'The Cow': Paint in Motion
On Alexander Petrov's seminal paint-on-glass film.
Happy Thursday! This issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter is about The Cow (1989) — the breakout film by director Alexander Petrov.
Petrov is the world’s best-known animator in the “paint-on-glass” style. He works on glass sheets, adjusting his paintings bit by bit (and photographing along the way) to create the illusion of movement. A Petrov film looks like an oil painting come to life. His mastery of the method helped him to win an Oscar for The Old Man and the Sea (1999), as we wrote in March.
But The Old Man and the Sea was actually Petrov’s third Oscar nomination, and the result of years of growing hype around his work. The Cow is the project that put him on the map, that defined his style and that many see as a superior film. Even Petrov once said, “I think The Cow is better — for its emotional, psychological component.”1
Set in the early Soviet Union, The Cow is the story of a young farmer boy and a cow owned by his family. It’s visually inspired by Rembrandt, with realistic characters and deep, earthy colors — and a strong emphasis on black paint. And it’s a moving, even heartbreaking watch that avoids the trap of easy sentimentality. The Cow is a film we love, and we’re excited to explore it today.
Here we go!
While often called Alexander Petrov’s first film project, The Cow wasn’t even the first film he directed — or his first time using paint on glass.2 He’d spent the ‘80s working in Soviet animation, and he came to this piece as an experienced artist.
Nevertheless, The Cow was seen even in the USSR as a kind of debut for Petrov. It was his thesis film (he was in his early 30s), and it announced the birth of a unique vision in Soviet animation. When The Cow screened at the KROK film festival in 1990, critic Mikhail Gurevich called this “living painting” a new development in the art of animation, akin to the introduction of mid-century graphics decades earlier.
As director Yuri Norstein (Hedgehog in the Fog) said in 2007:
… his first film The Cow was an immediate phenomenon. It was a diploma work and a full-fledged film at the same time, and incidentally was nominated for an Oscar. … Now that was one film which should have won, because it was in all respects a new film. Of a new psychology.
The story goes that Petrov based The Cow on a short fiction piece by writer Andrei Platonov (1899–1951). This is only partly true. In fact, The Cow was developed slowly across many versions, guided by Petrov’s mentors and teachers: Norstein and director Fyodor Khitruk (Winnie-the-Pooh). “Both of them were very attentive to this film,” Petrov said.
For Petrov, The Cow (watchable with subtitles below) started as a bare sketch of an idea for a post-graduate course. Norstein and Khitruk saw more in it — and they pushed him to make it fuller, more realized. It went from one minute to ten minutes. And it turned Petrov into the first Soviet Russian animator to receive an Oscar nomination.
Again, though: getting to that point took time. The Cow didn’t appear fully formed, and neither did Petrov. It all happened gradually.
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