The Zagreb Cartoon Films

DRAGUTIN KOLMAN was one of the founding spirits of the Zagreb Cartoon Film Studio. Working on a shoestring and with extraordinary initiative. he and his associates devised a new and captivating animated film technique. Their cartoon film THE SUBSTITUTEis the first from any foreign country to be awarded an Oscar. Here is how they did it.

by Dragutin Kolman

THE Zagreb Film Studio cartoons have a common characteristic: they are all produced without dialogue or spoken commentary. In addition to pictures and animation, the action is provided by music and sound effects. This is because the world of cartoons is completely different from that of the feature film.

Realism is foreign to the cartoon film, not only in the cartoons themselves, but in the animation as well. The personalities created by fantasy all have their own movements, gestures, and manner of walking. Moreover, the hero of the cartoon film, unlike his counterpart in the feature film, is not obliged to move within a limited area; he lias the entire screen at his disposal. Exploiting this possibility to the fullest, the cartoonists of the Zagreb school create their characters and the backgrounds upon which they act in two dimensions only.

Finally, the range of action of the cartoon film is limited only by the bounds of the imagination. The authors of the Zagreb school, consequently, create their themes not only within the realm of amusement and comedy; they strive for satire, for serious and even dramatic themes, and set themselves the task of including in their films some humanistic concept, of providing a message, regardless of how trivial it may seem.

The Zagreb Cartoon Film Studio consists of Dushan Vukotić, Vatroslav Mimica, Ivo Vrbanić. Vlado Kristl, and approximately a hundred of their colleagues, all young people, the oldest of whom is hardly forty years old. Today they are perhaps better known throughout the world than in their own country, since their films have been shown in thirty-two different countries.

The attempt to create Yugoslav cartoon films began in 1950 among a group of young caricaturists who rallied around the Zagreb comic periodical Kerempuh. They possessed nothing except goodwill. They knew nothing about animation or trick photography ; none of them had ever seen the production of a cartoon film in any other country; they did not even have foreign literature on the subject. They owned several drawing boards and an old, primitive mounting table.

At the beginning of 1951, with a borrowed camera and a black-and-white film which had been given to them, they produced, after many months of patient work, a twenty-two-minute film which they called The Great Meeting. This was the first Yugoslav cartoon film. The authors of the film and their small but charitable public considered The Great Meeting a success. This provided the impetus to found a company for the production of cartoon films, which they called RainbowFilms.

A small group of caricaturists from the Kerempuh editorial offices invited all young people interested in producing cartoon films to apply, and about five hundred candidates appeared. The “experienced” founders selected their new coworkers from among the applicants, and during the one year of Rainbow Film’s existence about eighty young people learned the first steps in cartooning. The enterprise received funds from a cooperative and produced five short black-and-white cartoon films. The public, and even the critics, viewed these endeavors with sympathy, but finally the funds came to an end, and after a brief existence of one year, the enterprise was liquidated.

This was a critical period, for all work came to a standstill and the first successes were soon forgotten. Only the most persistent group of cartoonists, now the nucleus of the Zagreb Studio, continued to meet in the home of one of its members to design new films, this time, however, in color. The colors were imported from abroad at the artists’ own expense. They had only a few hundred old acetate films to work with; these they washed and on them drew their new cartoon, The Redcap. Through the kindness of a serious-film producer they obtained the requisite camera and color film, and in 1954 Redcap saw the light of day. Amazingly enough, in spite of these enormous difficulties, the film was proclaimed successful.

Yet it seemed that even now these persistent enthusiasts of the cartoon film would have to give up their ambitions. Nevertheless, they applied to a Zagreb producing house, Zagreb Films, which engaged them to produce short cartoon ads. Zagreb Films placed at their disposal a small amount of money with which to buy acetate foil and more film and promised to buy their cartoons when completed. During 1954 and 1955, thirteen short cartoon ads were produced on order for Zagreb Films.

Zagreb Films gradually augmented the most essential technical equipment for the production of the cartoons, and finally, at the beginning of 1 956, set up a cartoon studio. At this point the amateur phase ended and the organized production of cartoon films in Yugoslavia was begun; it has continued uninterrupted into the present.

Even though there now existed a movie theater which gradually helped the cartoon creators to overcome their difficulties, it would be two years before the newly established studio would have its own rooms. The studio produced its first cartoons in an unfinished sculptor’s atelier, in a photography studio, and even in the rooms of a rowing club. Only in 1958 was a theater adapted to the needs of the studio, and here the group now has its quarters. As the final difficulties were overcome, the rhythm of production increased; whereas in 1956 the studio produced only one ten-minute film, in 1957 it produced seven such films; in 1958, twelve; in 1959, sixteen; and the production plan this year calls for twenty-one cartoon films. In addition, the studio now produces fifty minutes of cartoon ads per year (from forty to fifty short cartoons).

The year 1958 was an important one in another respect: that year the studio showed its films for the first time at international film festivals. Immediately it achieved recognition: at the Venice Film Festival V. Mimica’s film The Bachelor received the Grand Prize for cartoons. In the four years which have elapsed since then, Zagreb Film’s cartoons have received ten first prizes and many special honors and awards at international festivals in Europe and in North and South America.

It would take us too far afield to enumerate these awards, but we may mention the fact that the best-known creator of the Zagreb school, D. Vukotić, is probably the only film writer who has received first prize at the same film festival three years in succession. Vukotić received the 1959 San Francisco Golden Gate Award for his film The Cow on the Moon, the 1960 award for Concert for a Machine Gun (ex aequo with the Rumanian Jon Popescu Gopo), and the 1961 award for his film The Substitute. This year Vukotić received still another recognition. He was granted the 1961 American Academy Award for the best animated film. This is the first time that an Oscar in this field has been awarded to a European.

One of the primary differences between the Zagreb school of cartoon films and other wellknown cartoon-film producers is the selection of themes. From the very beginning the Zagreb school abandoned the concept that the cartoon is only for children or is simply a curtain raiser.

A film may be, and should be, art. The cartoon film is art par excellence. The Yugoslav film deals primarily with human beings and attempts to portray them through modern graphic expression. As regards form, the Zagreb cartoons, it should be noted, continue in the tradition of Bosustov and Truha, although in graphics, assimilation, new specific expressions, and themes they have been the first to go beyond fables, children’s stories, and burlesque, which until lately have limited the domain of the cartoon. The satire and parodies of these films captivate us, primarily because they have an unexpected effect and the charm of the new, which we do not usually see in cartoons.

Here are a few of the themes in the Zagreb cartoons. In the film The Shagreen Skin, which is adapted from Balzac’s novel, a poor and unfortunate youth abandons his childhood sweetheart and tries his luck at roulette. When he loses his last dollar, fate gives him a magic shagreen skin which fulfills all wishes. In his new, luxurious life, all his wishes are fulfilled, with, however, a condition —■ with each fulfilled wish, the skin becomes smaller and its owner’s life shorter. The youth uses the skin freely, but soon his term of life runs out. In vain he tries to lengthen the skin, and while fate smiles, the lad dies. His childhood sweetheart weeps over his corpse, and the wind blows away the last fragment of the skin with the autumn leaves.

Again, in The Substitute, which is otherwise a happy story, a hint of satire is felt. A certain tourist at the seashore owns plastic models for everything he needs. He simply has to blow them up. There are plastic substitutes for everything from a tent to a shark, even for the emotions. An ecstatic love affair develops; then jealousy, revenge, and finally tragedy. But everything explodes and evaporates, however, when an ordinary tack becomes involved in the events.

The story in the film The Boomerang is a very timely one. A lovely butterfly has no idea that his flitting from flower to flower may cause serious incidents, but his tracks on a radar screen create havoc at a rocket base, where they are interpreted as enemy projectiles against a supposed aggressor. This is a misunderstanding, of course, and everything soon returns to normal. But now a bird rushes against the radar antenna. Everything begins anew. Where will it end?

We may thus assuredly state that the cartoon films of the Zagreb school are original in their expression and new in subject matter, and they combine charm with the sympathy of dignified humor.

Translated by Stanley Frye.