Stories from life. Interview with Ülo Pikkov, Head of the EKA Animation Department

Article from magazine “Estonian Film”. Text by Aurelia Aasa, photos by Viktor Koshkin.

Ülo Pikkov, the newly appointed Head of the Animation Department at the Estonian Academy of Arts, started animating documentaries long before Flee took the genre to the limelight. Estonian Film spoke with Ülo about animation trends, distribution, and his newest film, ’Til We Meet Again, made entirely with sand, feathers, and other materials found on the tiny island of Ruhnu. 

What are your ambitions as Head of the Animation Department? Which direction do you set your controls to? 

The animation department of the Estonian Academy of Arts was founded in 2006 by Professor Priit Pärn. Two years later, international MA studies were initiated, and that has been going on since. For over a decade, we have schooled directors of animated films, always concentrating on the auteur-centric approach. This should remain the same in the future. On the other hand, I feel that there is a distinct lack of animation producers on the Estonian, and perhaps also Nordic, animation scene. Or producers-curators even, to be more precise. I would like to bring in extended studies for producers who I would rather call animation curators. These days, a good producer is required to be a curator anyway, and the job encompasses a wide variety of tasks: finding additional funding and exhibition spaces in cooperation with art galleries, festivals, events, and also through commercial projects. Today, the manual skills of the applicants are evaluated in the entrance exam, but these shouldn’t necessarily be required from a curator. A curator is to have good taste, and a knack for initiating and organizing things. In the academic and social sense, the whole animation scene has traditionally been centered on the classic animated film, and going back a few decades, more specifically around the children’s film. Today we have screens, LED screens, you name it – animation is everywhere. Recently, Nukufilm studio created stop motion solutions for the EXPO pavilion of this year’s hosting country, the United Arab Emirates. 

There seems to have been a traditional opposition against advertising and commercialization in Estonian animation. Is it your intention to expand the field? 

The animated film, already over a hundred years old, is still very much concentrated on technique. In Estonia, we have two historically developed studios, Eesti Joonisfilm and Nukufilm, the names of the two studios already determining what technique is used to make films there – “cel animation” and “puppet animation” in Estonian. 

In the Estonian Academy of Arts, animation studies have been technique-based as well. The audio-visual media of today is very active in mixing, connecting, and blending different techniques. The distinction between a children’s film, commercial film, or advertising clip is also based on technique and function in a way. We should shift away from a technique-based education to a genre based approach, encouraging the blending of various techniques. When the scene was still young and people had no idea how animation works, a technical distinction was justified. Compared to literature, for example, it would be weird to differentiate between novels written with a pen, on a computer, with a quill… 

In animation we distinguish between drawn animation, puppet animation, and digital animation. We should have grown out of this by now, and the conversation should be about content and genre, not technical approaches. Technique is important to consider too, take budgeting for instance, it cannot be ignored, but it cannot become the main focus of the project. The focus has to be on content. 

Looking at student work, which themes prevail? Can you spot any trends, or is it all chaotic? 

These things come and go in waves. Art has always been intrigued by the theme of physicality and the body, regardless of the governing power or political undercurrents. Not only in animation, also in painting, and sculpture. I have a feeling that there is a new generation emerging, who are accustomed to express their thoughts on Instagram, Twitter, and lately TikTok. They do not think in the context of one piece of art, a film, or a definite object so much, but move in wider currents. Yes, they make a film, but they also tell the same story on Instagram, mark or archive their activities on TikTok. Everything has become cross-media based. Even if the film is finished, it has spawned parallel stories that often continue. It’s hard to define the beginning and the end. It’s a sign of the times. 

How does the Estonian Academy of Arts stand out in the international arena? 

Flexibility is maybe the key word. Having had conversations with many students who have come from other schools to study here, it seems that the old and respectable schools are not that lenient when it comes to some techniques, or mixing different ones together. We always find a way. Even if we don’t have the skills or know-how, we will hire someone, or connect the student with a specialist. We are working towards a tailor-made education, not one put together on an assembly line. 

How highly do you regard the distribution potential of animation? The festivals are taken for granted, but what do you think about the animation reading skills of the general audience? 

There are many currents here, but Academy of Arts graduation work, for instance, was a basis for the character of Old Man who is active on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube… The creators kept on developing the character after school and it resulted in a feature length animated film Old Man Cartoon Movie (2019) with 100,000 admissions – a huge success on an Estonian scale. It’s a good example of cross-media based domestic distribution that involves various channels and cultivates its audience over a longer period. 

It’s much more complicated with shorts, the calling card of Estonian animation. 

It is much more complicated indeed, but I see progress. It’s not that long ago when people in East Europe were very reluctant to pay any money for a film, be it features, TV series, or shorts. They would buy a ticket to a theatrical screening, but at home illegal downloading prevailed, regardless of the quality. Today, people don’t download any longer, because Netflix and other platforms have made the viewer experience so comfortable. It works well with long forms. Shorts are not quite there yet, there is still a barrier in user habits to overcome. On the other hand, a short film often has the bonus of telling the story with very little text, or none at all. There is global potential in that. Many Estonian films have proven it through Vimeo, for instance. As Vimeo Staff Picks, they have spread quite well, gathering 100,000 views per film, and more. Maybe the leap in distribution hasn’t quite happened for shorts yet, but I predict that it will take place soon, in the coming years. 

You are a sort of spokesperson for documentary animation in Estonia. Why do you find that genre so close to your heart? 

It’s hard to bring out one reason. There are several approaches to it that are more philosophical: can animated documentary exist at all, and to what extent is it a documentary? I think that talking about documentary filmmaking, animation allows us to get closer to certain themes and emotional states, than live action. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is a good example. Had it been made with actors, or in the way of a classic documentary, it wouldn’t probably have made such an impact and started the kind of discussion it has now. 

Think about religious icons: they wouldn’t work as photographs – find a person most similar to the prototype, apply make-up, and take a photo. At least it’s hard to imagine how these could work. Icons reflect historical events, characters described in the Bible. The distinct handwriting of a talented artist allows us to get much closer to reviving the documentary situations and events successfully, than a re-enacted photo could. 

Your art is dominated by stories connected to Estonia’s traumatic past. How do you find these stories, or do they find you? 

As a young man recently out of a Finnish film school, I was certain that I had many great ideas to be realized through animated films. Becoming older, I have come to see and notice the stories around me. More and more I get the feeling that I have become a screen, or rather a membrane for the stories of others, empowering their stories and giving them a chance to be heard, seen, and told. I think that we all hear interesting stories on a daily basis. As a filmmaker, you always think, cool story, nice situation, but most of these tales come and go. Next to those, there are the ones that stick. The stories of my recent films have reached me via very different ways, and I have even made the effort to get rid of them, but it’s like a disease that cannot be shaken off that easy. To cast out the illness and find the cure, I have turned them into films. Who else should tell these stories – I mean the tales of my tribe, my geographic region – if not the storytellers from around here, writers, or, more recently, animators-filmmakers? I don’t consider this a mission, but it has sort of taken this kind of shape. 

Your work as a maker of animated documentaries is characterized by very distinctive puppets, made of either yarn in Body Memory, or books in Letting Go. Now we see the emergence of ecological themes via found objects from Ruhnu Island. Tell us about your search for visual language. 

It’s a long journey, and I have always tried to keep in mind that the technique and the material should be connected to the story. First, the story, and visual language stems from that. In ’Til We Meet Again, all the characters, objects and background are made from things found on Ruhnu – sand from the beach, pieces of reed, feathers. I try to approach the story, technique, and style as a unified whole. I have to say, that my films are made in cooperation with the team. Raivo Möllits has been the cinematographer of almost all my films, and Anu-Laura Tuttelberg has often been the art director, making collaborative filmmaking a pleasure. 

Did you take all the materials back to Ruhnu afterwards? 

Honestly, all the materials are waiting in my shed, packed in boxes (laughs). We haven’t been able to go back because of COVID-19. We are planning to have a premiere for the island people in spring, and set the materials free and give them back to nature then. It has been the idea and a deeper background story of the film since the very beginning. The fate of the people of Ruhnu has been very much in the crosswinds of history –like bits of reed on the beach that will be carried to another beach on the next wave, or on the next storm. Encounters taking place between feathers or tree roots in the film are accidental, but maybe not entirely. 

As people, we think that everything is under control, yet we are surrounded by a field of randomness and uncertainty. That was one idea behind choosing the technique for the film. 

You are currently making a film about a legendary animated film director? 

I do have a project like that in the works. It’s an animated documentary called Titanic. Two years ago I went to Russia and interviewed perhaps the greatest living legend of animation, Yuri Norshtein – the author of Hedgehog in the Fog, and A Tale of Tales, among others. 

As Norshtein is one of the last Mohicans of the film format who hates everything digital or computer-based, we conducted the interview on a ship, and with a camera, but imposed a digital 3D iceberg on the background. The result is a documentary interview with Norshtein, mixing 3D digital animation with film. I hope to get it ready this year and unleash it upon festivals.

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Posted by Maarja Pabut