Country's first privately funded animation course at state university

A boom in Russian cartoon films has brought an unexpected bonus to students with graphic ambitions at a provincial university. Voronezh State University, 480 kilometres south-east of Moscow, has launched Russia’s first ever privately sponsored state university course in computer graphics and animation.

Designed by Voronezh-based Studio Wizart Animation, the film production company behind a recently released feature-length cartoon version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale “The Snow Queen”, the course runs for 40 teaching hours spread over two months of twice-weekly two-hour evening classes.

Priced at a modest – even by Russian standards – 5,000 roubles (US$170), the course enables students to learn the basics of modern computer animation. They study “the secrets of creating three-dimensional animated films and effects; the basics of animation, sculpting, modelling, lighting, three-dimensional scenes, texturing and setup characters”.

The course will cover basic Maya, 3DS Max, Zbrush, Animation in Maya and Adobe Photoshop (texturing) – all key elements in the modern computer animators’ palette.

Offered with the support of the university and Voronezh Regional Governor Aleksey Gordeyev, the course reflects the growing demand for animation professionals as Russia’s film industry continues to develop.

Although Russia’s minister of culture, the historian Vladimir Medinsky, appointed last year, has expressed concerns over the weakness of Russian film at the country’s box office – where local film’s share of an annual exhibition market worth over US$1.3 billion has dropped from 25% to around 15% over the past five years – cartoon movies are doing good business.

Last year’s top grossing local language film at the Russian box office was an animated story set in a rose-tinted past, “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf” (Ivan Tsarevich I Seryy Volk), which grossed US$21 million.

A sequel released last month, “Three Warriors on Distant Shores” (Tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakh), featuring the voice of Fedor Bondarchuk, one of Russia’s top directors – and son of Sergey Bondarchuk who won an Oscar in 1969 for “War and Peace” – has already taken more than US$30 million in Russian cinemas.

Both films were produced by Nashe Kino, which translates as ‘Our Cinema’, part of a St Petersburg- and Moscow-based production company CTB, which also produces the films of renowned art-house director Aleksey Balabanov.

Sergey Selyanov, head of CTB, said the success of the cartoons reflects both the quality of the animation and the Russian themes in the films.

“If Russian policy-makers want to see better box office share for local language films they need to encourage higher quality projects; improved training of crew, directors and cinematographers could also help the situation,” he said.

Wizart, the studio that produced “The Snow Queen” – a slick, Hollywood-style retelling of the fairytale featuring a beautiful girl, a handsome boy, a pet ferret and a chatty troll – decided to take matters into its own hands with the Voronezh State University course.

Yuri Moskvin, Wizart's producer, told University World News that although there were some private courses for animation in Russia, such as Scream School or online, this was the first such course “supported by a regional government and organised at a state university.”

The studio had decided to establish the course to address the acute need for trained animators, she said, adding that “since perestroika” in the late 1980s few if any animators had been trained in Russia.

Animation enjoyed a heyday in the late Soviet period, with state animation studio Soyuzmultfilm churning out home-grown cartoon series such as “Nu Pogadi!” (Well, Just You Wait!), a kind of Russian Tom and Gerry featuring a feckless, papirosa-puffing wolf and a smug hare, launched in 1969.

The same year, Russians welcomed the first local version of “Winnie the Pooh” – "Vinni Pukh" – a smaller, rounder and altogether more abrasive character than the sanitised version Disney has served up in the West.

Pukh – the Russian word for the soft, white fluffy seeds shed by poplar trees in early summer – has claws, and his eyes wrapped in a black band. When a new post-Soviet version of "Vinni Pukh" was issued on video in the late 1990s it quickly sold out.

But for a new generation of cartoon-lovers new skills are demanded.

“At the moment we see an increase in new studios, but they cannot survive without specialists – and we don’t have them because there is no special education.

“Some of these specialists for animation are unique for our country – visual effects, 3D, hair; that is why we invited a part of our team from cities other than Voronezh and have now decided to find talented people and invite them to study and then to try the profession at our studio.”

The study programme had attracted a lot of interest, Myss said, with some students prepared to “relocate to Voronezh” for the course.

Although Wizart did not currently have plans to open similar courses in Moscow or St Petersburg, the company was thinking of opening a studio in Moscow, where many film production and service companies are based.

Graduates of the course will be issued a joint certificate from the studio Wizart Animation and the university as well as internationally recognised industry standard certificates. Students graduating will also be at an advantage if applying for jobs at Wizart, the company said.