Association Internationale du Film d’Animation
International Animated Film Association

Bonobostudio - a small miracle in the vast Balkans

Author: Draško Ivezić | Date: 1/4/19, 4:33 PM

Bonobostudio, based in Zagreb Croatia, has had an especially difficult task - to build a reputation in the shadow of the legendary animation studio Zagreb Film.

In 2008 Vanja Andrijević, a self-taught producer with strong roots in film and cultural theory, made a bold move: she opened an art house animation studio with a focus on short animation and experimental film.

Only 9 years later, Bonobostudio has produced and distributed dozens of award winning films, from experimental to short animation. A recent crown of its success is the co-production with the National Film Board of Canada - the short puppet film Hedgehog’s Home (2017)

Hedgehog’s Home, by Eva Cvijanović, is based on a children’s book by Branko Ćopić. Though published in the 1950s, the book remains popular in former Yugoslavia today. Cvijanović’s film is a masterpiece, in an aesthetic and marketing sense. It was developed with the help of the National Film Board of Canada and one of their producers, Jelena Popović, who is originally from Bosnia and Hercegovina, the homeland of Branko Ćopić. Popović knew that by working with Bonobostudio, which is based in one of the former Yugoslavian countries, they can create a film which can succeed not only in local markets, but globally, as it has won numerous important awards selected by audiences, kid’s juries and animation professionals and critics.

The success didn’t come overnight, but through the years, Andrijević has carefully built a quality catalogue and earned a solid international reputation.

Zagreb School of Animation

For decades, Zagreb Film was the only Croatian film studio where avant-garde short films were made. The studio was artistically lead by Dušan Vukotić, the director of the Academy Award winning film Ersatz from 1961. As it produced the first non-U.S.A film to win the Academy Award for Animation Short Film, the studio inspired generations of award winning short film directors.

This created the influential Zagreb school of animation. Animation thrived in Croatia during the 1970s and 1980s, however because of the war in Yugoslavia at the beginning of 1990s, there was less state support for film production. After the war and the creation of the new independent state of Croatia, most of the animators lost their jobs and the commercial production stopped.

In the late 1990s, on the ruins of Zagreb film, a group of young artists started to experiment with their own equipment and made short digital films. It was around this time that Vanja Andrijević, a young film enthusiast from Split, became involved in the independent film scene as a producer. Her love for experimental films grew from her collaboration with the Split Film Festival. This was also where she became aware of the potential of distributing short films for niche audiences, a practice that didn’t really exist at that point in European film market.

After moving to Zagreb, Andrijević worked as a producer of activist documentaries, with bold subjects and provocative content. Soon she was able to test her distribution and promotion ideas with the Croatian Film Association, an umbrella organization for film activities and a publisher of books and short films.

Kenges period

Founded by former Zagreb film freelance artists and technicians, Kenges Animation/VFX studio opened their doors in the mid 1990s. The studio worked on digital animated commercials and provided VFX for the live-action commercials but it was always their dream to produce short animated films. The studio’s artistic leader, Simon Bogojevic Narath, an experimental film-maker, was using technology to explore analogue and digital techniques in filmmaking. Narath made a short experimental film Bardo Thodol (2000). Encouraged with the success Narath started the most ambitious project, and the studio released a narrative CG comedy, Plasticat (2003). Kenges was getting more artistic short film projects financed by the government which they were doing between commercial jobs.  They needed a new producer for their artistic work and Andrijević was perfect for the job.

Andrijević arrived just as Narath finished production of an ambitious mixed media short film Leviathan (2006), which was inspired by the book by Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan won numerous awards and Narath became a recognized name on the arthouse film circuit.

Leviathan by Simon Bogojevic-Narath

In Leviathan, we can already find elements which would later influence the catalogue of Bonobostudio. The film uses computer graphics as a primary narrative, but also adds unusual looking plasticine and stop-motion elements, creating a surreal mood.

Leviathan was an expression of Croatian new media art, which was rooted in digital collages made possible by new technology. It also reflected the views of the Internet generation by creating meta-texts and cross referencing while freely exploring new readings of art and philosophy.

In 2006, studio Kenges started to develop two short films - She Who Measures by the first time filmmaker Veljko Popović and Morana, a new film from Narath. Morana was made in co-production with Auteur de Minuit from France.

At that time Andrijević took an active role as a distributor of Kenges’s catalogue. In 2008, the whole group visited Annecy animation festival. They returned with two special mentions for Morana and She Who Measures. This was a huge success for Croatian animation after a long period of silence. Unfortunately, the success didn’t last long for Kenges as they were forced to close their doors because of financial problems.

Bonobo - the new chapter in Croatian animation

Kenges’ misfortune turned out to be a positive turning point for Andrijević. Her next step was to start a new company for the production and distribution of short animated and experimental films - Bonobostudio. After continuing to develop two films conceived in Kenges, Dove Sei Amor Mio from Popović and Flower of Battle from Narath, the studio released its first film, Arheo 29 by veteran experimental film-maker and artist Ladislav Knežević. A meditative collage of archive magazine photos from 1929 creates a gloomy feeling of an old film journal.

The Flower of Battle
by Simon Bogojevic Narath

Since the 1990s Croatia slowly opened their doors to co-productions. The big breakthrough was the establishing of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre in 2008 and the subsequent funding of minor co-productions. Andrijević took advantage of this opportunity and was able to co-produce short animated films by securing a minor part of the budget and bringing collaborators from different countries to work on a project.

Bonobostudio’s first co-production - and the first to be financed by the Audiovisual Centre - was the animated documentary anthology, Father (2012). The film won numerous awards and brought Bonobostudio’s work and name to a wider audience. After Father, Bonobostudio co-produced a number of short films with different countries, such as Train (Olivier Chabelier, 2015), Traveling Country (Vessela Dantcheva & Ivan Bogdanov, 2016) and the widely acclaimed, Nighthawk (Špela Čadež, 2017).

Nighthawk by Špela Čadež

Bonobostudio also continued to grow as a distribution company specializing in independent shorts. As the only company in Croatia specialized in distribution, Bonobostudio is distributing a big catalogue of experimental and animated short films from different Croatian companies. Besides Croatian titles and films from co-production, Andrijević secured distribution rights for the indie films by the award-winning Canadian/Bulgarian director Theodor Ushev, making huge success for Nightingales in December(2011) and Sonámbulo (2015)

Puppet Studio and New Talents

With From Beginning of Time (Božo Trkulja, 2012), Bonobostudio started to get experience with stop-motion animation. The project brought together a large group of talented animators, collaborating with an international crew. Two of those crew members, Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, went on to create their animation short for Bonobostudio, Simulacra (2014).

Simulacra by Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson

The set of Simulacra by Bošnjak/Johnson was covered with mirrors which posed an interesting challenge for the shoot. Simulacra is about a character, portrayed by a silicone puppet, who searches the inside of a labyrinth and follows the thread to reach knowledge.

Andrijević also started a strategy of recruiting to recent animation school graduates. Among those recruited was Petra Zlonoga made the mesmerizing short film, Hunger (2014). Hunger used poetic ink drawings on paper, followed by a dark mysterious soundtrack from Andrea Martignioni. Hunger reveals deep relations between emotions and subconscious images, delivering metaphors for life by using strong symbolism of growing seeds and a flying bird.

Both Simulacra and Hunger were successes at international festivals, boosting the image of Bonobostudio on international markets as a small miracle in the vast Balkans.

Hunger by Petra Zlonoga

Hedgehog’s Home, a new Canadian/Croatian animation hit

The high point in the series of minor co-productions came with the offer from the National Film Board of Canada for a project in development, Hedgehog’s Home by Eva Cvijanović.Branko Ćopić’s book tells a storyof a hedgehog who loves his simple, modest home. The book is loved by many generations all over former Yugoslavia. With the script and visual approach from the new Canadian talent Eva Cvijanović, the project suddenly had international backing from the legendary National Film Board of Canada (NFB). With the determination of NFB producer Jelena Popović, they found a perfect fit with Bonobostudio.

Andrijević established a workflow during the production, where Cvijanović was a director in residence in her stop-motion studio. With experienced animators Bošnjak and Johnson, it took 6 months for the felt puppets and sets to be made and 8 months to finish the shoot. Production hired the world famous actor Rade Šerbedžija (Downton Abbey) and composer Darko Rundek, the popular new wave rock legend and songwriter. All these elements helped the film become a big hit in the area of former Yugoslavia.

Hedgehog’s Home was also recognized and well received by many international festivals, receiving a special mention at its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival and subsequently winning more awards on major world festivals, like Animafest Zagreb, Annecy, Ottawa, etc.

Hedgehog’s Home by Eva Cvijanović

The future of the independent Croatian animation

It is easy to believe that with Hedgehog’s Home, Bonobostudio will continue to flourish and grow as Zagreb Film did in 1960s. Unfortunately, the future of Croatian filmmaking came under the threat of severe cultural funding cuts as a result of ignorant policy and populist political parties.

Bonobostudio’s unstable business model relies on public funds. By choosing to focus on building a strong cultural capital, the studio’s financial security often suffers. The Croatian market for commercial animation would require a permanent crew and many hours servicing clients which, for Andrijević, would threaten to compromise the quality of her artistic catalogue. Making commercial products for television is a different business which would also require different resources.

In building a cultural program for a niche audience that loves short films, Andijević’s work resembles that of a gallery curator. It is the value of the catalogue that grows in time and for that value her work is of tremendous importance: in building and maintaining the home for independent films in Croatia and worldwide, the misfits of the market.

In many ways Vanja Andrijević is like the hedgehog from the story. She runs the studio on her own in a predominantly male world of animation producers. She defies markets by focusing mostly on artistic, noncommercial films. Coming from the economically and politically insecure Croatia, she defies big countries. She also defies competition in Croatia by working next to the state-owned titan like Zagreb Film. I can imagine offers coming in her direction, either as advice to change her business model or as a buyout from bigger international players, probably based in France. But, like the hedgehog in the story, Vanja can offer them the same answer:

Say what you want about my home

I'm safe and happy under its dome

Simple and modest, but it is all mine

I am free here and I feel fine

I work hard, I hunt, and live with zest

Peace awaits me in my precious nest

Only you scoundrels, the laziest bunch

Would give up your home for a lousy lunch!

(Branko Ćopić, copyright Zaduzbina Branka Copica, + translation Amela Marin, copyright NFB)

Draško Ivezić is a Croatian animated film director, scriptwriter (Manivald, Life with Herman H. Rott and producer. He is also the co-founder (together with animator Chintis Lundgren) of the studio, Adriatic Animation.