Sunday, October 06, 2013

Peter Bagrov, Sergei Kapterev: Soviet Silent Animation (2013 Pordenone introduction)

Peter Bagrov, Sergei Kapterev
Cartoni animati sovietici / Soviet Silent Animation

The development of the Soviet animated film started in Moscow – the capital of the USSR since 1922, the new centre of political and economic power, and, incidentally, the former workplace of the great, and unique for pre-revolutionary Russia, animation master Władysław Starewicz. The search for new means of political and social propaganda which could reach the broadest circles of the population, as well as the drive for commercial profitability brought about by the temporary return, via the Bolsheviks’ “New Economic Policy”, of some elements of the capitalist economy, led to the growth of investment into the badly shattered film industry, and consequently to efforts towards diversifying Soviet cinema in accordance with new requirements.

The animated medium became one of the beneficiaries of this development. While the early 1920s were characterized by mixed attitudes to animation, which was primarily viewed as something apart from the cinema proper and was used almost exclusively for the purposes of propaganda (most notably, by Dziga Vertov’s collective), educational cinema, and commercial advertising (which provided additional jobs for filmmakers and attracted fresh artistic forces), the second part of the decade was a time of expansion for the Soviet film industry and film market, witnessing a new confidence in the capabilities of the animated film, both among Moscow filmmakers and studios (particularly the German-financed Mezhrabpom-Rus), and, most importantly, the appearance of animated films aimed at children’s audiences. This rapidly brought Moscow-produced drawn animation and, a bit later, stop-frame animation to higher conceptual and technical levels, making an important contribution to the first golden age of Soviet animated film.

Moscow’s position as the capital of Soviet animation was regularized in 1936 by uniting all the little groups scattered among various film companies into a major studio, Soyuzmultfilm (literally, Union Animated Film).

Yet other centres of Soviet filmmaking contributed to animation also – primarily Leningrad. Throughout the 1920s and even the 1930s the main difference between Moscow and Leningrad animation remained unchanged: the Muscovites were concerned with Motion, whereas the key word for the Leningrad style should be “Graphics”.

Though several years behind the West, Moscow tried its best to keep in step with the times. As soon as they learned the basics, the majority of animators there shifted from paper cut-outs to stop-motion hand- drawn technique, and later to cels. They were eager to adopt Disney’s assembly-line methods and rotoscoping. With each upgrade Soviet animation became more and more dynamic. Leningraders stuck to jointed paper cut-outs. These “flat-figure marionettes” (the Russian term for two-dimensional animated cut-out figures) were limited in motion and spatial placement on the screen. On the other hand, freed of the need to redraw the same figure thousands of times, animators were able to attain detailed and expressive graphics of high quality. There was a reason for this diversity. Leningrad was famous for its culture of book graphics – particularly in the realm of children’s literature. Considering – a concept way ahead of its time – that children are more likely to fall for a striking form rather than accurate naturalism, the famous “Detgiz” (Children’s State Publishers) recruited avant-garde poets and artists. At first this meant no more than extra earnings, but in the 1930s, when the avant-garde fell victim to anti- formalistic campaigns, children’s literature became a safe haven of which it was only sensible to take advantage. From the mid-1920s until the late 1940s more than a dozen established avant-garde artists, almost all of whom had years of experience working in book design, turned to animation. Most flashed through leaving no evident trace, but a few stayed in the new medium for a lifetime.

A few other Republics also deserve a share in the history of Soviet animation. Belorus is a special case, since it had no film facilities whatsoever, and its Belgoskino studios were situated… in Leningrad. Which evidently made all Belorus film-making, including animation, little more than a branch of the “Leningrad School”. Georgia also released animation – mostly agit-prop – regularly, thanks to the efforts of a single director, Lado Mudzhiri (1907-1953), although for almost a decade its graphic and cinematic quality remained remarkably primitive, considering the European level of Georgian avant-garde art of the time. Azerbaijan produced a single reel of animation in 1935, but practically nothing is known of this except its title, Beda Abbasa (Abbas’ Misfortune).

Ukraine certainly deserves a special paragraph, even though it’s difficult to judge the little that survives. The animation unit of the VUFKU film trust was organized in Kyiv as early as 1926 by Yevgenii Makarov, a former Leningrad film actor. Makarov and his followers were mostly engaged in making trailers and animation inserts for newsreels (predominantly maps and diagrams) or, occasionally, for feature films. The lonely figure of Viacheslav Levandovskii (1897-1962) stands out. He brought the technique of the “flat-figure marionette” to a level far beyond his Russian contemporaries. In his children’s films he based the animation action on live-action film, thus not only introducing the rotoscope technique to Soviet cinema but becoming one of the very few animators in the world who combined rotoscope with paper cut-outs. His other serious achievement is a series of experiments in “absolute film” – the first and basically last in the Soviet Union. Both his abstract “visual symphonies” and refined fairy-tales are lost. Judging from the rare photographs and enthusiastic reviews of these films, this may be the most serious loss in the history of Soviet animation.

Peter Bagrov, Sergei Kapterev (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2013, introduction)

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