Ten kilos of ... a cartoon

Plasticine animated film about Bobruisk becomes latest in series
By Lyudmila Minakova

Many of us remember such wonderful animated films as The Snows of Yester-Year Falling and The Plasticine Crow: their humorous characters sculpted from modelling clay. Unfortunately, modern filmmakers rarely use this technique, since it’s easier to use computer graphics than to shape each shot by hand. Even Belarusfilm rarely uses modelling clay and the prospect of creating a film was daunting, until Ruslan Sinkevich — a graduate of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts — came to the studio. The young director suggested an experiment, creating a short film for the popular project Tale of Bygone Years, using clay animation.

Plasticine Empress
Ruslan met us at the studio entrance, already stretching a piece of clay in his hands. “Do you always have plasticine in your hands,” I asked. “Most of the time, as work on the animated film is in full swing. It’s a good workout for the hands,” he smiled, leading me to the studio-workshop, where the future cartoon is being born.

Several ready-made characters sat on the worktop: a gull, beaver and man in a fur hat, as well as the Empress in an elegant red dress. The main heroes have been being sculpted for about a month, from ten kilos of special, Spanish clay, brought from Moscow. The clay doesn’t melt under bright spotlights and is easy to manipulate without cracking.

“One month is assigned for shooting. Then we’ll start gathering our materials in one complete unit with the help of a computer. In one minute and 45 seconds, using plasticine, we’ll tell the audience about the history of the emblem of Bobruisk,” explains Ruslan. “The story is quite prosaic. In 1796, Yekaterina II gave the city the emblem to thank its inhabitants for their hard work.”

I indicate the grand lady in red, with ample curves and towering hairstyle. “Yes, this is her,” he smiles. “Bobruisk used to provide mast timber to the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets so the emblem was given for these achievements. As the story isn’t particularly dynamic, we invented a backstory for two main characters: a beaver and a man. They tell the history of Bobruisk from its foundation.

Hero from nowhere
The plasticine figures are flat on one side, and in relief on the other, making them come alive in a certain light. “In some cases, we create different phases of movement for the hero; in other cases, we change them during shooting. This is an advantage of clay; it allows us to do what we cannot with hand-drawn animation. We treat these figures like puppets and can even make the hero appear out of nowhere. We use reverse shooting, first crushing a plasticine object and then, using a computer, restoring its image. The hero appears as if out of thin air.”

Blue dog
Ruslan fell in love with the plasticine technique accidentally, discovering it while working in a hardware store. Five years ago, an opportunity arose. “When I heard the news on TV that the Academy of Art was running a course on ‘Direction of Animated Films’, at Oleg Belousov’s Studio, I was very interested. Although I had never thought of becoming a director of animated films, I’d always loved cartoons and often thought about how they were made. I drew well and those close to me gave me encouragement.” 

He continues, “In my fourth term of study, I entered the Russian State University of Cinematography summer school. One of our assignments was to make a small cartoon, using any technique.” Ruslan’s partner was Sonia Gorya, from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography. She was already working in the ‘Pilot’ studio, specialising in clay animation, and inspired Ruslan to try the medium.

“In just twenty days, we created a film about Vladislav Starevich, the founder of puppet animation,” notes the young director. “I returned to Belarus and realised that I wanted to continue with clay, so I persuaded my thesis partner, Marina Lukyanova, to try this technique. She supported the idea and our teachers, Mikhail Tumelya and Yelena Petkevich, approved. Blue Dog was the result, moulded by hand. Belarusfilm, of course, provided the studio, lighting and specialised equipment. They accepted the idea of clay animation at once, being keen to see it in action, having not taken that path before. Unexpectedly, Ruslan became a stage director. I’m a little timid but everything comes with experience.”
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