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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cartoon Studio Back in Action

Soyuzmultfilm swears that the pope once said, "Soviet animated films are so rich with moral values that all children ought to be raised on them." Just don't ask which pope.

While this papal approval could not be confirmed, the statement is certainly a favorite piece of lore in the history of the legendary Moscow animation studio.

"Not enough critical attention is paid to a medium that often provides people with their first humanitarian education," said Vyacheslav Shilobreyev, deputy director of Soyuzmultfilm. "The concentration and intensity of images in animated film is second only to poetry. Animation conveys so much in just a few strokes."

If animators can be compared to poets, then Soyuzmultfilm is not unlike the Imperial Lyceum that gave Russia its Golden Age of poetry.

Soyuzmultfilm was founded in 1936 and quickly became the principal animation studio in the Soviet Union. In its lifetime, the studio has produced more than 1,500 films, including the critically acclaimed animated films "Tale of Tales," "The Hedgehog in the Fog," and "The Snow Queen." It has nurtured world-renowned animators Yury Norshtein, Vladimir Popov and Leonid Shvartsman, who designed the animated image of now-iconic Cheburashka.

Like many of his colleagues, Shvartsman spent a lifetime at Soyuzmultfilm. He began his career as an assistant in 1948 and he continued working at the studio until his retirement in 2002.

In a telephone interview, Shvartsman described the difficult and gradual process of designing Cheburashka: "Uspensky, the writer who invented Cheburashka, described him as a creature of unknown origin, something between a cat and a dog with large yellow eyes and a tail like a bear cub. But when I started drawing him, Cheburashka's eyes kept getting bigger. and they became the large eyes of a curious child. The ears, which started off small and on top on his head, got bigger and bigger and moved down to where human ears are."

Shvartsman initially designed a tail for Cheburashka, but during production, Cheburashka lost his tail and evolved into his current shape.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Memorabilia from the more than 1,500 animated films that Soyuzmultfilm has made since its 1936 birth.
"Cheburashka became a human-like creature. I think this humanity is what makes him so lovable and touching; this is why he appeals to people," Shvartsman said.

Shilobreyev, who has likewise been at the studio for 50 years, said that all who joined the studio stayed.

"It was the epicenter of animation art. A young artist absorbed this culture and it would inspire creativity," he said.

During the Soviet era, Soyuzmultfilm employed 600 people and produced up to 40 films per year. The studio received full state funding from the Academy of Film. As a result, Soyuzmultfilm animators could pursue their individual artistic visions without worrying about selling their product.

"Of course, there were many difficulties for us during the Soviet regime: terror, pressure, censorship and social scrutiny. But at the same time, our wages were guaranteed and we could work and experiment without putting a price on everything," Shilobreyev said.

Igor Tabakov / MT
The studio has faced difficulties in the post-Soviet era and now makes three to four animated films a year.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soyuzmultfilm was forced to confront the free market. The confrontation proved ruinous and it nearly destroyed this historic institution. In 1989, the studio became a leased enterprise, and in 1992, a U.S. company bought the rights to 547 of the most prized films in the Soyuzmultfilm collection. While Soyuzmultfilm has long tried to challenge the contract in court, the collection has returned to Russia by other means. In September, billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the rights to the collection and donated it to the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company.

Igor Tabakov / MT
A camera from the Soviet heyday.
A decade of insufficient government funding also contributed to the devolution of the Soyuzmultfilm studio, which lost 90 percent of its work force during the 1990s. In 2001, the studio once again became a state-owned enterprise and started receiving larger grants from the Culture Ministry. The effects of the decade, however, are still felt by the studio.

"In the '90s, nothing was made. Now we are making three to four films per year," Shilobreyev said. "Aside from funding, our biggest problem is finding qualified job candidates. The '90s created a generation gap in a company that depends on apprenticeship. There was no one to teach a new generation of animators."

A new generation is now taking shape in Soyuzmultfilm's children's studio. Yelena Barinova, director of the Soyuzmultfilm Animation School, leads an upper-level class in which many of the students design their own projects.

Barinova's class laughed when asked whether they preferred Russian animated movies to foreign ones.

"I liked 'The Simpsons Movie,' I think it's funny and fun to watch," said one student, Yevgenia Ilchenko. "But that's not the kind of thing we're working on here. We're not just drawing cartoons, we're making art."

Soyuzmultfilm offers visitors a tour of its studio showroom and a screening of a Russian animated film. Tours are available on the hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., every day except Sunday. Call ahead to reserve a ticket. All tickets cost 140 rubles.

25 Ul. Dolgorukovskaya, 250-4406, M. Novoslobodskaya,