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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 silence avant-garde of 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 heavily propagandistic piece of art 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 cartoon 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.

Anatoly Petrov was an influential Russian animator who recently passed away. He worked on many famous pieces including The Musicians of Bremen and Vovka in a Far Away Land. In 1968 he started a career as a director and filmed several shots of Merry Go Round series. One of his best films is Polygon (1977) based on the story by the Soviet sci-fi writer Gansovsky about an engineer who created a manless tank that finds enemies by the sense of fear.

Polygon with English subtitles

The photographica technique employs two celluloid layers for each character and creates a 3D impression. No computers were available when this highly realistic cartoon was shot.

Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) was one of the first women in Soviet animation. She mastered fine arts in Moscow, worked as an illustrator, and joined the industry in 1924. She worked in Sovkino (later Mosfilm) and since 1936 she was employed as an animation director by Soyuzmultfilm, the biggest Soviet animation studio established in the same year by Stalin.

In 1928 Olga Khodatayeva produced a silent animation short Samoyed Boy (Самоедский мальчик), an anti-religious propaganda aimed at shamans of Nenets people, natives of the north of Russia. Her background in painting helped her to create much more polished animation than Vertov’s.

During her career, she managed to produce over 20 animation films. Among them are Disney style Tom Thumb (black and white, sound, 1938)

and highly praised beautifully executed A Fire Glowing in Yaranga (color, sound, 1956) based on the folk tales of the native peoples of the Russian north.

Awards: Venice Film Festival, 1956.

Notice that both films the adaptations of folk tales, typical for the socialistic realism period of Soviet animation (1930s-1950s).

Over a century ago viewers already enjoyed animation in Russia.  Ladislas Starevich (Władysław Starewicz, born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882) was a photography and entomology enthusiast. Employed by the Museum of Natural History, Starevich, passionate about new media, created a series of documentaries. For one of the films about stag beetles, he had to create puppets out of insects. Lucanus Cervus shot in 1910 was the first stop-motion effort of Starevich. The animation effort was highly praised by one of the first Russian producers, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Soon other animation shorts followed featuring puppets created out of insects, wire, and wax. Early viewers sometimes assumed that films featured live insects were trained by Starevich

The first feature stop-motion film by Starevich

1910 – The Beautiful Lukanida (Прекрасная Люканида, или Война усачей с рогачами), a parody on early history blockbusters.

1912 – The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора), a parody on melodrama

1911 – The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса)

1913 – The Ant and the Grasshopper (Муравей и Стрекоза) based on Aesop’s fable

Like many artists, Starevich moved to France after the Bolshevik revolution. Unlike many Russian directors and actors, Starevich built a successful career in cinema and animation in the interwar period. Some of his works include:

1923 – The Frogs Who Wanted a King – based on the fable by La Fontaine

1930 – The Tale of the Fox / Le Roman de Renard  – the first full-length animated film

1934 – The Mascot – a story of a  puppy that was so popular that Starevich was asked to create a series with the same character.