Avant-Garde Animation in the Shadow of Disney: The Wild Swans (Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and Vera Tsekhanovskaya, 1962)

In the West, Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and his wife and collaborator Vera are predominantly known for their work on Pochta (The Post, 1929), an early Soviet film celebrated for its experimental visual language and its expressive use of cutouts, and for their folklore adaptations, such as Tsarevna-lyagushka (The Frog Princess, 1954). Dikie lebedi (The Wild Swans, 1962) is an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name. The story centers on princess Elisa and her eleven brothers who, having been cursed by their witch stepmother, are forced to live as swans, regaining their human form only at night. In order to save them, Elisa needs to craft shirts out of stinging nettle while upholding a vow of silence. While she ultimately succeeds (at both reversing the magic spell and marrying a dashing prince), Elisa is nearly undone by accusations of witchcraft, bolstered by her refusal to speak out in her own defense. One of the duo’s last films (Mikhail Tsekhanovsky passed away in 1965), The Wild Swans has received relatively scant scholarly attention. However, it deserves closer scrutiny because of its marriage of daring, experimental stylization of the flat drawn image with Disney-influenced naturalism and melodrama. The resulting aesthetic tensions, while not always creatively successful, make for a remarkable historical document of a pivotal transitional moment in Soviet animation.

Tsekhanovsky developed his approach to the drawn image as a book and poster illustrator. His formative years as an artist, the 1920s, coincided with – and were largely shaped by – the birth of many of Russia’s most important avant-garde movements. These creative roots would have a lasting impact on his animation career from its very beginning. Pochta, an adaptation of a children’s book by Samuil Marshak that Tsekhanovsky illustrated, features a visual style “closely affiliated with the poster art of Mayakovsky […] and the constructivism of Rodchenko.”1 While the director moved away from experimentation in much of his later work in favour of more conventional productions, his affinity for the aesthetics of graphic media remained a fixture of his work. For example, The Frog Princess depicts a forest modelled on Viktor Vasnetsov’s book illustrations of the same tale, borrowing the source’s colour scheme and ornamental detail.2

The Wild Swans returns to Tsekhanovsky’s roots as an illustrator in several ways. The film embraces – indeed emphasises – flatness. Peter Bagrov, who singles this film out as the only animated Soviet adaptation to successfully capture the “Scandinavian romantic” side of Andersen, describes the imagery as “Medievally primitive”.3 This “primitivism” is, in fact, visual asceticism, remarkable in its relentless simplicity. Landscapes are devoid of perspective or depth of field. Movement in depth is also all but absent; characters almost always move laterally, as if following the gaze of a reader unfolding a scroll. Objects are freely arranged in space in a pointedly non-realistic manner, so that they often appear to simply float against the relentless flatness of the plane. For example, an early scene depicting the princes’ childhood bedroom shows two rows of identical beds virtually on top of each other, with no attempt at perspective. The boys themselves are indistinguishable from each other, further underscoring the film’s drive towards visual economy.

Other aspects of the visual style of The Wild Swans are marked by stark minimalism and avant-garde stylisation. Writing on The Post, Hannah Frank points out that Tsekhanovsky “had the license to direct animated films with edges so sharp that they’d make ‘Mickey Mouse, in comparison, seem to have the aesthetic of treacle’.”4 Here, too, the collaborators favour expressionistic angles and jagged shapes in conjunction with stark, contrasting colours, prompting Bagrov to label the film “gothic” 5 At the same time, there is no extraneous detail present in the film’s anti-naturalistic backgrounds. In some extreme cases – such as the sequence in which the witch queen attempts to curse Elisa and another scene of child Elisa playing alone in the castle – the background is reduced to a single solid colour and thus rendered fully abstract, removed from the specificity of any given setting.

Arguably the most effective – and affecting – showcase of the avant-garde illustrator’s touch comes roughly halfway through the film, when the swan princes and their sister get caught in a thunderstorm while fleeing the domain of their evil stepmother. What follows is an abstract, frenetic, disorienting sequence in which nature’s wrath is visualised through minimalist shapes and a reduced colour palette of black, white, grey and dramatic red accents. The rain is depicted in long, almost violent diagonal brush and pencil strokes which criss-cross the sky in a composition based on an Eisensteinian conflict of shapes and diagonals. Meanwhile, jagged lightning bolts pierce the sky in rapid, strobe-like succession, making the screen vibrate with the tempo of a flicker film. This sequence also features one of the film’s few depictions of depth, achieved through movement and perspective. As the sketchily rendered clouds appear to float towards the viewer, the flock of swans flies in the opposite direction, towards the horizon, creating a moment of vertiginous energy – all the more effective for its contrast with the static flatness that dominates the rest of the film.

The Wild Swans

The thunderstorm sequence, arguably the most explicit and uninhibited manifestation of the avant-garde aspirations of The Wild Swans

The film’s editing merits scrutiny as well. Peter Bagrov has pointed out that The Wild Swans is notable for its use of parallel editing, a technique rarely employed in Soviet animation.6 Indeed, unlike the majority of Soviet animation classics, this feature relies on cross-cutting to escalate tension in several pivotal scenes, including the final rescue sequence, which intercuts between the prince galloping towards the castle and Elisa being taken to the stake, where she is to be burned as a witch. This is hardly remarkable in itself, but, considered in the particular national context it originated from, it further emphasises the film’s willingness to defy convention. However, what truly sets The Wild Swans apart from other Soviet animation classics is its use of montage within the frame to collapse a long duration of time into a single image. Instead of relying on traditional editing techniques, the film organises the space within the frame in a manner that conveys a time ellipsis via visual repetition and spatial juxtaposition of similar imagery. For instance, a scene featuring the swan brothers carrying Elisa through the air imparts a sense of a long, continuous journey by depicting the birds twice and placing the images side by side. However, they are not exact doubles; the right side of the frame shows a magnified detail from the left side set against a different background, thereby simultaneously implying repetitive action and the passage of time. Vera Kuznetsova and Erast Kuznetsov note that Tsekhanovsky began developing this particular approach to temporality while working as an illustrator and later adapted it to the cinematic medium, starting with his film The Post. 7

The Wild Swans

A representative example of montage within the frame in The Wild Swans

Despite such audacious overtures towards regaining the experimental spirit of early Soviet animation, Disney’s shadow looms large over The Wild Swans. While early Soviet animation (including The Post) was born out of political cartoons, posters, and avant-garde art, by the end of the 1940s, the Disney studio’s filmmaking techniques and its brand of realism had become the preferred model for Soviet post-war production. The most telling sign of the extent of Disney’s influence on Soviet animated features was the widespread adoption of rotoscoping, particularly in the years between 1950 and 1955. Tsekhanovsky was one of the most avid adopters of the éclair technique (as it was referred to in the USSR), as evidenced by his adaptation of Pushkin in Skazka o rybake i rybke (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, 1950) and the aforementioned Frog Princess (among others).8

The human characters in these films move in a pointedly naturalistic manner and act with the theatrical pathos typical of classic Disney. They sometimes break out into song, adopting the gestural language of melodrama that characterises similar interludes in Disney’s princess musicals.

What is more, many of them directly import the classical Disney trope of a princess who is innately in harmony with nature and beloved by all forest beasts.

The Wild Swans preserves many of these tendencies, indulging in them even as it flirts with abstract experimental stylization. Jack Zipes has noted the conflict inherent in this strategy of combining minimalist graphics with a sentimental narrative and naturalistically rendered characters. As he points out, the film’s portrayal of fairy tale archetypes also owes much to the American studio; “the melodrama is heightened by a stepmother queen/witch, who resembles Disney’s witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and by the noble prince who must fight a duel.”9 The resemblances do not stop there. The Wild Swan features a talking crow whose design is likewise clearly based on Disney’s (now-infamous) rendition of the same birds in Dumbo (1941), right down to the incongruous pair of spectacles he seems to have inherited from his American counterpart Deacon. At several points in the film, Elisa is shown forming an immediate bond with various critters in the tradition of Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. In other scenes, the action is interrupted so that both she and the prince can perform melodramatic songs (he even plays the violin during his drawn-out solo, as the film cuts to the temporarily mute Elisa pining at her window).

The Wild Swan

Elisa is surrounded by wild boar piglets in a composition evoking Disney princess films

Some animation scholars have been critical of the film’s aesthetic experimentation, particularly the marriage of Disney-inflected naturalistic character design and minimalist, flat backgrounds. While praising the film’s “fascinating stylistic explorations”, Ülo Pikkov notes that a “certain sense of disharmony arises from this mixing of styles.”10 Laura Pontieri devotes little attention to this film in her book-length study of 1960s Soviet animation, pointing to it as an example of “ineffectively combined” visual approaches.11 And yet, it is precisely the film’s lack of inner harmony, its visually discordant compositions, and the resulting frenetic energy of barely suppressed conflict that so vividly encapsulate the intricate, often contradictory interplay between avant-garde tendencies and Hollywood influences that characterises not only the directors’ creative trajectories, but the history of Soviet animation at large. The Wild Swans is worth revisiting, for it remains a fascinating, if flawed, testament to the complex stylistic, political, and ideological negotiations that shaped animation production and discourse in the USSR.

The Wild Swans

Disney naturalism meets gothic expressionism in The Wild Swans

Endnotes:

  1. Hannah Frank, “The Potential of Pochta: Unlikely Affinities Between Soviet and American Animation, 1929-1948,” in Zoe Beloff (ed.), A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood (New York: Christine Burgin, 2016), p. 100.
  2. Birgit Beumers, “Comforting Creatures in Children’s Cartoons,” in Marina Balina and Larissa Rudova (eds.), Russian Children’s Literature and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 162.
  3. Peter Bagrov, “Svinarka i pastukh. Ot Gansa Hristiana k Hristianu Gansu”, Seans 25/26 (2006), http://seance.ru/n/25-26/andersen/svinarka-i-pastuh/
  4. Frank, op. cit.,  p. 102.
  5. Bagrov, op. cit.
  6. Bagrov, op. cit.
  7. Vera Kuznetsova and Erast Kuznetsov, Tsekhanovsky (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1973), p. 31
  8. David MacFadyen, Yellow Crocodiles and Blue Oranges: Russian Animated Film Since World War II, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), p. 78.
  9. Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 96.
  10. Ülo Pikkov, “On the Topics and Style of Soviet Animated Films,“ Baltic Screen Media Review 4 (2016),  DOI: 10.1515/bsmr-2017-0002, p. 24
  11. Laura Pontieri, Soviet Animation and the Thaw of the 1960s: Not Only for Children (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), p. 174.

About The Author

Mihaela Mihailova holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale University. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Film Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “Animating Global Realities in the Digital Age.” Through a comparative analysis of contemporary studio animation and visual effects produced in the United States and Russia, the project examines how animated media’s relationship to reality articulates national ideologies in the era of digital globalization.