Although the volume of output from Russian animation studios was (and is) a mere fraction of that produced by facilities in America and Japan, the level of quality remains consistently high. Speaking in general terms; even works with relatively lower production values seem to consistently match the quality of those that we could consider ‘average’, like for like (if such comparisons can be made).
Additionally, these works still have something about them: a quirk, a leap in imagination, something that sets them apart. Of course, some of this is down to our relative unfamiliarity with the visual and narrative vocabulary of the culture – even their mundane may still surprise us – but often still, there is that extra creative mile travelled.
An example that springs to mind is 1981’s The Secret of the Third Planet, rendered in a cel based line-and-fill style that equates to ‘upper average’ work seen on TV here in the West, contemporaneously. But still; there is the unique twist present. Witness the character ‘Gromozeka’ for instance; who represents a design style unto his own with no equivalent here on our screens. Imagine a stripy space-suited octupoidal clown cyborg with a bulbous nose, pointed missile-eyes set in hollow, expansive sockets and a flowing green moustache. Not exactly Top Cat.
Also, the storylines are more demanding (and frankly smarter) than most Western contempories, being based upon Kir Bulychov’s expansive series of novellas featuring Alice, The Girl From Earth. Themes of scientific discovery, exploration, the environment, religious tolerance and race abound. Not bad for a mere ‘cartoon’.
As with Nu Pogodi!, here is another cultural phenomenon that we are/were completely oblivious to, whilst it swept the East and became lodged in their cultural memory. Alisa Selezneva, the main protagonist even has a Moscow alley named after her, complete with a plaque!
Yes, the Russian output may be relatively low but the hit percentage (and the creative range) seems decidedly higher, even taking off into award-sweeping outings both at home and away. Yuriy Norshteyn‘s Hedgehog In The Fog (1975) is a case in point. Produced by the ever-magnificent Soyuzmultfim Studios, it drew on various methodologies: 2D stop-motion, cel, limited animation, palette restriction, paint/lighting effects and an innovative fog technique created with out-of-focus white paper. Brilliance in simple form.
The result is a piece that is childlike in its fairytale simplicity, whilst also being haunting, threatening, dark, atmospheric and ultimately charming at the same time. It stormed the awards, winning:
- Best Animated Film – Frunze All-Union Festival 1976
- Best Animated Film – Tehran’s Children and Youth Festival 1976
- Outstanding Film of The Year – London 1977
- Third Prize Winner – Chicago 1977
- Second Prize Winner – Sydney 1978
- and incredibly: Number #1 Animated Film of All Time – Tokyo 2003
Characters from the production also graced a Russian stamp in 1988 and the Hedgehog himself now resides in statue form in the centre of Kiev, Ukraine. It all sounds like the career-accolades of a real-world, flesh and blood actor!
Director Norshteyn is also admired by none other than Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and director of the exemplary Spirited Away et al. High kudos indeed, with Hedgehog In The Fog being one of his favourite animations. Praise does not come much higher.
(Photo by Konstantinos Mavroudis)