‘They are the best’: How Russian animators are conquering the Global South
Indian film director Gangadhar Salimath stood in awe after watching a Russian animation series ‘Beardy Bodo’ in which a giant black furry primeval beast explores the prehistoric world in the 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in Goa recently.
What appealed most to Salimath – who is from Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka – was its high production quality, which he said would equal any globally popular animation movie. Little wonder, then, that Salimath has decided to join hands with Russian professionals for his next film – an animation-heavy Kannada feature, scheduled to begin this month.
Many other Indian film directors and producers watched Russian animation movies at the Film Bazaar on the sidelines of IFFI Goa. The movies were showcased by Roskino – a government-funded body that promotes Russian films in the international market.
Roskino, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, has brought 11 Russian film and animation companies to India – including Planet Inform Group, Bubble Studios, KIT Film Studio, Igmar, Media Telecom, Pan-Atlantic Studio, Dream Film Company, Association of Women Film Producers, Voronezh Animation Studio, and Riki Group. It was the second time Russian studios showcased their animation at the Film Bazaar, marking country’s the first full-scale entry into the Indian film market. This year, Russia was represented by action films, sports dramas, comedies, documentaries, and animation – totaling more than 45 projects.
The Film Bazaar gave Indian filmmakers an avenue to interact with Russian animation professionals and marketing executives, with the aim of finalizing the business deals. The opportunity appears to have given a fillip to Indian filmmakers, who have been struggling to achieve perfection with animation sequences.
“Indian film producers had been shelling out huge amounts to hire animation experts from the United States and other foreign countries,” Salimath told RT. “The scenario is set to change with the arrival of Russian experts. They are ready to work with our budgets, big or small. This will help not only Bollywood but regional filmmakers too.”
Indian filmmakers are well aware of Russia’s monumental animation legacy, which dates back to 1906, when Alexander Shiryaev – a choreographer at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg – created the first puppet cartoon. For more than a decade, all Russian animations involved stop-motion puppet films.
However, professionals continued to explore new avenues, and, in 1920, they could create the first hand-drawn cartoon. Attitude towards animation in the Soviet Union changed with the release of ‘Pochta’ (‘The Post’) by Sovkino, the Leningrad filmmaking organization, in 1929. ‘The Post’ created ripples across the globe and it was reported that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright even called it thought-provoking and urged Walt Disney, the pioneer of the American animation industry, to watch it.
The Soviet Union’s first animation studio – Soyuzmultfilm – was founded in 1936, and it has since produced over 1,500 cartoons, including ‘Cheburashka’ (1971), ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’ (1975) and ‘Well, Just You Wait!’ (1969), considered Russia’s very own Tom and Jerry.
Soviet professionals succeeded in creating realistic backgrounds, detailed character animations, and nuanced facial expressions by the 1940s.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Soviet animation directors lapped up Rotoscoping – in which the whole film is shot with live actors and then artists copy the frames – to speed up production.
The experiments continued in the ’80s, which resulted in the production of all-time favorites such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, David Cherkassky’s ‘Doctor Ouch-it-Hurts’ and ‘Treasure Island’.
By the 21st century, Russia had carved a niche for itself in the animation market with the production of some of the world's most popular animated series, such as ‘Kikoriki’, ‘Masha and the Bear’, ‘The Fixies’ and ‘The Three Bogatyrs’.
Sarath Chandran, a veteran animation movie maker based in Mumbai, feels that monumental legacy plays a key role in making Russian animation movies a huge draw in international markets:
“Russian animation has evolved over the years.
From puppet cartoons to rotoscoping to producing globally popular animation series, Russian professionals have proved that they are the best.
I am not surprised that Indian filmmakers are eager to seek their support,” he said.
“There are three reasons. One, Russia enjoys a long history of cordial relationship with India. Two, Russian animation professionals know the Indian cultural context so they can understand the nuances better. Three, the cost is affordable compared to animation experts in the US. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Russian animators mostly use 3D animation now. Hence, the state of the Russian animation film industry is pretty much the same as anywhere in the world.”
Among the animation movies on display at the Film Bazaar were ‘Beardy Bodo’, who took fascinating trips to different destinations and gave tips on what to do while traveling; ‘The Fixies’, who secretly live in an apartment fixing the machines and gadgets; ‘Tina and Tony’, who help children explore the world around them; ‘The Snow Queen and the Princess’, in which a brave wizard and the Snow Queen’s daughter accidentally set the evil Ice Spirits free; and ‘The Steel Family’, in which a 15-year-old discovers the secret of an incredible power source.
Nina Generalova, International Sales and Marketing Manager at the Voronezh Animation Studio, which produced ‘Arctic Heroes’, ‘The Snow Queen & the Princess’ and ‘The Steel Family: Brotherhood vs Gold’, said the tremendous interest shown by Indian directors and producers augur well for the animation industry in Russia. “We offer what Indian filmmakers and producers have been looking for over the years. Russian animation is the best in the world and the Indian film industry will definitely benefit from it,” she said.
Russian companies have plans to market their hugely popular animation series in the Indian market too.
Yulia Kim, an international business development and distribution manager at Riki Group – which produces animation for children and animated feature films for families – described her interaction with filmmakers and distribution as productive.
“We offer a lot of high-quality content that is safe for kids,” Kim said. “We have dubbed them into different Indian languages. It is a matter of time before we get a foothold in the Indian market. Moreover, Russian and Indian cultures are very close. The current geopolitical scenario is ideal for both countries to extend bilateral cooperation to films.”
The plan is not to market Russian content in India. On the contrary, bilateral cooperation offers Indian production houses an opportunity to market animation from the epics, such as ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, which are already popular in Russia. But they need Russian subtitles. Kim said a lot of Russians would like to see an epic series to understand Indian cultural heritage. “But localization is the key here,” Kim said.
All of the Indian directors and producers that I met in Goa appeared keen on collaborating with Russian production houses and animators in their upcoming projects.
S Prathap, a Mumbai-based distributor, said he would soon initiate discussions with Russian animation production companies to acquire distribution rights. “The content and production quality of Russian animation is high,” he said. “We are planning to buy the rights of childrens’ series. I am sure that they will entertain Indian animation fans.”