Death of an icon
One of the most notable people in the Russian animation community, Aleksandr Tatarskiy, died this Sunday in his sleep at the age of 56 of heart failure.
Tatarskiy was born on Dec. 11, 1950 in Kiev. In 1974, he graduated from the Kiev Government Institute of Theatre and Film named after Karpenko-Karago, majoring in all four of the fields at the institute: journalism, film criticism, editing and scriptwriting. He also graduated from the specialized courses for artist-animators at Goskino in 1975.
He started his career in animation in 1968 at the studio Kievnauchfilm (Kiev Science Film). Back then, Tatarskiy had little hope of getting a chance to direct his own film; traditionally, animators only got the chance at directing after they had grown old at the studio. However, he got his big break in 1978. A number of animated segments had to be made for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow (one for each type of sport), but the people making them couldn't seem to make anything interesting. Tatarskiy learned of the problems while visiting Moscow and boasted that he could do it "using my left hand". His boast was put to the test, and he was left in Moscow to fix all of the segments. After he managed to do this, his grateful bosses at studio Ecran gave him the opportunity to direct any film of his choosing as a reward.
The result was a classic of Soviet animation, "The Plasticine Crow" (1981), with music by Gennadiy Gladkov and words by Eduard Uspenskiy (a famous children's writer):
This was a satirical version of a well-known folk tale, which traditionally goes something like this: a crow finds a piece of cheese, a wily fox comes along and praises the crow, the crow opens her mouth to show off her beautiful voice, and the cheese falls to the ground, whereupon the fox snatches it. This was also the first use of clay painting in Russia, a technique invented by American animator Joan Gratz just a year earlier. The film was initially banned for "ideological emptiness". It was saved by the directors of the tv program "Kinopanorama", Ksenia Marinina and Eldar Ryazanov. Despite the ban, they included "The Plasticine Crow" into the program along with a segment about how it was made. Since no-one was fired after this, the next day the cartoon was shown on all channels and became very famous.
His second work was a segment for the nightly show "Good Night, Children", which was watched, then and now, by millions of Russian kids right before bedtime (myself included). Over a quarter century after Tatarskiy created it, the segment is still used to open and close the show:
A number of famous and award-winning works followed, and Tatarskiy explored animation mediums other than plasticine. "The Koloboks Investigate", directed together with Igor Kovalyov, was released in 4 parts between 1986 and 1987:
In 1986, Tatarskiy became the first Soviet director to produce animation for a western client (for Ted Turner's TBS).
In 1988, Tatarskiy founded Pilot Studio, the first privately-owned Soviet animation studio. From the very beginning, Pilot held a place as one of the most important studios in Russia, a position which it holds to this day. Here's one of its early films (director Rinat Gazizov):
Ironically, given the circumstances of its creation, Pilot Studio in the 1990s picked up the torch which had been unceremoniously dropped (and nearly extinguished) by the former juggernaut of Russian animation, Soyuzmultfilm. Conditions at Soyuzmultfilm deteriorated rapidly throughout the 1990s, until finally it resembled a criminal extortion scheme more than it did an actual studio. Working conditions became impossible. To understand the significance of this, consider that all Russian animators (and animation directors) were taught their craft at the studios at which they worked. With the collapse of Soyuzmultfilm, there was no place for people to learn animation. Fortunately, Pilot Studio stepped up and began providing free courses, training the next generation (students were often instructed directly by Tatarskiy).
The break-up of the major studios also caused animators in Russia to become isolated from each other, and peer evaluation became very difficult. In response to this need, Tatarskiy founded the Open Russian Festival of Animated Film in 1996 and has been its president ever since. Since its inception, it has been the most important animation festival in Russia and has been key in keeping the Russian animation community connected (another great part has been played by LiveJournal; many Russian animators have LJ accounts). The Russian animation community remains about as closed-off as it was in the days of the Soviet Union, and throughout the years many great works have premiered and won top prizes at this festival which have not made their way outside of Russia's borders.
One of the most ambitious projects in contemporary Russian animation was begun by Pilot Studio in 2004, and is called Mountain of Gems (official website). The plan was to make 52 animated films of 13 minutes each, each one based on a folktale of a different ethnic group in Russia (Russia has over 100 ethnic groups within its territory). Part of the funds would come from the government as part of its program to reduce extremism in Russian society (which is a real problem). It is generally agreed in Russia that a great way to reduce extremism is to foster tolerance among children, and animation has historically played a great role in doing this. So far, 27 films have been made, but even before Tatarskiy's death funding was becoming more and more difficult to get. Each film starts with a short segment using Tatarskiy's signature clay painting technique describing the culture in question. You can see a collection of them over here (10mb).
A glimpse of the impact that Tatarskiy's studio and vision have had on Russian society can be seen here. That was last year. Pilot Studio was cleaning out its archives, and from what I heard, "all of Moscow" showed up at the dumpster behind their lot on a scavenger hunt for souvenirs of their youth. They had to be quick, though, because the garbage collection service came that very night (the first time it came, people refused to let it pass).
Tatarskiy managed to accomplish a great deal, yet he left many unfinished projects behind him. One of the biggest, and closest to his heart, was a feature film called "Train Arrival" which was one of the main reasons for founding Pilot Studio. Work on the scenario began in 1986, and the film slowly began to take shape over the years, while at the same time the country grew more and more unstable. Those who saw the unfinished work (including such eminent animators as Yuriy Norshteyn, Fyodor Khitruk and Eduard Nazarov) spoke very highly of it. Then Igor Kovalyov decided that he wanted to move to the West, and persuaded Tatarskiy to let him direct a film, telling him that once he would be in the West he would no longer get a chance to make auteur films. Work on "Train Arrival" (which had by then reached roughly 40 minutes) was stopped, and the films "Hen, His Wife" (1989) and "Andrey Svistoskiy" (1991) were made (you can see clips over here), and went on to win international awards. After that, Kovalyov left and began making auteur films in the West (in the words of Tatarskiy, "in one sense I suffered a huge loss, but it taught me experience as a producer"). And after that, the Soviet Union collapsed and there was no longer any money to finish "Train Arrival".
10 years later, when Pilot Studio was moving to a new location, some of the materials for the film were put into a warehouse... which quickly flooded. They were carefully taken to the new location and laid out to dry. After several days, the water pipe in the new building burst and they were once again drenched with water. To this day, the materials for the film (many of which are now moldy) are kept at the studio, and many of them have been scanned. But it is unlikely that they will now be used.
Traces of the film-that-never-was can be seen here and there, from the 1999 Russian film The Socks of the Big City to the Academy Award-nominated French feature film The Triplets of Belleville.
More recently, after years of planning, work had finally started on a feature film called "Mad Hair" (see concept art here). What will happen to that film now, and to Pilot Studio in general, is unknown. The following message has been put up on the Pilot Studio website:
Dear friends, colleagues, and those who love animation…
We have suffered a great loss.
Our leader has left this life.
The soul of our studio.
Our Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Tatarskiy.
There are no words yet. They will come later.
But works have been done. And are. And will be.
And a there is great sense of gratitude for everything.
For the fact that we are in this profession. For the fact that we have not grown up, or have not grown up fully. For the joyous feeling of freedom that was granted to us by our Chief.
It is difficult to say what you feel, when the atmosphere which you have breathed dissappears. Of course, we will continue to live and work, and to create in a way that we will not ashamed before our Teacher.
And still, there must be some time to accept this Loss and calmly think about what to do next.
Thank you to all who responded and mourn with us.
On July 12, 2007, Aleksandr Tatarskiy gave his last interview:
(addendum: Tatarskiy's name has been mentioned very little in the English-language media, so my sources come mostly from Russian-language interviews with Tatarskiy. If you need the source for anything that I said above, leave a comment)