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David Cherkassky: Our Barmalei ended up as an unhappy Jew with a classic ethnic nose

The animator and director discusses the three voices of Captain Vrungel, the decline of Ukrainian animation and his own circumcision at the age of 75


The first animated series in the Soviet Union, “The Adventures of Captain Vrungel”, turned 30 this year. The premiere took place on the central TV channel, which automatically guaranteed a million-strong army of fans. The day after the first episode was shown, boys in the yard didn’t play war games, but played at being Vrungel.

This Jewishnews.com.ua correspondent met with director David Cherkassy. David Yanovich is now 83, but just as he was during the making of the animated series, he is a source of inexhaustible positivity, a person with a subtle sense of humor, bright eyes and an incredible love for his work. When he was just a dreamer, in his childhood during the Second World War, he studied children’s books with particular passion. But David was not interested in the history itself, he was interested in the illustrations. Later David would go on to bring the pictures of these characters to the screen, and the entire country came to love the things that he had loved himself since his youth.

How did the characters come into being which became heroes for millions of Soviet children?

Nekrasov’s story “The Adventures of Captain Vrungel” is a book from my childhood. I read it before the war. I didn’t so much like Nekrasov’s book itself as the pictures, which were wonderful. After the artist of this book, Konstantin Rotov, was put in jail, the book disappeared from bookshops. It was later republished in 1956 or 57. I had a copy of it! [he says this with pride].

When I received an offer to make a cartoon on the basis of this story, I started working on it with pleasure. For the first three or four months people didn’t know what the result would be.

Over four years, you made 13 episodes of this cartoon. By animation standards, that’s a lot of work. They say that according to the rules of the genre, 10 minutes takes around 2 years to make. Did you consciously take on such a difficult task?

We knew that there would be this many episodes beforehand. We got an assignment from Central television. I was passionate about the idea of making a film with characters from my childhood. There was no time to relax: we had to make three episodes each year, 30 minutes each. There was a great deal of work and a very tight schedule. So we put the sea in the background in the cartoon, to save time and so we didn’t have to draw it. But we finished the film in time. We really put all our efforts into it!

So thanks to your skill, for the first time in the history of animation, video appeared in cartoons. That was quite an achievement! So the brilliant decision was made to save money?

I’d say that it was out of laziness [laughs]. The sea appeared because I wanted to make my work easier. And not because I’m such a great innovator. As for the technical realization of ideas, the only difficulty was the physical strain. I’ll explain… We had special stands built, so that during filming the sea itself didn’t show through, because we put it in the background. The stand was placed up above. You moved the cut-out, so that the action took place on film and the picture started to move, then you went up the ladder and saw how it looked, and then went back down. And so you spent all day on the ladder: back and forth, back and forth… [laughs]. But still, the work went along easily!
We made the film the way we saw it: not for children, not for adults, but as we felt it.

How many pictures did you have to make?

There were many pictures of course, over 16,000 for each series. But they weren’t pictures at all, they were cutouts [the “cutout” technique is the trademark of “Kievnauchfilm”, a painstaking method of making animation]. They were made by animators, and not everyone can do this. At the end they got so skillful the cutouts looked like they were drawn, you couldn’t even notice the difference. A whole team of artists worked for us under the guidance of the fine artist Radna Sakhaltuev. We made all the films with him: from the first to the last. We had to create each one by hand. We did this all easily, with pleasure, for we were doing what we loved. We had an excellent team: the artist, composer, animators, the book itself, and I also wasn’t the worst person myself… [smiles].

Please explain to our urbanized and computerized readers what cutouts are.

Imagine a character with arms, legs and a head… Cutouts are made like this: first a single picture of the character is drawn – we make it as a whole, and then in separate parts: separate arms, legs, the body (and different ones, from different sides), separate hands and elbows, and the legs from the knees down etc. It’s a sort of doll, it leads you along itself, it tells its own story… You draw it, you move the arms and legs – and the picture comes to life. So a “cutout” is like a dismembered person, but on paper.

How did you submit the work?

Very easily: first it was accepted at the studio, then at our State cinema board, and in Moscow it was accepted by the clients who were paying for it. But they accepted it enthusiastically, they even sent an official telegram saying that they liked it. Then they offered me to make “Aibolit” and “Treasure Island” themselves. I was already their favorite.

What did you feel when you finished the film? So you lived “at the stand”, and at one moment you realized that the work was completed?

Yes, the most frightening thing in this process is the end. For the entire time, you’ve worked on the film. And suddenly, you’ve finished it, and it’s all come to an end. But I found a way to overcome my melancholy. I went to a travel agency, booked a trip and went skiing. And I really got enthusiastic about it. When I first went skiing, I was almost 50, but I’ve always liked to learn new things. Then I got all my friends into as well.

Let’s talk about “Doctor Aibolit”. Other directors have also made cartoons based on Chukovsky’s works, but viewers remember your creations…

I portrayed these characters based on my own personal reading of the author and the characters. At one time there were a lot of cartoons based on Chukovsky made at Soyuzmultfilm. And the characters in them are completely different But ours fit into the film harmoniously, somehow. My artist trusted me to draw all the characters, to make the first drawings of them, so to speak. I created the general appearance, and then the artist perfected them. He thought up the details himself and drew them. They are guaranteed to please viewers. Firstly, they sing; secondly they play, move and talk…

Aibolit is perhaps the most mysterious character of all the ones you’ve created on screen…

First we drew him as being small and fat, but also with big whiskers. But we had a consultant, an expert on Chukovsky, who said that we should make him tall and skinny like Doctor Schweizer. This is how we drew him. Of course, it took a while for us to get it right.

Is it true that of all your works, “Doctor Aibolit” is your favorite?

Yes, it’s true! The composer is brilliant, and it’s a book by Chukovsky that I remember and love from childhood. I must admit that after Vrungel it was hard for me to work on this film. So the pirates look like characters from Vrungel. I watched it quite recently. I saw a lot of dross there, of course, you can already notice this now. But by the music, by the movement on screen, by the way we made all the poems into a single story, I’m very satisfied with this work. It was very easy to draw the other characters, as they all have one role – they’re Aibolit’s enemies, his antipodes: whiskers, beards… And Barmalei was a separate character, he was very interesting for us. The wonderful Leningrad composer Firtich worked on this film, and the co-author of the screenplay, Yefim Chepovetsky, is a brilliant Kiev children’s poet.

Barmalei is a negative character, but in your version he doesn’t evoke these associations…

He’s vulnerable, you understand? When you read Chukovsky, you realize how much is contained in this character… So we made him a touching character, not a villain. First he swaggers, and pretends that he’s very nasty, he even says: “Am I a nasty robber? I’m nasty!”

In our version, he ends up as an unhappy Jew with a classic ethnic nose [laughs]. All my characters had big noses. And he was voiced by Zhora Kishko. He made the character very gentle and a bit whiny.

In this cartoon, the first female character appears… Why did your love for women not manifest itself in your works?

Yes, there’s one character, but she’s also very unsuccessful. In my work there weren’t really any women. I like to draw ugly people, with big noses. And you can’t draw a woman like this. But there was the nasty Varvara, who was quarrelsome. She moved in a very complex way: her head was like a sausage, it couldn’t turn.

The opera “Mukha-Tsokotukha” (Buzzy Fly) with a woman’s role

If we analyze the clothing that you chose for the characters in Aibolit, the main character still looks quite fashionable today. Barmalei’s clothing was quite different. What principle did you use?

If the character is a robber, he should have a pistol. We didn’t pay attention to much else in creating the character. The pirates, Barmalei’s helpers, were dressed according to the principle that they wore whatever they stole. And Barmalei is the chief, he was dressed a bit better, we gave him two pistols and an enormous saber. That suits his nature. Initially he wore in striped prisoner’s clothes, but then he became the chief, and changed into new clothes. But we still put him back into his place.

“Treasure Island” is the creation of an “overseas” writer. Did this fact conflict with the Soviet propaganda of “ours is the best”?

No. Stevenson is a classic, who was in print at the time, people read and loved him. The only thing is that I turned his story upside down. The author wrote an “action” story, which was serious: if people were killed, then they were really killed. But I changed it completely, I made it cheerful, with quite different characters, with different voices… So it sounded modern.

You have a technical education. How did you become an animator, without experience, and when you were still young? Is this a calling, a form of genius that you have?

Gogol is a genius, but we are professionals, I would put it like that. Yes, I graduated from the Kiev engineering institute. I wanted to be an architect, but it was difficult for Jews to enroll anywhere, in my day, in the 1950s. But I was lucky. An animation studio was founded in Kiev, I went there, and they hired me, without experience, simply when they saw my drawings. I had dreamed about this job all my life! Engineering wasn’t for me. I had always dreamed of animation. But my education did come in handy, because engineers have to be disciplined. I’m lazy by nature, but the skills I learned helped me to organize myself.

There haven’t been any state orders for a long time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, you illustrated books, and made animated advertisements. What are you doing now?

Yes. I worked in advertising in the 1990s, when the studio ceased to exist, and there was no work anymore. I could have parties with my friends, and entertain them. I was offered jobs in advertising and I liked them very much. There were plenty of clients. But I wasn’t very far-sighted, because I could have started my own advertising studio back then. The business gave me a decent income. When I was just a director, the wages were pretty low. But when I started working in advertising, I felt that I could afford to entertain my friends… Now I’m making graphics for a computer game. We’ve already made five levels, and there are three more left.

What is happening with Ukrainian animation today? Are there any prospects?

Today our “Ukranimafilm” simply does not exist, and the building itself is crumbling. We used to occupy three floors, and now there is only one – and it isn’t heated. Only one or two people are left on the staff, and cartoons haven’t been made there for a long time. So everything’s in a neglected state, there is no production on a national level at all. And the Dovzhenko film studio is in the same situation, there is simply no money provided for films and animation.

Cartoon production in Russia is alive and well. What stops Ukraine?

Considerable budgets are allocated at Soyuzmultfilm, and a lot of films are being made, the Cinematography Institute has many good students, and the professors are wonderful. My friends make the quite successful “Smeshariki”, for example, and private individuals invest in the filming. There is a demand, children go to watch cartoons. In Ukraine there are no people interested in the development of the industry. Look at the Supreme Rada. What animation can there be? I’m not even sure that they know what it is. They had no time for it in the past, and certainly don’t now during the war. But there are a few studios in Ukraine. They mainly work to order, with advertising projects. But this is a drop in the ocean – it’s not something you can bring up children on, because cartoon needs to be produced, then children will be educated.

In your opinion, what should a cartoon give the viewer?

I think a cartoon should be cheerful, musical and colorful; it should have a naïve moral, and tell people “what is good, and what is bad.” I made my films as best I could. I was lucky that other people liked them too.

You’re a recognized talent, and several generations were brought up on your works. People know and love you in many countries, including Israel. Why didn’t you leave in the “desolate” 1990s, when everything collapsed?

The devil only knows! I could have left, but I didn’t. I’m such a Soviet person that I didn’t even think about it. Although there were offers.

At a mature age, you entered into a union with Abraham – you underwent the ritual of Brit-milah. Mazal tov! I congratulate you on your birth. This is an important step for a Jew, how did you decide to do it?

I was circumcised at the age of 75. So I’m still quite young [laughs].

Although before the evacuation I didn’t even know that I was a Jew, I didn’t even know about my roots when I was at school: my parents spoke Yiddish, but I didn’t attach any importance to this. Generally back then (before the Second World War), no one talked about this topic. That was what it was like in those times. We lived near Chkalov [Orenburg, during evacuation]. Some of my friends came to visit and heard an incomprehensible language. And the entire village came to look at us: what are Jews like? – they didn’t have any idea. And they were so surprised that my mother was a beautiful woman, and had arms and legs… It was funny. That’s when I found out that I was a Jew.


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