The onset of the Russian Revolution saw an exodus of creative, film industry talent that spread out and away, through Crimea into Europe and beyond. This, coupled with early communist disinterest in this fledgling visual medium brought Russia’s animation industry to a grinding halt – the wilderness years – until the mid to late 1920’s. Pioneering communists have better things to think about, outside of patronage of the arts, after all. Ironic then that the communist era would come to utilise such bourgeois pursuits so effectively in promoting the dream of a future Russia that was never to be. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
Gradually, new experimental animation facilities, the avante garde, became established, initially as dedicated wings of larger production studios, once the ‘mileage’ of the art form started to became apparent. It’s great for punchy propaganda shorts after all.
Do you find that the most exciting time for a creative movement occurs before the ‘rules’ get written, before expectations and vested interests settle in and before the original spirit leaves by the back door? I certainly believe that there is a good deal of truth in that. Whilst the authorities were perhaps unsure of where (and how) to take a new medium that had yet to define itself, the experimental animators of the new Russian era could indulge themselves creatively in what were essentially groups of enthusiast practitioners, defining and broadening their art as they went.
Each movement has it’s leading lights, and with this second-wave of Soviet animation, Aleksandr Ptushko was certainly one of them. Referred to as the ‘Soviet Walt Disney’, this accolade both acknowledges his status as an innovator, whilst distorting his contribution to the art. He created the first Soviet animated feature film: The New Gulliver (1935), which in fact utilised live-action, stop-motion animation and mechanical puppets, making it something of a hybrid – yes, one area of innovation was obviously not enough for Ptushko. The production included 3000 puppets capable of speaking/emoting via interchangeable ‘expression’ heads, and a life-size puppet double for the boy Gulliver, allowing a complex animated interaction to take place (as can be seen in this short youtube clip). The result must have been mind-blowing in the 1930’s – a Russian Star Wars of its time.
Disney on the other hand was becoming the king of 2D cel animation: essentially painting the motion elements of scene, one frame at a time, over a (usually) fixed background. That’s 24 images for each second of footage, rendered onto transparent celluloid/cellulose-acetate sheet. On ‘cheap’ productions, animators may paint every 2nd frame of motion and hold it for two frames, but I digress.
Disney would release the first feature-length cel animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, sending the animation world cel-crazy in the process and setting a precedent that dominated until the modern CG animation takeover. The studio’s work had already reached Russia the year before, when Mickey Mouse made his Soviet debut at the Moscow Film festival. Audiences were wowed by the fluidity and vibrancy of this American 2D ‘cartoon’, and Ptushko’s puppet-rich hybrid 3D method was set to be edged ignominiously off centre stage in the following years. Best not call him the Russian Walt Disney then, yes?
In 1935 Soyuzdetmultfilm Studio was born when the Russian powers that were, decided to set up a dedicated cel facility, inspired by – and committed to following – the “Disney” method. This method incidentally had already been patented by Earl Hurd and J.R. Bray in 1914. Credit where credit’s due. Who to head this new Soviet studio? None other than the new golden boy of Russian Animation: Aleksandr Ptushko of course. A happy ending? Not quite; the political/artistic movement of Soviet Realism had already begun to stir.
More next time.