March 7th, 2010

drawing, old man

Anatoliy Petrov (1937-2010)

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The following obituary was written by Georgiy Borodin, a foremost Russian animation historian, first posted online here, and translated into English by myself. I have included some links to Anatoliy Petrov's films and filmography at the bottom of this entry.

On March 3, 2010, the life of Anatoliy Alekseyevich Petrov came to an end.

Here was a person who was labeled a genius during his lifetime, who was linked to the future of our domestic animation, and of whom, to this day, few have heard.

While studying at animation courses, he was already creating scenes the level of which his classmates dreamed of reaching just one time. From the first years of his practice at the studio, the classical masters of animation invited Petrov into their groups, giving him priority over the most authoritative masters of the old generation. When he himself became a director, some colleagues were ready to "go all the way to the District Party Committee", in order to get themselves a place as animators in Petrov's group.

He managed scenes that required the most difficult perspective foreshortening, conquering any stylistic convention - from primitive "hieroglyphs" to ultra-realistic figures. He himself was drawn toward the latter. He was the rare animator who could solve acting problems that required not the grotesque, but heroism, or even pathos. He was a universalist who could do anything. His "heights" as an animator were scenes for Atamanov's "The Bench" (the dance of the youths to the music of "The Beatles", scenes with the homeless man, and others), keyframes for Andrey Khrzhanovskiy's film "There Lived Kozyavin", the role of the Ballerina in "Ballerina On a Ship" and the grandpa in "The Key" (both also directed by Atamanov), the most difficult acting scenes in Roman Davydov's "Shareholders", in Vladimir Polkovnikov's "The King's Rabbits", in the films of Boris Dyozhkin, Fyodor Khitruk, Boris Stepantsev, Vitold Bordzilovskiy... And at the same time, Petrov could easily portray the quarrel of two dogs in Atamanov's "The Fence" or virtuosically play the strongman who juggled weights in "The Vacation of Bonifacius" (one of his best scenes, ruined after the transfer of the drawings into the technique of cutout animation).

Anatoliy Petrov had exceptional technical skills from childhood. He himself equipped his home photo studio, designed a variety of mechanical toys, manufactured a homemade slide projector... at the courses for animation artists, he and Galina Barinova were almost the only ones who paid serious attention to film technology, and lessons about cinematography and special effects.

No wonder that it was he (as well as Yuriy Norshteyn) who was destined to achieve a technological revolution in animated film production, to develop a few techniques that had no analogues in the world. He was the first to paint backgrounds on celluloid, introduced and perfected many times the legendary technology of "photographica", developed the simple and ingenious way to separate the contour from the colour fill...

Returning in 1967 from training in Zagreb, Petrov officially made his debut as director. "The Singing Teacher" in the anthology "Kaleidoscope" quickly became one of the unspoken artistic manifestos of the "Soyuzmultfilm Youth". It was also one of the first of Petrov's technological experiments - this method of combining pencil drawings on whatman paper with backgrounds was not yet known by our animation profession.

If only one episode remained in Petrov's biography - his founding of the animated journal "The Merry Carousel", - this would have already been enough to forever enter his name into the history of animation. It was none other than Petrov who was the leader of the group of young animators who so powerfully and clearly declared themselves in the late 1960s - Leonid Nosyrev, Valeriy Ugarov, Gennadiy Sokolskiy, Galina Barinova...

He was the initiator, developer of the concept of the anthology, and the most promising author. Although he resembled the role of the leader the least. He never had the ability or the desire to assert himself, especially to advertise; do "PR". When censorship killed his best work, he made no objections and did not resist, but meekly retreated and complied with all requirements. An artist-recluse, he was akin to the medieval masters, seeking to "dissolve" in their works and to remain anonymous and nameless. He himself dreamed of "secret" creativity, of the life of a hermit who worked for his own pleasure.

He was a fanatic illustrator. An artist for whom drawing was not bread, but air. He despised neither drawing, nor inbetweening. And at the same time, he coined that fair formula: "In a good animator, the artist must die". Yuriy Norshteyn admitted that any one of Petrov's layouts was worthy of display in a Museum of Fine Arts. And Yevgeniy Sivokon remembered standing, with bated breath, behind Petrov, as he animated Mayakovsky's head turning 90 degrees for the film "Mayakovsky Laughs". It was like magic - Petrov drew the smallest change of angle as if in front of his eyes were countless photographs of Mayakovsky, observing perfect portrait likeness in each figure. Much later, Anatoliy Alekseyevich revealed the "secret" of this magic trick - before beginning his work, he spent a long time walking around the bust of the poet in the Moscow Metro, memorizing every position, mentally "photographing" all the details...

Petrov always considered the nature of animation to be the art of drawn movement. He thought long about this topic, and tried to consolidate in practice that rule which he considered one of the most significant: for every stylistic visual decision, one must search for a "key" of movement specific to it. A drawing in the style of Picasso cannot move by the rules of a drawing in the style of Bidstrup. Or a drawing in Dali's style by the rules of the works of Miro. This was what consumed Petrov, when he worked on his first story for "The Merry Carousel", "Scatterbrained Giovanni". This story, which became one of the main targets for the new generation of filmmakers in the studio, was honored with the following rating from Minister Romanov: "an attempt to use the platform of children's animation to promote abstractionism". For Petrov, this rating was very honorable.

Petrov's next works, "Blue Meteorite", "The Merry Old Man", "The Wonder" (the last two were ruined by censorship), the film "And Mother Will Forgive Me Too", and the plan - destroyed in Goskino - of an animated cartoon-journal for schoolchildren called "Merry Link" - confirmed Petrov's leading role in drawn animation of those years. In the second half of the 1970s, journalists writing about "Soyuzmultfilm" mentioned Yuriy Norshteyn and Anatoliy Petrov in first place as the most promising persons.

One of Petrov's qualities as director was perfect knowledge of the material. If he was filming a story called "Little Light" for "Merry Carousel", then it would show deep-sea fauna in all its richness and with maximum accuracy. If he adapted "Solnyshkin's Voyage" for the screen - it is unlikely that even professional sailors could find fault with the images of rigging and cargo ship construction. Geologists who have seen the film "And Mother Will Forgive Me Too", asked: "How does the director know drilling rigs so well?" Galina Barinova's script for her film "Jester Balakirev" required immersion in folklore and life at the time of Peter the Great, and the "Ancient Greece" series made Petrov a specialist in antiquity. And if the conception was of some kind of educational movie - the plot of "The Merry Link" or the screenplay for Ugarov's future film "At the Back Row"- the job would not be complete without a thorough study of literature in physics, mathematics, chemistry ... But that was not the main thing.

As director, Petrov was also an outlier. Many directors in their work tried to prove this or that "theorem". Everyone had his own. Sometimes, several at once. Petrov "denied axioms". He defied the laws of nature. In this particular case - the nature of animation.

For every animator, the indisputable postulate has always been that animation is best suited for conventionalization and worst suited for realism. Animation's task is not to compete with the natural image, but only to turn it into a parody. Petrov hit at this fundamental, self-evident position. He proved, moreover, in practice, that a real Artist is capable - with his own hands, without any help such as photos, location filming or technical aids - of creating a realistic protagonist on the screen, the authenticity of whose acting will be comparable to an actor in live-action cinema. Already in the 1970s he proposed this unprecedented-for-the-animator task: "to overcome live-action film". To extend the boundaries of animation, to prove that it can do even THIS.

Most colleagues declared it a dead-end road. After the theatrical release of "Firing Range", voices were raised: what was this feat needed for? Yes, it's great, it is exceptional and unprecedented, but it is, after all, not repeatable! This can be done only by one man - "and he will not leave us an heir"! What's the point?

Nobody seemed not to notice that a Miracle had occurred. That a man, not having wings, ran up and took off. And overcame the laws of physics and biomechanics. And after all that, heard the question raised: Why fly, if it's more convenient to walk or run?..

Another problem that Anatoliy Petrov solved before anyone in the world was creating the effect of a moving painting. Of course, the technology of painted animation had existed before. But before Petrov, all had tried to "move the brushstrokes", and only Petrov decided to try to "move the glaze". To reach in a drawing the full effect of light streamlining the figure, and to see what happens with this figure, if it will change angle, turn its back, become alive ... Petrov solved this problem by using only traditional animation materials - celluloid, inked contours, animation paint. The not-quite-accurate name "photographica", which became attached to Petrov's technology, should preferably be replaced by "graphic painting". Viewers described these films as being "computer" or "laser", not believing that they were made at a typical animation desk. Even now, most professionals (excluding those who had seen the filming with their own eyes) do not realize how it was done.

The high point of these artistic searches was the film "Heracles Visits Admetus". A masterpiece of animation possessed of an extraordinary spiritual power. A film the creation of which took nearly four years. Even at the start of production, the veteran animator F.S. Khitruk did not believe that the animator would prove able to take on such a hellish work of moving sculptures in the frame and offered to search for a different stylistic decision. But Petrov again decided to "sprint for the record".

This time, it was a real battle. Petrov had already seen that other creative workers of the studio were not too fond of "exertion" and jumping higher than their head. Here, the majority of animators and artists of the craft proved unequal to the level of graphical excellence possessed by Petrov himself. He struggled with [FC], with the tracing, with the filling, with cinematographical and laboratory arbitrariness, trying to achieve only one thing - Quality. Each frame was achieved by overcoming incredible resistance. Help from specialized departments had to be abandoned, the group was reduced to just a few people, deadlines were postponed many times, the director had to again and again prove to officials that such a film was even necessary. On top of that, the plan underwent three different edits and the film came out lacking a few key episodes and practically unfinished ...

But this feat, too, was accomplished. "Heracles Visits Admetus" remains the pinnacle that has not yet been conquered by any other director of animation. Even decades later, directors working in the technology of 3-D, possessing technical capabilities incomparable with Petrov's, could not achieve such accurate, on-screen, living "volumetric" cartoon characters, which Anatoliy Petrov fought for with his golden hands... And the scene in which Heracles leads the rescued Alcestis to Admetus, you can safely show in theatre and film studies as an example of impeccable acting.

Petrov did not set further such tasks for himself. Although four more films were made and a new filming technology invented and perfected, it was rather the "tail end" of what was already accomplished. Petrov remained a brilliant animator and graphic artist, still performed all operations by hand, but no longer aimed for new peaks.

When Anatoliy Alekseyevich was asked why he finally settled on the style of hyper-realism, he would answer: how else can an artist convey the richness of the nature surrounding him? All the beauty of the sea or mountain landscape? How, with stylistic methods of art, can you make viewers believe that a drawn protagonist moving into the depths of the frame is filled with tragic thoughts about life and death? It is no exaggeration to say that Petrov assumed the role of the Demiurge in the full sense of the word; he knew that he was unable to compete with nature, and still tried to get closer to this result. Are there many people in animation today who are ready to set such goals? The very same Petrov said that the best situation for an artist is to be as "equidistant" from all political parties as from all religions. To try to maintain calmness and objectivity.

His last few years were difficult attempts to find one to whom he could pass on his experience, skill and vision of the nature of animation. These attempts proved almost fruitless. Many of his students refused to understand why the animator had to draw well and know anatomy, if the technology of "Flash animation" existed, and ignorantly called his masterly scenes from "Firing Range" "Éclair" ["rotoscoping"]. They were not even able to understand that it is precisely with "rotoscoping" that this effect can not be achieved. That this can only be done with Golden Hands and Great Experience.

Before his death, Petrov managed to write and illustrate a three-volume textbook on animation. This textbook, probably, was his last creative work. Will there ever appear anyone who will need it?
Today, the name of Anatoliy Petrov means something to just a few people. In addition to the professionals who worked with him at one time. Sooner or later this name will be on a par with the names of Vladislav Starevich, Alexander Alexeyev, Yuriy Norshteyn ... But for now - almost no one will notice that the land has been deprived of another genius...


Profile on
Profile on IMDB (significantly incomplete)

A few films.

"The Singing Teacher" (1968)

"Firing Range" (1977)

"Heracles Visits Admetus" (1986) (16/04/2010 update: here is a subtitled version of the film:)

Wikipedia describes the "photographica" technique in the following manner: "two celluloid layers for each character with special color schemes and with one of the layers out of focus to imitate the three-dimensional space rendering".

Petrov's decision to focus on "Greek erotica" in his later films was not exactly welcomed by everyone, which may be why he's not now as well as known as some of his contemporaries. His last four films are decisively adults-only.