Association Internationale du Film d’Animation
International Animated Film Association

Birthdays and tombstones: Nukufilm Studio Turns 60

Author: Mait Laas | Date: 1/4/19, 4:59 PM

Let’s go back in time 60 years – to the year 1957.

It was a time when in the capital of the ENSV (Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic), Tallinn, the churches became film venues and, a few years before that, in place of the old town that had been occupied by medieval buildings had emerged a temple with six pillars – KINO Sõprus – where people sitting in the dark were enlightened, literally. The protagonists of liturgy and enlightenment were usually milkers/heroes and miners dedicated to work. The façade of the temple-building is still, to this day, covered in symbolic stories in pictures that today’s generation with their rational mind probably won’t be able to decipher.

In 1957 the art of cinema in the Soviet Union was supposed to “enlighten” the people and more and more attention was paid to the content of cinema and to making films for broader viewing audience, but it was strictly and ideologically controlled by the Communist Party’s priests and censors. The symbolism blossomed and lived inside people’s minds and souls even when they had to march together at grandiosely staged parades-processions around Easter (May Day Parade) and All Souls’ Day (military parades). People had various faces and various purposes.

During the 1950s in Eastern Europe, driven by the Czech school of Mysticism, an animation emerged, that was, in a way, the oasis of freedom for artists. It granted them an opportunity to tell children fabulous stories about being human and yet, at the same time, tell stories that differ from the political mainstream and have a double meaning for grown-ups who understand and read the language of symbols. However, economically, the animation was born with the support of the Soviet Union itself and was completely unique in the world. Estonian animators were at the front of this new search for freedom.

PAPA by  Girlin Bassovskaja

On 25th November 1957 in Tallinn, the filming of the first Estonian puppet animation Little Peter’s Dream started, led by Elbert Tuganov. Creating multi-dimensional dreamlike worlds has been Nukufilm’s, one of the oldest still active international studios, main theme for 60 years, during 26 of which the films have been made in the once again independent Republic of Estonia. All that in spite of a world that was becoming more and more rational.

Park (1962) by the long-time puppet animation director Elbert Tuganov and Cameraman Kõps in Mushroomland (1964) by Heino Pars belong to the world classics of animation and with their double meaning address even the contemporary public – the one that suffers from never-ending bureaucracy and the one that consists of nature-loving patriots. We should not underestimate the contribution that Nukufilm Studio has made to the technical development of the world’s art of filmmaking. The ones definitely worth mentioning are Souvenir (1977, directed by E. Tuganov, operator Arvo Nuut) and The Scarecrow (2007, directed by Andres Tenusaar and Sergey Melkumov, operator Ragnar Neljandi), the first digital stereo puppet animation ever made.

In a way, the work of Tuganov, Pars, Rao Heidmets, Riho Unt, Hardi Volmer and Mati Kütt has become a historical mainstream carried by entertainment, enigmatic symbolism and the courage to experiment. The mysterious puppets on the screen touch the strings of human spirit.

Then again, Nukufilm is much bigger than the recognizable part that frequents international festivals as retrospectives. A big part of Nukufilm Studio is yet to be discovered, because many old films have not been restored yet. There are many historical and contemporary films and filmmakers that still lack of recognition. A re-watch and re-assessment is in order for the works of Kaarel Kurismaa, Aarne Ahi, Kalju Kivi, Peep Pedmanson and Andres Tenussaar, for example. Through history, the mission of Nukufilm has been to offer an opportunity to the visionaries of the new generation, as well as to the students of the EAA (Estonian Academy of Arts), so that later on it would be interesting to discover the first features from authors that have not stuck to animation, but have gained recognition in different art forms like Jaagup Roomet, Katrin Sipelgas or Martin Mikson. Many creative subsidiaries (Fork Film, Multi Film, Animailm, Voldik, Peata Film, Rao Heidmets Filmstudio) searching for alternatives that would deviate from the mainstream of animation have originated from Nukufilm.

The Master by Riho Unt

As of today, the 35mm animation has given way to the computer game industry that uses animation as technology, and without animation even the satellites couldn’t fly to their orbit in space. Without animation aka without the buttons of virtual-symbolistic ATM, we wouldn’t be able to reach symbolic money. Even in everyday life we cannot look past animation.

The unique and yearned for “Estonian thing”, the “Estonian-faced animation” niche in the world’s filmmaking arena is occupied, along with the directors of Joonisfilm Studio, by the contemporary audio-visual magicians Jelena Girlin and Mariliis Bassovskaja, the semiotic choreographer Andres Tenusaar, the dynamic Pärtel Tall, the playful researcher of the spheres of unconsciousness Priit Tender, the therapist of collective memory Ülo Pikkov, the poet of matter Anu-Laura Tuttelberg, and the soon-to-be-released film Morten on the Ship of Fools of Kaspar Jancis and Riho Unt.

Mind and matter don’t always like to compromise and cooperate, but it might still be possible. Nowadays houses emerge without symbolic tales on their façades and countries don’t have stories. But symbolism hasn’t disappeared completely, it has transformed and changed. While half of the cinema temple Sõprus in the old town of Tallinn has been handed over to alchemists who turn pure air into gold in the casino, the other half has managed to preserve its original purpose and the lights keep fascinating people. Something similar is also happening on the scenery of Estonian animation.

Throughout history, it has been a challenge and a responsibility for the producers, for the people who fight for film and for the professional team of almost 30 people (directors, artists, composers, sound editors, animators, operators, puppet makers, decorators, technicians, computer artists). They contribute every single day to creating the magic that defies gravity and creates wonderful stories that allows the viewer to detach themselves from everyday life. How do we preserve the traditions and the knowledge so we could take into the future with us the special spiritual mission that the international film community loves about us?

Inherhent Olbigations by Rao Heidmets

Animation was born from symbolism and it carries the symbolism within. Symbolism isn’t a phenomenon that was created during the Soviet times, it is a historically inseparable part of culture. Symbols are not as tied to the statehood as they are to human nature, because the ones who are held responsible for handling the symbols are, above all, people. Symbolism hides opportunities like faith and hope for the possibility of a better world that help us maintain our humanity. This spirit is carried also by Estonian animation that is just like a ray of light in the darkness of the temple.

Mait Laas is a Estonian artist, writer animator and director. His most recent animation films include Man and Woman (2017) and the feature film, Lisa Limone and Maroc Orange, A Rapid Love Story (2013)