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Having Soul: 45 Years of Nukufilm Studio

Estonia's puppet animation studio, Nukufilm recently celebrated their 45th anniversary. Chris Robinson traces their intriguing roots.


In its 45 year history, Nukufilm has grown and changed. Little Peter's Dream (above) was the studio's first movie and Way To Nirvana marked its entry into the 21st century. All images © Nukufilm Ltd.

While the roots of Estonian animation can be traced back to the 1930s when a trio of men made a rather awkward American wanna-be cut-out film called The Adventures of Jukus the Dog, this turned out to be a one shot deal. In truth, Estonian animation was born in 1957 with the creation of Nukufilm (meaning "puppet film"). Despite decades of uncertainty under both the Soviet Communist system and the global marketplace, Nukufilm has survived, thrived and is now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

Tuganov the Trailblazer

Ironically, Elbert Tuganov, the father of Estonian animation, was actually born in Baku, Azerbaijan (1920) and began his animation career in Germany working for a couple of commercial studios including the Döhring Film company. When Hitler took power, Tuganov decided it was best to return to Estonia, where he served for the Estonian Army (which was incorporated into the Red Army when the Soviets took over Estonia). After his discharge from the army in 1946, Tuganov sought employment at Tallinnfilm (the state film studio). He was offered a cameramans assistant position in their so-called animation department. For eleven years, Tuganov shot, drew, and painted titles and credit sequences. During this time he also modernized the studios primitive technical apparatus. Originally, says Tuganov, they used to Nail the credits to the wall and the camera was set up on a tripod. So, in order to shoot credits more adequately and fashion trick shots, Tuganov built an animation stand that would allow the studio to do frame by frame shooting. A visiting Moscow official was impressed by the new apparatus and suggested that the studio make animation films.

Tuganov immediately set out to find scripts and stories that would be suitable for production. He landed a Danish story called Palle Alone in the World. This became the basis for the first Nukufilm production, Little Peters Dream (1957). In the film, a troublesome little boy, a playground bully, endures an evening of nightmares in which he wanders through a deserted city. In the end, the boy awakes fearful but with a new awareness of the importance of being kind to others. Consequently, he returns to the playground with a much better attitude.

With a running time of twenty minutes, Little Peters Dream is far too long and the main character is not interesting enough to hold the audiences attention. Nevertheless, the film is not as primitive as one might expect. The animation is awkward and jumpy at times, but the character rendering and set design are, not surprisingly given Tuganovs architecture aspirations, quite accomplished and original.

For the next four years, the filmmaking process mimicked that of the first production six or seven people worked on the film alongside artists from the Estonian puppet theatre. We ordered the puppets for our first films according to sketches from the puppet theatre, says Tuganov. The theatre made the puppets for us and then we made the film. After the fourth film, Mina and Murri (1961), animation production received a budgetary blessing from Tallinnfilm. The divisions staff grew to twenty and it was decided that the puppets would then be fashioned in the studio.

As with the entire country, the film industry was governed by a planned economy. Productions had to be formulated and budgeted in advance. A yearly plan that included a list of films had to be made. Each screenplay had to be submitted to Moscow for approval. A storyboard was then created and both script and storyboard were sent for approval to the management of the studio. Prior to completion, the director would show the studio producer a mute version of the film. If all was deemed acceptable by the artistic commission, then the film was handed over to Goskino in Moscow where they then ordered screening prints for distribution throughout the Soviet Union.


A Helping Hand

By 1961, it became clear that Tuganov alone could not maintain enough of a workload to keep everyone employed. He decided to find a second director. Heino Pars worked as a camera assistant to Aimée Beekmann on Little Peters Dream and A Forest Tale (1959). When Beekmann left, Pars stepped in and worked as cinematographer for the next eight Nukufilm films. Pars was always approaching Tuganov with ideas for films and in 1961 he was finally given his first opportunity to direct. Initially he made a test episode and then came his first solo film, Little Motor Scooter in 1962. After Little Motor Scooter, Pars created the first Estonian animation series, featuring the recurring character Kõps the cameraman. In each film (there were four in the series), Kõps takes viewers on expeditions to various exotic locales like the Mushroom Land, Berry Forest, and Uninhabited Island.

The production schedule at Nukufilm was set up so that when one director finished a film, another was immediately ready to start the next. When Pars started making films, says Tuganov, we each had people we tended to work with and there were also some people we shared. There were two art directors and we each had one. [Georgi] Tsukin worked with Pars and I worked with a succession of different art directors. We had to have two cameramen because the production periods overlapped. Then we reorganized things so that each had his own crew but we still traded people back and forth. The staff of each crew was not rigidly defined.

Growing Up

While Pars spent the 1960s focussed primarily on the Kõps series, Tuganov began alternating work on childrens films with more adult themed satires and also began experimenting with cut-out animation. Such films as Just So (1963), Park (1966), Stubborness (1966), Cogwheel (1968) and Pedestrians (1971) gently mocked modern Soviet bureaucracy.

What makes Tuganovs satires and parodies so interesting is that they fuse Estonian identity (through the characters and the many contributions of Estonian writers, musicians and artists) with aspects of Western culture. It is easy to see why children and viewers in the Soviet Union loved Estonian animation. It gave not only a peek inside another culture, but also at another world. As Heino Pars noted in an interview, They [Russians] regarded us rather well and they loved coming here for visits very much because being here was a little bit like being in the West.

Our films were different from Moscow films, says Tuganov. Each frame of a Moscow cartoon or puppet animation was filled. There was not even one square centimetre of clean surface. We here in Estonia had clear surfaces. We had breathing space and our colour tones were beautiful and somehow different. And in fact, the bright colour tones of which Tuganov speaks had roots in Pop Art and the lush, bright tones that we associate with 1950s American design and architecture.

Tuganov exposed himself to a great deal of animation, film and art and obviously knew, through his travels especially, what trends were occurring in modern art at the time. There was no information blockade, says Tuganov. We saw the newer Disney films and so on. I attended the Ottawa festival and other festivals many times, so I was not isolated.

In 1972, Pars made one of his strongest works and easily the most adult tale Nukufilm had produced: Nail (1972). Over a decade before John Lasseter went to all that digital effort to humanize lamps, unicycles and snow globes, Pars, without computers, achieved the same effect using nails as his protagonists. Nail consists of four short comical stories dealing with such decidedly saucy topics as seduction, betrayal, drunkenness and the ever-comical death.

Throughout the 1970s, Pars continued to fuse his love of nature with animation and the best results were River of Life and Song to the Spring. Song to the Spring combines puppet animation with live-action backgrounds as an old man awakes with the day and conducts the forest birds, flowers, sun and grass to rise and sing. The mixture of puppet animation and live-action is awkward at times. The puppet character does not add any special dimension to the film that a live actor could not have. In fact, the film is essentially a live-action film. Nonetheless, Pars manages to express his love of nature enthusiastically yet gently, without crossing into the realm of cheesy new-age serenity. Nothing feels forced or deliberate; Song to the Spring emerges simply as a document of the new day and season, a celebration of re-awakening and the on-going process of being.

Heino Pars, who worked as a cinematographer for Nukufilm, created and developed the studio's first animation series, Little Motor Scooter, which introduced Kõps the cameraman.

Heino Pars, who worked as a cinematographer for Nukufilm, created and developed the studio's first animation series, Little Motor Scooter, which introduced Kõps the cameraman.

River of Life is a fitting end to Pars career. (He did make two more films after that, but neither are particularly interesting.) As the title suggests, the constant motion of the river symbolizes that of life. While there is a thread linking the films images, ending with the birth of a child, the film is at times more akin to non-narrative experimental film. Pars seems intent on capturing the fluidity, conflict and random beauty of the always-flowing river. Pars possesses a great eye for detail. He doesnt just blandly depict the water as a whole but shows us its individual drops in all their fragility and personality, and further takes us underwater to show us an assortment of forms, shapes and creatures. The river, like life, is marked by ebb and flow this, now that.

A New Generation: Attempt #1

During the latter half of the 1970s, Elbert Tuganov realized that he and Pars were getting wrinkly and that new directors were needed. With the exception of two attempts in the early 1970s, Tuganov and Pars were the only directors at the studio from 1958-1975. They were so full of power and energy, says Arvo Nuut, the current Nukufilm producer, They didnt lack ideas and did the work that had to be done but after that period they realized that new people were needed. They sought people who could easily fit into the style and ambitions of the studio. This first group, which included well-known Estonian artist Kaarel Kurismaa, Nukufilm animator Aarne Ahi and former cameraman Kalju Kurepõld, did not work out as hoped. Kurismaa and Kurepõld were already mature artists. The films were not so good. Everyone but Ahi returned to their own artistic worlds. By 1980 Nukufilm was back to square one.

Tuganov Goes Hi-tech

Meanwhile, Tuganov made a handful of technically audacious films, including the astonishing time-lapse film Inspiration (1975), a document of the famous Estonian song festival, and what may be the worlds first stereoscopic (what we used to call 3D films) puppet animation films Souvenir (1977) and The Dappled Colt (1981).

Inspiration is perhaps Tuganovs finest achievement, at least conceptually. The film is a pixillated document of the preparations for, and performance of, the famous Estonian Song Festival. We witness the days swift rise, then people dressing and assembling for the festival, and by the films end, a massive gathering of Estonians singing. The film is seemingly unremarkable in that its just a gathering of people, a conventional chronology of a day in the life. But when one considers that this was Soviet-occupied Estonia during the repressive days of USSR President Leonid Brezhnev, the film is a monumental patriotic achievement. It stands as a subtle, yet ultimately overwhelming, celebration of Estonian culture in firm defiance of Soviet occupation.

Following Inspiration, Tuganov decided to make a 3D (stereoscopic) animation film. Tuganov had become fascinated with 3D film technology after seeing the work of some Moscow filmmakers. The Russian technology was different from the American system, says Tuganov. The Americans simultaneously projected film from three different projectors onto the same screen to create the effect. In the Russian system, the camera squashed the picture together into one frame. The lens of the projector decompressed the picture into 3D format and only one projector was needed. The negative was the same, only the frame was slightly larger. Upon returning from Moscow, Tuganov decided to make the first 3D puppet film in the USSR and encountered no objections from Moscow nor Tallinnfilm. The 3D process was so interesting to Tuganov that he made another stereoscopic film, Dappled Colt, which would turn out (although he didnt know it at the time) to be his final film.

Rao Heidmets used puppet theatre to dramatize the cruelty of the world in Papa Carlos Theatre.

Rao Heidmets used puppet theatre to dramatize the cruelty of the world in Papa Carlos Theatre.

New Voices Emerge Finally

In 1982, Tuganov retired from Nukufilm leaving the studio desperate to find new directors (Heino Pars continued to make films until 1990). Fortunately, this time around the studios recruiting efforts were more successful because they went after young people who hadnt found themselves as artists yet. This new group included Rao Heidmets, Kalju Kivi, Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer. "They didnt save Estonian puppet animation, but developed it further," says Arvo Nuut. Then again, one could argue that the quartet did in fact save the puppet studio because clearly with Tuganov gone and Pars running out of steam, Nukufilm was desperately in need of some fresh voices to keep film production going. If they did not save Estonian puppet animation, they certainly preserved it.

Rao Heidmets

Rao Heidmets joined Nukufilm in 1982 as an animator and within a year he started his first film, Pigeon Aunt (1983). "It was a good time for me because they were looking for new talents and I started to work with Priit Pärn. He was like my first and only teacher in animation," explains Heidmets.

Pigeon Aunt is an innovative film and the use of a three dimensional cut-out technique immediately sets it apart from anything previously created at Nukufilm. "I feel I did what I wanted with Pigeon Aunt," says Heidmets, "and I remember that I had this thinking that it was a new technique. The 3D cut-out was Pärns idea and this was a new technique and I thought that maybe I should adopt this as a style but then I wanted to try different things. Maybe this was a mistake, I dont know but I think each film I made was different from the last."

Pigeon Aunt is an innovative film and the use of a three dimensional cut-out technique immediately sets it apart from anything previously created at Nukufilm. "I feel I did what I wanted with Pigeon Aunt," says Heidmets, "and I remember that I had this thinking that it was a new technique. The 3D cut-out was Pärns idea and this was a new technique and I thought that maybe I should adopt this as a style but then I wanted to try different things. Maybe this was a mistake, I dont know but I think each film I made was different from the last."

Excluding the Christmas film, Päkiapikupuu (1991), Heidmets' most successful works are his last three films: Papa Carlos Theatre (1988), Noblesse Oblige (1989) and Living Room (1994). Papa Carlo, made in collaboration with Priit Pärn, uses a puppet theatre as an allegory of a desensitized world where atrocities and violence are an everyday reality. In Noblesse Oblige, Heidmets, using large puppets, this time criticized the shallowness of a bourgeois family. Living Room is Heidmets' most successful film. It is a mix of scratch animation and pixillation. Living Room examines the relationship between three generations: a woman, her father and her young daughter. Heidmets' use of high contrast film, with the violence of the scratched images, and the stuttering pixillated movements, all combine to give the film a dark, tentative and tense environment.

After completing Living Room, Heidmets turned away from animation, making feature films for children. From 1999-2001, he was in charge of the Children and Youth Program at Estonian State TV. This year he returned to animation and has started pre-production on his first puppet film since 1994.

Kalju Kivi

In terms of quality and diversity of techniques, Kalju Kivi is the most ambitious and exciting animator in Estonia. Since his first film, Sheet of Paper (1981), Kivi has animated with objects, puppets, photo collage, cut-out, string, fabric and pixillation. The results have not always been successful, but they are always interesting.

Bride of Star and Kaleidoscope are Kivis strongest works. Bride of Star is based on an Estonian folk song and tells the story of a girl whom both the moon and the sun woo, but in the end she accepts the star. The most intriguing part of the film is the narration, which is all sung, and the incredible backgrounds and designs that are all made from rope and fabric materials.

Kaleidoscope uses coloured shards of glass to document the evolution of the planet from random motion of objects that transform eventually into more stable, predictable and recognizable natural and human shapes.

Kaleidoscope uses coloured shards of glass to document the evolution of the planet from random motion of objects that transform eventually into more stable, predictable and recognizable natural and human shapes.

Since independence, Kivi has spent most of his time working with the Estonian National Puppet Theatre, where he works primarily as a theatre set designer.

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer made Springfly early in their partnership.

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer made Springfly early in their partnership.

The Brothers: Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer

While walking down a hallway at the national Eesti Film Archives, I noticed an old (circa 1980s) photo of two guys, shabbily dressed, toasting each other. They looked like mirror reflections of one another: similar suit, beard and glasses. The two men in the picture were Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer. Not surprisingly, the similarities between the two went beyond their looks, they were school friends and artistic partners on a number of animation films. They were so close that often they were referred to as brothers.

Kalju Kivi told Unt of a vacancy at the studio. Unt applied, was hired and started work as an animator on Kivis film, Knot (1983). I didnt enjoy the experience, says Unt, I was an interior designer forced to work as an animator. Nevertheless, Unt stayed and within a year was making his first animation film.

Hardi Volmer came to animation through Unt. Riho suggested that we make a film together because there was really good timing for us. The old gang was tired and ready to go and there was a hole and they needed new young filmmakers. Otherwise it could be complicated to go to work in a studio as a director immediately. You usually had to work step by step.

They sort of trusted us, says Unt, and trust was a very dubious thing in those days, but they knew Hardi and I had worked together and they let us make a film.

With their first film, Wonderful New Years Eve (1984), Volmer and Unt set out to make a nice Christmas story, even though Christmas was something you couldnt really mention in Soviet time. To get around it, they used an older Estonian word that translated as New Year instead of Christmas.

Wonderful New Years Eve showed that Volmer and Unt worked well as a team. We were both designers and directors and script writers, but it worked, says Volmer. We are very similar but we also fill each others gaps.

We were in sync, adds Unt, and it was more comforting to work together. Every film started from an idea so we sat together, made a storyboard together, but then had to decide what each of us would dobecause it made no sense to duplicate everything but we shared the basic things.

Like the early days, Nukufilm was full of fresh new faces; as such there was a lot of positive energy at the studio. The studio was out of the city almost in a forest, says Volmer, and everyday we took a special Tallinnfilm bus to the countryside. There was nothing but nature around. The whole group was really close and it was a lovely feeling to work in such an environment.

The brothers started on their next film, Enchanted Island (1985), almost immediately. This time they went outside of Estonia for their source material. We were reading these North Siberian/Iberian fairytales. The stories were really very crazy and non-linear. We were used to concrete fairytales but we saw something different.

Enchanted Island was their first film shown in the West, when it was accepted at the Annecy festival. Riho and I had never even been to Finland at this time. It was very exciting to see these films and there was so much. I think this was when Street of Crocodiles played [by The Brothers Quay] and after we saw this we thought, Oh, what shit we are doing at home.


The "brothers" Unt and Volmer continued their collaboration with The War (1988), their fourth film together.

Following the funny and philosophical, Springfly (1986), the brothers made The War (1988). A small bat occupies an abandoned factory. He goes about his life in peace, disturbing no one. Then one day, some rats arrive and begin taking over the building and disrupting the bats life. Another day, crows arrive and do the same. Finally, the rats and crows fight each other and in turn destroy the bats home. The parallel to the German-Russian occupation of Estonia during the early 1940s is obvious, but the strength of The War is the universality of its message. This could, and has, happened anywhere.

The War was the brothers fourth collaboration together and while they reunited to make two more films neither is up to the standard of this quartet of earlier works. It was a natural development, says Unt, at a certain moment we developed different ways. At the beginning we were beginners in animation so the interest to create something new kept us together.

During the first few films we did everything together, says Volmer, because everything was discussed between us. But as time went on differences started to develop and from that point on it wasnt so easy.

Since independence, Unt has been the more successful of the two in animation. Volmer has had his hands in animation, theatre and cinema, and while hes had success with feature films it seems that he has not been able to duplicate that in animation. His solo animation shorts are all interesting but hindered by technical and conceptual weaknesses.

Unt Goes Solo

Unt spent the 1990s preoccupied with his Samuel Trilogy: Cabbagehead (1993), Back to Europe (1997) and Samuels Internet (2000). Cabbagehead is based on a popular Estonian play written at the turn of the century by playwright, Oskar Lutso. Updated for contemporary audiences (and influenced by the films Raiders of The Lost Ark and Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), Cabbagehead centres on Samuel, a stubborn farmer who steals his neighbours gigantic cabbage in the hopes of winning top prize (five roubles) at the state fair. Word gets out about Samuels cabbage and soon every country wants a piece of it.

Riho Unt continued his animation career with the solo film Cabbagehead. For the first time in Estonian animation, the audience's reaction and the commercial marketplace were important considerations.

Riho Unt continued his animation career with the solo film Cabbagehead. For the first time in Estonian animation, the audience's reaction and the commercial marketplace were important considerations.

While Cabbagehead clearly addresses issues of Estonian independence (i.e., everyone will want a piece of Estonia), the film is of more interest for its obvious commercial ambitions. Unt contends that artistic factors were secondary: We were consciously trying to make something more commercial. Unfortunately, Unt had never seen any of Englands Aardman Animations' stop-motion films. In comparison, Cabbagehead, despite a strong script and animation, is a decidedly primitive film that pales next to the smooth, professional look of Aardmans work.

More importantly, Cabbagehead suggested a new reality for Estonian animation: a commercial marketplace. You have to think more of the audience these days and you have to work harder and be more precise about what you are doing, says Unt. In the Soviet times, you could pour all of your stress and problems into your metaphoric work. These days you cant do that anymore. The financial side requires different thinking. In those days, you didnt have to worry about where the money was coming from. These days your story has to be good and well thought out. Clearly, Cabbagehead signalled a new era for Estonian animators.


Rewind: On August 20, 1991, Estonia became an independent country again. But while freedom arrived, Moscow money departed. When Tallinnfilm (the state film production studio, which produced everything from features to shorts to documentaries) stopped receiving funding in 1994, the Nukufilm and Joonisfilm (a sister department under the Tallinnfilm umbrella that concentrated on cel animation, as opposed to puppet animations) divisions were re-established as independent studios under the control of their animators and producers. Nukufilm re-opened under the charge of producer Arvo Nuut and animators Rao Heidmets, Kalju Kivi, Hardi Volmer and Riho Unt.

Unt made Back to Europe in 1997, which is part of his

Unt made Back to Europe in 1997, which is part of his "Samuel" Trilogy.

We began to wonder what would happen to Nukufilm and what we should do, says Arvo Nuut. I had a lot of energy and started to suggest that we should get some money and continue to work as a private company. I had made over seventy films and maybe Id gotten to the point where I was a bit bored with it." In 1994, Nuut's new challenge would be taking over as the producer and administrator of the new Nukufilm, in partnership with Heidmets, Kivi, Volmer and Unt.

Led by this team, Nukufilm made out just fine during the 1990s, continuing to produce a wide-range of personal films (including the brilliant Mati Kütt films Smoked Sprat Baked in the Sun, 1992, and Underground, 1997) and even co-producing a few childrens productions. During this time, the studio also added some new faces in Mait Laas and Mikk Rand, who along with made the acclaimed film The Crow and Mice in 1998. Laas in particular has proven to be a valuable addition to Nukufilm.

In 1997, Laas was given the opportunity to make his first professional film, Daylight. From a technical standpoint, Daylight (a story about a group of kids in a neighbourhood block) stands out immediately. Its mixed-media technique with photocopied heads (which in close-ups look like the dirty, grainy expressionist faces of Eisensteins staircase victims in Battleship Potempkin) on 3D wire bodies is eye-catching and innovative. Conceptually, Daylight is almost an anomaly for a young artist. Its actually a positive film. There is no loud rebellious scream against society, just an innocent, hippie induced call for love, light and peace.

Laas most recent film, Way To Nirvana (2000), is another visually striking film, this time about a young man riding what appears to be a death train with many elderly passengers. The film is filled with a wealth of symbols as the young man seemingly strives to find what he has been missing in his life. Nirvana was awarded the prestigious short film award at the 2000 Oberhausen Festival (which primarily caters to live-action films).

Beyond filmmaking, Laas has also become an important part of Nukufilms future. He is a constant fixture in the studio and has been working on TV pilots with the hope of landing Nukufilm a regular series. In December 2001, Laas was made a partner in Nukufilm.

A New World, New Challenges

Given the collapse in production and/or quality in other ex-Soviet occupied countries, the Nukufilm story is an unqualified success. Not only has their independent animation production continued, but its also maintained the same high level of quality (as evidenced by the numerous awards and prizes presented to the work over the last decade) of Soviet times. Furthermore, given the total lack of business experience, the studio has shown a remarkable flexibility in adapting to the capitalist system.

However, life at Nukufilm hasnt been all roses. I have to say that the beginning of independence was a really hard time economically for everyone, says Hardi Volmer. "Its complicated still because this period of changing systems is still going on and thats hard and mostly its nasty in a political and economical way.

In Soviet time, adds Arvo Nuut, the topic always had to be hidden and this was fascinating because when someone asked you about your works you could give another answer. Today we can talk about anything and some artists didnt know what to say anymore. But later on after some years things have somehow settled down. Artists are once again looking at human relations and general themes, so life is developing again.

Despite its miracle economy, Estonia as a country has also suffered through a lot of economic uncertainty. Westerners might believe that Estonians (and other ex-Soviet occupied realms) would just be thankful to have freedom, but that view is faulty. Certainly there is a different form of freedom, but is there more freedom? Now you can fly anywhere, if you have money. Now there is no menacing Russian bureaucracy, but there are new invaders called multinational corporations with subtler forms of censorship. One look at the stifling homogenizing characteristics of global culture clearly shows that differences of opinion are still not entirely encouraged or welcomed. And now Estonia is doing all it can, it seems, to win the favour of the European Union. But as Riho Unts Back to Europe suggests, what is the difference between this Union and the Soviet Union? Are not Estonias culture, language and resources still at risk of being assimilated by outside countries?

Mait Laas' work is filled with visually arresting images, as in Way To Nirvana.

Mait Laas' work is filled with visually arresting images, as in Way To Nirvana.

The choice of Heidmets, Kivi, Unt, Volmer and now Laas, has been a fortuitous one. All are heavily involved in a variety of artistic and cultural fields in Estonia today and have all had international success with their films. Certainly it has been hard on Nukufilm. Unt is the only one consistently visible at Nukufilm. With limited funding, there are only so few opportunities to make films. Volmer has been busy in theatre; Heidmets with live-action films and television production; and Kivi with puppet theatre work. In 2002-03, Heidmets and Volmer will be making their first puppet films in many years.

The fragmentation of Nukufilm has hurt the studio to some degree, but on the other hand the scattered nature of the studio has ensured that a wide array of voices are given the chance to be heard. The result is that Nukufilm has no single aesthetic style like the Priit Pärn style that Joonisfilm might be said to possess.

That being said, Riho Unt has become the creative backbone of Nukufilm. He is a focussed and generous artist. When hes not working on his own films, hes actively tutoring a number of young aspiring animation artists just as Tuganov and Pars did before him. By sharing his experience and knowledge that he himself acquired in part through Tuganov and Pars, Unt is like a bridge linking the young animators with the grandfathers. And yet during this process, he is acquiring new ways of thinking and seeing from his younger colleagues. Nukufilm is a fine example of how the Estonian animation oral tradition has maintained an active dialogue between past and present.

For any animation studio to survive 45 years is exceptional, but consider what Nukufilm has confronted and overcome: a variety of obstacles, from a lack of formal animation training to the cruel absurdities of both Soviet censorship and globalization. That Nukufilm has consistently produced an innovative, varied and internationally acclaimed body of work is miraculous. 

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Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is also the editor of the semi-annual ASIFA Magazine. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column ("The Animation Pimp) for Animation World Network and has written for, Cinemascope, Take One, 12gauge, City Pages and others. Robinson contributed a chapter on English-Canadian animation to the book, North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980. His book Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation will be published in May. He is currently at work on a strange book about childhood, alcoholism and an ex-hockey player tentatively called The Boy Who Never Grew Up.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.