The centennial of Russian Animation (Episode I: from 1912 until 1940)
This year Russian animation celebrates its centennial. As a tribute, RBTH is featuring short clips of pioneering films by Russia’s masters (starting from 1912 to 1940).
The first 30 years of the industry was a rich era of great innovation that is little known outside Russia—watch the first part of our series, and the magic will reveal itself. One of the first things you may notice is that these films, from the avant-garde to Soviet propaganda, were directed to adults as well as children.
In the 1990s, film historians discovered that the first Russian animator was Aleksander Shiryaev (1867-1941), the ballet master of the Mariinsky Theater. Russian director Viktor Bocharov stumbled upon the films of the ballet master, who taught Balanchine at the Mariinsky. “You don’t have to be a ballet fan to appreciate the technique that Shiryaev pioneered at the dawn of Russian filmmaking,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times. He created the world’s first-ever puppet-animated film (1906), which showed 12 dancing figures. In one scene alone, historians record the puppets in more than 7,000 different positions.
Vladislav (Ladislas) Starevich was a biologist who began to explore ways of using his embalmed insects on film. His short, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1) is a warm-hearted but edgy comedy about a family of cockroaches. His film “The Beautiful Leukanida,” another fractured fairy-tale of the insect kingdom, was seen and heralded outside of Russia. Starevich became famous for his world of puppet-like (as well as life-like but presumably dead) insects who cooked, dreamed, drank, and made films, all with the use of wires.
Animation took a hiatus during and after the turbulent era of the Communist Revolution. But by the late 1920s, the Soviet Union became known for its large studios, which included schools of animation. One of the most remarkable films of that time is “Soviet Toys” (2) by Dziga Vertov and "THE Interplanetary Revolution" (3) by Zenon Komissarenko, Youry Merkulov and Nikolai Khodataev. Both were made in 1924 and were fueled by the fever and propaganda of early Soviet reforms. (An online reviewer called “Interplanetary Revolution” a blend of Bolshevik ideology and H.G. Wells science fiction. One of the best moments shows capitalist vampires draining workers of their blood.)
Not all animated films were so politically charged. Youry Zheliabuzhsky, Nikolai Bartram in 1927 created a spare comedy called "The Ice Rink" (4), a whimsical look at a series of social blunders on the ice.
Ivan Ivanov-Vano, who is considered to be one of the most significant directors in the history of Russian animation, created in 1933 a film "Black and White" (5) with the help of Leonid Amalrick. The hard-hitting piece is an effort, through animation, to examine under a harsh light the history of blacks in America, especially the South. The animated short focused on repeating images of discrimination, lynching, imprisonment and execution.
In 1932, the congress of Soviet writers proclaimed that writers should work within the genre of Socialist realism. Avant-garde animation was diminished and aesthetic experiments were off the agenda. For the next twenty or more years, Soyuzmultfilm, as the studio was called after 1936, became the leading studio in the Soviet Union, producing an ever-growing number of children's and educational animation shorts and features.
While some of the spirit of the founding years never returned, Soviet animation was not without experimentation. It also developed its own trajectory and singular beauty quite different from American and European schools of animation.
Aleksandr Ptushko was educated as an architect and worked as a mechanical engineer; he invented an adding machine that was used in the Soviet Union until the 1970s. When he joined the puppet animation unit of Mosfilm in the late 1920s, he found an ideal environment to merge his mechanical and artistic ambitions. He became internationally renowned with the Soviet Union’s first full-length animation film released in 1935 called "The New Gulliver" (6) This film mixes puppet animation with live acting. Jonathan Swift’s novel has a more communist bent here, and Gulliver’s operatic rhetoric can be hard to bear - though the Lilliputians giggle and faint at his antics.
The animation itself is magnificent, featuring hundreds of puppets. Their faces are deeply expressive in close-ups, and Ptushko provides highly detailed moments—like when the young tavern maids faint at the sight of Gulliver and must be revived with water. The film brought Soviet cinematography to new heights. Ptushko became the first director of the newly founded animation film studio for children, but soon after left to devote himself to live-action cinema.
After his emigration following the October revolution, animation in Russia for years came to a standstill. Only by the late 1920s Soviet authorities could be convinced to finance experimental studios. These were typically a part of a bigger film studio and were in the beginning most often used to produce short animated clips for propaganda.