Ukrainian Animation Is Worth Celebrating
A history of animation in Ukraine, plus animation news worldwide.
Welcome to a special issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. As always, we cover animation from around the world. Right now, though, that world is in chaos.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, an attack unprecedented in modern history, has shaken the globe. Putin’s aggression has already claimed untold innocent lives, and it threatens to destabilize Europe — and beyond.
Animation isn’t separate from that. This medium is always tangled up with culture, history and politics, both local and international. It’s not just escapism. Animators have something to say in dark times, and it matters. As Ukraine fights for its freedom, we’re celebrating the country’s huge contribution to animation, and the Ukrainian animators who’ve overcome so much.
Which brings us to our slate today:
1 — the wonderful world of Ukrainian animation.
2 — animation news, globally.
3 — the last word.
Now, let’s begin.
If you picture a country with a rich history in animation, you might think of America, Japan or Britain. And they do deserve spots on the list. But so does another country — one that’s produced more animated gems than most nations on Earth.
Ukrainian animation has existed for almost a hundred years. It began in the late 1920s, during the country’s time in the Soviet Union. As the 20th century wore on, Ukraine grew into an animation powerhouse — mostly localized in the cartoon department of Kievnauchfilm (or the Kyiv Studio of Popular Science Films).
According to two historians, the department was:
... the second-largest animation studio in the USSR after [Moscow’s] Soyuzmultfilm. It produced 150–250 minutes of film per year. Ukrainian animators rejected naturalistic tendencies, refused to follow hackneyed patterns and flatly refused to imitate. More and more films appeared, marked by the search for an original style which would reveal the individuality of the artist.1
Ukrainian cartoons had this strange lust for originality from day one, even before Kievnauchfilm’s creation.
The country’s earliest surviving animation, mostly propaganda work made in Odessa and Kyiv, is totally different from Fleischer. There’s no rubber-hose animation in sight. Instead, these shorts are full of stark Constructivist shapes, paper cutouts and hybrid techniques. You can see a few below, restored and subtitled in English:
If originality was there from the start, though, so was hardship. Not long after animation first arrived in Ukraine, the Holodomor famine hit — a genocidal result of Stalin’s policies. World War II began a few years later. It was a devastating era for Ukraine, and animation, which all but dried up, was just one casualty.
The country was battered — but it survived. And so did Ukrainian animation, which made its grand return in 1959. “Suddenly, at Kievnauchfilm,” animator David Cherkassky later recalled, “Irina Gurvich, Nina Vasilenko and Ippolit Lazarchuk decided to open an animation workshop.”
Among the founders was an artist who’d made cartoons in Kyiv during the 1930s. But many of the new animators they hired, including Cherkassky, weren’t animators — they’d trained as architects. They came to animation as outsiders. As Cherkassky said:
We simply did not know how to be professionals, and everyone was looking for their own style and path to success. Because our animation was not like anything else.
This group was the seed of a whole new school of animation. Early efforts like The May-Fairy (1961) often played it safe, but their films got inventive fast. See Nina Vasilenko’s visually stunning Marusia Bohuslavka (1966), based on a traditional ballad — or the zany hit How Cossacks Cooked Kulesh (1967).
This growing momentum led directly to Kievnauchfilm’s golden age, starting in the late ‘60s and running through the ‘80s. According to the book Animation: A World History, this era saw:
… the peak of Ukrainian animation during the Soviet period. There was an intensive search for new themes, new graphic design and new animation techniques. The studio personnel grew considerably, and the technical base and animation processes were highly developed, even by international standards. The artistic council consisted of the leading Ukrainian animators, and the Ukrainian school of animation was a significant part of world animation.
The state-funded Kievnauchfilm became the most stylistically diverse animation workshop in the USSR. And, as its artistic director, Irina Gurvich spent years “at the head of Ukrainian animation,” according to the magazine Novoye Vremya. (She was also, with films like The Young Crane, one of the studio’s best film directors.)
This new Ukrainian school was typified by “a connection with literature, pictorial art and folklore,” per Animation: A World History. Many of its films adapted books or old stories, and they drew from art of all kinds. It was a wild few decades.
Internationally, the most famous Kievnauchfilm projects from this time might be Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, both from the early ‘80s. These are ultra-ambitious TV productions (available with subtitles here and here) that stick close to Lewis Carroll’s stories — especially their dreamlike qualities.
The Alice cartoons are unapologetic in their weirdness. They break rules — even the design for Alice was odd enough to anger the higher-ups. (“The artists were scolded for this character,” recalled the production designer.) These projects also feature a hallmark of golden-age Ukrainian animation, which is that they switch mediums at will. Each scene jumps between cel animation, stop-motion and even live recordings.
A few years before, the Ukrainian series Adventures of Captain Wrongel (1976–1979) had done the same thing. Sometimes, the characters are cel-animated. Other times, they’re stop-motion paper cutouts. Live-action footage replaces many of the backgrounds. “The picture is crammed with avant-garde techniques,” noted one paper, “which did not prevent it from becoming mega-popular with audiences of all ages.”
These are just a few of the countless classics that Kievnauchfilm generated during its golden age — all with different styles, tones and philosophies.
It was a time when an atmospheric piece like The Meeting could co-exist with something as mind-bending as Laziness. There were stop-motion films made out of folded paper (White Arena), and cel animation that pulled off a super-shaded look way before Klaus (The Death of a Government Clerk). A project like We Are Women can’t even be summed up in a tidy way.
Ukraine became an epicenter for Soviet cartoons. David Cherkassky, for example, helped to train legends of Russian animation like Igor Kovalyov (Hen, His Wife) and Alexander Tatarsky.
Cherkassky was also behind Treasure Island (here and here). Released in the mid-to-late ‘80s, it’s one of the best-loved cartoons in Slavic countries. It’s a madcap comedy whose animation and humor feel years ahead of their time (they’re interspersed with bizarre live-action musical numbers). Treasure Island memes persist online to this day.
When Treasure Island came out, the Soviet Union was crumbling. (It would fall in 1991.) But, while animation usually suffered in post-Soviet republics, it thrived at first in the newly democratic Ukraine. Per Animation: A World History:
… the new social situation opened opportunities for creativity. Ukrainian animated filmmakers had accumulated great experience (the greatest in the area, after Moscow’s Soyuzmultfilm). In the first half of the 1990s, the government still provided the necessary conditions for regular work. There was a blossoming of activity, especially among the new generation of animation directors.
Kievnauchfilm’s animation department was renamed Ukranimafilm. In 1994, it was joined by the rival company Borysfen-Lutes — the first non-government, for-profit animation studio in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s wild creativity continued for most of the 1990s, and in some cases got more extreme. Captain Tussy defies any attempt to categorize its visual style. Irina Smirnova’s The Insolent Goat offers up a whole different kind of painted animation. But problems arose toward the end of the decade. Animation: A World History again:
The promising situation descended into a protracted crisis from the late 1990s, due to the reduction and then the almost complete cessation of government financing. The offices of Ukranimafilm studio were gradually deserted. The best and most experienced professionals left to work in the US, Russia, Poland, Hungary, France, and elsewhere.
And yet hardship had been there from the earliest days. Ukrainian animation once again found ways to survive.
During the 2000s, Ukranimafilm limped along. It put out respected pieces like the claymation cartoon The Tram Number 9 Goes, the powder-based Snow Will Cover the Tracks and the stylistically unplaceable Save and Keep. More independent studios grew, like Novatorfilm — a company specializing in bright claymation work.
Since then, the fight for Ukrainian animation has continued. Independent studios have taken on more importance. Novatorfilm produced a popular series called My Country Ukraine in the early 2010s. The Kyiv-based Animagrad scored a box-office hit with its feature film The Stolen Princess (2018), backed by government cash.
After a long struggle, the industry is reappearing. Public funding has been the key. In early 2019, The Ukrainian Week reported that the “majority of animated films” in Ukraine are now backed by government bodies, most of them formed in the 2010s.
The result is that animation in Ukraine is starting to win again. “According to our information, currently there are more than thirty different animated films being produced in Ukraine,” the magazine reported. The state-financed feature Viktor_Robot (2020) is a recent example of how powerful Ukrainian animation is getting. It looks great, and it premiered after an ambitious, years-long production.
If 2022 is proving anything, it’s that the Ukrainian spirit is indomitable. That’s true of its animators, too. Ukrainian animation has one of the best back catalogs in the world — and, if it continues to get the support it deserves, its future is looking bright.
2. Global animation news
What does the invasion mean for animators?
All of that said — right now, Ukrainian animators are facing their biggest trial since World War II: a massive invasion by Russia. You’ve seen the pictures. You know what’s going on. Now, we’re looking at how this crisis touches the animation world.
Most animation in Ukraine is still located in Kyiv, which is under siege. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times managed to interview the Kyiv-based animation producer Olga Zhurzhenko, who fled to Odessa to escape the Russian attack. She and her team worked on Loving Vincent, and they’re in the middle of animating another film with the same technique. As she said:
We physically had to stop doing the animation right now because we cannot move our work online because we have physical canvases, physical paint, physical brushes, physical cameras that are shooting what painters are painting. So the painters went home to their families.
The Los Angeles Times asked whether the invasion had disrupted her own plans. “You will be surprised, but it hasn’t been affecting my work,” Zhurzhenko replied. “So this week was big because the state film agency has their deadline for applications for production financing, and yesterday I [submitted] three applications.”
As Russia’s attacks on Kyiv continue, it’s still unclear what the damage will be to the animation industry. Zhurzhenko said on Friday that, if things get bad enough, the Polish studio in charge of her latest project has offered to shelter the team.
Ukraine isn’t the only country with an animation scene affected by the invasion, though. There’s also Russia, where public support for the war is weak — especially among artists — and sanctions could potentially bottom out the industry.
On Thursday, the Russian Animated Film Association (AAKR) published an open letter opposing the invasion. It’s been signed by well over 800 figures in Russian, Ukrainian and even Belarussian animation.
The first signature on the list is Leonid Shvartsman’s. He’s 101 years old — and one of the most significant living cultural figures in Russia, thanks to his contributions to films like Cheburashka, The Snow Queen and more. In a statement published in 2020, Putin himself wrote that Shvartsman is “rightfully considered the patriarch of the national school of animation.” Shvartsman’s word counts.
And he’s far from the only luminary here. Also present are Yuri Norstein (Hedgehog in the Fog), Garri Bardin (Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood) and Igor Kovalyov. Newer voices like Sasha Svirsky (Vadim on a Walk) turn up, too. Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s presence on the list is a given — he’s a lifelong radical, whose art got him sentenced to forced military duty in the Soviet era.
You can read the AAKR’s English translation of its letter below:
We’re convinced that war brings nothing but death, pain and destruction. And nothing can justify it. The animation community of Ukrainian and Russian animation filmmakers is united and inseparable, we have been working together, watching each other’s films for many years. The art of animation is also an art, that helps people feel like people. Not to kill, not to destroy. To unite.
And today our children, brothers are sent to kill those with whom they recently played in the same yard and watched the same cartoons, without distinguishing whether they are Russian or Ukrainian ones.
Animation and art in general have always been imbued with anti-war spirit. We believe that today’s military actions are directed not just our Ukrainian friends and colleagues, but against all people, humanity and Man as a whole.
We are against war. We want the words about the brotherly people not to turn in a bloody nightmare.
There is no excuse for bombing and killing!
As of this writing, the Russian film and TV industry is still free to do business with the West — although the Ukrainian Film Academy “has called for an international boycott,” per The Hollywood Reporter. Still, the broader economic sanctions will damage Russian animation.
It’s too soon to say exactly how bad, or how far-reaching, that damage will be. There are tremors already. Russian animator Vlad Eskov, who opposes the war and runs the awesome Twitter account Eastern Cartoons Out of Context, has tweeted that he might be affected. He freelances for the American series Helluva Boss, and the SWIFT situation could prevent its team from paying him.
We’ll keep an eye on the news as it develops.
3. Last word
Thanks for reading today’s issue. If you’re new here and you’d like to receive the Animation Obsessive newsletter in your inbox each week, you can sign up below:
One last thing. This week has been a dark one, but we had a small moment of reprieve on Wednesday, when the long-running BlenderNation shouted out our chat with animator Ian Worthington. A contributor named Gabriel Montagné Láscaris-Comneno wrote:
Animation Obsessive published a very cool interview with Ian Worthington (Worthikids) on using Blender for 2D and 3D shorts. It has excellent tips and behind-the-scenes images.
You can find the interview here.
See you again soon!
From the writing of authors Giannalberto Bendazzi, Elena Shupik and Elena Kasavina in Animation: A World History — we rely on it many times in the piece.