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30 Oct, 2022 06:43

Soviet psychedelia, fairy tales, and space-themed stories: Hidden gems that will make you fall in love with Russian animation

RT invites you on a tour of Russia's most captivating and unconventional animated works
Soviet psychedelia, fairy tales, and space-themed stories: Hidden gems that will make you fall in love with Russian animation

International Animation Day was celebrated this week, 130 years after French artist and inventor Émile Reynaud presented his first moving-picture show to a spellbound Paris audience. 

The anniversary is observed in many countries of the world - after all, the artform has long taken its rightful place in the entertainment world and become a major industry in its own right.

Russian animation had its own golden era in the middle of the 20th century.

Disney and Russian Animation: a Two-way Street of Inspiration

The history of Russian animation spans more than a century. Even before the revolution, between the years 1906 and 1909, the ballet master of the Mariinsky Theater Alexander Shiryaev produced several stop-motion puppet films. Notably, all of the earliest Russian flicks involved puppets. For over a decade, animators used this technique exclusively. Only in the 1920s, in the newly-formed Soviet Union, were the first hand-drawn cartoons created.

The earliest Soviet animated film was produced by the Leningrad filmmaking organization Sovkino – it was a 15-minute film called ‘Pochta’ (Post) by Mikhail Tsekhanovsky. It was released in 1929 and was initially silent, but a musical score was composed for it a year later, and the famous poet and writer Daniil Kharms provided the voiceover.

After its release attitudes toward animation changed across the country – it was beginning to be accepted as a separate form of visual art. This was facilitated by the film's success both domestically and abroad. In his book Animation: A World History, Giannalberto Bendazzi says that the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, having watched 'Pochta' in an American theater, contacted Walt Disney and suggested he should see it as well, calling it "thought-provoking."

As early as the 1930s, more and more people entered the industry, which in 1936 led to the creation of the country's largest animation studio Soyuzmultfilm. It was during that period that Walt Disney was once again involved, albeit indirectly. In 1934, he sent a film reel with some shorts of Mickey Mouse to the USSR, and many Soviet cartoonists were immensely impressed by Disney's animation.

Director Fyodor Khitruk later recalled that he was struck by how smooth and fluid the characters were. The iconic animator and visual artist Leonid Shvartsman, creator of dozens of legendary cartoons, claimed that post-war Soviet animation was inspired by Walt Disney's productions. This is especially noticeable in such works as ‘The Little Humpbacked Horse,’ ‘Grey Neck’, and ‘The Flower with Seven Colors.’

By the late 1940s, Soviet artists could create realistic backgrounds, detailed character animations, and nuanced facial expressions.

New Methods and Techniques

The Soviet cartoonists, however, did not stop there and gradually began to integrate their own ideas and techniques into Walt Disney's classic animation style. For example, in ‘The Naughty Kitten,’ they introduced a unique 'fluffy fur’ effect.

Around the same time, in the late 1940s – early 1950s, rotoscoping was gaining traction. First, the whole film is shot with live actors and then artists copy the frames. This method was used in ‘The Scarlet Flower,’ ‘The Snow Queen,’ and ‘The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish’ – in almost every classic Soviet cartoon of that period.

Still, many animation directors believed it to be a temporary solution to speed up production and in the early 1960s, the technique was dropped.

Animation director Konstantin Bronzit who created ‘Alyosha Popovich and Tugarin Zmey,’ ‘The Three Bogatyrs and the Heiress to the Throne’ and ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos’ said in an interview with RT that this technique was popular not only among Disney and Soviet animators but around the world as well.

“In Disney’s ‘Snow White’ you can see clearly that human characters were drawn with rotoscoping, while animals were drawn traditionally. That was also the case in the Soviet ‘Golden Antelope’ where traditional methods were used to animate the antelope and rotoscoping was used for human characters. However, this impedes perception – human characters move too smoothly and slowly compared to other animated objects. Soon, all animators naturally abandoned the technique,” the director said.

The Golden Era of Animation

The 1960s were the most creative, diverse, and brave years for Soviet animation. It was a time of experimentation with various techniques and technology, sometimes producing outstanding results. Puppets were all the rage again: in 1962, Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Iosif Boyarsky used paper high relief puppets in filming ‘The Flying Proletarian’ based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s works and Roman Kachanov directed the legendary ‘The Mitten’ and ‘Gena the Crocodile.’

Traditional animation was following along too. In the late 1950s, the caricature style rose in popularity. Among the most famous cartoons were ‘The Key,’ ‘The Wild Swans,’ and ‘The Tale About Malchish-Kibalchish.’

In 1967, Boris Stepantsev filmed ‘The Song of a Falcon’ in the paint-on-glass technique. A year later, he filmed the nation’s favorite ‘Junior and Karlson’ using xerography – a technology of transferring dry ink to paper with an electric charge. It is presently implemented in laser printers and copier machines.

Director Fyodor Khitruk revolutionized the Soviet animation industry with his debut ‘The Story of One Crime.’ Later he became famous for his ‘Boniface’s Vacation’ and ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ animated series. He worked in a caricature style and cutout technique when all the characters are drawn in different poses before shooting starts and are cut out into segments. The cutouts are aligned against the background for a frame and then moved for the next one.

This kind of stop-motion animation could later be seen in ‘Hedgehog in the Fog,’ ‘Leopold the Cat’s Revenge,’ ‘Adventures of Captain Vrungel,’ ‘Doctor Ouch-it-hurts,’ and ‘Treasure Island.’

The technique was used extensively in the Soviet Union, although foreign animators also sometimes did the same. The best-known example of that is the American 'South Park' series.

The second key novelty of ‘The Story of One Crime’ was its plot. Khitruk filmed a social satire cartoon. Before, satire had been a tool of state propaganda, but the cartoon was making fun of everyday life. The storyline was remarkably simple: the neighbors of the kind soul Vasily Vasilievich are so noisy they drive him up the wall, so he hits two women with a pan, inflicting “serious bodily injury.”

It wasn’t the last time Khitruk explored social themes. In 1974, he filmed ‘I Give You a Star,’ a cartoon that is still relevant today. It is the story of the seemingly constant nature of relations between men and women in four eras from the Stone Age to the space-faring civilization of the future. In all those times, men sing the same old song to women while the latter wash the dishes. The feminist narrative brought it a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a state award in the Soviet Union.

Yuri Norshtein, the author of ‘Hedgehog in the Fog,’ in his interview on the 100th anniversary of Fyodor Khitruk's birth, recalled that Khitruk had been criticized by the audience: “Khrushchev gave people apartments and Khitruk is mocking them.”

From Yellow Submarine to Hedgehog in the Fog

After Khitruk’s work came out, many authors felt encouraged to give free rein to their creativity, and the ensuing decades saw new unconventional cartoons that were experimental, satirical, surreal, and many other things. Seemingly intended for kids, all the films incorporated highly topical issues and social commentary. The ‘Prostokvashino’ trilogy, for example, was popular with children and parents alike. Apart from being a tale of magic, it had jokes about everyday life that adults could appreciate: Dad’s car is constantly malfunctioning, the protagonists have to invent ways to get money, and the sullen attitude of Postman Pechkin is a parody of bureaucracy.

The 1970s and 1980s saw an explosion of fresh approaches, unique styles, and musical experiments. While ‘Prostokvashino’ invoked social themes, other animators drew inspiration from the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ and introduced a psychedelic style into their work. The convention-breaking cartoon ‘Box with a Secret’ (1976), based on Vladimir Odoyevsky’s story ‘The Tobacco Box City,’ was done as a musical, with characters singing all the lines. The score and sound effects were produced using an EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer, and the visuals were a kaleidoscope of images, some of which were fixed and straightforward while others just created an atmosphere.

The legendary ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’ (1975) by Yuri Norstein received worldwide acclaim. The simple story of a Hedgehog who sets out to visit his friend the Bear and finds himself in a strange world enveloped in fog gave rise to an incredible number of interpretations and studies. Indeed, there is extensive research on the ‘Hedgehog in the Fog,’ with hefty publications analyzing its deep significance. Norstein’s style combined influences from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Otar Iosseliani, and Federico Fellini, as well as paintings by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Andrei Rublev.

Yuri Norstein once gave a very succinct description of the priorities that guided the animators of that time and explained the rise of abstractionism that Soviet animation saw in the 1970s.

“Before we start working on a film, we draw something… That picture may not have anything to do with reality. But we need to draw it to get a tangible trace of the future idea, which is so vague that we are not always able to put it into words. Don’t shy away from this abstract approach to a film. There is as much reality in it as in a completely realistic image. The thing is, as you start making a film, you begin to understand yourself. And, paradoxical as it may seem, only when you approach the end do you gain a final understanding of what you wanted to say,” Norstein wrote in his book Snow on the Grass.

Another example of how accessible meaning can be wrapped in psychedelic visuals is ‘Contact’ (1978). It tells of an alien who arrives on Earth and meets a landscape painter at work. The two manage to bridge their mutual lack of understanding and fear through music. Apart from the unusual drawing style and striking colors, it is noteworthy in using Nino Rota’s music from ‘The Godfather' and George Gershwin’s ‘Oh, Lady Be Good.’

The Time of All-Time Hits

In the 1980s, Soviet animation artists continued experimenting with genres and techniques. A lot of cartoons that proved to be the people’s all-time favorites were produced by the Kiev-based Kievnauchfilm studio, among them ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and David Cherkassky’s ‘Doctor Ouch-it-hurts’ and ‘Treasure Island.’

Doctor Ouch-it-hurts is a brilliant summary of the USSR’s most loved children’s poet Korney Chukovsky’s key works. The cartoon’s main narrative is that of the same-title poem enhanced by the colorful mentions of a handful of Chukovsky’s other poems including ‘Mukha Tsokotukha’ (Buzzy Fly), ‘Stolen Sun’ and ‘Tarakanishche’ (Monster Cockroach). A skillful collage of everyone’s favorite poems in a visual form became a hit with the country’s children immediately. The project is also remarkable through its ingenious use of music and solutions that allowed it to piece different bits together: for example, the ‘Mukha Tsokotukha’ narrative is introduced in the form of a musical comedy performance given by a bunch of pirates on stage.

In the cartoon ‘Treasure Island,’ director David Cherkassky developed this idea further, turning Robert Louis Stevenson’s entire classic story of “buccaneers and buried gold” into a musical comedy full of parody and sparkling humor that is present both in the dialogue and the visuals. In addition to creating lots of hilarious animated gags, the director combined the animation with elements from early 20th century silent movies with actors and title cards.

Founded in the 1920s, Armenian SSR’s studio Armenfilm mainly focused on making feature films until it became known country-wide for a number of cartoons that were wildly popular in the 1980s. After animator Robert Sahakyants joined Armenfilm in 1970 and became its animation director in 1972, the studio developed its signature style in cartoon animation that peaked around the mid-80s. Many of Sahakyants's cartoons are creative adaptations of Armenian folk tales with mesmerizing visuals and a near-psychedelic chain of endless transformations of characters and objects into one another. Some of the most popular ones are ‘In the Blue Sea, Under White Sea Foam,’ ‘Who Can Spin a Tale?’ and ‘Wow, a Talking Fish!.’

Another chapter in Soviet animation was written by innovative director Alexander Tatarsky who joined the TV film studio Ekran in the early 1980s. Tatarsky's first effort, ‘Plasticine Crow’ was the USSR’s first claymation film that came out in 1981 and had enormous success. It was followed by an equally successful claymation cartoon ‘Last Year's Snow Was Falling,’ in 1983.

Even though from 1984 Tatarsky worked in traditional animation only, his cartoon series ‘Investigation by Kolobki’ parodying the all-time classictales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson also became a hit and a favorite with many generations of people living in the post-Soviet space.

Pretty much all of the popular Soviet cartoons made in the 1980s were an experiment that was meant to stretch the traditional genres beyond their limits and find new meanings and ways of expression through comedy of the absurd and almost psychedelic visuals providing both entertainment and discussion of acute problems.

Post-Soviet Animation

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a watershed not only in the history of the country, its political and social life, but also its culture. Its effects are clearly visible in the animation industry as well. The transition to a market economy in Russia changed its film and animation industry dramatically, with the number of regular and animated films dropping sharply in the 1990s, while production of animation movies and cartoons for television halted for a while altogether.

However, animation enthusiasts continued filming in private studios. The spread of VHS technology helped cover their production costs. The following works are among the top hits in the 1990s: ‘Captain Pronin – Major Pronin’s Grandson,’ ‘Dunno (Neznaika) on the Moon,’ and the puppet animation film ‘Teremok’ (Little Hut). Animation director Aleksadr Petrov gained recognition for ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man and Mermaid.’ In 2000, he received an Academy Award for his animated adaptation of Hemingway’s novel ‘The Man and the Sea’ released in 1999.

The 21st century saw rapid growth in the industry in Russia which had by that time transitioned to a commercial footing. Today, we have new Russian-made animation series and feature-length films for cinema distribution. The total number of animated movies has grown significantly. Russia has also produced some of the world’s most popular long-running animated series including ‘Kikoriki,’ ‘Masha and the Bear’ and ‘The Fixies.’ ‘The Three Bogatyrs’ franchise which includes modernized versions of the Russian folk epic about warrior heroes Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich, and Dobrynya Nikitich, was a box-office success. Also, the full-length version of ‘The Snow Queen’ proved to be high-grossing. The producer of the bogatyr series Konstantin Bronzit has two Oscar nominations, however, for his less popular animation shorts.

As for the technical part, Russian animators mostly use 3D animation today, just like their Western counterparts. So the situation in the Russian animation film industry is pretty much the same as anywhere in the world. All popular mass-appeal cartoons are made using basically one and the same technology, while works in which animators and directors explore other techniques and methods are relatively rare.

Thus, ‘Hoffmaniada’, the long-awaited stop-motion animation film by Soyuzmultfilm, was finally released in 2018. It was a one-off production, unique and outstanding in today’s animation landscape. It scooped multiple awards all over the world, but, unfortunately, was a box-office disaster. The same thing happened to ‘Missing Link,’ a US stop-motion animated adventure comedy film that was a complete box-office flop despite starring many Hollywood stars as voice-over actors.

Auteur Animation vs Mass Films?

Konstantin Bronzit is among those who produce animation films appealing to smaller audiences. Two of his works were nominated for Academy Awards – the animated short films 'Lavatory Lovestory’ and ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos.’

The director believes that the transition to a commercial footing which happened in the 1990s had a positive effect on the Russian animation industry.

“We never dreamt of something like that. The number of animated films produced today is huge. And these films are for every taste – of various lengths and genres, for all kinds of audiences. We never had so many animation productions ever before, not even in the Soviet Union. Look how successful the ‘Masha and the Bear’ series has been, a private studio project filmed by a company with no state participation. It’s known, watched, and loved throughout the world,” said Bronzit.

The animator also warned against dividing films into auteur and mass production. Moreover, he thinks the term ‘auteur’ should not be applied to animation films at all since the term implies something completely different from the way it is used.

“The [Russian] word has a staunch connotation of experimental, arthouse cinema. That’s what we mean when we use it, but it’s not true, and we need to get rid of this habit. In fact, any film is auteur,” the animation director stressed. Take TitanicbyJamesCameron. The man nurtured an idea and engaged a large group of people to implement it. But at the same time, the film was a success, commercially. When I was filming ‘Alyosha Popovich,’ I was one of the authors. Abig teamwasinvolved. And we are all the authors of this film. However, ‘Alyosha Popovich’ was intended for a broad audience. But in the case of animated cartoon shorts you never know. They can be a success or can go almost unnoticed.”

Today, the Russian animation industry is on the rise, films are produced that cater to all tastes. Many of those cartoons are appreciated by global audiences and scoop awards at international festivals.