An absolute must-see from the Soviet animation goldmine of the 1960’s-70’s is Polygon (released in the West as Firing Range), directed by Anatoly Petrov – again from the Soyuzmultfilm stable.
To be honest, it’s hard to single out the few (or the one) from the era’s many remarkable animations; akin to asking which gold shines the brightest. But in terms of breakthrough technique alone, 1977’s Polygon certainly stands out. For the record, it also has a solid, mature storyline taken from an anti-war novella by Sever Gansovsky that is competently executed throughout. In other words: it’s damn good whichever way you look at it.
A bold, animated step forward for Russia then, when cartoons in the West were – thanks to the Hays Code legacy – still largely “kids stuff”. Notwithstanding Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (et al) and a few other alternatives to the mainstream. Yes, Polygon is decidedly not children’s entertainment.
Remarkably, however, it is still modern today, touching as it does on the technologification of warfare, ‘sentient’ hardware (the very real prospect of autonomous drones), revenge and futility. No neatly wrapped-up happy ending in this ‘cartoon’; as a psychologically damaged military scientist showcases his latest wonder-machine, with sinister and deadly intent.
Whereas Western animations often ‘earned’ their adult tags, ‘X’ certificates or outright bans through depictions of pornography and drug use, there are no such gratuites here. If anything, both the delineated visuals and the colour palette itself are understated by comparison.
Polygon’s effect is equally two-fold. The impact of the psychological drama itself remains long after the mere 10 minute run-time has expired. Witness the lingering desert stand-off between the solitary officer and the calculating smart-tank by way of example. Then, of course, there is the remarkable visual technique employed throughout that sets the piece apart.
In a methodology known as Photographica, two cel layers were used to render each character. To my eyes: a diffuse shading layer with a detail layer on top. Sadly, Mr Petrov is no longer around to clarify this. There is also some debate as to whether rotoscoping was utilised in the production process. It certainly looks as if some scenes used the technique – it had been a Russian staple – after all, and online references to motion traced from an old Jean Gabin film add weight to the argument in favour. Either way, it works.
Also, strikingly, the animators have developed a very effective distance-blur effect as part of their process, used to forge a convincing sense of depth, even to the point of dramatic focus-pulls on the virtual camera lens. I’ll venture that it was achieved with a background layer filmed off-focus, subsequently printed and overlayed with frames of foreground action. Relatively simple if so, but again, it succeeds.
This was in 1977, remember; approximately 20 years before such depth techniques were being simulated as the latest big-thing in the world of computer based animation.
The final twist on the proceedings is in the characterisations themselves, drawn (literally) to resemble Western movie icons and celebrities in a satirical poke at war cinema from across the iron curtain. So witness; Yul Byner, the aforementioned Jean Gabin, Paul Newman, Mel Ferrer and Ringo Starr. Yes, Ringo from the Beatles is here. It’s a long way from Ivor the Engine.
Polygon won First Prize at Yerevan, USSR in 1978, also making the Official Selection in Oberhausen, Germany 1979. You really should see it.