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History of Russian Animation, Part I
June 26, 2012 10:07

The history of Russian animation is extensive and covers a few periods, the largest and most flourishing of which was the Soviet one, mostly represented by the Soyuzmultfilm and Ekran studios.

The Dawn

The first Russian animator (1906) was Aleksander Shiryaev (1867-1941), the ballet master of the Mariinsky Theater, who created the world’s first-ever puppet-animated film, which showed 12 dancing figures against the background of motionless scenery. 

The animation was shot on 17.5-millimetric film. It took three months to create this break-through work. In the course of its creation Shiryaev rubbed a hole in the floor parquet with his feet, while constantly walking from the film camera to the scenery and back.

These films were found in Shiryaev’s archive by the film expert Victor Bocharov in 2009. In the same place he discovered several other puppet-animated films: Clowns Playing with a Ball, Pierrot Artists and the love drama with a happy end Jokes of Harlequin. Modern animators still cannot solve the secrets of the animator, since Shiryaev’s puppets do not simply walk on the ground, but also jump and turn around in the air.

Vladislav Starevich (1882-1965) was for a long time considered the first Russian animator (1912). A biologist by education, he decided to make an educational film with insects. In 1912 Vladislav Starevich shot a documentary film about stag bugs, in particular, the fighting of two male bugs for one female bug. During the shooting it became clear that under the lighting necessary for shooting the male bugs become passive. Then Starevich dissected the bugs and attached fine wires to bugs’ tarsi, fixed them with wax to the trunks and shot the required scene frame-by-frame. Thus, his film became the first known puppet animation.



In the same technique Starevich made the short film The Beautiful Lukanida (released in 1912), in which the bugs performed scenes parodying the tales of chivalry. The film was a blockbuster with both Russian and foreign audiences till the mid 1920s. Frame-by-frame technology of puppet animation was absolutely unknown then, and so numerous reviews expressed amazement about how the insects had been trained to perform such improbable things.

Lukanida was soon followed with other animated shorts similar in technique: The Cameraman's Revenge (1912), The Ant and the Grasshopper (1913), The Insects' Christmas (1913), Amusing Scenes from the Life of Insects (1913), which became an integral part of the gold fund of the world cinema. In the film The Night Before Christmas (1913) Starevich for the first time combined in one shot actor’s play and puppet animation.

After the October revolution Vladislav Starevich with his family immigrated to Italy, whereas animation in Russia was paralyzed for many years.

Soviet Graphic Animation

Only in the late 1920s the Soviet authorities started financing of experimental studios, which mostly produced short propaganda animations in the beginning. Animators could experiment both with equipment and esthetics.

As Ivan Petrovich Ivanov-Vano (1900-1987) recalls in his autobiography Frame-by-frame it was partially due to the overall atmosphere of Russian avant-garde art , and partly because they could experiment in small groups of enthusiasts.

Soviet graphic animation appeared in 1924 — 1925. Just within the year of 1924 the small Kultkino studio released a number of animated films: Germans’ Deals and Tricks, Story of One Disappointment (Boris Savinkov), The Soviet toys» (director Dziga Vertov, animators A. Bushkin and A. Ivanov), An Incident in Tokyo, Humoresques (director Dziga Vertov, animators A. Bushkin and A. Belyakov). Such speedy production became possible thanks to the new technology using flat puppets, which freed animators from labor-consuming drawings.

Important animation films of that era include Skating Rink (1927, I.Ivanov-Vano), The Post (1929, M. Tsekhanovsky) and Organchik (1933, N. Hodatayev).

Aleksandr Ptushko (1900-1973) was another expert of that time. He was a qualified architect, but in his early years worked as a mechanical engineer. When he was admitted to the department of puppet animation at Mosfilm Studio, he found ideal environment for implementation of his mechanical as well as artistic ambitions.

He gained world-wide fame with his first Soviet full-length animated film The New Gulliver (1935). This film added a communistic flair to the novel by Jonathan Swift. It combined puppet animation and acting in one shot. The film boasts surprisingly enormous crowd scenes with hundreds of puppets, very expressive mime in animation, and also very good cinematic work.

Aleksandr Ptushko became the first director of the newly founded Soyuzdetmultfilm Studio, but soon quit animation to dedicate himself to feature films. Nevertheless, even in his later features he resorted to dimensional animation for special effects, for example in the film Ilya Muromets (1956).

Socialist Realism

In 1934 Walt Disney sent to the Moscow Film Festival a film reel with Mickey Mouse short films. Fyodor Khitruk , who was then an animator, instead of the director, recalls his impressions in Otto Alder's film The Spirit of Genius. He was absolutely fascinated by the new opportunities for animation opening on Disney’s way.

In 1935 on the upsurge of this interest the Soyuzmultfilm Studio was founded from a number of smaller groups of animators.

In 1941 the animation studio Lenfilm was closed and the Leningrad animators (M. Tsekhanovsky, M. Pashchenko) later joined Soyuzmultfilm. In 1941 — 1943 the Soyuzmultfilm Studio was in evacuation in Samarkand and mostly produced patriotic films.

Animated films of 1945 — 1959 were peculiar for a high level of realism of backgrounds and animation characters. In 1952 the full analog of Disney's multiplane camera was created. All methods of classical animation were mastered and new techniques were invented (for example, the effect of "fluffiness" in the film Disobedient Kitten (1953). Rotoscoping was used in certain cases for achievement of high realism of movements (Disappeared Diploma (1945), Kashtanka (1952), etc.)

Soviet animated films were not of artistic value only, but also had educational targets (Fedya Zaytsev (1948), Sentries of Fields (1949)). During this period a number of full-length animated films (practically all of them were screen versions) were released; one of the most popular was The Snow Queen (1957).

To be continued…



Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian animation Russian caricature Russian Cinema   

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