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Soyuzmultfilm, a prominent Russian animation studio with a rich history, has a new site featuring information about the popular Soviet-era animation films from the 1960s-1970s, including such iconic productions as Chebursahka (aka Topple, a friendly furry creature that befriends a crocodile called Gena who works in a local zoo – as a crocodile), Winnie the Pooh, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, action-packed I’ll Get You!, an eclectic anthology Happy Merry-Go-Round, adventures of a polar bear cub Umka, rock musical The Bremen Town Musicians, and art-house The Glass Harmonica. The site contains unique production shots, script scans, sketches, storyboards, and photos. The content is in Russian. Heroes of Soyuzmultflilm.

Crocodile Gena, Cheburashka, and Old Lady Shapoklyak,

Eduard Nazarov, an acclaimed artist, book illustrator, and animation director, passed away yesterday in Moscow. Nazarov, closely associated with Fyodor Khitruk,  was involved in several of his projects, including Winnie the Pooh (1969-1972). In the 1990s, he became one of the co-founders of the SHAR studio, and later supervised a highly successful Mountain of Gems animated series based on folk tales of peoples of Russia.  Nazarov is best-known as the creator of such classics as Once Upon a Dog / Once There Was a Dog (1982), a tragicomic story adopted from Ukrainian folklore about an old dog expelled by his owners, and Travels of an Ant (1983), a small ant’s quest to find his home. His beloved works feature a distinct visual style and combine lyricism with a mellow sense of humor.

Travels of an Ant (Путешествие муравья)

Soyuzmultfilm 1983

Hedgehog in the Fog (Ежик в тумане) released 40 years ago is a critically acclaimed cartoon by Yuriy Norshteyn based on short stories by Sergey Kozlov. A journey of Hedgehog through the misty forest to meet his friend Bear is among the most well-known Russian cartoons. Check out an interactive guide with comments of Norshteyn about unique solutions employed to create paper puppets, fog, and shadows in this stop-motion masterpiece.

Interactive guide  (Russian)

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About halfway between Western and Orthodox Christmas (January 7), it is worth to remember some of the Christmas-themed cartoons. The very first Christmas animated short was made by the stop-motion pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz back in 1913. The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса) tells a dreamy story about a toy Father Christmas (Jack Frost, Дед Мороз) who leaves his Christmas tree and visits a frozen forest to bring the holiday spirit to creatures who live there. A frog, a ladybug, a dragonfly, and other insects join the party, get presents, skate, and have fun.

The Insects’ Christmas 1913

Silent, with English subtitles

Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz

Produced by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov

One of the most beloved New Year cartoon is Last Year’s Snow Was Falling (Падал прошлогодний снег) by Alexander Tatarsky. It’s a stop motion claymation loosely based on Russian folktales and featuring such folklore characters as the Fool, the Pike, the Hut on Chicken Legs, and many others. The main character tries to find a proper fir for a New Year celebration in a magic wood. The cartoon is full of absurd humor and became a source of multiple quotes. Tatarstky filmed several popular films in this technique, including Plasticine Crow. He went on to establish Pilot, the first independent Russian animation studios. In his late years he directed Gem Mountain, a brilliant series of cartoons based on folklore of peoples of Russia.

Ekran, 1983

Russian with English subtitles

part 1

part 2

The Bug Trainer is a documentary film about Starevich produced in Lithuania. Interviews with film critics from Russia, Poland, Norway, and Lithuania are joined by an animated quest of the puppet Bug who falls in love with another puppet, the Lion Queen (uniting Starevich’s early films featuring bugs and his later masterpiece, The Tale of the Fox). The film is a mixed bag, and its animation  – unlike the one of Starevich – is the weak link. There is even an effort to depict Starevich himself to create surreal cinematic environment that does not look too convincing. On the other hand, the film features some rare shots of Starevich, fragments of his works, and brief bio. Sadly, his work during the 1940s-1950s is barely described. The film is serves as an introduction to works of the inventor of stop motion animation and tries to engage viewers describing the world of animated puppets. Recommended with reservations.

Fyodor Khitruk, one of the most prominent Russian animators, passed away on December 3. Khitruk became involved in animation in 1938 shortly after the major Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm was established in Moscow. The Second World War postponed his artistic career for almost a decade. He returned to Soyuzmultfilm in the late1940s and worked as an animator, director, and mentored some of the best Russian artists. His first cartoon, The Story of a Crime (1962) became one of the turning points in Soviet animation towards the new aesthetic of the 1960s-1970s. His cartoons for children such as Winnie the Pooh, Toptyzhka, Boniface’s Holiday are among the most beloved by several generations of Russian viewers. His works aimed at grown ups such as Island, The Man in a Frame, Film, Film, Film and others are full of wisdom and irony. In his later years he turned to teaching and writing. Khitruk became a symbol of Soviet and Russian animation.

Film, Film, Film (1968)

Vladimir Tarasov employed sci-fi motifs in several of his 1980s animation shorts, including the anti-capitalist satire Shooting Range about violence, and dystopic futuristic Contract dedicated to power of money that corrupts people in the capitalist society.  Shooting Range is a beautifully rendered cartoon that features interesting perception of the US filled with avant-garde jazz (considered to be reprehensible music in the Soviet Union),classic American cars, highways with at least 12 lanes, and glass and steel skyscrapers. Stereotypical American hero wears jeans and baseball hat and is attached to his car in a way a nomad warrior attached to his horse. Violence and unemployment plague this geometrical generic Western city. The anti-hero inherits typical capitalist features including passion for cigars (while the unemployed  hero smokes – presumably more proletarian – Camel).

Capitalist from 1959 Soviet magazine

Antihero of Shooting Range

In a scene of temporal (underlined by transformation of a cuckoo clock bird into firebird) happiness Vladimir Tarasov pays a homage to Disney characters – a vital part of American cultural image.

While this craftily executed cartoon has some ideologically correct features, there is artistic fascination with  American aesthetics, design, music, and big city vibe. This cartoon presents  the West both disturbing and appealing.

Shooting Range (Тир, 1979)

wordless

part 1

part 2

Nikolai Khodataev (born 120 years ago on May 9, 1892) presumably started shooting this avant-garde piece to be included in Aelita, another innovative film by Yakov Protazanov (1924) based on Alexei Tolstoy’s novel.

However, later it was completed as an independent piece. The early 1920s was the time of booming avant-garde art in the Soviet Union, not only in the film (Eisenstein’s The Strike an Battleship Potemkin, Dziga Vertov’s Kinoeye), but also visual art (Vladimir Tatlin, Lazar (El) Lissitzky), photography and design (Alexander Rodchenko). Many constructivist and futurist artists strongly supported the Bolsheviks considering themselves artistic revolutionaries. The plot reflects expectations of the unavoidable revolutions around the world. Having overcome class enemies on Earth, the Soviet champion flies to Mars to spark an interplanetary revolution.

No capitalist could survive the Bolshevik warrior springing out of his mirror.

Khodataev employed cutout stop motion technique combining photographic and hand drawn backgrounds. He was one of the first Soviet animation directors who helped to establish this industry and produced over a dozen animated propaganda films until the mid-1930s when he switched to painting and sculpting.

Interplanetary Revolution (Межпланетная революция, 1924)

Silent, with English subtitles

Dziga Vertov (David Kaufman, 1896 – 1954) is  famous for his radical fresh approach to the documentary cinema.  His Man with a Movie Camera and Kino Eye became true classic of the Soviet avant-garde era of the 1920s. However, he managed to try himself as an animator, too.

Soviet Toys (Советские игрушки), 1924

silent, with English subtitles

In 1924 he directed one of the earliest Soviet animation Soviet Toys.  Like many works of Vertov, this animation short is a propaganda piece aimed at NEPman, a member of a new wealthy social class of the 1920s. NEP (New Economic Policy) was born in the result of the temporary liberalization of the Soviet economy in the 1920s. This animated film also aims at the Russian Orthodox Church that was suppressed during the 1920s-1930s particularly harshly although a caricature depiction of the fat corrupt priest was not atypical even for the pre-revolutionary Russia. The other priest is a satirical representation of the so-called Living Church (обновленцы) that was established in 1922 during the schism within the Orthodox church.

NEP helped to recover post-Civil War Russia, but was often criticized as a return of the capitalist past particularly by the left-wing activists and avant-garde artists like Vertov who promoted building of the new Communist society. NEP lasted for less than a decade, until Stalin became an ultimate Soviet leader in 1928. Vertov rather accurately predicted the decline of NEP: after the worker and peasant (literally) unite they manage to crush NEPman and take all his money.

Soviet toys ends with the scene of the Christmas tree composed of the Red Army soldiers who literally hang fat NEPman, his girlfriend, both priest, and the worker and peasant climb to the top of the new social order.

As Lenin stated, the capitalist will sell us rope with which we will hang them.  After NEP helped to recover the state of economy, it was prohibited and private entrepreneurs were forced to close their businesses.

Vertov was interested in exploring various media and employed animation technique in some of his documentaries, including stop motion sequence in his famous Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с киноаппаратом), 1929. Though roughly made, Soviet Toys is one of the important artifacts of the dawn of the Soviet animation.