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Interview With Milan Zivkovic: Belgrade's Bikic Studio Attempts A Comeback

Surviving a war and sanctions, the Bikic Studio returns to the marketplace and prepares for an uphill waltz.

Milan Zivkovic, writer, director and CEO of Bikic Studio.

While in Annecy, I had an opportunity to speak with Milan Zivkovic, C.E.O of Belgrade's Bikic Studio. Founded in 1989 as a private, independent company by Veljko Bikic, the studio currently employs ten animators and roughly ten to fifteen technicians. Like most studios, they hire more people when work appears on the horizon. Mr. Bikic has been in the animation industry for over 25 years and has won many prizes at international film festivals like Leipzig, Annecy, Zagreb and Tampere. The studio is his heartfelt creation that he sometimes funds by selling his own possessions like his car and apartment. With this money he would be able to pay his staff so that they could stay in the studio and draw and practice. The studio specializes in the combination of live-action and animation. They were actually one of the first studios in Europe to combine the two when they completed the German produced Hatchi-Puh in 1986. This Serbian studio is currently trying to revitalize their business after six years of sanctions and war. In Annecy their short Big was in the short fiction films competition. Paradise, which was also presented at the last Hiroshima Festival, and over 20 other short animated films which have been produced over the past few years were screened at the MIFA. At their MIFA booth, Bikic Studio was promoting two projects which they have in the final stages of development: Captain John Pipplefox, a feature animated film for a general audience, and Pinkuluses, a television series for children. Besides, rebuilding from a war, this studio faces another problem, a problem that plagues studios throughout the world - the lack of a market.

The War's Impact

HK: How did the war affect your business? MZ: We suffered a lot like the rest of the country. We didn't have any contact with the rest of the world for about six years, which impacted our business tremendously, which affected our talent and that affected our lives. So many people from our business left the company, and are working around the world, including the States, Canada, Australia, etc. For the first time, this year we are out of the country and trying to rebuild, re-establish what we were six or seven years ago. This festival [Annecy] actually helped us back in the Seventies, because our films were shown here and awarded here. Then we got several co-productions with the Canadians and Germans. But everything stopped after the war started. So this is our first outing after the sanctions, and our first try to make new contacts and explain to people that we are still able to do business. HK: Did last year's Zagreb festival help you? MZ: Yes, we were there. We were very surprised that they invited us, but we sent our films. We got the message from our friends that it would be better for us if we didn't come, because they couldn't guarantee our safety. Still, it was the first gesture of a good relationship on their side, and our films were well received there. HK: How did the war affect the ties within the animation community within the former Yugoslavia?

MZ: Now we are separate countries (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia), but we try to keep close professional ties with them. When we meet here or somewhere else in the world, we are good friends still. We don't talk politics and we just talk about what we are doing and how we can help each other. Unofficially, we talk to each other over the phone and we meet somewhere else and we try to rebuild the professional relationships we had. But politicians are still avoiding to come to a solution which will help us all rebuild the country. We hope that through the art of animation, or any other form of art, that we will be able to do that. Because we weren't in the war. We were not shooting at each other. Some other people did. And we all suffered the consequences of that.

The Paradise (1994), a short film directed by Nedeljko Ubovic for Bikic Studio.

Living Under Sanctions

HK: The sanctions are now lifted. Do you have a fine supply of materials or is it still a problem?

MZ: Very much so. We have to go abroad for each and every item we need. Since the country is in such an economical state, its very, very hard and expensive for us to get any materials. So what we are trying to do is to make partnerships, collaborations, providing services for Western European countries, and through those deals, to get some materials for our own productions. Yugoslavia never even actually produced, even before the war, most of the materials which are needed for the production of animated films. Normally, we have been able to buy but now because of lack of money, it is impossible. During the sanctions, we smuggled it in or friends brought it in suitcases, and things like that. Even pencils and paper, cels. Not to mention sophisticated stuff like software for computers. We constantly lack film stock to shoot the films. Our laboratory is closed, so we have to go either to Bulgaria or to Budapest or somewhere else for post production services.

HK: During the sanctions you couldn't produce a thing?

MZ: Well, we survived. First of all, this company in particular, managed to survive by making commercials for Yugoslav companies. And we developed other lines of product, like design, like making documentaries and industrial films, things like that. Whoever would pay something, we would go for it. We managed to survive, thanks primarily to some good friends from abroad, who helped us, who knew us from before.

HK: They gave you work?

MZ: Right, unofficially. We can talk about this now, since it's over, but then they were at a big risk. There is a very interesting story about a Swiss ambassador, who was an art collector and who loved animation very much. He, on his own risk, through diplomatic channels, brought some technical materials into Yugoslavia. He was called back by the Swiss government, and was charged. I think that he is not in the diplomatic service anymore, because of the sanctions. He was not doing it for his own interest, but to help us out. But because of that he suffered a professional loss. There are a few other people who were lucky and were not caught in doing this, and that's how we survived.

HK: It's amazing that in the midst of a war, you were still being asked to do commercials for products. These commercials were commissioned from inside and outside of the country? In secrecy?

Artists at work in the studio.

MZ: Yeah. We did quite a few commercials ... primarily due to the name of Mr. Bikic, who is a very well-established animator and designer. Everybody knew him. Thanks to that, people didn't care about the sanctions or anything, they just went for the right product and the right person. It always went through a middle man. Now officially the sanctions are off, and nobody can touch them for what they've been doing. I think they are actually proud to help us out in this situation, and we appreciate that very much.

Talent Flight

HK: Is it hard to find trained people?

MZ: Very hard. We have a pool but we also have a training ground for young people who are finishing up schools, or designers who like animation. We bring them into the studio, and one or two of our animators work with them and introduce them to the art of animation. So we have constantly a flow of young people coming in. Unfortunately, not many of them stay in animation, because there is not enough work for all of them, so they have to find something else to do. On the other hand, the salaries we can offer are not big enough to be so appealing to them, so they move to something else.

HK: To another country?

MZ: To another country or another job.

HK: Do you think as time goes on, though, people will come back? I should think that if you'd left your home country, you would always, want to come back as soon as it was possible again.

MZ: Well, that is my case. I left before the war started, three years before. I left because I did not feel comfortable there. Once I found out that there was a chance for political change, I went back. But I never cut the ties with personal and professional friends. I was there two or three times during the year, they would come and visit. We always have been working on something together.

Starting Again

HK: How much work were you doing prior to the war and with which companies and countries?

MZ: Altogether, we produced, prior to the war, around 1,000 minutes of animation for our own productions. Then we worked on a long series for a Canadian group, and provided services for them. We worked with a German company on a feature film, a combination of live action and animation. We did all of the animation for them. Right after that job, the war broke out. Once we established a position in the animation community, we were cut off.

HK: How is it going now?

MZ: It's building up. It's a very slow and painful process, but...

HK: Do you find that people are reluctant to talk to you once they know that you represent a Serbian company?

MZ: Not for political reasons or anything to do with the war, but because people are very conscious of the risk involved in putting their money in a country which is economically and politically unstable. That's why people are reluctant. But we invite everyone to come to see for themselves, our studio, our facilities, watch how we function, and to show them through complete products, that it is possible to do business with us. More and more people are coming, mostly those who knew Beograd before the war. They understand better the situation now. It's much easier to explain to someone who was familiar with the situation before, what's going on, than to someone who is totally unaware of the whole history. We use this opportunity to re-establish contacts and make some new contacts and to try to persuade people that we are as good as we were before, that we are as capable of doing the things that we did before. Now there is a great advantage for them because our prices, for our services, for the quality we are giving, are very competitive, even compared to Southeast Asia. That's the main advantage people see in being with us.

HK: Do you feel that now your studio is completely able to do a large production?

Bread, a ten second commercial.

MZ: I think so definitely. We lack some technical facilities. We cannot do post production. But in terms of classical animation, we can do anything which can be done anywhere in the world. I say that not only to promote ourselves, but based on the fact that whomever saw our materials here (in Annecy) were very appreciative of the quality of animation. In terms of technique and art, I think it's as good as any.

Smuggling Software

HK: What other sort of technical aspects do you think you lack?

MZ: Computers, software, the right software. We have been dreaming about buying Silicon Graphics for a year now. We are saving money for that. We have some software. We use 3D Studio Max, Digital Fusion and ADOBE Premiere, but [Softimage] Toonz we still don't have. We were just negotiating with Microsoft to give us a discount for Toonz.

HK: Can you talk about that for a bit? How many systems, or what do you have? MZ: We are working on PCs, Pentiums. HK: For ink and paint?

MZ: Right. We have only four computers. Some of the software we developed ourselves. Some of it was stolen. There were sanctions, so nobody cared about the copyrights at that time. But now that the sanctions are over, we have contacted those companies to say, `Okay, we have the hacker's copy of your program, now we want to buy the real one.' HK: What is their reaction? MZ: They laugh! Because Yugoslavia is still uncharted territory for most of the Western countries. They don't even consider us, like they do with the copyrights in China or other countries in Southeast Asia. It's such a small market that nobody really caresyet. But once it opens and once we start to build it, of course, they will put their hand on it and get tighter control. So we were treated like smugglers, like rebels, and we became like that, in certain ways. If we couldn't get the right software, we would break through it and get it. As you know, there is a market for that. You can buy it anyplace in the world. For ten dollars you can get software which costs thousands and thousands of dollars. We are neither proud nor ashamed of that, it was just necessity. Now that we are dealing with serious companies, we have become more serious in our business plans. So, we are putting aside those years and this practice, and are building the studio from the ground up.

Sisyphus(1992), a short film directed by Vladimir Stanec.

Tomorrow's Outlook

HK: Are you hopeful for the future? Do you think that soon it will be how it was before the war, or do you think that you still have economic hurdles, supply hurdles? MZ: I think its going to be very difficult. This year is going to be very tough for us and the next one too. But we wouldn't be here [Annecy] if we didn't believe that the change is possible for the better. That we are capable of persuading people that we can do a quality job. Even though the circumstances, political and economical, are working against us, we hope and believe that we can manage to survive, to build a company, to purposely take one or two steps back, to where we were ten tears ago, in order to gain the ground and start moving forward again. HK: Is there anything else you want to add? MZ: I wish that American animation companies would let us Europeans show the American public...that there is stuff which is produced here which is as, or almost as, good as what's produced in the States. And I wish that the monopoly of the huge American corporations in the media industry, is softened a bit. Let us show that we can do something which has an interest for the American public, and not only ask our animators to come over and work. They are not asking for product. They are not asking for anything but just for the plain labor. And I think we can offer more than that. Not just our studio, but Europeans in general. We would like to sell our talents and brains, not only the labor. HK: Would you be interested, for instance, in doing contract television product, like South Asia? Is that a market that you would look to be interested in? MZ: Of course we would. We would be very much interested in collaborating, very much interested in providing services. We would appreciate very much to learn from the Americans, because we believe that they are the leaders. They are the best in animation, like in any other media industry. What we wouldn't allow to be done to us is to become a colony of some big corporation. Do you know how long it takes to create an animator? Seven to eight years of hard work. Lots of money and lots of work goes into it. And they, Disney and Warner, they want to get the final product for nothing. That's not fair. But we cannot stop people from living in Paris, or London or even Los Angeles. I cannot blame people for going for their well-being, but it's the system I don't approve of. Our industry is going down the drain because we don't have animators. Big studios took them. We don't have funds to produce anything decent. And of course, you cannot see in European theaters, a European feature film. From your wildest dreams you will never see an animated feature film from Europe playing in theaters in the United States. I guess its the market law of the strongest, made by the strongest for the strongest.

My World(1996), a short film directed by Snezana Trstenjak.

HK: Is the animated product on television in Yugoslavia predominantly American programming? MZ: Yes, most, and we can't even fight them in our own country. That's how it is. What I was trying to do, because I lived in the States, I wanted to learn so much. I wanted to bring their expertise to our part of the world. I always thought that competition was a good thing. The NBA (National Basketball Association) can play in Europe if you allow it to happen. But if you take the cream of the crop over there, and you leave the rest to us, then we really cannot compete with you. The public doesn't care where it (programming) comes from. But I don't think its good for the industry. They're becoming self-sufficient and too self-indulgent in what they're doing. Unless they see some strong forthcoming around the corner, they'll just feel content at what they do. It just might happen that American media industry gets hit very hard, as it happened to American car industry some twenty or so years ago. I think its much cheaper to build a studio in Budapest or Beograd or Prague, and have development and production there, than it is to run the studio in Burbank. Then it would be a collaboration, and not exploitation. All of us have our little pride, and if you try to put us down we get angry at that. Heather Kenyon is Editor in Chief of Animation World Magazine.