I’ve still got a job to finish regarding Soviet animation. We’ve had a few weeks of diversion with features on Borscht, Vodka and China, but now it’s time to finish what we started on Alexandr Tatarskiy back in Animated Russia #19. Just to recap: Tartarskiy was years (literally) ahead of the Soviet working model by founding Russia’s first independent animation studio in 1988 whilst the CCCP was still in existence. This venture pre-empted the inevitable business model that was forced into being with the collapse of Russian communism, namely: “you’re on your own, ‘better make it pay”.
After training at Goskino USSR, he started his animation career in 1968 with Kiev Science Film (he was of Ukrainian Jewish descent), his second break arrived 10 years later whilst part of Studio Ecran. He designed animation segments for the 1980 Russian Olympics – the original recipients of the task had failed to come up with anything interesting, so Tatarskiy stepped in to great acclaim. This win prompted Ecran to accept his role as director on any project of his own choosing – an enviable position for any writer/animator/director. Plasticine Crow was the lauded result (featured in Animated Russia #19).
By the time of the impending Soviet collapse, Tatarskiy was part of the renowned Soyuzmultfilm studio. Out of both necessity and opportunity he decided to act, branching out into an approaching free-market with the full control and responsibility of a studio head. An astonishing feat considering the magnitude of the role and the fact that there had been no self-employed entrepreneurs in the Soviet Union for 70 years – almost living memory. With some re-formatting Soyuzmultfilm survived the collapse but Tartarskiy was already on his way.
Whatever his strategy, it certainly worked. Tartarskiy’s Pilot studios are still in existence today, collecting awards like most of us collect small change. A reported 600 from various festivals et al, over the years. Personally, he also received the State Prize of the Russian Federation of Arts (1998) in recognition of his achievements up to that point.
Selecting items from the Pilot back catalogue would be no mean feat – even if I had access to it in the first place! However, a definite point of note would be the expansive Mountain of Gems series broadcast on Russian TV from 2006 – 2010, and then again from 2012 onwards. That’s 13 hours of viewing, broken down into either 40 or 62 episodes depending on whom you ask. Yes, I’m looking at an independent page containing 62 entries for the series, whilst the official Pilot page mentions only 40. They should know, right? OK, so where are the other 22 from? Possibly in extra material or simply ‘split’ episodes. Regardless, the point is: they made a lot … enough to make Mountain of Gems the largest project in the history of Russian animation.
Another interesting aspect of the series is that it revisits the standard territory of communist-regulated animators; that of Russian folk tales. Originally these amounted to a safe, non-contentious, non-threatening arena in which state-tethered creatives could securely play, whilst expounding ‘traditional’, ‘approved’ values.
Now with hindsight, the motives may seem dubious – particularly if the role of the artist is to shock or challenge – but nonetheless the result is an expansive cultural document, crystallised in cel and representing a unique insight into Russian tradition, now preserved for all time.
The whole venture nearly became an albatross around the studio’s neck however, when after committing major resources – and four years of work – to the colossal task, the Russian TV commissioners of the series abruptly cut the funding in 2010 due to the global financial crisis. Thankfully the studio survived and the series continued in 2012, but it makes you think about what the word independent really means, both on paper and in reality.
Another notable series from the Pilot archives would be the Kolobki Brothers, later renamed The Pilot Brothers who first appeared in the 1987’s Investigation held by Kolobki, and who are officially ‘big in Russia’, even to the point of becoming virtual TV hosts.
With the briefest glance, milestones come tumbling out of Tatarskiy’s and Pilot’s collective career history; see the Guinness Book of Records entry for the longest running animation (that’s frequency over time rather than length) with the beginning/ending bumpers for the show Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi! (Good Night Children!) still running daily after 25 years!
He also gave back to Russian animation by establishing Pilot as a training school for animators (as well as being commercial endeavour), and by forming The Open Russian Festival of Animated Film (1996 onwards) as a focal point for Russian animators scattered when the Soviet State (and its funding of the arts) ceased to exist.
Outside of his own endeavours, he also took on active roles with the KROK International Festival, the Union of Russian Scriptwriters, the Russian Film Makers Union and the Russian Film Academy.
Further to his 1998 award, Tartarskiy would also collect the Honoured Arts Worker of Russia accolade, the Nika laureate and the State Premio of Russian Federation laureate in the field of “literature and arts”. A true giant of Soviet and post-Soviet creativity.
Sadly he is no longer with us, although his studio, his work and legacy survives him. Alexsandr Mikhaylovich Tartarskiy died in his sleep of heart failure, at home on 22 July 2007. He was 56 years old, an appallingly young age to die. The subsequent announcement on the Pilot website read as follows:
“Dear friends, colleagues, and those who love animation…
We have suffered a great loss.
Our leader has left this life.
The soul of our studio.
Our Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Tatarskiy.
There are no words yet. They will come later.
But works have been done. And are. And will be.
And a there is great sense of gratitude for everything.
For the fact that we are in this profession. For the fact that we have not grown up, or have not grown up fully. For the joyous feeling of freedom that was granted to us by our Chief.
It is difficult to say what you feel, when the atmosphere which you have breathed disappears. Of course, we will continue to live and work, and to create in a way that we will not ashamed before our Teacher.
And still, there must be some time to accept this Loss and calmly think about what to do next.
Thank you to all who responded and mourn with us”.
Sorry if I have missed anything, Alexsandr.