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Bulgarian Animation: A Short Review

Bulgarian animation has established a cultural tradition that started more than 50 years ago. Maria Janeva gives us a historic look at the countrys triumphs and unique approach.

Multi-talented Zlatin Radev manages animation for Boyana Film Studios. He produces and directs his own animated films, plus he's a full-time professor of animation in Sofia, Bulgaria. Courtesy of Zlatin Radev.

It's a windy fall morning in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. Tiny raindrops are falling to the ground together with the yellow leaves. We are looking for a café that is open at this early hour. Finally, we find a place by the tramway-lined boulevard the landmark of Sofia. The morning coffee comes steaming. My interlocutor and I start a conversation about Bulgarian animation.

His name is Zlatin Radev, 42, animation division manager of Boyana Film Studios, Bulgarias biggest film studio. He is also an acclaimed animated film director and producer whose films, Canfilm, 1990, and Shock, 1996, were warmly accepted by the international public and generously awarded at numerous festivals around the world. Zlatin Radev is also a full-time animation professor at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Art in Sofia. Currently he is developing his 26x22 stop-motion series, an action-adventure-comedy about the life of The Junks, targeted at children 8-12. Zlatin is preparing to shoot the pilot episode and looking for co-production partners.

Bulgarian animation enjoyed worldwide fame in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s with its strong short artistic films. Bulgarian animated shorts have received numerous prestigious international prizes such as the Palm DOr in Cannes, the Grand Prix at Annecy and Academy Award nominations, among many.

Canfilm, an early work of Radev's, received international acclaim, including an Academy Award® nomination for Best Student Film. © Boyana Films

Over the past five years production has shifted from strictly personal shorts to animation for large audiences. The studios have been opened to foreign partners and offered subcontracting services on international projects. At the same time, Bulgarian companies have been trying to develop and produce their own projects for shorts, series and feature films. Bulgarian animation companies have now started seeking international partners for their projects.

The Scene

There are several animation studios in Bulgaria. They are located mainly in Sofia. Boyana Film has the largest animation facility. The studio complex offers a full range of services for animation and live-action, as well as audio and video post-production facilities, plus a film lab. The company represents Kodak motion picture materials, ARRI lighting equipment and Panther cinema cranes in the region.

The animation division of Boyana Films has two departments: a 2D and stop-motion department. The 2D department is equipped with the newest Animo 4.1 system (becoming the first Bulgarian client of Cambridge Animation) and has a capacity of about 22-26 minutes per month for TV series layout and animation. With roughly 150 workstations at the studio, the goal is to reach the capacity of two 26-minute shows per month. To that end, there is a permanent training program at the studio with two training courses per year for animators, assistants and in-betweeners. The courses are for about 50 people in each, lasting four and a half months.

In the past five years, the company has worked for international companies such as Nelvana, Duran, Valentine Production, Millimages, Ravensburger TV, and others, doing animation and layout services for the series Anatole, Tom-Tom et Nana, Der Kleine Herr Jacob, Pirates VPA and Old Tom. Last summer Boyana finished work on the German short series Anshi & Karl Heinz from Stiglmayr Film GmbH for the Bavarian Television in Munich, Germany. Boyana also worked on the animation for the trailer and pilot of the French action-adventure-fantasy 26x26 series Brann, produced by Cameo SA, France. The project was presented at Cartoon Forum.

Another big project at Boyana Films is performing all the services from layout to digital ink-and-paint for the expressionist horror movie Jacob, the first feature film for Milan-based Italian company, Crackartoons.

Radev's project, The Junks, is a television series aimed at the preteen audience. © Zlatin Radev Films.

The stop-motion department opened with a small, but talented little team, says Zlatin. I can confirm this, having seen their spectacular stop-motion tests. Zlatin is very proud of the stop-motion work because, as he says, stop-motion is his first and probably only true animation love.

The stop-motion department has already done several commercials along with TV IDs and festival trailers, while preparing to work on a 26x10 French stop-motion series. The department uses DPS Animate software and other custom-made software for controlling the animation. It is working on developing a customized motion control system for the new Canon D60 digital still camera. The design and construction of puppets and sets are also done in the stop-motion department where artists create everything from the aluminum and steel puppet armatures, to the molding and casting of latex and silicon. The department has both digital video and 35mm Mitchell cameras.

In addition to subcontracting for foreign productions, Boyana Films offers services for Bulgarian short films. It acts as a producer or co-producer in most Bulgarian film productions, with more than 900 films to its credit. Boyana Film also has programs specifically designed to help students with their first filmmaking attempts.

Daisy, which was meant for adults, somehow won an award for best children's film. © Boyana Films

There are also several other independent studios and production companies in addition to Boyana Films. Located in Sofia and in the second largest city, Plovdiv, these companies help round out the animation landscape in Bulgaria.

VISION FILM Pilion Film, a German/Bulgarian company working mainly for German producers such as ZDF and Ravensburger TV. Its projects include Always Those Parents, Planet, Hans Hazze Looks For a Treasure and The Small Mr. Jacob.

NAGUAL An independent company that provided animation services for Les Enfants Du Toromiro from France Animation, Sniz & Fondue for Nickelodeon, Rashi, a feature film for Disc-in Studio and African Tales for Animus Entertainment London.

ANRI KULEV Productions Producing Bulgarian short films such as The Straw Man, The Tenth Circle, Spaghetti, Worm, Baby In The School, Supofonia and the series The Rescue Bears for BBC. It also has produced MTV trailers and student films.

HRANKOV Company Works on German projects such as Paradizo, Tim Tahler, Wuschel, Biber and the pilots for Lurhi and Bussi Bear.

ANIMA FILM A branch of French/Ukrainian Borisfen-Lutece, worked on projects such as Zepi & Zinia, Pirates and Zoo Lane.

SOKEROV STUDIO Specializes in 3D CGI animation for commercials and VFX.

ZOGRAPHIC FILM Specializes in post-production and 3D CGI animation.

ZLATIN RADEV FILM - Does animated and live-action commercials, TV IDs, trailers and SFX miniatures for feature films.

Last year, Boyana, Vision Film and Nagual founded the Bulgarian Animation Association. The purpose of the association is to join producers' efforts to provide high-quality animation services, and to develop and produce Bulgarian series and features.

A Flashback to the History of Bulgarian Animation

The first attempts in Bulgarian animation were the Vassil Bakardjiev ads, commissioned by various companies and enterprises in the late 1920s. In 1932 the Ministry of Health ordered a film which contained a piece of animation. At the same time, Dimiter Todorov Jarava took to building a device that would show drawn figures in motion. The goal was to project moving drawings printed on paper tape. After the end of World War II, he bought a camera, lighting equipment, magnifying apparatus, constructed a shooting table and installed the equipment in his house, where he studied, frame by frame, the fine details of Walt Disneys films.

In 1945, a group of painters founded a society for trick film production. Using cutout animation, they made a 2-minute film, Sick, for the election campaign. It was followed by the short, The Little Thief.

In 1948, an Animation Film Production Department was founded in Sofia. (It was 100% financed by the government. This is one, but not the only, reason why the Bulgarian animators never fully developed commercially orientated projects.) Having struggled with poor equipment and difficult self-made materials, the department received an Arriflex camera in 1950. Projects began to roll in.

The first Bulgarian puppet animation, The Fearful Bomb, by director Dimo Lingurski, was released in 1951. Master Manol, by the same author, and Event in the Kindergarten by Ognian Danailov followed. Next came Orders of the Pike by Stefan Topaldjikov (1953). The three films utilized the dramatic structure of the typical feature film, and all aimed for maximum realism in depicting both characters and atmosphere.

Todor Dinov, called, "The Father of Bulgarian Animation," started his career with his first film Marko the Hero (1955). High professionalism and impressive animation met with a dramatic storytelling and wonderful action to render a memorable piece of art. (As head of the animation production department, he established the professional standards for producing animation. At that time, he was the only one who had received an animation education /Moscow/.)

In the late 1950s, new artists came to the animation studio to work as animators, designers and directors. Animation production increased to seven films in 1957. Dinov focused on cartoons, while Topaldjikov was the leader in the puppet film arena. In 1958, he made Invisible Mirko, which became the first Bulgarian animation film to win an international prize an honorary diploma at the XIII Festival in Edinburgh (1959) and the Grand Prize at the Melbourne Festival in 1963. With Prometheus (1959), Dinov combined tradition and innovation in a new animation structure and introduced symbolism in Bulgarian animation.

Dimitri Tomov and Pencho Bogdanov made Jolly Fellows in the 1970s. © Boyana Films

A New Age

In the 1960s, Bulgarian animation was marked by changes both in thematic and genre aspects. From comedies and fairy tales, the focus shifted to human history and progress (Prometheus). In 1960, Zdenka Dojcheva and Radka Buchvarova started to make childrens films (The Small Waterfall and Snowman) where the leading dramatic principle was given to the music. During the same year, Dinov made Tale of the Pine Twig with scriptwriter Valleri Petrov. Petrovs extraordinary talent added to the soft, lyrical animation art. The commonality in the three films produced in 1960 was the discovery of an essential feature of animation motion its musicality.

During this period the films of all directors were original experiments and discoveries. This became the blueprint of Bulgarian drawn and puppet animation, establishing the short as the standard format. The trademark of Bulgarian animation was the approach to characters as a quintessence of types, behaviors or ideas, distinctly projecting the author's position. The classical model of Bulgarian animation was impossible without the hints of caricature images. A classical example of the Bulgarian animated film of the 1960s is Daisy, by Dinov. Paradoxically, the film won a prize for best childrens film, although it was meant for adults.

The 1960s were marked by the appearance of strong creative individuals. Donyo Donev made Duet (1961), co-directed with Dinov. Donev made his solo debut Circus (1962). His drawing was mild, his characters were extraordinary vital, ever hungry for motion and dynamism. From Spring (1966) on, his films were unmistakably recognizable by their highly individual imaging.

With his temperament and visual style of filmmaking, Stoian Dukov veered in a completely different direction. His animation character came from the rationalization of ideas. Stoian Dukovs originality was mostly visible in his childrens films where his ornamental coloring became his signature.

In the second half of the 1960s, editing began to be used toward a new layer of semantic structuring. This added a new film element to Bulgarian animated film, exemplified in Ivan Andonov's Esperanza.

Three Fools was based on Bulgarian folklore. © Boyana Films

The Golden Years

The 1970s witnessed a new flow of authors who focused their attention on Bulgarian folklore. Examples are Jolly Fellows (Dimiter Tomov, Pencho Bogdanov), The Three Fools (the most popular cartoon series among the Bulgarians, it is considered a trademark of the Bulgarian animation), The Intelligent Village (Donev) and The Lying Shepherd (Stoian Doukov). The early 1970s were also rich in childrens film productions such as The Little Frogman, Petio the Black Pirate (Zdenka Dojcheva), The Long Ears, A Bouquet of Stars, The Star and What to Become (Radka Buchvarova). The inventions of this period, with their strong linearity, geometric forms of character and background, seemed to draw from illustration rather than from caricature. Dominating was the intellectual principle that affected the whole build-up of the miniature-proverb.

Donyo Donev's Intelligent Village represents the Golden Years era of animation in Bulgaria. © Boyana Films

The mid-1970s saw the appearance of three new figures on the Bulgarian animation arena: Anri Kulev, Slav Bakalov and Nikolaj Todorov. They studied animation in Moscow, so they introduced a Russian influence to the Bulgarian animation tradition. Since his first films (Golgotha, Hypothesis, Kavalkada) Anri Kulev has shown a particularly emotional manner and a complicated drawing style. His films are among the first in the Bulgarian cinema to show a painful reaction to the world.

The two original works of Nikolai Todorov, Odyssey and Grandomania, suggest that he treats the drawing line and its dynamics like a personal trajectory of thought and emotion. Todorov demonstrated a virtuous control over animation techniques. After these films, Todorov started working with Anri Kulev. Their talents blended so smoothly that one can hardly identify their individual contributions in The Ship, Sunday, Bagpipe, Sympathy and A Day Like a Dandelion.

The "materiality" of Slav Bakalov's cutout technique is far from the aggressive advancements of his colleagues. He also made drawn animation and documentary films. Black and White, Model Nr, House of Dreams were some of his first films, followed by many other superb works. He gained notoriety with his Pastoral (1980) and scripts for Cuckoo (1983) directed by Velislav Kazakov. Marriage (in collaboration with Rumen Petkov) won the Palm DOr at the Cannes Festival 1984. Crushed World (1986), directed by Boyko Kanev, script and design Slav Bakalov, received the Grand Prix in Annecy 1986. With great artistry and fantasy, Slav Bakalov mixes popular customs with eroticism. Metamorphosis, viewpoint changes, dynamic story telling, professional handling of the characteristics of the materials these are the most common features of his animation.

Marriage, a collaboration between Slav Bakalov and Rumen Petkov, won the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1984. © Boyana Films

Rumen Petkov debuted with Formula 73, followed by the series for Sharo, The Two Frogs, Choko and Boko and the first Bulgarian feature film, The Planet of the Treasures, etc. With Marriage (in collaboration with Slav Bakalov), he won the Palm DOr at the Cannes Festival 1984. He works in Los Angeles, and has been a director on Johnny Bravo, done storyboards for Real Monsters and won the U.S. President's Award for Think Earth.

Pencho Kunchev studied animation in Bratislava. He directed the 12-part children series The Baby, a Bulgarian/Slovack co-production. Recently he finished his latest short, The Blue Eyed Moon, an erotic story based on "Bilitiss Songs" poem by Peter Luis, produced by Boyana Films.


Pencho Kunchev works both ends of the age spectrum. The Baby (left) is a 12-part children's TV series, while his latest work, Blue Eyed Moon, is an erotic short subject. © Boyana Films

The New Generation

In the mid 1980s, the animators from the first classes of the animation department at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia started to make their own mark. While still at the Academy, the students created a number of noteworthy shorts such as Cuckoo and Libido by Velislav Kazakov, The Snow Zoo and Bao Boom by Latchezar Ivanov, Sumatoha by Ivan Tankushev, Victory by Venelin Petkov, Paper Cranes by Lubomir Hristov, Indian Summer by Alexander Zachariev, Am-am Show by Gospodin Nedelchev - Dido, The General and Dugi-Dugi by Vladimir Shishkov, For Men Only and Ehh by Zlatin Radev.

Zlatin Radevs graduation film, Canfilm (1990) was a strong political satire about life in a society of cans told with a brilliant use of the stop-motion technique. The dark and grotesque anti-utopia about totalitarian society won 20 international awards in two years. In 1991, it received an Academy Award nomination for a student film. It was broadcast and distributed all over Europe and the U.S., and enjoyed both festival and commercial success. Canfilm was followed by Shock (1996) an ironic story about an animator and his drawn characters. It embodied an ingenious mix of stop-motion, paper cutouts, animation-on-paper and pixilation, all taken to the extreme. Shock received 11 awards and was broadcast on BBC, SAT 1, and the Canal + channels in France, Spain and Italy.

The students of The National Academy of Theatre and Film Art and the New Bulgarian University, both in Sofia, are the future hope of Bulgarian animation. There is a great variety in techniques, genres and visual styles. Expression moves from philosophical proverb to pure entertainment.

A number of films by young and recognized animators and students have been shown at Annecy. These include Painter by Vitko Boyanov a charming miniature-proverb with a rapid rhythm and masterly animation; Game Over by Gospodin Nedeltchev and Love Story by Vlado Shishkov. Professional skills, creativity and fantasy also mark The Room and The Dream of a Dog by Borika Maleva, Deliverance by Roza Kolchagova, A, B, C by Dimiter Dimitrov; Dissociacion and The Attempt Counts by Theodore Ushev, Macho by Sevina Ivanova and Yellow by Ivan Rusev. All of them suggest great potential.

A number of Bulgarian animation directors live and work in the United States and Canada. Latchezar Ivanov is a freelance layout and character design artist in Los Angeles, Velislav Kazakov works in Montreal for CINAR and CinéGroupe, Ivan Tankushev has been an animation supervisor for Nelvana. Lubomir Hristov has served as a creative director at Cinesite in L.A. The youngest, Bronislav Likomanov, is a director at Klasky Csupo.

After the political changes in the late 1980s the Bulgarian government started to limit financing, so the National Film Center was founded to partially support new films outside of the studio structure. Bulgarian animators lived wonderfully in the past on state subsidies and government money. Now they face the realities of a market economy, which affects all aspects of their personal and professional lives. They face funding problems as well as problems with finding new kinds of stories and ways to reach an audience. The new computer technologies, the growing international animation market and the Internet all demand knowledge and skills that have to be constantly updated.

Contemporary Bulgarian animation shows professionalism, originality and determination, as well as a variety of styles, aesthetic concepts and techniques that reflect world trends, which, at the same time, promote the development of strong Bulgarian animation traditions.

Animation appears to be the most dynamic art in the Internet era, so its traditions in Bulgaria, along with the new generation of animators, are on their way to face the challenges of the new times.

Maria Janeva studied Bulgarian literature and linguistics at the Sofia University and has translated cinema-related articles and books. She has also assisted in animated and film productions. She does critical writing for the cinema and is published on the Internet.

Additional editing and research was done by Rossi Lazarova and Iva Itchevska.