What is the Future for Animated Films in Latvia? By Shahla Nahid

in 21st Riga Arsenals

by Shahla Nahid

For a number of years we have witnessed the presence of animation films in competition sections of different festivals, namely Cannes. Most recently was 18th Riga Film Festival Arsenals, which saw international section entrant and Baltic film Competition contender Lotte from Gadgetville, directed by Heiki Ernits and Janno Poldma and produced by RIJA, a Film Production and Distribution Company in Latvia.

Actually, this colourful and feature-length animation film of cannot be considered as only a Latvian animation because the small puppy-girl Lotte and her friends from Gadgetville were created by Latvian and Estonian animation professionals who spent over two years making it. On the other hand, puppy-girl Lotte was born in Estonia, where her adventures have already been depicted in a number of television serials, which up until now were created in collaboration with their German colleagues and successfully distributed in several countries.

The Latvian side of Lotte from Gadgetville is represented by producer Vilnis Kalinaellis from Rija Films Company, as well as by the 50% of all the animation, colouring and composition work that was done in Latvia. Rija Films has already collaborated with different western European companies, namely with the French company Les Amateurs on Kirikou and the Sorceres and The Triplets of Belleville, nominated for an Oscar in 2003.

The most famous participant on the Latvian side is the well-known music group Brainstorm. This group was placed 3 rd in the Eurovision song contest in 2000. The Eurovision song was very close music to the atmosphere of the film.

Obviously, the film couldn’t have been anything else but of a very good quality one, but if it is a film created for children, why is it featured in a competition meant for adults? Moreover, its running time of 75′ is a difficult length for very young children. To my mind, this is a film that should be cut in episodes in order to maintain their attention.

Nevertheless, it made me curious and inspired me to look for more information about the situation of animated films not only in Latvia, but for many historic and obvious reasons, in Baltic countries. Up until the beginning of the 1990s, when these countries became independent of the USSR, the animation studios were operated and financed by a centralized state system.

Although Latvia was part of the USSR until 1991, its animation filmmaking is quite new. The first puppet films were made in 1966, and first cut-out films in 1969. During Soviet times there were two studios that made animation films: Puppet Film Studio and Film Shooting Group who made animation for TV.

At that time, Latvia was consistently producing 2-3 films a year.

Now, the country has another six or more studios. One is a very large organisation that makes a lot of animation for France. Some smaller groups make work for Scandinavian countries. Small independent studios make their own artistic films using different techniques from handmade puppet films, cut-outs, computer animations, 2D, 3D, and finally, painting under the camera.

Despite the obvious creativity in Latvia’s animation industry, the country is lacking trainers and formal learning opportunities in this field. Most students have had to travel to Tallinn in Estonia to learn the trade,s though the Art Faculty in Latvia began to teach animation only since last year. Despite these challenges, those who do become animators have a positive outlook believing that if they have the will to succeed, they will find work, find funds or make partnerships to help them bring their animation projects to fruition.

Lotte from Gadgetville is a very good example of how an animation film can be completed by developing partnerships between smaller countries to realise a large project.

The Estonian studio Jooisfilm, which has 30 years experience in animation, and also is the production company where the nucleus of Estonian animation has been based, together with the Latvian film production company Rija Films, could realize very important projects. That’s why the production of Lotte took only two years instead of the normal five or six years. This co-production partnership offered a greater variety of financial possibilities for funding and also allowed Latvia to become the member of Eurimage. It also made it easier to find money for production in Latvia.

The strong author’s approaches, like in Dentist by Signe Baumane – a 10′ funny and scary film, demonstrating the power of a good story and excellent artist’s work – pushed me to find some answers to questions I would liked to ask on one hand from an artist (in this case the animator) and a producer.

In the first place, I asked:

How is it that the production of small countries can resist the powerful and wealthy American Machine?

Roze Stiebra, pioneer animator and producer at Dauka Animated Film Studio replied: “The U.S. style of animation is not necessarily a good thing. We believe it is possible to do something else, to use stories and a style inspired by our own national culture. At the moment distributors are trying to force their beliefs of creating work along the US model] onto filmmakers. This isn’t necessarily what the audience wants but distributors are trying to create a sort of hegemony. If the artists are honest they can break this vicious circle and the state of animation here would improve.

Vilnis Kalnaelli, managing director of Rija Films and producer of Lotte of Gadgetville, says: “With commercial films like Shrek , American studios are making a lot of money. Spain and Italy are following this model in a bid to create commercial hits. The French animation The Triplets of Belleville is a very good example of how you can create original product that can fight against the almighty commercial machines of the U.S. or South Korea. To save one’s identity and culture, we need to look for good animators, interesting designs and find good stories that are based in our own countries. We don’t necessarily have to look to Korea for inspiration.”

There appears to be a proliferation of violence in animation and there’s clearly a desire from some young people to watch violent films. Is it possible to attract them to less violent work?

Kalnaelli: “It is possible to change that and we could feasibly limit the amount of violence used in films. The main problem is finding the funds as the current climate, particularly in television, is to make action films as that’s were the money is.

Has the new trend of using animation films in adult competition section of festivals helped animation filmmaking in general or has it become another chance for the U.S. to win big parts of the market?

Stiebra: “I’m not entirely sure. This fashion for competition could help but we can’t make ‘artistic’ films for festivals. Competition is not good for artists and rather than encouraging the production of personal work, films are made specifically for festivals.”

Till now animation films were mostly a distraction, but recently there has been a growth of socially-oriented animation films. Princess, the Danish film, which speaks about child abuse, is a good example. Could it be a new trend for animation films? Could they help?

Stiebra: “Maybe not necessarily social problems but we need to understand different aspects of life. Youngsters look at TV and watch DVD’s. They know what’s going on. But don’t forget that a good film is the one that makes you feel good after you finish watching it. “

What do you forecast for animation films?

Kalnaelli: “I feel animation is more and more in different ways in the cinema. For me animation is a good way to develop an idea. There are no constrictions. If you like creating effects, you can use animation. Animation is the best way to show filmmakers an idea. Nevertheless I don’t see a good future for it because in western countries they are delocalizing. Therefore the artistic and handmade aspect of animation films is being gradually forgotten. Good animators are rare. Animation is a hard work. It is not like a documentary you shoot and then you keep what you want.”

Stiebra: “I think the future is good. We’ve had freedom for the last fifteen years. Things have changed. I’m optimistic. The situation generally arranges itself.”

In conclusion, I have to say that I think if Latvian animation cinema remains faithful to the traditional techniques of image per image, respect its own identity and chooses good subjects, it will be one of the important places of invention, resourcefulness and fantasy in the future.