Search form


For seven days the beautiful city of Sofia becomes the center of Bulgaria’s animation world with the opening of the Golden Kuker International Animation Film Festival.  This year the festival received 1,117 films from 87 countries.  205 films were chosen by the selection committee to be screened in 10 competition categories.

For seven days the beautiful city of Sofia becomes the center of Bulgaria’s animation world with the opening of the Golden Kuker International Animation Film Festival.  This year the festival received 1,117 films from 87 countries.  205 films were chosen by the selection committee to be screened in 10 competition categories.

I was honored to be invited to be a member of the jury, so along with my fellow jurors I watched all of the films in all of the categories.  The jury was a very diverse group.  Our chairman was my longtime friend Nadezhda Marinchevska.  Nadezhda is a professor and well-known film critic in Sofia.  Mikhail Tumelya from Belarus is an animator, graphic designer, and a wonderful balalaika player and singer who Nik plays music with whenever they are together.  Professor Alexander Grozen writes about film and animation.  Nik was also on the jury, which was not really a problem since we have very different tastes in animation.

The jury, L to R: Alexander Grozev, Nik, Nadezhda Marinchevska, Nancy and Mikhail with festival director Nadezhda Slavova

Along with prizes in 10 categories the jury awarded the Golden Kuker Grand Prize and the special Proiko Proikov award for the best Bulgarian film.  The Golden Kuker is named for Koukeri dancers, one of Bulgaria’s symbols dating back to pagan times.  Koukeri chase away evil and bring good health and wealth.  The Proiko Proikov Award is named for Proiko Proikov who was a renowned Bulgarian artist, animator, and director who introduced several generations of young artists to animation.

The Golden Kuker and Proika Proikov awards

Of all of the films that I watched my favorite was Spider Web by Russian animator Natalia Chernysheva.  The 2D film is about the relationship between a knitting grandmother and a very industrious spider.  As the 4’05” film unfolds, the interactions between the two transforms from hostility to mutual respect for each other’s intricate handiwork.  The film which is in black and white accentuates the delicate patterns that the pair weaves.  The jury was unanimous in our decision to award the Golden Kuker Grand Prix to Spider Web for its excellent animation coupled with humor.

Spider Web

Buenos Aires born Juan Pablo Zaramella is a master of absurd humor in his animation.  His first film Lapsus (2007,) about a curious nun who ventures into the darker side of her world, still makes me laugh whenever I watch it.  In Luminaris (2014) Juan Pablo used pixilation to blend live actors with animated objects.  The story is about an ordinary man who has a plan that could change the natural order of a world controlled and timed by light.  This humorously absurd film won numerous awards at international festivals.

His latest project The Tiniest Man in the World is a television series that began airing in France in January of this year.  The little man is 15 centimeters tall but he lives his life as if the world isn’t out of scale to him.  The tiniest man struggles in absurd, ridiculous situations that are often surreal while being always funny, crossing physical slapstick with pixilation and Claymation.

In the episode submitted in the TV series competition, the tiniest man goes shopping for a sweater.  The jury awarded the Best Episode from a Television Series to Juan Pablo Zaramella for the humor and the excellent craftsmanship that The Sweater displayed.

My favorite children’s film was Piccolo Concerto by German animator Ceylan Beyoglu. It stars Piko Piccolo, a small 6 year old piccolo, who lives a very sheltered life among his family and fellow instruments in Kling-Klang Land.  He has already learned the tunes that the orchestra plays but they do not make him feel happy.  He wants to create his own melody so he goes on a fantastic voyage through the world of music in search of his own voice.  The film has no dialogue but Nils Beyoglu’s score is delightful and carries the story along nicely.  Piccolo Concerto is an excellent way for young children to learn about musical instruments and can be equally enjoyed by adults.

Piccolo Concerto

All of the screenings were held at the newly renovated City Mark Art Center in the heart of Sofia.  The theatre is a true movie palace with a sculpted ceiling and comfortable plush purple arm chairs that give you a feeling of old world elegance.

The opening night festivities began with a carnival parade in front of the theatre complete with Koukeri masks provided by the festival. Zbigniew Zmudzki, Nancy and Mikhail Tumelya at the parade The parade was led off by two young ladies in Koukeri costumes and a young man “riding a bear”.  Two Kukers and a bear rider In the theatre after the welcoming speeches we were treated to music by the band The Hit Machine who performed covers of both Bulgarian and International soul pop songs.  A reception in the upstairs balcony of the theatre followed the concert.  A special Bulgarian wine was produced for the festival with the festival poster as the label. Nik and Nancy at the opening reception with the Golden Kuker wine

Along with the screenings, the festival offered numerous master classes which were held at the National Academy of Applied Arts.  Noted producer at the SE-MA-FOR Studio in Lodz, Poland, Zbigniew Zmudzki showed films that the renowned puppet animation studio created.  Among the films screened were Tango and Peter and the Wolf both of which garnered an Oscar for Zbigniew.  He also showed the audience puppets from his latest production Flapper and Friends.

SE-MA-FOR is also noted for the highly sophisticated puppet armatures that they have developed.  Zbigniew showed his audience an armature and demonstrated its intricate moving parts which bring puppets to life in stop motion animation.

Zbigniew Zmudzki showing his puppets at the workshop

In Nik’s masterclass Image + Sound = The Whole Picture, he showed films that he has composed music for and talked about the different techniques he uses to work with an animator.  Bulgarian animator Nikolay Mihaylov demonstrated how elements can be edited and brought together in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects at his presentation on preparing storyboards and character art for the presentation of an animated project.

Another master class explored the modern methods of using 3D models and programs to build 2D images. There was also one that explored taking an idea to storyboard and then from storyboard to animatic.  There was also a session on character design for games, animation, and comic books.

The first known animated film made in Venezuela, La Danze de los Esqueletros (The Skeleton Dance) dates back to 1934 but very little animation from that country is shown at European festivals.  I was delighted to meet Yves Briceno who was attending the festival representing Little Heros, a 76 minute feature film from Venezuela.  The film is set 200 years ago when the country was attempting to gain its independence from Spain.  Director Juan Pablo Buscarini tells the fictional story of three children from different backgrounds who discover a secret that will help Simon Bolivar defeat the Spanish conquerors.  Bolivar was a real life military hero who was instrumental in liberating Venezuela.  Unfortunately if you don’t know Bolivian history the film is hard to follow in the beginning.  The film was also hindered by bad computer animation.  It was trying to be another Pixar without the money or the tools to do it.  I wanted to like Little Heros, as after the confusing beginning I didn’t have any trouble following the story, but the poor quality of the animation made me feel that the film was much longer than 76 minutes. I really wanted it to end about half way through it.

Yves, the film’s publicist, told me that due to the terrible economic problems in Venezuela it is very difficult to make animation in his country.  He also said that there are very few opportunities to study animation there so many people who want to learn must go to other countries.  Little Heros has been accepted by Annecy out of competition this year.

Another Golden Kuker guest, Mahsut Jarimbetov from Kazakhstan, is head of the animation school for children there.  He told me that his country is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the creation of its first animated film; Why the Swallow Has The Tail With Little Horns by Amen Khaydarov in 1967.  Mahsut also said that there are no animation festivals in Kazakhstan but he hopes to start a children’s animation festival there in the future.

Nik and I were invited to the studio of zetaForms, the first professional 3D scanning service in Bulgaria, to have 3D scans made of ourselves.  They work on films and commercials and are the first professional 3D scanning service in Bulgaria.  Ten seconds in the German built scanning booth and the technology allows anyone to be integrated into a digital world with a choice of backgrounds. You can also have them create a mini-you in the form of a perfect sculpted figurine.  

Your personal 3D image can be used as a screen saver, shared by e-mail or on Facebook, or even engraved in crystal.  They said that they have even scanned dogs and sure enough, there was a dog figurine in their display case.

In explaining exactly how it is done I was told that first the person is scanned for 10 seconds in the 3D booth.  Next zetaForms processes the scan to make it look clean and realistic.  Then modern color 3D technology is used to build the final figure layer by layer.  The entire processing takes 3 to 4 days for monochrome figures and up to 3 to 4 weeks for color figurines. You can learn more about t zetaForms and the process at:

This is advanced technology right now but I imagine that in 5 years it will become as ordinary as iPhones are today.   I wish Nik and I would have put more thought into creating interesting poses instead of standing there like bumps on a log.  You stand on a platform in the fully enclosed scanning booth while lasers move up and down to scan you I really felt that it was me going up and down. It was an eerie feeling but I am glad that I had the opportunity to try out this new technology.

Of course it was not all work at the festival.  Our good friend Mikhail Tumelya from Belarus was on the jury with us. Mikhail is not only a brilliant animator and illustrator, he is also an excellent balalaika player and singer.  Nik and Mikhail have played music together for many years at the KROK International Animation Festival so our evenings in Sofia were full of music.

With our friend Mikhail Tumelya

 On two evenings, festival director Nadezhda Slavova took the festival guests to Sofia’s Artists’ Club, which caters to local actors, artists and musicians.  The food and wine were delicious and entertainment was provided by Mikhail and Nik.  After a while, they were joined on the Artists’ Club piano by local journalist and poet Valentin Stamov.  The Artists’ Club has a very warm, welcoming atmosphere and the other patrons enjoyed the music as much as our table did.  At one point the bartender went into the back room and came out with his guitar to play some very nice jazz standards and another patron, fresh from a concert brought out his trumpet.  One evening Ukrainian animator Alexander Bubnov and his animator wife Alyona Potyomkina joined us at the club.  The pair now lives and works in Bulgaria so it was a delightful surprise to see them in Sofia.

Nik playing with Valentin Stamen at the Artists' Club

On our last afternoon in Sofia, Nadia took us to the Dragalevtsi Monastery in the tranquil Vitosha Mountains.  The mountain area became the first nature park in Bulgaria when 66 kilometers of Vitosha forest was set aside as a nature reserve in 1934.  The park now encompasses the entire 266 kilometers of the mountain.

The Dragalevtsi Monastery was founded by King Ivan Alexander in the 12th Century.  The walls of the chapel are covered with beautiful 16th Century frescos in the Byzantine style along with icons from the 17th through the 19th Century.  The grounds are equally lovely and serene with flowers, fern, and a spring with exceptionally fresh tasting water.

After our visit to the monastery Nadia took us all to a restaurant and treated us to a meal of local delicacies. 

Sofia is a beautiful city which reflects more than 2,000 years of history from Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Soviet occupation. The  Medieval Boyana Church has 13th Century frescos and the St. George Rotunda Church which was built in the 4th Century by the Romans has Medieval and Ottoman decorations dating from the 10th Century.  Roman ruins were discovered in the center of the city when the new metro stations were being built.  These ruins are preserved and you can even view ruins inside some metro stations.  The city is a lovely place to stroll with numerous parks and fascinating architecture. 

The week seemed to fly by and all too soon it was time for the jury to announce our decisions at the closing night ceremony.  Following the award ceremony The Hit Machine played and then Mikhail Tumelya and Nik took to the stage to play for the audience.  After the party at the theatre there was one last celebration at our hotel with food, drink, and music.

Ready for a party at our hotel room

There is no way that I can thank Festival Director Nadezhda Slavova enough for all of her hard work and very generous hospitality.  Along with founding and heading the festival Nadia is an animator, director, and screenwriter who runs her own animation company, ANIMART. She is also an accomplished painter and still finds time to be an avid gardener.  Despite all of her other responsibilities she is a very warm and gracious hostess who goes out of her way to make sure that her festival guests are well taken care of.  I also must thank her staff, who were all so helpful.   I already look forward to returning to the Golden Kuker Festival next year.  You can read more about the festival and find out how to send you film at:


Jury:  Nadezhda Marinchevska, Bulgaria; Mikhail Tumelya, Belarus; Alexander Grozen, Bulgaria; Nik Phelps, Belgium; Nancy Denney-Phelps, Belgium

Golden Kuker Grand Prix:

     Spider Web, Natalia Chernysheva, Russia

Proyko Proykov for Best Bulgarian Film:

    Traveling Country, Vessela Dantcheva and Ivan Bogdanov, Bulgaria

Best Super Short Film (about 1 minute):

     The Belief, Amir Vahedi, Iran

Special Mention Super Short Film (About 1 Minute):

     Pink Cuts Pink, Alma Weber, Germany

Best Short Animation (Up to 10 Minutes):

    In The Distance, Florian Grolig, Germany

Special Mention Short Animated Film (Up to 10 Minutes):

    Chickens, George Wu, United Kingdom

Best Short Animated Film (10 to 45 Minutes):

    The Empty, Dahee Jeong, France

Special Mention For Feature Film (Over 45 Minutes):

    Zoetrope, Sotir Gelev, Bulgaria

Best Student Animation:

    Borderlines, Hana Stehlikova, Czeck Republic


     Hamlet, Eugeniy Fadeyev, Russia

Best Children’s Film:

     Kukuschka, Dina Velikovskaya, Russia

Best Episode From A TVSeries:

    The Tiniest Man In The World, Juan Pablo Zaramella, France

Best Music Video:

    In the Open Field, Andrej Kolencik, Slovakia

Special Mention for Music Video:

    Re:verb, Atsushi Makino, Japan

Best Eco Film:

    The Cleanest Sea, Yavor Kalachev, Bulgaria

Best Advertisement:

    Hear, Melina-Elina Bondakova, Bulgaria