Animating Out of Spite
Plus: global animation news and retro ads.
Welcome! We’re back with another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Thanks for tuning in. Here’s what we’re doing:
One — how Fyodor Khitruk’s outrage gave us the mini-masterpiece Othello-67.
Two — animation news from all around the world.
Three — the retro ad of the week.
Four — the last word.
We publish every Sunday and Thursday. If you’re new here, you can sign up to catch our Sunday issues for free, right in your inbox:
Now, here we go!
1. Shakespeare and Russian rage
How much can you say in under a minute? That’s a pressing question for animators — especially in the indie world. Animation tends to succeed online when it’s quick and potent. It can be frustratingly hard to hold people’s attention.
Back in the mid-1960s, animators faced the same question — for a slightly different reason.
Montreal was revving up for its famous Expo 67. Animation was a centerpiece. “Never had Montreal, or any city for that matter,” wrote Marco de Blois for Cartoon Brew, “received such a legendary array of prestigious guests working in animation from around the world.” Chuck Jones spoke. Czech master Jiří Trnka made a beautiful puppet set. The Hubleys debuted a new work. And there was a 50-second film contest.
Word that the contest was seeking international animators reached Fyodor Khitruk (Winnie-the-Pooh) of Moscow. Each film in the competition had to be “exactly 50 seconds, a time considered ‘practical’ for wide use on television and at cinemas.”1 The restriction outraged him:
Our studio [Soyuzmultfilm] received an offer to participate in the festival, which took place within the framework of this “Expo 67.” The only condition — the film is 50 seconds long. No more and no less. When we received this notification, rage took me. Why such strange conditions — 50 seconds?! I remember I got so angry that I decided to make a film.
That film was Othello-67.
Othello-67 is a manic little piece about “man and his world,” as required by the contest rules. A man drives up to a machine, inserts a coin and watches an ultra-fast version of Shakespeare’s Othello. Then he drives away, his expression blank. It takes a second to realize that Khitruk has just made a joke about the contest itself.
He’d been stewing on similar thoughts. Learning about the outside world amid the political thaw of the ‘60s, Khitruk had found “not only good, but also bad phenomena,” he said. The influence of Reader’s Digest was among the bad. While traveling, he claimed he’d come across a 15-page version of Anna Karenina.
“You could read it between two tram stops and say: ‘I read Anna Karenina,’ ” he remarked — engaging with the book just enough to pass the time, without gaining anything from it. That thought came back to him when the contest appeared:
When I was asked, “Do you want to participate?” I said, “God! What is this? After all, Shakespeare can be told in 50 seconds.” [They said,] “So tell it.” I thought, “Why not? Maybe a comic book on the theme of Othello? I suppose we could.”
And so they created what is, as the title makes clear, the 1967 version of Othello. It’s there to watch at the stoplight (a sign in the film explains that you shouldn’t waste time). This updated Othello ends in a mindless battle — one where “Othello killed everyone, whoever could be killed, everyone in the world,” Khitruk said.
Othello-67 isn’t just snide commentary on its own existence, though. It’s genuinely funny to watch this fast-forwarded take on Shakespeare — as characters appear, gesture wildly and vanish. There’s something audacious in how far it’s pushed. The art direction by Sergei Alimov is up to Khitruk’s usual high standards, too, right from the winding highway at the start.
The judges for Expo 67 took notice. There were 256 entries in the contest, live-action and animated. Othello-67 was among the few near the top, nabbing a special mention (the main prize went to Health of Man by the Czech animator Pavel Prochazka). For a satire in part about the very contest it was competing in, it did well.
Othello-67 is an obscure moment in Khitruk’s career, even in Russia. He was on a hit streak at home with films like Man in the Frame — which attacks Soviet bureaucracy. This 50-second oddity barely registers in his oeuvre. But it holds up. And, even if you don’t have time to watch Khitruk classics like Film, Film, Film, there’s always time for this.
Thanks for reading today’s cover story! Hope you’ve enjoyed. While you’re here, we recommend checking out a free preview of our latest Thursday issue. Learn about the design genius Sterling Sturtevant — and how she defined Peanuts animation:
Sturtevant has been called “the most prolific female character designer of her time.” She created the iconic version of Mr. Magoo and much more, but she remains widely unknown today. We hope you’ll check out the piece!
2. News around the world
Maya and the Three is here
On Friday, Netflix finally released Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Maya and the Three. It’s one of the most-hyped animated series of 2021. A huge level of ambition courses through every piece of it, which helps to explain the show’s great reviews so far. We’ve been enjoying it as well.
As you’ve come to expect from Gutierrez, there’s a lot in this show’s design — more than text can convey. Alongside its basis in Mesoamerican art, Gutierrez digs deep into his UPA influence from the very first scenes. The show is packed with graphic solutions (like that nose) usually reserved for 2D projects. Gutierrez even cites Basquiat, his favorite painter, as an inspiration for one character.
The design is only part of it. On all fronts, it’s rare to see a project like this. Netflix knows that formulas and low production values work well enough — Moonbug’s Cocomelon is perennially in the United States’ top 10. On its first day, Maya ranked just behind Cocomelon in the kids’ top 10 and wasn’t in the overall top 10 (Cocomelon was). Maybe change is in the air, though. Maya just beat Cocomelon on both charts.
We read a lot of complaints on Twitter about 3D animation. While we happen to like the medium, we get that some view it as stale or unimaginative. If that’s you, we recommend checking out Maya and the Three all the more. Gutierrez got the chance to do something totally new here. Depending on how it performs, we might see more investments in this type of creativity down the line.
Chinese feature I Am What I Am coming soon
On December 17, I Am What I Am hits theaters in China. It stands out among the country’s recent animated features for a few reasons. The first is its lush, pseudo-realistic visual style that drew so much attention outside China when Catsuka shared it earlier this year. The second is that it’s not a fantasy story.
I Am What I Am is about the tradition of lion dance, and a group of teenagers who get involved in it. The drama is emotional rather than epic — at a time when Chinese mythology is the almost-unavoidable theme of feature animation. There’s a growing demand for more original stories in China, which could work in the film’s favor.
What could work against it, though, is that the Chinese box office has slumped this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer is a crucial time for China’s film industry, and it went poorly in 2021. That said, I Am What I Am was originally slated to drop in August — the delay to December might help. We’ll keep an eye on it.
Best of the rest
Netflix is updating the way it calculates views to emphasize hours watched. It also plans to make its data more transparent going forward. In the same report, it called Vivo one of its biggest hits of Q3, with 46 million households tuning in.
The licensing director of Russia’s Soyuzmultfilm revealed in an interview that “50% to 70%” of the studio’s income now derives from licensing. Recently, its characters appeared on a line of juices by producer Ochakovo.
The Korean animated feature Tae-il is coming to theaters on December 1.
As the British government weighs cutbacks to children’s TV subsidies, the producer of SuperTed and Fireman Sam says that the series “would not have been made” without government support.
Kidscreen reports that The Jim Henson Company and the British studio Factory, maker of Clangers, are doing a new stop-motion series.
Held in America but open to the world, the New York International Children’s Film Festival is seeking entries. Deadlines are in November and December.
The Association for Japanese Animations has announced a 2022 release date for the Anime Encyclopedia. The project, an online database of more than 14,000 anime (over 175,000 episodes), got started in 2015.
One more from Japan — Sunrise is moving its whole operation into a single building it calls White Base, a reference to its work on Gundam. That means “over 20” studios are being centralized, per Crunchyroll.
Lastly, Cartoon Brew and The Animation Showcase are offering free access to this year’s animated shorts in the Oscar race. Animation professionals and students both qualify. Don’t miss out.
3. Retro ad of the week
Picture an animated beer commercial. While they do still exist (at least outside America), we’re a long way past the ‘50s — back when Mr. Magoo sold Stag on TV and UPA’s spots for Piels were the talk of the advertising world. The stigma of animation-as-children’s-entertainment may be dead now, but, in that era, it had barely been born.
Which brings us to today’s ad. From John Hubley at his studio Storyboard, it’s a mid-1950s commercial for National Bohemian Beer.
The story is fun — a man goes to the store for beer, gets bumped on the head and forgets the brand he’s buying. This opens the door for ingenious design by Hubley. We see the word “BOH” inside the man’s head, until the bump scrambles the letters and he starts asking for “OBH” and “HOB.” Some ad men of the day claimed that artsy ads forgot to sell the product, but Hubley’s design and sell here are perfectly in sync.
Then there’s the animation by Stan Walsh (Bop Corn, Ford “Bird”). One of Storyboard’s most creative animators, Walsh imbues the lead character with lively energy and great acting, like in the shot where the man asks for “BHO.” And there’s such a flair to the abstract effects — like the bounce of the letters in the man’s head, or the seamless way that his table and coat rack morph into a door. See how it looks below:
4. Last word
Thanks for reading! Check back next Sunday for more — and on Thursday, for members.
One last thing. Bakarmax, a comics collective in India, contacted us on Twitter this week with something we’d never seen before. It’s the animated intro to the Bollywood film Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958). We had fun watching how the animators put their own spin on the mid-century modern style — you can find it here.
Hope to see you again soon!
From the Canadian paper The Gazette (February 9, 1966).