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© RIA Novosti. Valeriy Melnikov

Rebuilding Russia’s Toontown

by at 27/02/2012 19:28

The oldest animation studio in Russia, Soyuzmultfilm turned 75 last summer. The once-thriving studio – producer of such internationally acclaimed classics as “Hedgehog in the Fog” and the iconic Cheburashka films – has suffered hard times in the post-Soviet era and its glory days have seemed to be well and truly over. Copyright disputes, the loss of state support, and the cold hard economic reality have taken their toll, with production almost drying up completely. But finally the studio has now been tossed a lifeline, raising hopes that it can be saved.

Appeal for help

Cheburashka is one of the studio’s most famous animals

© RIA Novosti. / Iliya Pitalev

Cheburashka is one of the studio’s most famous animals

Soyuzmultfilm’s situation started to turn around last summer, when a group of renowned Sovietera animators including Yury Norstein and Leonid Shvartsman wrote to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appealing for help. A meeting with the prime minister followed, and Putin promised to write off the studio’s debts of 12 million rubles and allocate substantial funding towards its development as well as to the cartoon industry in general.

At the end of December, Putin decided to give the studio two new buildings and return to it the rights on Soviet cartoons which since 2009 belonged to the United Federal Film Collection, or OGK. In 2010 OGK raked in 180 million rubles in royalties from Soyuzmultfilm cartoons, of which only 28 million rubles went to the studio, Vedomosti reported.

The decision to give copyrights back to Soyuzmultfilm will allow the studio to pay associated royalties to directors, composers, screenwriters, art directors and cameramen. Most of the money comes from the use of cartoon images on T-shirts, cups, books, toys and other merchandise, which the studio’s director Nikolai Makovsky said was now the industry’s main source of income.

Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry has been in the process of approving a 60 million ruble subsidy to the studio, earmarked for buying new technology and special equipment, as well as maintaining and modernizing its property, RIA Novosti reported in mid-February, citing Makovsky. He said the subsidy had been discussed since late last year, as part of the government’s new policy concerning animation.

Makovsky became the new director of the troubled studio at the end of summer, after the group of renowned animators recommended him for this job, saying “he understands not only the studio’s problems, but those of animation as a whole.”

An animator and producer himself, Makovsky is indeed familiar with everything bothering Soyuzmultfilm’s employees. At a news conference last month Makovsky stated that the main goal for the studio at the moment is reestablishing its atmosphere and employing young talented animators.

Illustrious history

The wolf from “Nu, pogodi!”

© RIA Novosti. / I. Brenner

The wolf from “Nu, pogodi!”

And there is certainly some atmosphere to recreate at Soyuzmultfilm. Free of commercial considerations and generously supported by the state, Russia’s animation industry was at its most creative in Soviet times. While nowadays the studio produces four or five cartoons a year, in the 1970s the number was as high as 30 to 40, including such enduring favorites as “Maugli” (Mowgli), “Bremenskiye Muzykanti” (The Bremen Musicians), “Troye iz Prostokvashino” (Three from Prostokvashino) and “Krokodil Gena” (the cartoon from which Cheburashka rose to fame). Soyuzmultfilm was one of the biggest animation studios in Europe.

The studio was established in the summer of 1936. During WWII its employees were evacuated to Uzbekistan, and many of them joined the armed forces. After the war the studio produced many classical animated films with beautifully drawn characters, mostly based on fairy tales, including “Skazka o Rybake i Rybke” (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish), “Alenky Tsvetochek” (Beauty and the Beast), “Snezhnaya Koroleva” (Snow Queen), “Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden), and the iconic “12 Mesyatsev” (12 Months), among others. In the 1970s, Pope John Paul II was quoted as saying: “If you want to bring up your children in the spirit of humanism, show them Soviet cartoons.”

Much-loved classics

Vinni-Pukh, Soyuzmultfilm’s version of Winnie the Pooh

© RIA Novosti. / Yuryi Abramochkin

Vinni-Pukh, Soyuzmultfilm’s version of Winnie the Pooh

Despite several modern animation studios now successfully operating in Russia and producing such well-received cartoons as “Belka i Strelka. Zvyozdniye Sobaki” (released abroad as “Space Dogs 3D”) “Smeshariki,” (aka “GoGoRiki”) “Karlik-nos” (Little Longnose) and “Masha i Medved” (Masha and the Bear), Soyuzmultfilm is unlikely to lose its fans thanks to its many legendary films that are still watched and loved.

One of these legends is Yury Norstein’s 1975 classic “Yozhik v Tumane” (“Hedgehog in the Fog”), which an international jury in 2003 named as the best animated film of all time. The simple story of small animal’s walk through the woods has become a popular meme; to some viewers it is full of deep meaning, others see it as a psychological thriller, and some even try to prove that many scenes of Tarkovsky’s “Solyaris” were based on it. Its resonance isn’t surprising since it’s based on the tales of Sergei Kozlov, a storyteller who was able to make simple fairy tales about animals philosophical, quotable and embraced by both children and grownups alike.

Full of humor and voiced by famous Soviet actors, “Vinni-Pukh” (Winnie the Pooh) keeps successfully competing with its Disney analogue in Russia. The director Fyodor Khitruk has said he was a long-time fan of A.A. Milne’s book but he was not aware of Disney’s version and copyrights when he was making the cartoon. “I was afraid to spoil this excellent story,” he has been quoted as saying. “It was crucial to preserve its naive wisdom.”

Another enduring favorite is “Nu, Pogodi!”(Just You Wait). In 1969 the government decided that the Soviet Union needed something on par with Disney’s classic “Mickey Mouse” series and supplied Soyuzmultfilm with a solid budget, ordering the studio “to create something funny.” The resulting series, about a timid rabbit and a hooligan wolf dressed in bell-bottoms according to the fashion, became highly popular straight away. Despite critics attacking the wolf’s smoking habit and the cartoon’s “entertaining, non-educational character,” the series was defended by the amused government, so the censors had to calm down.

Many generations have been raised watching “Nu, Pogodi!” Today, 20-somethings still remember the electronic game of the same name, one of the first Soviet electronic games and the most popular at the end of 1980s. It showed only the wolf, who was supposed to collect eggs. Rumor had it that after you collected 1,000 eggs the game would show you an unknown episode of the cartoon or the rabbit would pop out and reward the wolf with flowers – but the game merely got faster after you scored 1,000.

Ambitious plans

A statue of the much-loved ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’

© RIA Novosti. / Grigoriy Vasilenko

A statue of the much-loved ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’

The studio’s biggest recent project is the biographical puppet animation “Gofmaniada,” which it has been working on since 2006. The film mixes the everyday life of the 18th- to 19th-century German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (Gofman in Russian), based on his letters and diaries, with the imaginary world of his fairy tales “Baby Zaches,” “The Golden Pot” and “The Sandman.” Director Stanislav Sokolov has said that children will be fascinated by the romantic adventure in “Gofmaniada,” while adults will see the drama of human existence. The first part of the film was shown at a festival last summer and received positive reviews. Release of the 90-minute film’s final version is scheduled for May 2014.

The studio management, elated by the government’s recent attention, is now dreaming of establishing its own TV channel, and maybe even a theme park.

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