The death of Stalin in 1953 marked a turning point in Russia’s history that would see the creative direction of animation ultimately change and achieve a higher degree of freedom. In the chaos and uncertainty that surrounded Stalin’s death, such things were almost certainly farthest from the minds of the Soviet population.
Stalin had become Russia and the all-encompassing Father of the Peoples. His word was law, his word was all. Russia had survived Hitler and experienced victory in WWII under Stalin’s rule, yet twenty million of his own subjects had died on home ground as a result of famine and his infamous purges. Compare this figure to the twenty-five million deaths (approximately) that represent the last estimate of Russian WWII casualties – by all causes – and we get an image of the sheer magnitude of Stalin’s power as Father and Grim Reaper combined. Mourners openly wept at his passing and 500 died in the crush to catch a glimpse of Stalin lying in state.
Dictators do tend to leave quite a political vacuum behind them after shuffling off their mortal coils. Emerging victorious from the inevitable power struggle that followed Stalin’s departure was Nikita Khrushchev, who had supported and assisted in Stalin’s Purges both in Russia and in the Ukraine. Krushchev approved literally thousands of arrests during his time in office during Stalin’s leadership. So, business as usual then, in the wake of his recently departed leader? Well, not so: Khrushchev’s political stance would be reversed during the years of de-Stalinisation; part of Khrushchev’s Thaw, as it came to be known.
Meanwhile over in the animators studios, change was a slow but resolute juggernaut, carefully feeling its way into new creative freedoms (relatively speaking). No longer a slave to the confines of Soviet Realism’s rotoscoping method (known locally as “Éclair”, incidentally) animation started to change noticeably from the early 1960’s onwards. Yes, it took a while.
An early milestone in the thaw was undoubtedly Fedor Khitruk‘s The Story of a Crime, which is a remarkable piece of art, frankly; similar in style to the work of UPA (United Productions of America), the creators of Mr Magoo. The story abandons the safe narratives and imagery of familiar folk tales in favour of a modern urban setting and original script. Explanatory events leading up to the crime committed in the opening scene are shown after the fact, detailing the cause behind the effect. Interesting enough, especially for its era, but the abandonment of Éclair’s realism in favour of UPA’s limited animation style views like a prisoner throwing off his shackles!
Every scene is a minimalist triumph of hard lines, bold blocks of colour and solid composition. Naive, simplistic characters and flat fills of texture share screen space with real-world photo objects and on occasion, imported film. It’s really something, and a resolutely flat, 2D-world alternative to the literal styles of Disney and others. The effect is one of expressionism and abstraction, with casual disregard for the rules of POV and conventional perspective. But even after setting the stage for their 2D side-on world, the animators still throw in the odd 3D bone as if to say: “Yeah, we can do that too if we like; there are no rules”.
A key feature of limited animation is economy, through the re-use of scene and setting, as well as the animated elements themselves. The Story of a Crime is exemplary in this effect and survives with a voice of its own, rather than as an also-ran to the output of UPA.
An arm may need to move to express a character’s point within a scene, whereas the whole body may not. The presentation is clean, angular and even mechanistic – unapologetically so – whilst at the same time always immersive and engaging.
More liberties are taken with time and motion, and the appearance and disappearance of elements, but it all works. The viewer almost waits with anticipation for the next ingenious, economical form of abstraction to be revealed, and it is. Over and over.
After all of this praise, you will see Khitruk’s work and think “Sure, it’s a style. I’ve seen it before, what’s the big deal?” And that is just how influential and pervasive the limited animation style has become. It’s abstraction has reached so far into our culture, shaping and enriching its creative output until ultimately, it has become normal.