Current Developments in Latvian Animation

2017 has kicked off with unprecedented activity for Latvian animated films. The year begins with the premiere in the Generation KPlus section at the Berlinale of Singing Hugo and his Incredible Adventures, a film by the Rija studio and director Reinis Kalnaellis. And the year is set to continue with intensive filmmaking and many more premieres.

Five feature-length films are currently in development for audiences ranging from the very young (Kalnaellis’ Applecake Lullaby) and early school-age children (Edmunds Jansons’ adventure film Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs) to adults prepared to laugh at themselves (Signe Baumane’s My Love Affair With Marriage). The filmmakers bring to life globally acclaimed heroes (Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits’ Lotte and the Lost Dragons) as well as the mythic pantheon of Latvian folklore (Roze Stiebra’s The Sun Rides up into the Sky). The creative styles of the directors and artists are sufficiently different to say that there are some very distinct films in the making here, yet all are equally significant for the Latvian cinematic arts.

Younger audiences will be delighted with the premieres of several short films of various length and technique. The original short works in progress keep the language of animation alive and consistently continue to develop in their quality – Vladimir Leschiov unveils surreal facets to mundane events, Edmunds Jansons brings a painterly modernism to his films, while experimental film director Signe Birkova explores new directions for puppet cinema.

In 2017 the Atom Art studio is focussing its attentions on two of Edmunds Jansons’ biggest projects for the children’s and family audiences – final animation work is proceeding on the 26-minute-long Christmas story Pigtail and Mr. Sleeplessness (artist Reinis Pētersons) and the full-length feature film Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs (artist Elīna Brasliņa), supported by the Latvian Films for Latvia’s Centennial programme. Both new films are being made using the digital application technique, but they will differ markedly not only in format but also in artistic style.

Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs
Known internationally for his shorts (Choir Tour, International Fathers’ Day and others), this is director Edmunds Jansons’ first full-length feature. “We didn’t set out to make a full-length movie. Before we began I was pretty categorically certain that this wasn’t a field that interested me,” he says. “It’s a whole new language and different set of rules. But the circumstances came together, the opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of it.”

Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs is a cinematic adaptation of the award-winning children’s book The Story of Maskachka by Luīze Pastore. Although the book was illustrated by Reinis Pētersons, the film’s artist is Elīna Brasliņa, who visually researched the Maskachka neighbourhood by crisscrossing this historic Riga district on foot. The framing and part of the background were complete at the beginning of the year, and all eighty of the film’s characters have been developed and are ready for the animation process. The three primary animators (Mārtiņš Dūmiņš, Līga Skirmane-Leščova and Kristīne Zvirbule) are currently at work in the studio together with more than ten assistants from the Latvian Academy of Art. Part of the animation work is also being done in Poland.

Pigtail and Mr. Sleeplessness
Pigtail and Mr. Sleeplessness is intended as a Christmas TV special, with work on it scheduled for completion in February. Producer Sabīne Andersone says the idea for the film came from screenwriter Lote Eglīte: “It’s a childhood experience of Lote’s – about how, after long being an only child, a baby brother came into her family. The film tells of her feelings – the powerful emotional experience and the desire to get rid of the little one.” The main heroes of the film are a preteen girl named Pigtail and her imaginary friend Sleeplessness, who appears during moments when she faces her inner demons. Of course, there’s also Dad, Mom and the undesired surprise – Baby Brother. Reinis Pētersons provides the visual appearance for the original screenplay, while the music and sound design is the work of Ģirts Bišs.

This year Jansons also intends to resume work on his postponed experimental works Honour Guard and Weekend, in which a skier’s ride down a mountain appears through the symbols of abstract modern painting.

The Rija studio is working on several films during 2017, including two co-produced features set for completion in 2018. Collaboration also continues with 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks on voice-overs for children’s animated films. Producer Vilnis Kalnaellis notes that right now the studio’s “main activity is film distribution – both for Latvian films abroad and for European films in Latvia.” The studio houses a multi-functional workshop called the Kino māja (Cinema House), available for educational seminars, lectures, sound-mixing workshops, special effects filming and post-production work.

Singing Hugo and his Incredible Adventures
This comedy by Reinis Kalnaellis has its world premiere at the Berlinale festival and is presented by the director as “a positive, encouraging and energetic story for the little viewers”. The main character in Kaspars Roga’s screenplay is Hugo, a chick who lives at the edge of the world. He wants to sing and, as it turns out, is indeed not meant to stay in the coop for long. He comes into the hands of thieves in the night and thus begins his crazy adventure. Featuring light colours and a minimalist style, the film is made in the hand-drawn animation technique with music composed by Renārs Kaupers.

Lotte and the Lost Dragons
Not only children from Estonia and Latvia are familiar with the stories about the girl-dog Lotte from Gadgetville by Estonian director Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits – these films have been screened in around fifty countries. The cartoon character has become a recognised trademark for various products, and in 2014 a Lotte theme park was opened in Estonia. A third full-length feature is currently being made jointly by Eesti Joonisfilm and Rija, with a screenplay by Põldma and Andris Akmentiņš and music by Renārs Kaupers. Background artist Laima Puntule and sound editor Andris Barons are also on the creative team from the Latvian side.

In the new film, Lotte’s entire family is preoccupied with little sister Rozija. Meanwhile, two scientists arrive in Gadgetville – Karl the Raccoon and Victor the Vetch (who lives in the water poured into Karl’s pouch). They collect folksongs and are seeking the oldest song of all, the legendary refrain of the fire-breathing dragons. Will the ancient song still be heard?

Applecake Lullaby
Reinis Kalnaellis’ Applecake Lullaby is being made in conjunction with the Paul Thiltges Distributions film studio. The pastel-toned film, made digitally and with colour pencils is simultaneously full of action yet also possesses a calming sense of warmth. It tells the tale of the penguin girl Thelma and her worries on the eve of her fifth birthday – what if her happy day fails to find her? Anything is possible in the dream world of artist Andrejs Prigičevs – secrets are inscribed in coconut shells, while a giant snail’s shell turns out to be a fantastic ship.

So far the Locomotive Productions has produced award-winning full-length feature and documentary films, but it is currently working on two hand-drawn films by seminal Latvian directors: master of drawn and applied animation Roze Stiebra and the bold, internationally awarded New-York-based Signe Baumane.

My Love Affair With Marriage
The leading theme of Signe Baumane’s films is nakedness, both in the sense of psychological openness and vulnerability as well as physical nudity and sex. Following her award-winning autobiographical film Rocks in my Pockets (2014) about depression along her ancestral line of female relatives, Baumane has turned to relationships, supplemented by the dystopian story elements so characteristic of her imaginary world.

The film is made using a technique developed by Baumane herself, combining drawn images against papier-mâché backgrounds, and tells of how the Sirens teach a young woman “how to strive for the Ideal Marriage. But the preconception of the Ideal Marriage is irreversibly ruined when a woman’s Biology, with its hormonal and neural signals, affects her behaviour and emotions, shaking the foundations of the marriage.” The film is a co-production between Lokomotīve on the Latvian side, Sturgis Warner and Signe Baumane’s own partner company, The Marriage Project LLC from the United States.

The Sun Rides up into the Sky
The film The Sun Rides up into the Sky, currently in development in line with director Roze Stiebra’s original screenplay, is the myth of the battle of light against dark, in which some curious children earn an unexpected role. The story begins at a jolly masquerade ball, but it soon turns into a thrilling ride between the visible world and the other world beyond it. Ilze Vītoliņa, the film’s artist, has already proven her ability to create a saturated and secretive world for Stiebra’s short films in the series Stories.

Another Locomotive Productions title – the plasticine animation film for children Our Granny Rocks by Nils Skapāns – is a story about how wonderful it is when your grandmother is also somewhat of a good witch.

Internationally acclaimed (Hiroshima, Clermont-Ferrand) animation film director Vladimir Leschiov is continuing work on his film The Electrician’s Day, which he plans to finish in early 2018. Leschiov’s style reveals the surreal facets of mundane life and the involuntary connections that surround us. The film in progress tells of an electrician who, after a short circuit on the job, “finds himself on the opposite side of the wall – in a place where he experiences anew the process of the world’s creation.”

The renowned director is also continuing to develop his screenplay for an animated short intended as a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada.

Experimental film director Signe Birkova has begun work on the animated project The Red Phantom. Previously she has been known for her abstract films and object animations, but in 2017 she hopes to work on a narrative film in conjunction with the Estonian film studio Nukufilm. The puppet film’s scenario takes place in 1990s Latvia, and its main character is a special-case detective, an American-Latvian woman. It’s to be a half-hour-long stylistically eclectic detective story with elements of mysticism and will be filmed in vintage 16 mm format.

The Animācijas Brigade film studio is finishing work this year on several short-length films for children and satire-loving grown-ups: The Mole and the Bull by Ēvalds Lācis, Waikiki by Māris Brinkmanis, the latest instalment (titled Secrets of Paris) in the Jānis Cimermanis’ series Emergency Brigade in Europe, Dace Rīdūze’s Dustspeck’s Adventure and Reinis Ūbelis’ black comedy The Sled. The last two of these films promise to deliver unusual visual styles – Rīdūze (together with character artist Ilze Kiršteine and environmental artist Māris Putniņš) will tackle the ultimate animator’s challenge of combining drawn frames with filmed ones, while Ūbelis, according to Putniņš, is using very atypical puppets in his production.


Ieva Viese