The well-known Estonian animated film was not born in a totally empty place. It has its prelude and roots, just like everything under the sun.
In the educational film Birth of a Genre (1967), made for the 10th anniversary of the Tallinnfilm puppet film studio, the prominent film-maker Elbert Tuganov took the birth of cinematography and animated pictures back to the over 15 000-year-old cave drawings that showed many-legged animals running during a hunt. Tuganov was right: man began depicting movement just like in the drawings in the Lascaux caves, and many other caves elsewhere. Movement in the history of Estonian (animated) film is not, fortunately, so remotely ancient or distant. Estonia of course has no cave drawings. More's the pity...
The first fiction film made by Estonians was the politically oriented Karujaht Pärnumaal (1) ('Bear Hunt in Pärnu County', 1914) by Tõnis Nõmmits and Johannes Pääsuke. Here, the (puppet) bear, who emerges from a cave and attacks the hunters who are tracking him, is moved by a mechanism of ropes and sticks. The bear comes to life, becomes animate!
What's that? No, this is just a marionette filmed at the normal speed of that time, jerked into action by a puppeteer using a contraption hanging from a tree. This was certainly the first combined shot in Estonian film, although we cannot really talk about animation here.
The first 'grotesque film', as the short animated film was called back then, was undertaken in Tallinn in 1930. The approximately 180 m long (six minutes), black-and-white Adventures of Puppy-Juku - was supposed to be ready by Christmas 1930 but, according to some sources, the producer Aleksander Teppor, artist Elmar Jaanimägi and cameraman and director Voldemar Päts managed to complete it only the following spring. The grotesque film premièred on 17 April at the Modern cinema in Tallinn. Other sources claim that the premiere was delayed until autumn, and ran a few days in the Tartu Capitol cinema, opening 7 November 1931. The music was from the records 'AS Tormolen Ko Parlophon', as stated in the opening credits. Estonian cinemas at that time already had sound projectors, but it was still not possible to make a sound movie.
the first estonian drawn trick-film the adventures of puppy-juku
One hundred metres, or four minutes, have survived, a bit more than half of the popular adventures of the Mickey Mouse caricature Puppy Juku. 'Our national Mickey', said a newspaper. Juku rides a pig, has a fight with a frog and a crow, and finally travels to Hell, where he sees a dancing skeleton and a fire-spitting dragon. The episodes are separated by nonsensical introductory texts -, some quite witty. The versifier is not known.
The adventures of the puppy 'on earth and water' end in Hell; the second part has not survived. In the initial credits the authors state: 'Our film is an attempt in an area where only big film countries - Germany and the United States - have operated so far. Despite technical difficulties we tried to do everything so that Juku would win the hearts of every Estonian cinema-goer from the very first film.' The text supports what is seen on the screen and the examples were impressive: Walt Disney's series about Mickey Mouse and maybe his The Skeleton Dance.
The press afforded the new film a few brief but benevolent mentions.
The Adventures of Puppy Juku was planned as a series, but the first instalment was the last. The undertaking was not fully financed by the photographer and studio owner Aleksander Teppor, caricaturist Elmar Jaanimägi and cameraman and film journalist Voldemar Päts. The Estonian Temperance Society contributed as well. This might explain the fact that when Estonia's political situation became complicated in 1940, Aleksander Teppor handed a copy of the film to the Society, and in their archives in Tartu it was indeed discovered in 1986.
According to newspapers, Elmar Jaanimägi made over 5000 drawings for the first Estonian 'animation-trick film'. Watching the film it becomes apparent that technically it was not completely produced by flipping pages with phased drawings of motion - some moving pictures were recorded by means of puppet film technique, cut out animation.
Many questions concerning the making of the Puppy Juku film and its screening remain unanswered. Elbert Tuganov, the founder of the Estonian puppet film 'industry', for example, told me in 2001 that, in his younger years, he had heard something about the Puppy Juku adventures. This is extremely intriguing, as between 1927 and 1939 Tuganov did not live in Estonia, but in Germany.
from right to left: endel jaanimägi, voldemar päts with camera and unknown associate
The caricature dog Juku has a firm place in Estonian film history and film, evident in Priit Pärn, Priit Tender, Ülo Pikkov and Kaspar Jancis's black humour work Frank and Wendy, where we see Puppy Juku bustling about quite a few times. Also, if you wander around Old Tallinn, you will find its image cast in copper in the pavement in front of 9 Suur-Karja Street. This house accommodated Aleksander Teppor's photographic studio, where our first 'animation-trick' film was born.
There are other bits of information about making animated films, but whether the films were ever completed is doubtful. In November 1930 the same notice in Rahvaleht that described Puppy Juku also mentioned that an artist from the Tartu art school Pallas, Tsahkna, was making an animated grotesque film. Nothing more has ever been heard of it.
In January 1937 the newspaper Esmaspäev (Monday) mentioned that the extensively travelled caricaturist Elmar Jaanimägi was planning a new trick film, Shrewd-Ants and the Old Devil; even the pictures of the two protagonists were published.
Edmund Martin, the one-time commercial head of Estonian Culture Film, remembers that, in 1937, the studio was also making a puppet film called Nukitsamees (Bumpy). The film veteran repeated this in his telephone conversation with Chris J. Robinson; there is a reference to it in the book Between Genius & Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation. (2)
But what really happened? The film group of Estonian Culture Film indeed recorded a scene of the puppet production Nukitsamees at the Tallinn Drama Studio Theatre (named the Estonian Drama Theatre the same year). Edmund Martin kept a photograph taken at the scene where the film was shot, in which the wires used for moving the puppets are clearly visible. The Estonian Film Archive has a short newsreel by Estonian Culture Film showing the motion and the movers of the puppets. However, this is no more a puppet film than the short feature Bear Hunt in 1914, where a bear stuck his nose out of a cave.
The suggested beginning of Estonian animation is 25 November 1957, when the Tallinn Film Studio started making Elbert Tuganov's puppet film The Dream of Little Peter (based on the Danish writer Jens Sigsgaard's children's book Palle Alone in the World). Or maybe the real beginning was the day the film was premièred, i.e. actually shown - 2 June 1958.
Jaak Lõhmus (1955) has worked as a film journalist since 1984, has researched the history of Estonian film and published related articles. In 2001 he supervised the restoration of 'The Adventures of Puppy Juku' in Tallinn and Helsinki.
In the 1980s, Estonian animation gradually acquired a very different character from the work of its pioneers. The studio recruited young people who had not yet established themselves in art, but had some experience in newspaper cartoons and surrealist art. The second generation of animators introduced a socially critical approach and surrealistic tone.
Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer started as a tandem and had success with stop-motion films such as 'Enchanted Island' (1985), 'Spring Fly' (1986) and 'The War' (1988). In the 1990s Unt went solo and made a comic adventure trilogy about Estonia: 'Cabbage Head' (1993), 'Back to Europe' (1997) and 'Samuel's Internet' (2000). His latest film, 'Brothers Bearhearts' (2005), with its beautiful sets and engaging storyline, is his most complete and inspired film to date.
Rao Heidmets has also made some significant stop-motion films including 'Papa Carlo's Theatre' (1988), 'Living Room' (1994), 'Instinct' (2003). His most recent work 'Pearl Man' (2006) demands special mention. In terms of diversity of techniques, Kalju Kivi is the most experimental animator in Estonia. His strongest works are 'Bride of the Star' (1984) and 'Kaleidoscope' (1985).
The 1990s brought along some unique and important contributors to contemporary animation: the third generation emerged, including Mati Kütt, Mait Laas and Priit Tender.
Mati Kütt has produced a series of films that address ecological issues: 'Smoked Sprat Baked in the Sun' (1992) and 'Underground' (1997). In his most recent work, a movie abounding with vivid dreaminess, 'Institute of the Dream' (2006), KŸtt masterly mixes 3D animation with pixilation to achieve the unity between subject and form.
Mait Laas refuses to be constrained by a singular style and is eager to explore new technologies. 'Daylight' (1997), 'Way To Nirvana' (2000) and 'Generatio' (2005) are all visually striking, but his interest in philosophically perennial and ecological issues links him to the earlier generation of Estonian animation.
Priit Tender's 'The Crow and Mice' (1998, co-director Mikk Rand) and 'Fox Woman' (2001) are imbued with the Estonian traditions of strong graphic style, absurd action, and strong symbolism. With several promising new names, such as Pärtel Tall, Jelena Girlin and Mari-Liis Bassovskaja, on the horizon, the future, where strong spiritual tradition is mixed with very personal artistic approach, seems encouraging for Nukufilm.