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Little Big Estonia: The Nukufilm Studio

On the 40th anniversary of Estonia's Nukufilm, Heikki Jokinen went for a visit to profile the puppet animation studio and their place in the post-Soviet world.

Primavera, a puppet film by Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, now in production at Estonian animation studio, Nukufilm. © Nukufilm.

Estonia is a little big nation of animation. For a country of some two million inhabitants, it has a long record of international animation festival awards and many, well-known and revered animators. The Tallinnfilm studio was established 40 years ago in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, which was at that time part of the Soviet Union. Estonia is one of the three Baltic republics that regained it's independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Tallinnfilm has divided into two separate studios, one specializing in stop-motion puppet film and one that completes traditional, cel animation.

Estonia's History

For many years, early Estonian animation was stop-motion puppet animation, a genre still strong both in Estonia and many other former socialist European countries. For the very first puppet films, the puppets were made in the Tallinn Puppet Theater under the supervision of filmmakers. This theater still exists and regularly puts on programs on their stage.

The founding father of the puppet genre is Elbert Tuganov, a son of an Estonian mother and Ossetian father. Tuganov (born 1920) directed the first Estonian animation Peetrikese Unenägu (Little Peter's Dream, 1958). Altogether he went on to direct 37 films, mainly for children. Another classic master of Estonian puppet and object animation is Heino Pars (born 1925). His simple but effective object animation Nael (Nail, 1972) has received international fame. This was not usual in Soviet Estonia, where Moscow decided which films were allowed to go to the international festivals.

The most celebrated cel animation filmmakers are Rein Raamat (born 1931) and Priit Pärn (born 1946). Raamat directed among other folk tales Suur Tõll (The Great Toll, 1980) and the hectic Põrgu (Hell, 1983), which is based on Eduart Viiralt graphics from the Thirties. Priit Pärn's most remarkable film is without a doubt Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass, 1988), a layered absurd portrait of life in the crumbling Soviet Union. Pärn, who is also a cartoonist and graphic designer, is still actively working in animation.

The tradition of puppet film is carried on by Nukufilm Studio in Tallinn. Nukufilm (puppet film) was established in 1993 by five puppet film directors and a veteran photographer Arvo Nuut. It has a permanent staff of roughly 20 people. The cel animation group of Tallinnfilm divided into another new company, Eesti Joonisfilm (Estonian Cartoon Film). It is owned by seven animators and at the moment employs some 30 people.

Remnants of the Union

State-owned Tallinnfilm still exists, but no longer produces any new films. There are plans to sell the buildings and give the money to the new Estonian Film Foundation to build a studio with modern equipment. The sudden jump from a centralized state production system to a completely capitalist system was fatal for artistic animation in many parts of Europe. In Estonia the change was surprisingly smooth. The Soviet system to animation production was simple. Tallinnfilm had a certain production quota per year for both puppet and cel animation. Once the content was accepted in Moscow there was both the time and resources to do the film.

Tallinnfilm had a highly qualified permanent staff and many Estonian painters, writers, designers and composers were involved in animation production. Even the internationally known Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has created music for sixteen puppet films. "If every animator would have started his own small studio, we would not have had any puppet animation in Estonia after five years [of independence]," says Nukufilm director, Arvo Nuut. Nukufilm uses the very same studio and building where puppet animation was done in Tallinnfilm times. Only the name of the street has changed, as so many did after independence. The old and heavy, but reliable, Soviet-made 35mm cameras are still used together with new Asian-made computers.

Back to Europe by Riho Unt. © Nukufilm.

Every movie is still shot on 35mm film. Nuut has collected a filmography of Estonian puppet animation over the past forty years. The latest film is number 219 on a list where series are counted as one. Many of the well known Estonian puppet animators still work for Nukufilm, like Kalju Kivi (born 1947), Mati Kütt (born 1947) and Rao Heidmets (born 1956). Heidmets has made highly original films like, Papa Carlo Teater (Father Carlo's Theater, 1988), Noblesse Oblige (1989) and Elutuba (Living Room, 1994). A younger generation works there as well. Mikk Rand and Priit Tender are working together on a new project. Tender's Joonisfilm-produced cel animation Gravitatsioon (Gravitation, 1996) won the prize for best first film at the Oslo Animation Festival last April.

A Unique Opportunity

Estonia is located next to the Nordic countries and has especially close ties to Finland. Via sea the Finnish capital of Helsinki and Tallinn are only about 80 kilometers apart. Realizing the large differences between Nordic and Estonian salaries, one would expect Estonia to have become a mere subcontractor for Nordic and European animation. However, this isn't the case. Nukufilm and Joonisfilm have created a niche that is difficult to obtain even in many big European countries that have substantial public support for film; Nukufilm is able to make, funded, non-commercial adult animated films. There is public spending for animation in Estonia, according to Nuut. Nukufilm has received some of this funding for most of it's films. "Auteur-films will never bring back their expenses, but if you cannot do good auteur-films, you can't do good commercial films either," Nuut believes. Nukufilm has done work for abroad as well. In 1994, the studio made a 24-part Christmas calendar for Icelandic television. In 1995, they participated in the Nordic co-production of Hreidar the Stupid and in 1996-97, the studio completed 13, six-minute parts of Urpo & Turpo, a childrens' series for a Finnish producer.

The production set for Back to Europe in Nukufilm's studio. © Nukufilm.

A Continuing Reputation

Connections to Russia are few and far between despite the many years of Soviet domination. "Before we had something to do with them all the time; someone visited Moscow every now and then. Now it's even more difficult to get a visa to Russia than to China," explained Nuut. With the neighboring Latvian animators relationships are much better since Latvians visit Estonia and vice versa. Puppet animation production in the Latvian capital of Riga started in 1965. Latvian puppet animator Janis Cimermanis, who does children's films, works there. Her best known work is probably Avarijas Brigade (Rescue Team), a funny series of three unfortunate, but clever, rescuers.

Nuut thinks animation still has a good reputation in Estonia. "It is one hundred percent sure that everyone in Estonia knows Priit Pärn," he said. "And they know Heiki Ernits and Hardi Volmer." Ernits is an animator who also works as a political cartoonist for the main newspaper. Multi-talented Volmer not only makes puppet animation but also sings in a popular rock band, Singer Vinger, and directs feature films. His latest film, Minu Leninit (My Lenins, 1997), is a sharp satire of a Lenin cult, a story about a school for Lenin doubles. "The animators have an unusually good education from the art schools and co-operation with the theater and other fields of art are working well," said Nuut.

Priit Pärn agrees with Nuut about the strong status of animation in Estonia. He thinks one main reason for it is the high quality of political cartoons and graphic art. "But that was also the case in Lithuania, where they even had a more developed cinema industry than we had. However, they only got a cel animation studio in the `80s," Pärn recounted. "However, there is also always a place for coincidences."

Pärn remembers that in Soviet Estonia it was allowed to do animation for an adult audience, however, in other parts of the Union it was usually forbidden. Paradoxically an artist did profit from some parts of the Soviet's closed system. In regards to the sparse foreign influence, Pärn says, "When I started I had no patterns to follow, I only knew what I'd like to do myself."

In Liisa Helminen and Riho Unt's puppet animated children's series, Urpo & Turpo, Turpo practices karate with slices of bread. © Nukufilm.

Today's Production

One of the leading puppet animators in Estonia at the moment is Riho Unt. He's been working with Hardi Volmer quite extensively. They are now shooting a new film Primavera. It's a puppet animation about, as Unt puts it, "the love-life of insects for adults." The four-man camera crew shoots 15 seconds per day. Unt, who is also a good cartoonist, has designed all of the puppets. The seven-minute long, 35mm, color animation is a typical Nukufilm work, based on an original story and financed with Estonian money. Unt (born 1956) has been educated as an interior architect, but he only works occasionally in this profession. His first puppet animation, Imeline Nääriöö (Wonderous New Year Night, 1984), he did in conjunction with Hardi Volmer (born 1957).

"It was a Christmas film, but because in the Soviet Union Christmas was forbidden, it was called New Year's instead," Unt explained smiling. Soda (War, 1987) was a mature political story of bats and rats living in an old mill. This 20-minute puppet film was again directed by both Unt and Volmer. It discusses the suffocating tragedies of Estonian history with brilliant puppet animation and a well crafted story. I clearly remember the astonishment it caused among the public in it's first international screening at the Tampere Short Film Festival in March 1988.

At the same festival the Grand Prix was given to Priit Pärn's Eine Murul, another absolute world class animation. Pärn considers the years 1986-92 to be the golden years of Estonian animation, "We had the freedom to do what we wanted and Moscow paid for it all."

In independent Estonia, Unt has made, among others, two films about a farmer Saamuel, Kapsapea (Cabbage Head, 1993, 30 minutes) and Tagasi Euroopasse (Back to Europe, 1997, 38 minutes). The animation and set design in both films are of excellent quality. "Back to Europe took three years to do. Shooting lasted for one and a half years," Unt explained. It is easy to believe, the film is done with extreme care and contains a lot of action. The story reflects Estonian life from a satirical point of view. Unt was also co-director with Finnish director Liisa Helminen for seven episodes of Urpo & Turpo (1997). It is a funny and original series about two anarchic teddy bears living in an ordinary family. After twelve years in the animation industry and ten animated films, "It was my first experience directing animation for children," Unt said.

Unt might direct his first feature puppet animation in the near future. A European producer saw Back to Europe and proposed a feature film in the same style. "It would be one hour and twenty minutes long, based on a classic fairy tale but all the characters would be pigs," Unt explained. "I was really interested in the script. It is not only a typical fairy tale, it also includes satire and irony." Studio director Nuut underlines, "No final decisions on the project have been made so far."

Moving Forward

Work is coming to Estonia in various ways. People from a Japanese department store saw Estonian animator Mati Kütt's film at a festival. They liked it and asked him to do four commercials for them. The Japanese came to Estonia and Kütt even traveled to Japan. Now the films are made and the quality speaks for itself.

What fascinates Unt about puppet films? "It's my way of living. There is the third dimension that cel animation lacks. There are possibilities to invent much more visually," he says. "We are optimistic, puppet film will live on in the future. Computers will not replace this genre and style."

Currently, Pärn is working at Joonisfilm studio on his new film The Night of the Carrots. On the other side of the studio Janno Põldma is thinking of new episodes for the childrens' serial Tom & Fluffy. This cel animation differs from most commercial television animation as it has more details and deeper content. "There is one thing that makes it difficult to sell," says Põldma. "It includes no violence."

Together Pärn and Põldma directed 1895 (1996), a very original story about the Lumiere brothers. I asked Priit Pärn about making animation in the Soviet Union. "In the West many people think that in the films there was some kind of special language that people in power didn't understand," Pärn says. "But what would you then say? That life in the Soviet Union was bad? Everyone knew it. The message in my films was that somewhere there is a guy who thinks in a strange, different way. The absurd films were against the monolithic system. You could draw a sausage and that was a message because there wasn't any sausage. Everyone knew it, but that was not the point. The point is that someone did it."

The Soviet system was completely centralized. The filmmaker had nothing to do with a film after it was done. Access to festivals was limited, and beaurocrats decided which films were send abroad. "When I got a prize in the Bilbao Festival I heard about it half a year later by accident," Pärn said. It was also not clear that the animators were allowed to travel with the films. "I've seen a photo from an international animation festival - Annecy, I presume - that showed the Soviet delegation. Three out of the twelve were animators," Pärn remembered. He smiled as he remembered that nothing worked in the Soviet Union. "If they answered no to your script, you just went on and finally upon completion perhaps you had some success. From my experience as a newspaper cartoonist I knew where the edge was."

In other Soviet Republics, Moscow often demanded to see the work in different phases, however in Estonia it was first completed and then sent to Moscow for approval. The answer could be either, `Okay,' or `Do some changes,' or `It might be screened in some parts of the country' or a complete `No.' "I know two animated films which were unacceptable to be screened. My Is the Earth Round? from 1977 could only be distributed in Estonia and Andrei Khrzhadanovsky's The Glass Concertina from 1968," Pärn recalled. The dedication at the beginning of Pärn's film Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass, 1988) says everything, "We dedicate our film to the artists who did everything they were permitted to do." No matter what the political system is, the task and dilemma of an artist remains the same.

An exhibit of Priit Pärn's work can be seen in the AWN Gallery.

To purchase Contemporary Estonian videos by Priit Pärn and Mati Kütt, please visit the AWN Store.

Heikki Jokinen is a freelance critic and journalist living in Helsinki, Finland. He specializes in comics and animation and has curated retrospectives and Estonian animation programs for a number of film festivals. He's a board member of ASIFA Nordic, the ASIFA regional body for the five Nordic and three Baltic states.

Heikki Jokinen's picture
Writer is a freelance journalist and art critic based in Helsinki, Finland.