Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘animation’

24 JUNE, 2010

5 Seminal Vintage Russian Animation Short Films


What dancing ballerinas and hungry kings have to do with the dawn of the digital age.

While Walt Disney was building an animation empire in America, a thriving school of animation mastery was unfolding on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Russian art directors, illustrators, animators and video producers were experimenting with techniques often decades ahead of their time and creating beautifully crafted, visually stunning short films despite the technological limitations of the era. Many of these masterpieces are now available in Masters Of Russian Animation — a remarkable collcection of animated shorts from the 1960s through 1980s in four volumes.

Today, we look at five of these gems, with many thanks to reader Sebastian Waack (@edutechnews) for bringing some of them to our attention.


Based on a Russian folk tale, Hedgehog in the Fog, a 1975 gem by master-animator Yuri Norstein, utilized techniques like cutout-animation and stop-motion three decades before they reached creative buzzword status.

Thinking about how these effects were achieved — brilliantly — in the age of manual, analog studio production does give one pause in the face of all the digital tools we take for granted today.

Found on Volume 2.


Director Fyodor Khitruk’s Story of a Crime is part Hanna-Barbera, part Hitchcock, part something else entirely. Using techniques like cutout collages and photo-illustration hybrids long before they had entered the mainstream animation arsenal, the film won the Jury Prize at the prestigious 1980 film festival in Lille, France.

You can catch part 2 here. Found on Volume 1.


From director Anatoly Petrov comes The Singing Teacher, an eerie, haunting, stunningly illustrated gem from 1968.

Found on Volume 1.


Based on the famous A. A. Milne poem The King’s Breakfast, director Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s The King’s Sandwich features intricate line illustration and remarkably expressive characters from the dawn of computer animation.

Found on Volume 3.


With its minimalist lines and intricate play of perspectives, director Lev Atamanov’s Ballerina on a Boat is a lovely exercise in storytelling through grace and simplicity.

Found on Volume 2.

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02 APRIL, 2010

Japan: The Strange Country


Kabuki, GDP, and speech-free storytelling that leaves you speechless.

Last week, we saw and loved Japan: The Strange Country — a wonderful student project presenting Japan’s numbers and figures in a brilliant infographic animation. In the past few days, the film got a decent amount of press. But today, something strange happened: The English version of the animation was taken down, leaving only the Japanese one.

Out of curiosity, we gave the Japanese version a spin and were astounded to realize it was just as brilliant, despite the foreign voiceover — just as crisp, just as digestible, just as informationally revelational. And we thought this was the true litmus test for excellent infographic visualization: Using design and visual narrative as a storytelling device in a way that makes the data so intuitive and clear that it renders language unnecessary.

See for yourself.

So for your next encounter with infoviz, consider this: If you took language away, would it still make sense and tell a story?

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23 MARCH, 2010

The Enchanted Drawing: Blackton’s Early Animation


Lightning sketches, journalistic sycophancy, and what Thomas Edison as to do with Pixar.

It’s a well-established fact that we have a longstanding obsession with Pixar animation and the occasional racy side project by the crew. But we also think it’s important to understand the historical roots of today’s creative obsessions.

Case in point: The Enchanted Drawing, a silent animated film from 1900 by British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton, who pioneered animation in America. (He was also among the first to use stop-motion as an animation technique, another piece of modern-day ubiquity.) In it, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine, then “removes” these last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react.

Before his filmmaking career, Blackton made his living as a vaudeville performer known as “The Komikal Kartoonist.” It was in this entertainment act that he first began drawing “lightning sketches” — high-speed drawings on an easel pad, modified rapidly before the audience’s eyes as he delivered an equally rapid verbal stream.

Eventually, Blackton became a reporter for the New York Evening World newspaper and in 1896 was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his brand new Vitascope invention. In an age where wooing reporters was critical to success, Edison took Blackton to Black Maria, his studio-cabin, and created an impromptu film of Blackton doing a lightning sketch of Edison himself. Blackton became so infatuated with the technology that he soon founded the American Vitagraph Company and began producing films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900.

Six years later, Blackton created Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the earliest animation exploring the intricacies of human expressions and the human face. (Something else we’ve been notoriously fascinated with.) The film is now in the public domain and thus available for all the remixing your heart desires.

Blackton’s work is part of The Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921 — a fantastic collection of the work that sparked what became one of the most powerful creative movements in visual media.

We highly recommend it.

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