In 1998, Ukrainian animated cartoon makers marked the 70th anniversary of their industry.
There was little to celebrate, though. The country's main animation studio was working at about 10 percent of its capacity, and script writers were paid next to nothing for their work.
Two years later, the crisis pit is still deep. But the cartoon-makers say they have found a way out: collaborating with colleagues who have been going through similar difficulties.
Two Ukrainian film industry professionals, Olena Yershova and Anna Bernadska, used their recently gained experience in art management to conduct an international seminar on animation in Kyiv last week.
The three-day event brought together animators from several Eastern European countries and Italy to discuss current trends in Europe's animation industry and to come up with joint project ideas.
'Ukrainian animators have been living in total isolation, alone with their problems,' Bernadska said.
'When we realized that animators in Europe had the same problems as Ukrainians - and they seemed to have the solution - we decided to get together,' said Bernadska, who together with Yershova completed a year-and-a-half course on arts management at the Utrecht School of Arts in the Netherlands in 1996.
It wasn't by accident that the idea of such an international workshop occurred to Ukrainians.
Ukraine's school of animation was once considered one of the world's best, but due to financial difficulties, practically none of animators' work reaches TV audience these days.
The first Ukrainian cartoon, A Straw Bull, premiered in 1928. A group of Kyiv Arts Institute graduates picked up the genre in 1930, and 1959 saw the creation of the Studio of Scientific and Popular Films in Kyiv.
The Studio's animation department later was turned into an independent enterprise called UkrAnimaFilm.
The Studio's founders, mostly architects by education, got the studio off to a good start, producing about 15 cartoons per year and setting the tone for animation artists who followed.
The Culture Ministry supervised the cartoon industry and funded studio. The only thing the employees had to worry about was the production plan. In those times, then-Soviet Ukrainian animators viewed cartoon production as art rather than commerce.
The creative atmosphere at the studio inspired such animation masterpieces as Volodymyr Dakhno's Cossack series and David Cherkassky's Treasure Island, which have been admired by generations of Soviet and post-Soviet kids.
Compared to the Western analogues, local cartoons appeared kinder, more elaborately drawn and with fewer cliches both in the drawing and the script.
The names of Ukrainian animators often topped the winners' lists at various international festivals.
But the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic downfall that followed ushered in hard times for the state-run UkrAnimaFilm.
The cash-strapped government first cut funding and then nearly stopped the cash flow in 1993.
It took animators several years to overcome the feeling of being betrayed. Eventually, they began to realize they had to take care of themselves.
'All of a sudden, we realized that cartoon production is a profitable business throughout the rest of the world,' said Ukranimafilm editor Svitlana Kutsenko.
The problem, however, is that Ukrainian businessmen so far do not take the genre seriously.
'Disney may make millions on its animated features, but those who have money here just don't understand it,' Kutsenko complained.
Since Ukraine gained independence, Ukranimafilm has released fewer cartoons than in the past. Only one cartoon was released in 1998, followed by three in 1999.
In the absence of domestically made cartoons, foreign competition flooded Ukrainian TV channels, while many talented animators left for the West.
'In the mid-1990's, almost an entire animators' workshop left for the Czech Republic and then dissipated throughout Europe,' said Bernadska, who now works as a program coordinator at the Center for Privatization, Investment and Management.
Both Vernadska and Yershova had worked at the Studio of Scientific and Popular Films when the animation department was part of it, but were involved mostly in film-making.
It was the arts management training gained in the Netherlands that helped the two become the first among their colleagues to find a way out of the domestic animation industry's crisis.
'[After the Soviet collapse] animation could no longer be just creative work by an author, when each cartoon was born after nine months of hard labor, like a baby,' said Yershova, formerly an Ukranimafilm employee and now programs department manager at the ICTV television company. 'To be viable, animation has to be commercial,' she said.
At the Kyiv seminar, organized with financial assistance from the Renaissance Foundation, participants mainly talked about co-productions - a simple fund-raising tool widely used in Europe nowadays.
The new European animation hit, the Monkeys' Tales series, is a good example of a co-production effort, in which several European countries collaborated to raise $40 million for the project.
The initial stage to raise funds involves working on subcontracts, or doing the technical part of the cartoons, such as the time-consuming and tedious task of drawing each phase of motions.
But for UkrAnimaFilm, the seminar was more of an opportunity to assess its potential in the market rather than strike actual deals.
The company first would require several years to restore its pre-independence capacity and scope of activity, according to Yershova.
Although neither UkrAnimaFilm nor three private animation studios in Ukraine are prepared to be immediately involved in co-productions, the seminar actually produced several small contracts.
Participating Italian studios, which normally employ animators from Asia, were surprised to discover a vast market of qualified labor force in Ukraine, which is much closer and thus more accessible.
'Of course they are looking for people to do second-rate jobs, but our animators nowadays accept any job in order to survive,' Bernadska said.
Both participants and organizers said the seminar was quite fruitful. 'We didn't expect it to be a success,' said Bernadska. 'When artists come, they can't talk about business. But we had the right people: producers and marketing managers.'
'I've taken part in many animation seminars all over the globe,' said Italian producer Silvia Coscia. 'And this seminar was better organized and more efficient than many of the bigger and famous ones.'
Despite the pressing need to raise money, Ukrainian animators shun the idea of cheap animation soap operas, although most have accepted the fact that commercial cartoon serials are the most profitable.
'[Ukrainian animators] have a colossal creative potential, and I believe that even our cartoon serials will be better and more clever,' Yershova said.
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