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Estonian Animation X-rayed

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman continues his behind the scenes look at Atomic Cartoons to see how much work and time goes into getting a show off the ground.

First of all, this is a good book, definitely worth reading. It is interesting, well written and gives a lot for both those who are knowledgeable about the subject as well as those who are unfamiliar with it.

Secondly, even though the author is a regular contributor and columnist of this very magazine, my statement is not solicited. Im not trying to please my good buddy, (which he even isnt).

The book Im writing about is called Between Genius & Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation. The author is Chris J. Robinson, a Canadian who is known as the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Estonia is the little big man of animation, a nation of only 1.4 million inhabitants that boasts a long list of well-known artists and films in the world of animation. Remarkably, Estonia has produced many fine films both in the rigid Soviet Union state studio system and todays independent Estonia, which is one of the laboratories of laissez-faire neo-liberalistic capitalism. This is a kind of miracle to me.

Elbert Tuganov

The story begins, of course, from Elbert Tuganov. He directed the first real Estonian animated film Peetrikese unenägu (1957) and founded the Tallinnfilm studio. Tuganov worked actively until 1982, when he fled the Soviet Union and asked for a political asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany. This was denied, and Tuganov returned Soviet Union just to see that he was no longer allowed to make films. Tuganovs collegue Heino Pars is also well represented.

After Tuganov animation, historians usually name Rein Raamat, but Robinson presents also Kalju Kurepõld and Ants Looman who he names as The Missing Link. They worked in 1960s directly for Moscow and also with commercials. In 1969, they established Reklaamfilm, which provided animated commercials for the whole Soviet Union.

All Soviet factories had a certain amount of money for commercials, and in a centrally planned economy, they had to spend what was in the budget. Clients were happy if the price was high, and so were the animators. Many of the films were never shown to the public. Factories screened them for some clients and guests, happy to see that money was used.

Rein Raamat

Rein Raamat was the first Estonian animator to be really internationally recognized. He established the Tallinnfilm section for drawn cell animation in 1971. Until that, Estonian animation art had been only puppet or object animation.

As Robinson writes openly, Raamat was and is a controversial person in Estonian animation. He is the man behind the ascent of animation art, but also criticized for his way of working. The Estonian animators of today often downplay Raamats role, but Robinson gives him the place he rightly deserves.

Raamats strong side was to collect together the best possible artists to make the film and run the project through Soviet bureaucracy, stupid orders and censorship. Seventy percent of the animated films had to be done for children, but puppet film section Nukufilm already fulfilled this quota. Raamat could make films for adults.

Raamat even succeeded to make clearly nationalistic films in the Soviet Republic where anything other than Russian nationalism was considered the worst kind of crime. The best example is Suur Tõll (1980), a beautiful film with images of Jüri Arrak and music of Lepo Sumera. Another director of Raamats time was Avo Paistik.

Priit Pärn at the Tough Eye Animation Festival in 2003. Photo courtesy of Kelly Neall.

Pärn and Boys

Then comes the generation we know better, most still active in animation: Priit Pärn, Rao Heitmets, Kalju Kivi, Riho Unt, Hardi Volmer, Mati Kütt, Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits. They all began their work during the Soviet period before the Estonian independence in 1991.

Robinson does a thorough presentation of them. Especially comprehensive and detailed is the chapter dedicated to Priit Pärn. Robinson does not hide his admiration for Pärns art at all. Of course, there is no need for that either; Pärn is definitely one of the top animation filmmakers of the world. No problemo, I personally fully agree with Robinsons opinion that Pärns Eine murul (1987) is one of the most important animated films ever made.

After the fall of Soviet Union, the Tallinnfilm studio was shut down and animators established two private companies, Nukufilm mainly for puppet animation and Joonisfilm for drawn animation. Both are working well, producing both commercial films and art films. There have been two other studios for commercial animation in Tallinn, Raamats Studio B, which was later bankrupted, and a Danish subsidiary A Film.

And even the young generation is between the book covers. Robinson presents Ülo Pikkov, Mikk Rand, Priit Tender and Mait Laas and writes about Peep Pedmanson and Kaspar Jancis, too.

Why Estonia?

The book is based on interviews, and Robinson does not hesitate to juxtapose different opinions. You know, everyone does not like everyone. This gives the book some positive tension, even though it borders upon gossip.

Robinson is known from his columns for AWN as a very personal writer with an irritating style. This book is completely different. Its personally written, but concentrates on the topic, not on the writer himself.

The story of the book is reliable; it paints a realistic picture. There has been a lot of articles and even one trilingual book (Sergei Assenin: Estonian Animated Films and their Creators, 1986) on Estonian animation but Robinsons book still includes a lot of new information.

The question people always ask is why has Estonian animation made it? Why is it so appreciated? Robinson does not give a direct answer; he even states that it would be naïve to claim that there is one magical reason for it.

Some reasons he list are, Geography, Finnish television, caricatures, oral tradition, modern art. All true, but the role of the Finnish television has to be explained. Most Estonians could watch the Finnish television freely during Soviet time, and, due to the closely related language, they even understood it. This, together with a big number of Finnish tourists since the opening of the border in 1964, caused a lot of western influence, which other parts of Soviet Union didnt have.

One of the main reasons for success is, undoubtedly, the ability to gather the best artists together to do animation. When looking at the names of animation film teams one can notice that the best composers, writers and artists were there. Even internationally famous Arvo Pärt made a lot of animation music. Robinson dedicates one chapter to animation composers, a welcome offering.

Missing Women

An interesting topic, which the book does not touch at all, is the lack of female directors. Only in connection with recent events are some female artists even mentioned. The complete absence of female directors is unique in the world of animation, even though, according to current rumor, a Russian female director is working with an animation film at the Nukufilm studio. The Russians -- one third of Estonian population -- are also a missing from the field of animation.

My theory for the missing women places the blame on the studio system. Directors usually have to rise from animator or camera operator to director, which takes time. As in every hierarchic organisation, women are slow to climb the ladders to the top. Just name the three most famous female directors of Hollywood cartoon factories!

In western European, countries animators usually work alone, set up their own studio and have to apply separately money for each project. This works the same way for both men and for women. And finally the role of women is very traditional in Estonia. It is still very much a society of men, as it was in Soviet time.

The success story of Estonian animation also needed good luck. There were the right men in the right place at the right time doing the right things.


The book is full of interesting information. What do I miss? The birth dates for directors are not always given, which is a pity. Some important films made by Estonian directors for foreign contractors are not mentioned, e.g., seven part series Urpo ja Turpo (1997) co-directed by Riho Unt in Nukufilm studios is both artistically and technically good work. Beyond these details, Robinsons big picture is reliable.

It is also refreshing to read a book written by a North American writer, as Europeans have covered this topic until now. It is 80 kilometers from my home to Tallinn and Ive been visiting the city frequently since 1976 -- things looks different from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

At some points Robinson falls for a somewhat romantic view of small brave David Estonia next to big bad Goliath.

I do not believe either that the character of culture can be explained even partly by the structure of the language, as Robinson suggests. But then again, my language has the same structure as Estonian, so I cannot see it from an outside perspective. For me English looks like a funny and peculiar language.

These criticisms aside, the main thing is that this is a good book.

Between Genius & Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation by Chris J.Robinson. Tallinn, Estonia: Varrak Publishing, 2003. 276 pages. ISBN 9985-3-0722-4 (softcover $30.00)

Heikki Jokinen is a freelance journalist based in Helsinki, Finland and serves as a board member of ASIFA.