" (1962). Not only had he changed the animation style to something that resembled what the UPA was doing, but for the first time since the avantgarde years, he was able to tackle a contemporary story.Khitruk's revolutionary approach paved the way for a vast number of young animation directors that in the following years developed their own distinctive styles and approaches. One of the most political was Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, whose surrealist film "The Glass Harmonica" (1968) was severely cut by censors, but shelved nevertheless. Anatoly Petrov is known as the founder of the cinema journal "Vesyolaya Karusel" ("The Happy Merry-Go-Round", since 1969) that gave an opportunity to many young directors to make their first own films. Among them were Leonid Nosyrev, Valery Ugarov, Eduard Nazarov, Ivan Ufimcev and others.

s built into their parts.

During the Stalin period, puppet animation had come to a halt. Only in 1953 was a puppet division was refounded at Soyuzmultfilm. Its first head of department was Boris Degtyarev, under whose direction young animators tried to recover the knowledge that had been lost since the time of Aleksandr Ptushko. Among the most outstanding of these young artists were Vadim Kurchevskiy and Nikolay Serebryakov, who worked together for their first films, e.g. "The Cloud in Love" (1963). Even when they decided to separate and make their own films, their style was marked by an extensive aesthetic search for, as Bendazzi puts it, "the combination of realism and the baroque", most clearly to be seen in "Not in the Hat is there Happiness" (1968, by Serebrjakov) and especially in Kurchevskiy's masterpiece, "The Master of Clamecy" (1972, after Romain Rolland's novel "Colas Breugnon"). One generation later, Stanislav Sokolov started to make movies that brought the art of puppet animation to a new height. His approach, characterized by complex animation structures and multiple special effects can well be observed in "The Big Underground Ball" (1987, after Andersen) or "Black and White Film" (1985), which won a prize in Zagreb.

Anatoly Petrov, the founder of "The Happy Merry-Go-Round" ( _ru. Весёлая карусель, 1969), has shown extreme realism (close to photorealistic) in his later films, most notable of which was science fiction "Firing Range" ( _ru. Полигон, 1977).

His colleague Gennady Sokolsky tried to use attractive characters in his films, combined with ambient soundtrack: "Serebryanoe kopytce" ( _ru. Серебряное копытце, 1977), "Myshonok Pik" ( _ru. Мышонок Пик, 1978), "The Adventures of Scamper the Penguin" ( _ru. Приключения пингвинёнка Лоло, 1986-1987, with Kinjiro Yoshida).

Roman Kachanov made numerous films for children, starting from puppet animation ("Varezhka" (1967), "Cheburashka" series), and later with traditional animation ("The Mystery of the Third Planet", 1981).

Sverdlovsk Film Studio introduced paint-on-glass animation with complete new level of quality ("Dobro Pozhalovat!" _ru. Добро пожаловать!, 1986).

.Unfortunately, since the beginning of Perestroika, Norshteyn has not found a possibility to finish his last film, "The Overcoat" (clips: [http://www.pbs.org/weta/faceofrussia/timeline/quicktime/overcoat1.html] , [http://www.pbs.org/weta/faceofrussia/timeline/quicktime/overcoat2.html] ).

Other directors were more able to cope with the changes that this time brought; they even commented on it in their films. Garri Bardin's "Little Red Ridinghood et le Wolf" (1991) not only provoked by including a foreign language into the title, it also was full of allusions to the upcoming end of communism. Aleksandr Tatarskiy even managed to found his own studio ("Pilot") in 1988, where he produced absurd films inspired by the Zagreb School. Yuriy Norshteyn and three other leading animators (Fyodor Khitruk, Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, and Eduard Nazarov) founded a school and studio in 1993 which exists to this day, called SHAR Studio.

In the late days of Ekran studio (then Multtelefilm), Gennady Tishchenko introduced elements of anime style in Russian animation ("Vampires of Geona" [ _ru. Вампиры Геоны,1991] , "Amba" [ _ru. Амба,1994-1995] ).

Russian animation today

After the end of the Soviet Union, the situation for Russian animators changed dramatically. State subsidies diminished significantly on the one hand, and the number of studios competing for that amount of money rose a good deal on the other. Most of the studios during the 1990s lived on animation for advertisement and on doing commissioned works for big studios from America and elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were a few very successful international co-productions, e.g. Aleksandr Petrov's (former Sverdlovsk Film Studio animator) Oscar-winning "The Old Man and the Sea" (1999, from Ernest Hemingway's novel) or Stanislav Sokolov's "" (1999, from William Shakespeare's play) that earned the director an Emmy.

Soyuzmultfilm, the former juggernaut of Russian animation studios (at one time employing as many as 400 animators and other staff), was beset by corrupt administrators who sold off all the rights to all the films previously made by the studio without telling shareholders or employees. Notably, in the mid-1990s Sergei Skulyabin illegally took over the company and used hired thugs to keep the animators in line and the government officials from asserting legal authority. The legal director of Soyuzmultfilm kept a very low profile after having been beat up in an alley and forced to go to the hospital with injuries to the head, and during this period many documents were signed by Skulyabin illegally on behalf of Soyuzmultfilm.

Georgiy Borodin writes of this time, "artistic work at the studio became psychologically unbearable and impossible. No one had the guarantee that come morning, he would not find his cabinet broken open, and his working table - cleared. Similar cases became almost a regular occurrence during the years of occupation. Animators who worked in other studios refused to believe the tales about the working conditions at the stolen "Soyuzmultfilm". Imagine, for example: you - the manager of one of the sections of the studio - come to your work cabinet and see in there several unidentified youths, engaged in packing away several large boxes with studio puppets to send them to an undisclosed location "at the command of Skulyabin". And when you, along with the director of the Puppet Dpt. (who is, by the way, responsible for the keeping of these puppets) keep them from being stolen by hiding them in a studio room which is inaccessible to these men, you are officially charged with attempted robbery." ( [http://animator.ru/articles/article.phtml?id=28] ) Skulyabin was eventually ousted and Soyuzmultfilm began a slow period of recovery. [http://www.newizv.ru/news/2006-01-20/38731/]

Despite the hardships, Natalya Lukinykh has estimated that Russian animated films won about twice as many prestigious international awards in the 1990s as Russian live-action films. [http://animator.ru/articles/article.phtml?id=186] As Russia's economic situation became increasingly stable, so did the market for animation, and during the last three years a number of feature-length animation films from Russian studios have emerged (e.g. Melnitsa Animation Studio's "Little Longnose", 2003, from Wilhelm Hauff's fairy tale, and Solnechny Dom Studio's 2006 "Prince Vladimir", based on early history of Rus' - the highest-grossing Russian animated film to date). While the Russian animation community is yet far from reaching the splendor it possessed before the end of the Soviet Union, a significant recovery is being made and it is becoming more and more clear that the revived Russian animation industry will be very different from what it was in the late 1980s. According to Andrei Dobrunov, head of Solnechny Dom, several Russian studios are currently working on some ten animated feature films. [http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=17500]

"Osobennyj" [http://animator.ru/db/?p=show_film&fid=6895] , released 31 July, 2006, was Russia's first (and only by July, 2008) CG-animated feature film. About 8 such films are now in production by various studios [http://www.filmz.ru/pub/36/13245_1.htm] . At the same time, Soyuzmultfilm has partnered up with Mikhail Shemyakin and is working on "Gofmaniada", a puppet-animated feature film which is deliberately being made entirely without computers.


* Bendazzi, Giannalberto. 1994. "Cartoons. One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation." London/Bloomington: John Libbey/Indiana University Press.
* Giesen, Rolf. 2003. "Lexikon des Trick- und Animationsfilms." Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf.
* Leslie, Ester. 2002. "Hollywood Flatlands. Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde." London, New York: Verso.
* Pilling, Jayne (Ed.). 1997. "A Reader in Animation Studies." London et al.: John Libbey.
* Асенин, Сергей Владимирович. 1986. "Мир мультфильма." Москва: Искусство.
* Венжер, Наталья Яковлевна (Ed.). 1990. "Сотворение фильма. Несколько интервью по служебным вопросам." Москва: Союз Кинематографистов СССР.
* Иванов-Вано, Иван Петрович. 1978. "Кадр за кадром", Москва: Искусство.
*Орлов, Алексей Михайлович. 1995. "Аниматограф и его анима: психогенные аспекты экранных технологий." Москва: Импето.

ee also

*Encyclopedia of Domestic Animation
*KROK International Animated Films Festival
*Open Russian Festival of Animated Film

* Animator.ru - Russian Animation Society's comprehensive database of Russian animation en icon ru icon

External links

* [http://www.myltik.ru/ www.myltik.ru] Another database of Russian animation (in Russian only)
* [http://books.interros.ru/index.php?book=mult&id=3 Our Animations] - a website summarizing the major Soviet animators, with screenshots
* [http://www.krugosvet.ru/articles/114/1011421/print.htm Article covering history of animation] ru icon
* [http://www.smfanima.ru/ Soyuzmultfilm homepage] The most famous Russian animation studio's home page ru icon
* [http://www.pilot-film.com/ www.pilot-film.com] Another famous studio's homepage (in Russian and English).
* [http://russian-insider.blogspot.com/ Russian Insider] - a blog focusing on current and past Russian/Soviet animation
* [http://store.russiananimation.com/ Films by Jove] DVDs, collectibles and information about many Soviet animators, including Yuri Norstein.
* [http://www.filmfundsoyuzmultfilm.com/en/index.htm www.filmfundsoyuzmultfilm.com] Soyuzmultfilm's film fund.
* [http://kinejo.blogsome.com/category/animaciaj/ Soviet cartoons of the 1940s and the 1950s watchable and downloadable with Esperanto subtitles]
* [http://www.geocities.com/rusatg/children.htm Russian Animation] available in America
* [http://www.ifilm.com/collection/19794/channel/anime?sublisting=mostviewed MASTERS OF RUSSIAN ANIMATION Video Collection] on IFILM
* [http://munequitosrusos.blogspot.com Blog about Russian Animation Influence in Cuban Culture]
* [http://suzdalfestivalo.blogsome.com Videoblog with modern Russian animation subtitled in Esperanto]
* [http://www.cinephil.co.il/Index.asp?CategoryID=75&ArticleID=310 MAGIA RUSSICA - a documentary film on Russian Animation]

News articles

* [http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=17500 "The St. Petersburg Times" (Russia)] - a May, 2006 article about the film "Prince Vladimir" and the future of the animation industry in Russia
* [http://www.russiaprofile.org/culture/2006/5/18/3723.wbp Redrawing Russian History] (May 18, 2006)
* [http://animator.ru/articles/article.phtml?id=28 In-depth history of the appalling and criminal happenings at Soyuzmultfilm during the 1990s] ru icon
* [http://www.kinoart.ru/magazine/06-2003/now/animation/ An overview of Russian animated feature films in the 1990s and early 2000s] ru icon

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