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Animose and Russian Animation – Irina Goundortseva

Image credit: Maria Muat

Image credit: Maria Muat

The history of Russian puppet animation dates back to the 1900s when a bored public servant named Vladislav Starevich decided to take his amateur hobby of entomology a step further.

Using his extensive bug collection he dived into filmmaking. His first five-minute film “Wonderful Lukanida or the Battle of the Whiskered Versus the Horned” premiered in November 1913. By then the audiences were used to seeing moving images of people, but Starevich’s technique was something previously unheard of: the main characters of an old husband, his young wife and her lover were performed by the bugs. The audiences were baffled by the never before seen technique and were convinced that the director was a very skilful insect trainer. However, what they really saw was the first puppet animation made in Russia. The success of his films was astounding, but Starevich decided to keep his technique private – during his life he never had competitors, but he never had any students either, which he regretted deeply on his deathbed.

It was in the Soviet era, after the turbulent times of the revolution, that the country’s first fully fledged animation studio was born. ‘Soyuzmultfilm’ as it was called was considered to be one the major animation studios in Europe. In the 1970s around thirty animated films were made every year, a proportion of them being puppet animations. ‘Soyuzmultfilm’ reached its peak by the eighties when more films than ever were being made and a large number of international awards were won. However by the mid-eighties the political turbulence shaking the country was beginning to reflect on the life of the studio. ‘Soyuzmultfilm’ lost most of its talented directors who either died, left or retired and the management did nothing to replenish the thinning staff. By the nineties the productions declined significantly and from then on it felt like Russian animation would never be the same again. However, in recent years several small independent animation studios were born, amongst which ‘Animose’ plays a prominent role.

Born out of a co-production series with England called ‘Animated tales of the world’ the studio was able to establish, buy equipment, develop and expand. They now produce animation of many styles – traditional hand drawn style, puppets, cut-outs and more. The studio is flourishing, but according to an interview with one of the studio’s directors Maria Muat (published in “Culture” newspaper) there are still problems with the industry that need to be resolved. She mentions that most of the animators the studio currently works with have been working in the industry for a long time and have reached perfection through extensive practice. But there is not an infrastructure for the young people to come into the production, particularly in the puppet style of animation. Although there is a young generation of directors and designers coming out of universities not many of them are interested in puppet animation and there are not many puppet animators being trained.

Muat’s other concern is for the future of those who pursue the craft of puppet making. There is still a university that trains the puppet makers but they disappear straight after finishing their degrees. In the past, when there were large animation studios the young graduates had somewhere to go – there were huge workshops and the craft was learned from the old masters. There is nothing like this today, nowhere for the young professionals to go – so they just leave the industry, disappear. Maria Tereshenko, in a separate article (published by www. animator.ru) also outlines the problem. According to her, the animation industry in Russia is driven by a small group of enthusiasts who keep on making films, developing technologies, teaching and reviewing the work of the industry.

There are very few TV series or animated feature films being made in Russia and because of this there are no resources dedicated to the development and training of the animators. And so Russian animation treads a dangerous path; after the recent boom come new concerns about its future. And yet there is a strong sense of hope that with the films we are continuing to see coming from Russia their unique style and craftsmanship will continue to grow and surprise the audiences from around the world.

Irina Goundortseva, 2008