After the turning point that was Khitruk’s ‘The Story of a Crime’ (1962), the shackles were decidedly off in a post-Stalin animation renaissance. The thaw had been gradual, indicative of the depth of control that the former dictator had held over the arts. Perhaps it took all of those nine years after Stalin’s death (1953) before animators realised that they were free? Well, freer at any rate; it was still Soviet Russia after all.
There had been gems along the way of course, though nothing as frankly funky as ‘Crime’ and the work that followed it. Lev Atamanov and Ivan Ivanov-Vano are two essential masters of the genre, pursuing their craft under Stalin, outliving him and flourishing with works of art that are still highly regarded today. Atamanov’s The Snow Queen (not to be confused with Ivanov-Vano’s The Snow Maiden, 1952) is a prime example. Released in 1957, it was still embedded in the Soviet tradition of the wholesome, animated fairy-tale. Its popularity was such that it headed west with an English language translation, no doubt aided by the Disney-esque style that was fast becoming the audio-visual language and template of the animated art.
In fact, The Snow Queen could almost be a Disney production, seamlessly slotting into a back-to-back screening alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The pacing, the palette, the orchestral audio track, the Cel methodology – all the boxes are ticked. Snow White had of course been released literally 20 years earlier and had exploded from its pre-release status as ‘Disney’s Folly’ into the money-spinning template for cinematic animation that endures even in today’s 3D animated epics. We have an added dimension but the formula persists in what has become normal for the genre.
No disrespect to the technical ability of those Soviet animators: Disney was what the people wanted.
Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s involvment in Soviet animation was simply vast, spanning over 30 features, initially as an animator, but subsequently in the role of director. Again; the safe, commercial territory of the converted fairy tale abounds, but not exclusively. Throwing off the disneyfication completely, his works include animations in an eerie, painterly style, the use of limited animation and characters resembling figures from Russian icons. A breath of fresh air.
Regarded as the “Patriarch of Soviet animation” by some, Ivanov-Vano was also co-founder and sometime vice president of the International Animated Film Association (Association Internationale du Film d’Animation). Created from some of world animation’s best minds in 1960, it still survives healthily today with the Hollywood chapter handing out the ‘Annie’ awards for excellence within the field of animation.
One artistic casualty of the Stalin years was puppet animation, once a Russian strong point thanks to its early pioneers, it had been abandoned in favour of Cel based 2D and rotoscoping techniques. In 1953, with Stalin fresh in his tomb, Soyuzmultfilm re-awakened this branch of the Russian animator’s art with the creation of a dedicated stop-motion division within its studios.
The initial problem was to re-discover and re-learn the techniques of the former puppet-masters whose insight and methodology had largely been forgotten within the creative arena.
An early landmark in this re-birth was Roman Kachanov’s A Cloud In Love (1959), based upon a script by the exiled Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet Ran. It features an interesting hybrid of stop motion puppetry, 2D elements and painted flat-background scenery, proving that there are no rules after all. Whatever works, works. More animation of all kinds, next time.
(Creative Commons photos)