Nikolai Serebryakov

Experimental film-maker who animated Shakespeare

Monday 31 October 2005 01:00
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The Russian film-maker Nikolai Serebryakov was an imaginative and experimental maker of animated films, and one of those who contributed to a groundbreaking collaboration between Russia and the Welsh fourth channel, S4C, for the 1992 series Shakespeare - The Animated Tales.

Evacuated from Leningad during the wartime blockade, Serebryakov graduated in 1952 from the Vera Mukhina Institute of Applied Art in the city, then worked in theatre design and puppet animation before joining the Moscow animation studio Soyuzmultfilm ("Union Animation") in 1960. Set up in 1935 as a rival to Disney, Soyuzmultfilm had tended in the Stalin era to produce well-made, pretty and amusing cartoons for children, using traditional painted cel animation.

However, during the "thaw" of the 1960s, a group of young animators, among them Andrei Khrzhanovsky, Vadim Kurchevsky and Serebryakov, started to explore the wider aesthetic possibilities of the medium, especially in stop-motion (or puppet) animations addressed to a more sophisticated audience. In Serebryakov's 10-minute film Ball of Wool (1968), an old woman meets a sheep in the forest and knits herself warm clothes, a house and furniture out of its coat, before coming up against her own limitations when she tries to remake herself as a beautiful girl. With its striking use of colour and its witty exploration of the medium, Ball of Wool is one of the masterpieces of Russian animated cinema.

Serebryakov started his career as a director by collaborating on three films with Kurchevsky: I Want to be Brave (1963), Little Lazybones (1964) and Neither God nor Devil (1965). This apprenticeship preceded a productive 10-year period which brought international recognition with a prize at the 1967 short film festival in Tours for I'm Waiting for the Bird's Nest.

By this time, he was working chiefly with his wife Alina Speshneva, a designer at the Obraztsov puppet theatre in Moscow. They jointly won a prize at the short film festival in Grenoble in 1976 and the Grand Prix at the animation festival in Tampere in the following year. They also contributed to the design of Elem Klimov's feature film Sport, Sport, Sport (1970), a collage of documentary and archive, live action and fantasy, with a soundtrack by Alfred Schnittke.

After Speshneva's death in an accident in 1984, Serebryakov continued to work and teach at Soyuzmultfilm, winning a Nika (the Russian Oscar) for his film Actor in 1989. As one of Soyuzmultfilm's leading directors, he was commissioned to make two of the films for the Animated Shakespeare, Macbeth for the first series and Othello for the second, both using cel, rather than puppet animation.

The project, which got under way during perestroika and concluded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was bold and sometimes fraught. The Soviet animators were not altogether prepared for the constraints of the market and, while producing meticulous work, sometimes fell behind with their schedules. There were concerns, too, about the violence of some scenes in Serebryakov's Macbeth which it was feared might make it unsuitable for its target audience. In the end, however, the project was a huge success: the films have been sold to many countries, are widely used in schools and have recently been reissued on DVD.

In addition to his animated films, Nikolai Serebryakov was a remarkably talented artist and craftsman, painting and designing in many media: landscapes, portraits, icons, sculptures and constructions. He continued to work until his death (his last film remains to be completed by his colleagues), though ill-health made him less prolific in recent years.

Happily married to a consultant cardiologist, Nadia, he possessed a delightful personality. No one who met Nikolai, at his home in Moscow or during his occasional visits to Britain (the last time in the late 1990s to attend a joint retrospective of his work with that of Yuri Norstein at the Edinburgh Festival), was likely to forget him. Sweet-natured, built on a generous scale and with a corresponding appetite for life, laughter, friendship, art and vodka, he embodied both as an artist and as a man some of the most endearing features of his homeland.

Robin Buss

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