Moving Pictures: The Little-Known History of Russian Animation: The Masters of Russian and Soviet Animation Rank among the World's Greatest Artists of the Genre. but Not Many outside the Industry Know Their Names or Have Ever Seen Their Work

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The heart of animation is almost 100 years old, and Russian animation is as old as animation itself. Wladislaw Starewicz, one of the first, and greatest, animators, was Russian. By 1912 he was making amazing films with insect-dolls--parodies of movies of that era. Stop-motion animation and trick cinematography both owe much to Starewicz, who fled revolution-devastated Russia for France in 1919.

There, in France, was another acclaimed Russian animator--the great Alexandre Alexeieff, who would later invent the "pinscreen." This was a screen stuck through with thousands of retractable pins, which allowed the fluid creation of any shape, to cast shadows with different angles of lighting. The resulting image could then be photographed and animated. Alexeieff's phantasmagoric pinscreen film, Night on Bald Mountain, set to Mussorgsky's music, is still considered by many to be an unequalled masterpiece of animation.

But this was much later, in 1933, and in France. As fur Russian animation, it did not start truly developing until some fifteen years after Starewicz's first films.

The first Soviet animators were inspired by [tie vigor, passion for experimentation, and pursuit of the form that characterized the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, be it in fine art, poetry or theater. Significantly, the first Soviet animated films--Soviet Toys and Humoresques--were made by the great filmmaker Dziga Vertov.

Some of the other young, avant-garde artists who set Soviet animation in motion were Nikolai Khodataev Mikhail Tsekhanovsky the sisters Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg and Ivan Ivanov-Vano. No matter what they filmed--short commercials for motion pictures, propaganda pieces, political caricatures, or entertainment for children--they were first and foremost searching for a new form, creating new art in accordance with the new aesthetics. One of the greatest extant films of that time, Mikhail Tsekhavovsky's The Post (1929), conveys, through its laconic graphics and impetuous editing, the energy of its era, its constructivist purity, and style.

In 1935, Alexander Ptushko made The New Gulliver, the first full-length, Soviet animated film with sound. His film combined a live actor with puppets (portraying Lilliputians). The success of Gulliver in Russia and abroad was so great that it became clear that it was time for Russia to launch its own large-scale animation studio. Walt Disney Studios had been founded in 1923 (Mickey Mouse appeared in 1928; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length American animated film, was released in 1937). So, in 1935, Soyuzmultfilm--created in the likeness of Disney Studios--was launched. Soviet animators, who had previously worked independently, were brought together in Moscow, at the new studios.

State-of-the-art technology offered directors and artists new skills and techniques. But their awe of the "perfect" Disney films was so great that, beginning in the middle of the 1930s, Russian animation largely mimicked Disney productions. Of course, Russian cartoons had their own masters and their own themes, but the promise of shining originality from the 1920s was lost. What is more, by the end of the 1930s, avant-garde and all other art forms save Socialist Realism had been stifled--Stalin's attack on formalism left behind not a single living thing.

The Disney style survived in Soviet animation through the Second World War, and was brought to perfection ill numerous retellings of fairy tales (early Soviet animation was almost exclusively targeted at children, with the exception of revolutionary and war propaganda). The technology adopted from Disney, where multiple drawings mirrored the movements of real actors, was especially popular. Characters thus moved just as if they were alive, to the delight of the viewers. But this, of course, was a dead-end for the art form.

It should be noted that, beginning in the 1930s, the nation's top actors, scriptwriters and composers were all working in animation. …