July 8th, 2010

drawing, old man

Russia's oldest private animation studio (Pilot) closes its doors, has no more money

Director Sergey Merinov wrote in his LiveJournal on July 3rd that Pilot, Russia's oldest private animation studio (see Wikipedia article) will be closing in one week, one of many Russian animation studio casualties recently. If this happens, it will be the end of an era; it was largely Pilot that set the standard for Russian animation after the Soviet collapse (to quote animation historian Georgiy Borodin, one of the most fundamental changes in the last 20 years has been "the change of school from the 'Soyuzmultfilm school' (or the 'old Moscow school') to the "Pilot school").

For some reason, what he wrote gathered quite a lot of attention, with 330 comments as of today (not counting the many deleted ones) and most of the major TV and radio news organizations now lining up interviews and round-tables about the situation.

Here's an interview with Sergey Merinov originally published on Lenta.ru on July 6th, translated by myself, in which Merinov does a good job of explaining the current situation in Russia and the conditions that led to it.

On July 5, 2010, the animated film director Sergey Merinov wrote in his LJ that Pilot studio has enough money for one week of work. Therefore, the legendary studio currently finds itself on the verge of closure. Lenta.ru talked with the director about the situation that "Pilot" finds itself in, and found out that Russian animation is, at the present time, not needed by anyone.

Is it true that the studio only has enough money for one week of work?

Yes, that is currently the case. The situation is such that Goskino is currently unable to pay studios (practically any of them) for those films which it ordered from them and which they have produced. Many studios perished before us; we held off the end for a while with our own resources, but they have run out as well.

What will happen after this money runs out? Where will the people go?

We will mothball our films, and release our employees into unpaid leave until the return of financing or the arrival of some non-governmental, commercial projects. In fact, we could have lived without state funding: the studio worked not only on government projects, but there were also many different commercial projects. It's just that in this current crisis, there are some constraints here. It turned out that the government is also unable to support us. It's not just that there has been a financing reform and most of the money was given to the largest studios (you probably know this story about Mikhalkov and the other big studios), while animation and documentary film were given almost nothing. That's not even the main problem; the main problem is that even the little that was given is not being paid. As I understand it, Goskino is ready to pay, but they're not being given any money either. Unfortunately, I don't work in government, so I don't know what the problem is. Currently, all studios which ran with state funding, and there are quite a few of them, have halted operations.

So whose fault is it that the studios are in a deplorable state?

It's hard to say. The underlying reason is probably the crisis, which has stopped many commercial projects; few wish to invest in animation today, as this is, after all, a pretty long-term form of art. And also the state funding freeze. Unfortunately, no coherent policy in support of animation exists in our country at all. I have the sense that the new minister of culture is unaware that animation even exists in our country and continues to somehow function. Lately we've been hearing from our TV screens that, for example, when the president met with our leaders of culture one of them (I don't remember who exactly) persistently spent a long time badmouthing "The Little Grey Neck" (for some reason that was the film he picked). He was saying that it hearkens to the past, while American cartoons, no matter how bad they be, promise the future. And the president himself, when he met kids at a boy scout camp, recommended that they watch the newest "Shrek". I think that he did it with a pure heart, but you know how we like to imbue every little statement with great meaning. Basically speaking, they decided that in these difficult times, animation can safely be sacrificed. At least, that's my impression. Of course, this is only my guess, but the theory seems to fit current events.

Many are asking us: why are you whining and asking for state funding? In fact, I think that studios could survive self-sufficiently as well, if there were coherent government policies to support domestic producers: quotas for television, a law for commercials which would allow commercials to run during children's programming. Currently, by the way, many channels simply do not show animated films, and therefore buy neither them nor children's programs, simply because they can not insert advertisements into them. Concerning quotas, they exist in many European countries. For example in the UK, channels are required to show, I believe, not less than 50% domestic animation. In France, there is a dedicated channel for domestic animation. But we simply have nowhere to sell - TV, as I said, is not interested in buying our products. And if they do buy them, they put them at 6 am on Sundays. As I understand it, this is done just for the record. One can understand their perspective - it is unprofitable for them to show us because of this advertising law. Or here's another idea: if the channel shows animation which it funds itself, the channel is allowed some competitive advantages, as is done in many countries.

And if there will not be a coherent policy, just tell us: "we have no need for domestic animation". In fact, in many countries, there is no domestic animation, and nobody has died because of this; but it's not good to keep us in limbo. If it is decided that there will be no support, it means that studios will become purely commercial entities and will make products primarily for a Western audience, as it was in the early and mid-1990s, when there were no state commissions and we all worked for the West.

Earlier, you sold some things to the West, and made something for Cartoon Network.

Yes, and not only that. We worked on a series which had a very good rating. But we always wanted to make something for our own audience.

This is understandable. Long-term cooperation didn't work out?

Actually, we even worked on two series: "Mike, Lu & Og" and "Mister Bean". But when the state commission came, it became much more interesting for us to work on "Mountain of Gems" for our own viewers and children. This was a much more important project for us. After all, Western companies don't order the entire production and, as a rule, give us only some part of the work on the show ...

For example, which part?

In "Mike, Lu and Og", for example, there were American writers, but we did the storyboard and sent it all to Korea, where they did the animation. In "Mr. Bean" we, conversely, did the animation based on storyboards made in England. That is, there were different forms of cooperation. You must understand, this was not made for our audience, but we will have to do this again; also, in times of crisis such work has become much scarcer, and such a commission must still be found. Also, Western countries are now trying to place such orders mostly in China or Korea. Not in Russia, where labour is more expensive.

You had all sorts of projects for television; what happened to them? Or were they, too, closed because of the crisis?

All projects are stalled, because neither private investors, nor the state have the strength to finance animation.

You wrote about the studios "Toonbox" and "Aeroplan", about their success. Do you think that they were simply lucky enough to receive a commission?

And they got lucky that this year, the Moscow municipal government has allocated money for animated series; this is a city commission. The government of Moscow, by the way, is one that supports animation. Two years ago, for example, it financed two films in the "Mountain of Gems" project, and this year it ordered two shows from these studios. But it cannot support all Russian animation.

What do you think must be done right now in order to save "Pilot"?

The correct question is: what must be done to save not just "Pilot", but all stalled studios. In Moscow there is a wonderful studio called "Animos" - they halted production of a feature film. This is a catastrophe! You see, if you stop this sort of production, it cannot start up again. And there are also many small studios that are stalled. So, to save all this, I think, there must be government goodwill: someone should order Goskino to release money so that it can at least pay us for what it has already commissioned. That's the first thing. The second thing of course (as I already said before), is a coherent state policy relating to animation and actions to support it (if, I repeat, we need domestic animation at all). This need not be state funding; this is not always the best route in our country - it is better to create favourable conditions for the development of the animation business in Russia.

However, currently everything is directed at supporting the Western producer; that is, you can't break into distribution - all the best timeslots are scheduled years ahead of time for Western vendors, and it is unprofitable for television to buy our product, as I have said. And also, when Disney makes a contract with the channels, it does not allow them to air anyone else. We have a complete mess with this, and Western animation producers feel better than they do at home. They get all the advantages, and we get nothing. The animation community, by the way, has appealed many times to various offices, including the State Duma, and the deputies, and to the president and the prime minister, but so far, unfortunately, we've received no response. I understand that this is not the most important thing in the country; we have many other more serious problems, but I still believe that a state with a long-term vision should take care of the education of the younger generation, and animation is one of the most important parts of upbringing.

In "Novaya gazeta", you wrote that if Tatarskiy was alive, he wouldn't have allowed this. What do you think about this?

Well, it's hard to say. History does not know the subjunctive tense, but I think that he'd work something out, because he had entry into the highest offices, where he was listened to. Today, there is no such figure in Russian animation.

Do you think there is a chance that the feature film "Train Arrival" will be completed?

Very unlikely - the project is entirely mothballed. It was hoped that Igor Kovalyov, the closest partner and friend of Tatarskiy, who now works in Hollywood, would take up the flame, but as I understand it, he has not yet found the money for it. It was their joint project; a joint creation. The rights to this animated film belong to "Pilot" and to him.

Please tell me in detail about "Mountain of Gems" - specifically for those who have not heard about it.

It's a great pity that many have not heard of "Mountain of Gems" (although that really is the case). It was at least somewhat known when "Channel One" used to show it on public holidays and on some weekends at noon. At that time, by the way, it beat all viewer ratings ever; that is, not one animation product, I believe, in Russia's entire history had such high ratings. And then, unfortunately, Disney came to "Channel One", and we were moved to 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.

6 a.m. on Sunday?

Yes, it is now broadcast on Sundays, not all but some - I never did figure out their system. I do not know who watches television at six a.m. on a Sunday; I would like to look at this man. They cut off our audience in this manner, and so everyone forgot about "Mountain of Gems". Only sophisticated parents who can find these cartoons on the Internet, download them, and show them to their children are left. Well, or buy them on DVD (although, as you know, DVDs sell poorly because of piracy these days).

In any case, "Mountain of Gems" is a huge project, which counts among its number 52 stories of the ethnic groups of Russia. To be exact, 48 of them are completed, and the last 4 are being worked on - it is their production which is stalled because of the financial difficulties (we originally planned to make over 100, one for each of the ethnic peoples living in Russia). Each episode of this project includes, first of all, a plasticine introduction which tells about the peoples of Russia and about the people which the cartoon will be about (it is this introduction which serves to unite the project). After the introduction, which lasts about a minute and a half, immediately follows the tale itself which lasts 11:30. Each episode is made, as a rule, with a new director and in a new style: we have 3D films, traditional animation (which is the most beloved today by viewers, as I understand it), plasticine, computer cutouts, puppets; basically, cartoons in all possible animation styles. The director chooses the technique which, in his opinion, best suits the tale that he wishes to show children.

So a pretty interesting project. There are loyal fans of our project, though not as many as I would like, who are always waiting for new episodes. I know that there are even families who try to show children only the old Soviet cartoons and "Mountain of Gems", and shield them from Western cartoons, which have too much violence. I do not think, of course, that this is correct, but it is nice that parents choose our films for the education of the younger generation.

Tell me, is there any hope at all for the rebirth of Russian animation?

Well hope, as they say, dies last of all. You see, until recently, we didn't just work - we were preparing a new cadre. We do have young people: VGIK educates new directors and studios are preparing new animators in their internal courses. Today, for example, many animation societies have formed in schools. So I think there is hope for the future, especially since animation is one of the most dynamic art forms. That phenomenon, "Avatar", is 80 percent animation; computer graphics. Basically, animation has a future in cinema; a different matter is whether it will be in demand in Russia. If not, then our strong school and tradition will be working for the Western audience, which is very unfortunate.

By the way, in addition to production, our other big problem is that channels try to simply not show films since the 80s. They show the old ones more or less, but almost nobody has seen those that were produced in the new Russia from the 90s to 2000s. And yet, there are very many good films among them, and even, I won't hesitate to use the word, masterpieces. For example, among our animation community we have the Oscar-winner Aleksandr Petrov, and our films have won prizes at Cannes. It's a pity that the audience has seen almost none of this.

What would you recommend to our viewers from this "forgotten" period?

The films of Aleksandr Petrov, of Konstantin Bronzit, of our Pilot studio. There are also the films of Ivan Maximov, Natalya Berezovaya, Yelena Chernova, Andrey Sokolov - I could spend a long time listing unique directors and the films that they have produced during this period. But they reach the viewer in fits and starts, via cable channels, DVDs or the internet, and there is no wide distribution as there was before. This is bad.

Thank you for the interview.

Thank you. Good bye.

Interview conducted by Andrey Konyayev.

P.S. To see some subtitled films made by Pilot studio, go here, sort the table by "studio", and scroll down alphabetically. For wordless films by Pilot, go here and do the same.