Before the Covid-19 outbreak me and another guy were working on a one off podcast on the history of Eastern Bloc animation. The purpose was to trace the development of animation in Russia and the Eastern Bloc from it’s probable roots in old Imperial Russia through the USSR, noting how developments in the medium illustrated (haha) developments in the broader Soviet system.
The project fell through, and I kind of forgot about it until I came across the script I had put together for it in my mailbox this morning. Since I figured it would probably go to waste otherwise, I decided to rework it into a long form article to share here. Hope you enjoy.
Ladislas Starevich and the Beginning of Russian Stop Motion Animation
The beginning of Russian animation can be dated to 1910. That was the year the 27 year old Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunus, Ladislas Starevich, decided to produce a short film documenting two stag beetles fighting. He had produced 4 such documentaries previously, but in this case he kept running into a problem: the stag beetles kept dying in the hot stage lights. But Starevich was undeterred. Inspired by a French film he'd seen, he hit upon a solution. By taking the husks of the dead beetles and attaching metal wires to them, Starevich found he could recreate the beetle fights through stop motion animation. This short film, Lucanus Cervus, was not only the first Russian animated film, it was also the first film using animated puppets.
But this was only the start of Starevich's career as an animator. The next year Starevich moved to Moscow to team up with a film company run by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, who was himself a pioneer of Russian cinema. Over the next few years the two produced groundbreaking films pioneering stop motion animation, including the Camera Man's Revenge
, the Beautiful Leukanida and the Lily of Belgium.
Like much of the Russian film industry, Starevich emigrated from Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Since this effectively ends his role in Eastern Bloc animation I won't spend too much more time on him, however I will add that he continued to produce films in France up until his death in 1965 and is remembered as a pivotal figure who has directly influenced animators to this day.
Digression on Puppetry and its role in Eastern Bloc Stop Motion Animation
As we’ve already seen, Starevich drew some inspiration from pre-existing mediums in his early experiments in animation. So it bears stepping back to look at one of these mediums: puppetry.
The development of an industry in a country can be enabled and shaped by the preexisting context. Animation is no exception. For example, the emergence of animation in the United States was enabled by the existence of a vibrant industry of newspaper cartoonists. This is demonstrated by the fact that many of the first American animators, like Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, all started as newspaper cartoonists. Meanwhile the groundwork for Japan’s animation industry was likely laid by the industry surrounding woodblock printing, which used a multistep process analogous to traditional cel animation, with techniques and skills well suited for both (Side note: the idle sketchbooks of woodblock artists were also the forerunners of modern manga). By contrast, in France early animation was used more as an effect than anything else. This tendency, which may have been thanks to the influence of film/effects pioneers like the Lumiere Brothers, is perhaps one reason animation didn't develop in the same way there (though, of course, they did have Starevich).
Puppetry was arguably to Russian stop motion animation what newspaper comics and woodblock printing were to traditional cel animation in American and Japan: a pre-existing reservoir of skills and techniques that could be readily applied to the new technologies of film and animation.
Puppetry has a long tradition in Russia. It was introduced to the country at least as early as the 13th century, most likely through interactions with the Byzantine Empire, and over the centuries developed a vibrant local tradition practiced by traveling minstrels known as skomorokh. The skomorokhs were eventually banned in the 17th century as part of a broader effort to suppress superstitious folk traditions, however they were never entirely stamped out. In the 18th century puppetry started to reemerge by way of European puppetry.
By the late 19th and early 20th century puppetry was undergoing a phase of rapid development as puppeteers and theater practitioners devised new techniques to hone their craft. There was an extended era of trial and error in this process, however by the 1910s a vibrant industry had developed with puppet theaters and traveling puppet shows springing up across Russia. The Russian Revolution was initially disruptive to this development, as many of the artists involved emigrated from the country, however the influence was ultimately beneficial as the new regime looked favorably on puppetry as a viable means of cultural enrichment and agitprop. Through the 1920s a combination of grassroots support and state support led to the founding of even more theaters and the establishment of puppetry as something of an institution. During the Stalinist era puppet theaters were brought under the control of the GOMET, where they continued to develop as a favored, if sometimes stifled, artform.
There are two particular puppetry techniques that are of interest to us here. The first type would be marionettes. By this time marionettes had been developed well past the basic string puppets more are familiar with to dolls on wireframes and the like. The medium was pushed to new heights by puppeteers and theater practitioners like Konstantin Stanislavski, Liubov Shaporina and Yulia Sazonova in the late 19th and early 20th century, and by the mid 1910s puppet shows of this sort were being performed with elaborate orchestration, costumes, scenery and staging. As we’ve seen, the technical aspects of this type of puppetry obviously lent itself directly to the sort of stop motion animation Starevich was producing.
The second type of puppetry that is of relevance was rod puppetry. Rod puppetry involves attaching flat segments of paper, wood or metal to rods and springs to create puppets which could be manipulated to simulate realistic movement. The techniques was popularized in the 18th century, refined by puppeteers like Ivan Zaitsev in the 19th century, and Nina Efimova in the 20th. By the advent of animation rod puppetry was a highly developed art which provided a wide variety of techniques the sort of stop motion cut out animation that's generally associated with Eastern Bloc animation.
The presence of these two types of puppetry ensured that there was always a readily available source of technical skills and ideas for animators to pull from. This helps provide a partial explanation for why animators in Russia and Eastern Europe helped provide an explanation for why they were able to punch so far above their weight in terms of stop motion animation. At their height in the post war era the Eastern Bloc may have been providing something like 33%-40% of the world's stop motion animated films, many of which representing massive leaps forward in the field.
Moreover, puppetry helped define the character of Eastern Bloc animation. The elaborate sets, detailed costumes and rigid movements of doll puppetry can provide a sense of decorum that’s lacking from traditional cel animation. This is part of the reason why Wes Anderson, who is himself obsessed with formalism in his films, counts Starevich as a direct influence for his own animated features like the Fantastic Mr Fox and the Isle of Dogs. On the other hand, cut out animation allowed for much richer coloring schemes for characters and backgrounds, as well as providing a distinct sense of movement. In the hands of the right animator this could create a sort of moving painting affecting the dreamlike whimsy of a fairy tale setting on the one hand. Alternately it could be used to render the movements of a robot in a science fiction story as appropriately unnatural and off putting.
This topic can be fleshed out later, but first let's loop back to the broader history of animation in Russia.
The Revolutionary Years and the Constructivist 20s
As many art historians and Russian Revolution aficionados know, the period immediately after the revolution was one with quite of lot experimentation. There was a genuinely felt sense that art should both radically break from old Bourgeois traditions and could serve as a necessary tool for building a new society. Art would be both an expression of the liberated spirit of people, and would in turn mold the souls of the new Soviet man.
But defining what this meant in practice was still a little up in the air. This was also a period before the centrally planned economy was truly established. The industries of art and film were still very fragmented. On the one hand a lot of self directed artist collectives flourish, or at least weren’t as strictly controlled as they eventually be. On the other hand the organs of state agitprop still operated in a mostly uncoordinated fashion.
Between the Constructivist ethos and the state of cultural industries, there was a lot of room for experimentation. Soviet animation during the 1920s was produced through a mix of individual initiative and a patchwork of small quasi-independent studios, and it was often very experimental and unconventional in its techniques and style. For example, Mikhail Tsekhanivsky's movie, Post, was done in cut out animation reflecting a very industrial style. Even after transitioning to traditional animation with The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda, the first traditionally cel animated film produced in Russia, the style was still reminiscent of the constructivist posters of the era.
Meanwhile, the notion of using animation as a means of cultural enrichment and education for children also came into play. The popular series Bolvashka's Adventures and Bratishkin's Adventures combined live action with stop motion dolls to create various fantastical stories. This perhaps hit its apogee with the production of the 1935 film the New Gulliver which involved extensive use of stop motion involved with thousands of puppet models.
We should be careful not to overstate the progress of animation in the Soviet Union, however. While the usage of cut out stop motion was largely a deliberate artistic choice, its use was also driven by the fact that it was cheap. For all their merits, much of Soviet animation from the time can be criticized as lacking technical refinement.
Stalinism and the Pursuit of Technical Progress
When Disney Disney submitted a film real with various Mickey Mouse and Three Little Pig shorts to the 1935 Moscow Film in 1935 many animators were both made aware of both stunned, and of the short comings of their own domestic industry. In a sense, the state of the animation industry was analogous to the Soviet Union in general, it had ambitions of creating something new and put a lot of creative energy towards achieving it, but ran headlong into the realities of a poor undeveloped country.
It's only appropriate, then that the next phase in Soviet animation would also also reflect broader trends in the Soviet economy. Because this was all happening as Stalin was consolidating power. Under Stalin, the state narrowed its focus from the broad conceptual questions of the revolutionary era to focus on practical question of achieving industrial progress. With the state planning apparatus coordinating resources, the country was to reorganize itself along efficient, industrialized lines, putting all its efforts towards acquiring the capital and technology needed to do that.
This manifested in animation as a single minded pursuit of technical progress to match the standards of the West. This would be a difficult process. Traditional cel animation was expensive at the time, especially using the conveyor belt process then being used by Disney, which was a complex, industrialized process that used expensive rotoscoping and multipane camera equipment. Successfully adopting this would require coordinating resources far beyond the capacity of the patchwork of existing animation studios existing in the Soviet Union.
To that end, in 1936 animation was consolidated under the new studio of Soyuzmultfilm, whose sole goal was to produce traditional cel animated films. Modern equipment was acquired and incorporated, and teams of animators were often sent abroad to study Western methods.
These efforts were successful in achieving their intended results. Soviet animators had mastered rotoscoping by 1938, and by the 1950s Soviet animators were producing films in the style of Disney's conveyor belt process. Not only did these films match western standards, some were so good that Disney even started to using them to train their own animators. It also bears mentioning that many popular long running series and characters were being created at that time. This is all very impressive, especially considering the massive disruption caused by World War II.
But this technical progress came at the cost of anything that fell outside traditional animation. Stop motion films essentially ceased being in the Soviet Union, and Soyuzmultfilm didn't even have a puppet division. There were exceptions, some animators like Ivan Ivanov-Vano continued to produce their own style. However, the emphasis creatively was still focused put imitating the foreign above innovating the domestic, with stifling results.
The Khrushchev Thaw and Late Eastern Bloc Animation
Once again, animation found itself faced with problems analogous to those of the broader Soviet economy. It had reached the limits of what it could do simply by accumulating capital and building up its technical capacity. It had to shift to a model of qualitative development, not merely imitating western techniques, but coming up with its own innovations to carve out a unique alternative and perhaps even take the lead.
Appropriately enough, the direction of Soviet animation began to shift as soon as Stalin died in 1953. In that year, Soyuzmultfilm opened its puppetry studio, while the next year Yevgeny Miguno produced the first feature length stop motion film in the Soviet Union in decades. This was no small task, and Migunov and his partner, the engineer Seymon Etlis essentially reinvented the process of stop motion animation involving techniques incorporating ball jointed puppets with latex faces.
The Kruschev thaw accelerated this process, and animators increasingly looked outside the conveyor belt process that had dominated the Stalinist years in favor of more experimental techniques. Many returned to stop motion, cut out. Others tied out newer techniques such as paint-on-glass animation, sand animation and xerography. Stylistically, artists started to move away from a "realistic" art style in favor ones that were more exaggerated, abstract and unique. Some films would feature caricatures that one might see in a magazine, others went for an extremely Gothic style, while others tried to affect hyper realism.
It was also at this time that animation studios independent of Soyuzmultfilm began to pop up. Many of these, such as the Multtelefilm division of Studio Ekran, focused on producing lower budget animation for television. Others catered to independent projects of a particular artists. It was also at this time the Eastern Bloc were establishing their own animation industries using similar techniques. Hungary, in particular, would prove to be particularly adept in animation, and from the late 40s onward the country would produce of high volume of innovative animation, particularly in the realm of stop motion.
There are far too many animators from the time to cover, but we will focus on two animators who provide illustrative examples.
The first is Yuri Norstein. Norstein began producing animation in the 1960s, and within a decade had already produced an impressive body of work. Norstein employed a style using detailed cutouts layered on top of each other in various ways to create the effect of highly atmospheric moving paintings. In his short, Seasons, for example, he used thin crochet paper to simulate leaves that were brilliantly translucent in the summer and crystalline frost in the winder. In the Battle of Kerzhenets, on the other hand, Norstein created a moving icon painting to create a medieval battle for a legendary city. In 1975 Norstein produced his most acclaimed work, the Hedgehog in the Fog, which has been called "the best animation of all time" on a number of occasions. The short, which centers around a hedgehog being menaced by an owl in the forest, effectively creates the illusion of fog in a dark by using thin pieces of paper between richly colored cutouts. Four years later, would build on this in Tale of Tales, an even more ambitious 30 minute films that follows a wolf through numerous surreal scenes, often blending various styles to create a dreamlike atmosphere.
On the other hand, Anatoly Petrov was on the extreme opposite end of the realism spectrum. Petrov came to animation by way of photography after receiving a camera with photographic plates at the age of 12, After taking animation courses at Soyuzmultfilm shifted into animation, and by the late 60s he was a well respected professional in the field. In 1969 Petrov and a number of other animators teamed up to form an anthology series of animations Happy Merry-Go-Round, with perhaps the most notable of them being Petrov's own Polygon
, Firing Range in 1977. Happy Merry-Go-Round would continue production until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, however we'll discuss that more in a moment. Through his background in photography, Petrov developed a unique style of hyper realistic "moving glaze" style of animation. Watching it is something of a marvel, as it effectively creating the illusion of three dimensional movement decades before CGI could even hope to tackle the task.
There is on more interesting experiment at this time that bears mentioning. In 1968 a group of mathematicians led by Nikolay Konstantinov began experimenting with using computers in animation at the Moscow State Pedagogical University. Using second order differential equations, the mathematicians attempted to render the movements of a cat. The film, which can still be seen here
, is notable as one of the first experiments in digital animation, and the first of its kind to simulate movement in anything approaching a realistic manner.
The trend towards experimental, avante garde animation reached a peak in the 1970s. During this period animators from the Eastern Bloc produced numerous animated films that achieved international acclaim for effectively merging highly stylized animation techniques with unconventional direction to create pieces that were both highly innovative and highly atmospheric. Eastern Bloc animators were also sought out for prestigious international collaborations, such as Fantastic Planet.
However, we should take a moment to note that such high profile projects weren't necessarily representative of the whole of Eastern Bloc animation. As a medium, animation is probably always going to hold the greatest appeal for children, and the Eastern Bloc was no exception. Most animation of this sort was of a more conventional sort, and while they certainly retained much of the creative flair of Eastern Bloc animation, they would generally be a bit more conservative in the interest of being easier on the eyes. The most popular series of the time, Nu, pogodi! featured a Tom and Jerry style wolf an rabbit team looks about like you'd expect something like that to look. It was the sort of kinetic, fun animation children would want to see, and done about as competently as anything you'd expect to see from the genre.
Limitations of Eastern Bloc Animation and the Centrally Planned System in General
Yet while it wasn't on the bleeding edge of animation technique, Nu, pogodi! did reflect something key to understanding the nature of Eastern Bloc animation. If you look at the filmography of Nu, pogodi! you'll notice that, while it had dozens of cartoons produced over the years, they were produced in a pretty high volume over a period of 22 years, the schedule was highly irregular.
This is because animation in the Soviet Union, and Eastern Bloc in general, were commissioned essentially as one offs. There basically were no "series" so to speak, and state planners generally weren't interested in establishing such a thing. So unlike in the US or Japan, there was little room for longevity.
On the one hand, this was a point in the system's favor. Part of the reason animators could be so free to experiment was because they were producing a cultural/creative project for its own sake. It’s arguable that the idiosyncratic, avante garde style of Eastern Bloc animation owes no small thanks to this fact.
But on the other hand, this also deprived the medium of the sort of consistency needed for animators to perfect the techniques they were developing through minor sustaining innovations or establish channels for organically borrowing innovations from one another. Likewise, when pressure was put on animators to produce in a more cost effective way, audiences weren't in much of a position to signal which cost cutting techniques they would find most acceptable. This is likely a large part of the reason why, for all its creativity, Eastern Bloc animation always looks a little unpolished and jarring to a common audience.
All this starts to beget questions of how much the situation in animation was reflective of the larger failings of the Soviet system of central planning. On the one hand, as a field where motivations tend to be internal to the artist it was mostly free of the sort of perverse incentives that riddled the quota system. To the extent that external motives did come into play, they were largely about generating cultural products and prestige, and since this was a field that was broadly considered too apolitical for most censorship it was definitely an environment that fostered creativity.
But, as we've mentioned, there were more than a few problems. Animation, like everything else, was subject to a system that was rigid and centralized to a fault. It wasn't conducive to the sort of organic self organizations that's necessary for an adaptable network for innovation. If someone sufficiently high up didn't see the value of something it was difficult to get anywhere. And there was very little to effectively guide producers to make things the final consumers of their products would want. The state of animation was in a sense analogous to the problem of science and technology in the Soviet Union in general: excellent at the basic level, but stumbling in application.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union and its Consequences
Whatever the impact of the Soviet system may have had on animation, they were infinitely better than what came afterwards. Starting in the 1980s animation began to feel the pinch from the broader collapse of the socioeconomic system. Animation, like entertainment in general, was always a fairly low priority in terms of resource allocation, and as the problems of the Eastern Bloc mounted it was impossible that they would go unharmed. Things only got worse when radical restructuring and privatization set in.
The shock doctrine style transition to capitalism could not have gone worse for animation. This is particularly illustrated in the drama surrounding Soyuzmultfilm. With privatization, Soyuzmultfilm was turned into a leased enterprise and promptly signed a distribution and editing deal with an American company, Films by Jove. However, since expenses needed to be paid off before Soyuzmultfilm earned any income animators received effectively nothing for their work. Things got worse in 1993 when shady businessman Sergei Skulyabin was elected the new studio director, and he promptly tried to bankrupt the studio in order to sell off its film rights to a dummy company he owned. Skulyabin was removed after a revolt by the animators, but Soyuzmultfilm remained essentially defunct even after the company was taken back over by the state in 1999, since it couldn’t produce films due to legal disputes with Films by Jove. It was only in 2007 when Films by Jove agreed to sell off their distribution rights to business magnate Alisher Usmanov, who promptly donated them to a children's station, that Soyuzmultifilm returned to any sort of functionality.
This sort of thing was fairly common, and in general the era can be characterized as one in which animation projects were either shut down or became defunct. Yuri Norstein's long running project, an animated feature based on the Nikolai Gogol short story the overcoat, has been in production hell for nearly 40 years. Happy Merry-Go-Round was able to survive the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union, but it too was shuttered in 2001. As old projects shut down or fell into indefinite hiatus, new ones did little better. Hoffmaniada, a stop motion film by Mihail Chemiakin and Soyuzmultfilm, took 17 years to produce. This was not due to issues with production or creative ambitions that were impossible to realize, it was simply that the system to fund such things no long existed and hadn't been meaningfully replaced.
Faced with such bleak prospects at home, many animators in the Eastern Bloc sought out greener pastures. For example, much of the production teams from Multtelefilm emigrated to the United States where they worked for Klasky Csupo. These artists flourished in their new environment, and looking at their work at Klasky Csupo with animation from Pilot, a Russian offshoot from Multtelfilm, it's clear that their creative sensibilities had a large part in shaping the look and feel of many popular cartoons in the 90s and beyond, such as Rugrats and AAAHHH! Real Monsters. But while this was all good for the artists themselves, it did create a damaging brain drain on the domestic animation industry in Russia.
Not everything was terrible, of course. During this time there were quite a few animations that went on to win great acclaim, such as Aleksandre Petrov's 1999 film based on the Old Man and the Sea. There were more opportunities for productive collaborations with foreign animation studios. Many new studios, such as Pilot, were able to thrive in the Post-Soviet era, especially once the Eastern Bloc economies returned to relative stability. However even these silver linings were attached to very dark clouds. After winning dozens of awards for his film Aleksandre Petrov spent the next two decades struggling to fund his projects. Foreign studios brough certain opportunities, but they could also impose exploitative and anti-competitive practices that further harmed the domestic animation industry. And whatever green shoots the country enjoys are subject to the instability of the new capitalist economic system. The industry was nearly destroyed again after the 2009 financial crisis as many animation studios went bankrupt, including very nearly Pilot.
Taken as a whole, it's hard to see the period as anything other than a massive 30 year long gash in the tradition of Eastern Bloc animation, perhaps even a fatal one. While the industry did manage to recover somewhat in recent years, the dislocation was so intense that it’s debatable whether the new industry can even be considered a continuation of the old one.