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Ukrainian animation history started in 1927 with Viacheslav Levandovskii’s stop-motion short "Tale of a Straw Bull", produced in Odesa. This year Ukrainian animation celebrates its 95 years anniversary. And this is a respectable age – the Walt Disney studio, for example, turned 99. During this time, Ukrainian animation overcame the path from isolated projects, made when "there was nothing", to a bright flash in the middle of the last century and then to a gradual fading. In Soviet times Ukrainian animation was mostly localized in the cartoon department of Kyivnaukfilm (or the Kyiv Studio of Popular Science Films). This department appeared to be the second-largest animation studio in the USSR after Soyuzmultfilm (located in Moscow). It produced 150–250 minutes of film per year. More and more films appeared, marked by the search for an original style that would reveal the individuality of the artist.
After world-known Ukrainian cartoons produced during the Soviet period (like "Cossacks", "Adventures of Captain Vrungel", "Treasure Island", "Alice in Wonderland", "Dr. Aibolyt", etc) for a long period of time starting from 1991 Ukrainian animation industry was in a “sleeping mode”. Thus it doesn’t mean that there were no attempts to develop and create new animated projects. Some bright and vivid works appeared from time to time. The problem was rather financial than artistic. We can’t but mention the activity and achievements of Borysfen-S studio.
It was founded in 1990 by producer Victor Sleptsov, together with a group of outstanding Ukrainian directors, animators, and the most qualified experts in animation manufacturing.
Legend: Borisfen Studio, artists working on Circus on the Wire, 2019
A year later, in 1991, the Ukrainian-American studio REF-Borisfen was founded. The studio became famous for producing animation for the "Peter Pen" series (Fox Television), as well as other animation series for American TV channels. The Ukrainian-French animation company Borisfen-Lutece was founded on the art basis of Borisfen-S in 1994 and became one of the largest manufacturers of animation (about 150 minutes per month) in the world. In co-production with European studios Millimages, Fit Production, Silver, Les Armateurs, channels France 3, Canal J, etc, Borisfen-Lutece took part in the creation of more than 30 animated series, including "Corneil & Bernie" (52x12’), "Stressed Eric" (7x26’), "Talis" (52x13’), "ZOO 64" (52х13’), "Caroline et ses amis" (52х13’), "Archibald the Koala" (52х13’), etc. Among Borisfen-S studio's own projects such animations as the mini-series "DIG Squad" (3x26’) and several dozens of short movies. The studio stopper working in 2019.
In the early 2000s, there were several vivid short-length animations conquering prizes at prestigious international festivals. For instance, in the 2003 short-length Ukrainian animated film “The Tram Was Going, Number Nine” won the Silver Bear at Berlinale. The film, made in the clay animation technique, was produced by Ukranimafilm studio and directed by Stepan Koval.
Talking about the festival success of Ukrainian animation we can’t but mention the 7-minute animated film “Snow Will Cover the Road” by Evgeniy Sivokon that won Grand Prix Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2006. As well as the 14-minute short comedy “Deep Love” by Mykyta Lyskov. Premiered in 2019 the project won Grand Prix DOK Leipzig, Grand Prix PÖFF, Grand Prix Animocje, Grand Prix Turku Animation Film Festival, Annecy nominee, etc.
The contemporary Ukrainian animation industry started conquering the international market in the early 2010s when the kids’ animation series “Eskimo Girl” produced by Animagrad Animation Studio (seasons 2-4) and Hanzhonkov Film Studio (season 1) became the first animated series from Ukraine, which became available to American and Canadian audiences (it appeared under the name Naya’s Arctic Adventures first on DVD, later, on VoD-services). The “Eskimo Girl” animated series runs for 4 seasons of 26 episodes each. Every episode tells a kind and touching story about the Arctic adventures of the curious Eskimo Girl and her friends. Characters use non-verbal communication which makes them universally understandable for children around the world. The series has enjoyed wide international success and is currently available for global audiences in Ukraine, Estonia, Kazakhstan, the USA, Canada, China, South Korea, Scandinavia, and many other countries.
Feature Ukrainian animation
A real milestone for the Ukrainian animation industry was in 2014 when the animated feature film “Babay” was released in cinemas. Funded by the state and produced by Ukranimafilm it became the first feature-length animated film that has been created in Ukraine since the proclamation of independence in 1991. The film, directed by Maryna Medvid, is an interpretation/retelling of several Slavic legends. This release didn’t become a local hit and got a relatively small box office, but still, it was a real beam of hope for all Ukrainian animators, that proved the animation industry in Ukraine is not dead.
Two years later, in 2016, the first Ukrainian 3D full-length animation – “The Dragon Spell” (budgeted at 3.8M Euro) was released, grossing UAH 10.4 million (nearly 380 000 Euro). Directed by Depoyan Manuk this story is about Little Nicky, the son of Tanner, a famous strongman, who has made up his mind, that he can conquer a dragon as his father did long ago. Theatrical rights to this film produced by Panama GrandPrix studio were sold to more than a dozen territories, including Japan, China, South Korea, the UK, Poland, Turkey, India, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Middle East, France, ex-Yugoslavia and Baltic states. The project grossed worldwide more than 1.65M Euro. Currently, the film is available on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Peacock, Tubi, Pluto TV, Google Play, YouTube Premium, Megogo, and other VoD platforms.
In 2018 “The Stolen Princess” 3D animation fantasy (produced by Animagrad and directed by Oleg Malamuzh) was generally licensed to more than 50 territories. It became the first Ukrainian film released in Chinese cinemas, and continues its international voyage. Recently the film was licensed to Elles Films for theatrical release in Japan. Budgeted at more than 3.5M Euro it was partly financed by Ukrainian Film Agency and managed to gross locally almost UAH 36 million (almost 1.25M Euro) and became the leader of the local box office. This story is about traveling artist Ruslan falling in love with King’s daughter Mila, who gets abducted by the evil wizard Chоrnomor. Ruslan embarks on a search for his stolen princess – he has to prove once again, that love is stronger than magic. The film’s international box office reached 6.3M Euro . Now the cartoon is available on dozens of VoD services, including Apple TV, Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Roku, Plex, Tubi, Pluto, etc.
In 2019 animated feature by Image Pictures “Clara & the Magic Dragon” (int. title – Clara) was released not only in Ukrainian cinemas but also in Baltic states, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, etc. Once in a thousand years, a magical Dragon with extraordinary abilities appears in a fairy-tale forest. Little girl Clara, along with her friends Raccoon and Dwarf decides to save the Dragon from the Forces of Evil. The film, directed by Oleksandr Klymenko, didn’t get huge grosses in Ukraine, however, UAH 6.73 million (nearly 225 000 Euro) was quite a decent result. Plus, the worldwide box office reached almost 540 000 Euro, which proved again the international potential of Ukrainian animation.
2021 became the first year in modern Ukrainian film history when two locally produced feature animations were released in Ukrainian cinemas. In June 2021 full-length animation “Victor_Robot” premiered in cinemas. Produced by Chervoniy Sobaka (aka Red Dog) animation studio the project was 100% financed by the State Film Agency. Its production budget was very modest for this kind of project and totaled UAH 31.1 million (nearly 1M Euro). Directed by Anatoliy Lavrenishyn the story setups in the distant future. A girl together with her assistant – a tiny robot Victor, is searching for a man who can help to save the light on the planet. The project is looking for international distribution.
In August 2021 another 3D full-length animation “Gulliver Returns” debuted in Ukraine. Created by 95 Animation Studios (Ukraine) and Gulliver Films (Cyprus) this is a story of Gulliver who receives a letter in which the people of Lilliput ask him for help – the country is in depression because of the dictator ruler. The project, directed by Іllya Maksimov, grossed in Ukrainian cinemas UAH 14.1 million (more than 450 000 Euro). The worldwide box office of the film with a production cost of 9M Euro (according to its producer Oleg Khodachuk), reached 1.4M Euro. The project is distributed internationally by All Rights Entertainment.
Ukrainian animation market
Ukrainian animators can take on any terrain, from 2D (hand-drawn and computer animation) to 3D and stop-motion. There are more than 30 animation production companies in Ukraine, producing nearly 300 minutes of animated content per year (before February 24, 2022). This 300-minute list includes feature animation, short-length animated films, and animation series but excludes ads, gaming animation, and social animated content for digital platforms and social media.
Experts evaluate the approximate volume of the Ukrainian animation market at 9-13M Euro. The figures vary because of the inability to count the exact number and volume of animated ads, digital animation reels, and outsourcing works performed by small private studios for foreign customers and commissioners. The market itself is filled by a dozen strong and well-known locally and abroad animation studios and several dozens of production companies that have animation segments in their portfolio and have the ability to create animation for ads, corporate films, presentations, etc but do not create full-length animated films or animation series for TV or digital.
One of the most known Ukrainian animation studios is Novatorfilm. Founded in 2006 by Stepan Koval (Silver Bear for "The Tram Was Going, Number Nine") and Hanna Polonichenko, the studio produces short animated films using various techniques from plasticine dolls to 3D modeling. It is primarily known for the short films "Becoming Strong", "Labyrinth", "The Grandfather Intended to Marry" and the TV series "My Country Ukraine", "Mova", and "Professionals" (different episodes of these series got prizes and nominations at Annecy IAFF in TV Films in Competition). Novatorfilm currently has several projects in development, but not a single one in production cause of the absence of state financial support this year.
The most successful in the Ukrainian market from the commercial point of view is Animagrad studio, which was founded in 2012 as a part of FILM.UA Group and has become one of the leading animation studios in Eastern Europe. The studio’s portfolio lists a number of successful products in 2D and 3D. We have already mentioned some of their projects – “The Stolen Princess” and “Eskimo Girl”. Currently, Animagrad produces and develops several animated features and series intended for the international market. Among such products are the educational animated series for ages 6-8 “Whizz Kids” (26x6’), the preschool animated series “Tiki” (26x6’), sci-fi comedy animated series “Hrafn Academy” (12x26’). The upcoming studio release – “Mavka. The Forest Song” (the next feature after “The Stolen Princess” in the line-up of Animagrad studio) is already sold to several dozen territories. “Mavka” won the Ukrainian State Film Agency pitch in 2016 and was awarded state financing in the amount of 30% of the film’s total budget. Mavka is a unique and powerful female character from Ukraine’s myths and legends who is striving for peace and harmony in her world. The story is based on Ukrainian classic literature. Moreover, Animagrad has full-length animation “Roxelana” in development. In co-production with Glowberry Creative Production, Animagrad works on the 26-episode series “Mom Hurries Home”.
Another company from FILM.UA Group – Glowberry Creative Production – was originally established in 2009, as a niche publishing house, focusing on discovering new talent in kids’ literature and illustration. Today Glowberry is a dynamic creative and production company with a large, international team creating children’s animated content and brands that it distributes and licenses all around the world. In Glowberry’s portfolio currently, there are two projects: the above mentioned “Mom Hurries Home” and “Brave Bunnies” series. The last is co-produced with Spanish animation studio Anima and distributed worldwide by UK studio Aardman Animations. As of October 2021, “Brave Bunnies” has premiered in Ukraine, Australia, the UK, Israel, Latvia, South Korea, Finland, Italy, Spain, Norway, Germany, Sweden, etc. Recently WildBrain company has acquired “Brave Bunnies” for the territory of Canada and is joining as a co-producer for the second season of the project.
Responsible for "Victor_Robot" creation, Chervoniy Sobaka Animation Studio was established in 2005 by Serhii Melnychenko and Olena Golubeva as a children's animation training studio. Since 2012 it specializes in the production and post-production of short and feature animated films. The production is concentrated on classic hand-drawn animation. The studio is the winner of many international and national festivals. Among the studio's cartoons are "The War that Changed Rondo", "Here by Herself", "Topsy Turvy", "Wonderful Monster", "You and the Police", "Fish Tail Girl", and others. Currently in the production line of the studio – animated series "Strichka" and short animations "Stinker", "Rozibrana", "Gregory", and "Shadow of Doubt".
Studio KAPI is a Ukrainian animation studio founded by producer Michael Margulis and children's writer Natalia Guzeeva in 2015. The studio stands behind the production of the animated series "Myshko and Dzvinka" (16x10’, co-produced with Borysfen) and is developing another series for children "Labra Cadabra" (6x10’). Among the studio’s shorts are "Tiger is Strolling Around", "The City of Happy Boys", "Papier-mâché", "Come outside", and "Masha". Some projects currently in production are "Divination", "To Ever City", and "The City of Happy Boys".
Directed by Rostyslav Harbar, the feature animation “Trouble Nubble Gum” (in Ukraine its title is 23 Images of Petryk Pyatochkin) was selected to participate in the pitching of the 21st international forum Cartoon Movie (France) in 2020. Currently, the project, financially supported by the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, is in the final stage of its production. Its premiere was planned for the end of 2022, but because of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has been delayed for the future. When the film protagonist Petryk, a schoolboy, only thought of taking revenge on his classmates and erased their names from the letter, the children disappeared from the real world. They ended up in the rubber Baroniia, an unusual country that is literally built on children’s grievances and anger. Realizing what he has done, Petryk, together with his friend Kate and teacher Bo-Bo, goes to the Baroniia to bring back the friends.
Yarki Studio is a Ukrainian creative production company of animated and game content. Founded in 2012 as a gamedev studio, since the end of 2016, the company started working on the creation of animated TV series for children "South Farm". Pilot 7 episodes of the series have already been released. Currently, the studio works on a 10-episode comedy fantasy animation series "School for the Little Monsters". Its protagonist Matt moves with his single mom from a big city to a small village. Here a very strange school waits for him. It turns out that all the students are magical monsters, who just learn how to look like humans. The series premiere is planned for 2024.
Karandash Animation Studio was founded in 2016 by Dmytro Belinskiy. Its animated series “Woof & Joy” is currently in production. This educational and entertaining animated series for 3-5 years old children is completely produced by the studio using the methodology of specialists from British Kingston University. It was commissioned to be developed and made for the American educational application FAB APP. The series is in English, but it has already been translated into Ukrainian and will be released during these Christmas holidays. The studio has produced the short film “Ab Ovo” and is also finishing the development of the educational and entertainment series “Cosmonomix” for 6-8 years old children. Another milestone for the studio is the full-length animation “Doggy the Wolf. Heart the Brave”, it is in the script development stage now. Creators are looking for funding to complete the development period. “Doggy the Wolf. Heart the Brave” is directed by Mark Pinheiro and Dasha Vernova (the original book’s author).Extraordinary kind and free-spirited wolf tries to save children from the Dark Forest, where someone steals childhood from the kids and turns them into joyless robotic creatures.
Key Animation Studio was founded by Adrian and Irina Sakhaltuev in 2009 to produce author and commercial animated films, series, and animated commercials. The studio created about two hundred commercials, several short animated films, and clips, and contributed to the creation of a dozen serials and full-length films, working for domestic and international markets. The studio is known for "King Weeper and Uncle Tickleton" an animation short film based on the fairy tale of the same name by Vasil Symonenko. The film, directed by Andrian Sakhaltuev, was supported financially by the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. Another short project of the studio – "Stop Bumbash" was supported by Ukrainian Cultural Fund and is currently in production.
Good Deeds animation studio was set up in 2013 with the aim of developing new techniques of animation for television and the cinema. The studio produces short films, commercials, and 3D animated series. In the studio’s portfolio – a 12-episode animated series “210 Good Deeds”, targeted at 6-12 y.o. Currently, the company has a short film “A Matter of Time” in production and “The Unworthy” in pre-production. The studio’s new short film “Idol”, is in the development stage, and is currently frozen due to the lack of finance.
Ukrkino company has currently a full-length animation "The Peasants" in production. The project is a co-production with Poland, Serbia, and Lithuania. The project production budget is nearly 5M Euro, and creators expect support from Ukrainian and Polish funds. Moreover, two short films "Ornament" and "Near the Water" are in pre-production.
Eidetic Pictures is working on Alexey Pantelieiv's feature animation "Hazard". The destinies of professional gambler Dice and an orphan Inga cross. They have to oppose a biker gang, win the game called “Quest” and fight with totem bull during one long night in Odesa. And finally, fall in love with each other.
There are much more animation projects, developed and created by different Ukrainian small companies, TV channels, and individual animators. NLO-TV channel produced and aired a 10-episode animation series "Chortovyyky" (animators from Kazakhstan were involved in the project production), as well as an 8-episode animated series "Dangerous Zone". Lisenbart production presented in the 2016 series "Marіychin Pershosvіt" (60x1’) and in 2020 – short animation "Unnecessary Things".
In 2021 TV channel PlusPlus premiered a 21-episode animation "Furry Blog", as well as a 5-episode series "Dyvomandry" and a 10-episode series "Ukraine. Unconquered Cities". A 6-episode mini-series "Good Always Wins" by 1+1 Production debuted in March 2022. Studios 2 Flame and Magika Film have produced their short adventure fantasy film "The Stolen Moon. Chum".
Animation director Nataliia Gaida together with Olena Golubieva as a producer are working on animation series "Black, Black Hen". Suspilne Ukraine is currently working on the 2nd season of the animated series "Toto" (also in the portfolio of this broadcaster such animated series as "Little Bu", "Yasia and her Robot" and "Adventure Portal". HanzhonkovFilm studio was also developing the full-length animation "Battle for Noosphere" (currently the works on the project are frozen).
Related industries and innovations
Ukrainian content producers have always tried to keep abreast of innovation. Since 2010th, they have been using the latest technologies in their work. For example, the Animagrad studio was the first in the country to start creating animated series using motion capture technology. The Signal Red production house has actively experimented with AR – from developing AR puzzles, for which 3D models of "The Stolen Princess" cartoon characters were optimized, to the mobile game "The Stronghold Defense" based on the fantasy movie "The Stronghold". Subsequently, with the development of VR technologies and game engines, full-fledged cross-platform projects have become possible, allowing the viewer to get "inside" any scene. For example, the audience of the animated series "Mars Colony High", which is currently under development at FILM.UA Group, will be offered a VR tour of the surface of Mars.
Legend: Presentation of the Mars Colony High project as part of the #Cartoon360 pitch
At the same time, the VFX industry has been developing even more actively. Projects by Ukrainian specialists are known all over the world today. It is enough to mention the Postmodern Digital, whose works were included in the shortlist of the Hollywood Visual Effects Society Awards four times, where they competed with Game of Thrones, Tale of Tales, and videos of the leading brands. Another example is Gloria FX studio that won the MTV Video Music Award in the Best Visual Effects category for the Coldplay music video in 2016. Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, more than 40 studios were working with VFX and providing a full range of animation and post-production services. The most famous are Postmodern Digital (The Wandering Earth, Jade Dynasty, Viy 3D, Chornobyl) and Terminal FX (Enemy Closer, Getaway, Universal Soldier 4, Dead to Tombstone).
2020 was a turning point in terms of the virtual production technologies used. The first in Ukraine XR studio with a LED panels platform has been opened in Kyiv. One of the independent companies began developing the country's first full-length animation using the Unreal Engine game engine. Unfortunately, due to the challenging situation in the country, this animation project was closed. However, the production of projects using innovative technologies does not stop even in the face of full-scale war. A multi-series animation (over 100 series) is being created with the help of a real-time virtual production and motion capture, which makes it possible to significantly speed up the pipeline. Commercials and music videos are created at the intersection of animation, film production, and game development. Several companies work with digital human and virtual influencer, which is in demand by large game studios and the corporate sector (mostly abroad). Before the war, they were interested in domestic television (two Ukrainian television groups considered the production of the Alter Ego format) and show business (creating virtual singers to music producers' orders).
"Today, the market includes: One Location studio as a virtual pavilion; To Be Production company – VFX, 3D, AR & VR, Virtual Studios, LED technology, Meta Human; FFFACE which deals with digital characters and clothing, AR-campaigns and projects in the meta-universe; FILM.UA develops the possibilities of combining classic production with AI (from NeRF technology by NVIDIA, which helps turn 2D images into a 3D scene, to Deepfake and automatic relipsync, AI assistants in creating scenarios and neural networks for image generation and animation, – ed.); We Play actively uses LED technologies, VR and virtual characters for their championships," – says VP&VFX supervisor Danil Zolotarenko. "Before the full-scale war, almost all leading game development companies, like Ubisoft Entertainment, and EA Games, were represented in Ukraine. Several other majors had offices with hundreds employees here. There are also some game companies that produce local products – 4A Games, Pixagon, and Plarium. Wargaming has a big brunch in Ukraine. And everyone uses innovative approaches, if not for the production of games, then at least for the production of promo and marketing materials."
The recent year became a real challenge for the Ukrainian animation industry. Being mostly state funded through different institutions, in 2022 the lack of financing became truly critical. On the other hand, the money challenge is not the only problem. The other acute issues are the weak professional education system and the current legislation, especially specific by-laws regulating activity in the field of animation. As those that exist, do not meet modern requirements. In the Law on Cinematography, the animation is not singled out as a separate industry in many sections, including the section on rebates. Ukraine has joined the European pact on animation support, which foresees at least 10% of the governmental support for the film industry to be allocated for animation.
"Of course, the ten-year strategy for animation in Ukraine, written by the industry in 2020, now requires a global review. The situation in the country only contributes to the development of supporting, utilitarian areas of animation (commercial videos, social videos). This allow specialists to work and pay taxes at least," – comments Olena Golubeva, executive director of the Ukrainian Association of Animation (UANIMA). "However, after problems with the electricity supply began (after massive missile attacks on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine, – ed.), many companies consider relocation as an option for further actions. Relocation, in this case, is an opportunity to save people and continue production. I hope that after our victory, approximately 30-40% of professionals who left the country since February 24, 2022, will return to Ukraine. We will be able to rebuild the industry faster than if we were building from scratch."
International partnership is currently the focus of attention of most Ukrainian manufacturing companies. The following co-production projects are now in production: “Brave Bunnies” series is co-produced with Spain and the second season will be co-produced with Canada. Full-length animation “The Peasants” is a co-production with Poland, Serbia, and Lithuania, and feature animation “Dalia and the Red Book” is being co-produced by Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Spain, and Ukraine. “Hrafn Academy” is an adult animation series co-developed by Animagrad (FILM.UA Group) and GunHil (part of Icelandic Sagafilm Group).
Lyubov Krokhmalna, Head of the Fundraising and Investor Services Department at FILM.UA Group explains why Ukraine is currently an attractive partner for foreign producers. “First of all, we are members of all the leading organizations for financing content production and therefore we are most favorable for co-production. In addition, Ukraine itself is currently a place for generating ideas. We can make both powerful adult animation and high-quality animation for children”, – says Lyubov. According to her, Ukrainian animation projects cannot be produced without foreign partners now, due to the war and the corresponding lack of state funding. Therefore, if foreign partners have any ideas for animation, and if they need quality services, Ukraine will gladly help. Just now, under the conditions of the war, Ukraine is able to find 10-20% of funding – for writing the script, its translation, and language adaptation, for development. But to start production, Ukrainian animators need partners. Yes, at the moment we are happy to work as minority partners, and, of course, if we are talking about long-term ambitious goals, then Ukraine strives to be a full-fledged partner. And the animation is a long-term product that will be relevant years from now.