CASE STUDY: SOUZMULT STUDIO

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Cerebro continues publishing interviews with customers. We talk with producers, project managers, and other industry professionals. We have talked to the CEO Boris Mashkovtsev and the HR director Daria Strekalova of the legendary Soyuzmultfilm animation studio about implementing new technologies, development plans, and hiring practices.

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You are known as the head of the Aeroplane Productions studio and the CEO of Soyuzmultfilm. Tell us, where did your great career in animation begin. Did you start working on the Fixies immediately after graduation?

Boris Mashkovtsev: It is a long story. I was graduating from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and intended to work in live-action industry. However, it was the early 2000s and it was quite a challenge for me, as I liked escapist genres, which the Russian cinema could not afford at the time. I got into a company running Russian films in cinema theatres and it was a very rewarding experience. I was lucky to see the reverse side of the coin; not only how the film is made, but also what happens to it afterwards. Many people filmed for no one at all; most films were made irrationally, the director did not create a dialogue with the viewer, as if filmmakers and viewers lived in different universes. At the same time, the niche for children’s films was completely empty, and I wanted to understand why. I met Georgy Vasilyev, who was co-producing the Gora Samotsvetov show (literally ‘The Mountain of Gems’, an animated series of folk fairy tales); one day we were discussing animation and went so far that I decided to do it. Georgy was just about to launch the Fixies and I started working in this film project from the first months of its existence. From that moment till I showed up at Soyuzmultfilm, my career was gravitating around Aeroplane Productions.

What were you majoring in at the film school?

I have graduated from the Economics Department. Now it is called the Chair of Production. When I was a student, producers were already around in the country, but academic studies could not keep up with the times. Our department is one of the oldest in VGIK, it has been around from the middle of the 20th century. It did not prepare narrow specialists; the graduates became production managers, that is, universal specialists in film management. Now the department has themed workshops. There is a multimedia production workshop, where Alexander Gerasimov and I teach students.

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In January, Rossiyskaya Gazeta announced that Soyuzmultfilm plans to produce 2D or claymation series and films, like the Tsiferki series. Will you have a long-awaited 3D?

Yes, we will have 3D too. In Soyuzmultfilm, different animation styles, different techniques, and even concepts for different audiences have always coexisted. We are trying to continue this tradition; we have launched quite a package of various projects. Soyuzmultfilm has two arms: production groups and the technology arm. Now they are a bit clashing; when we came to the studio a year ago as a whole new team, there were next to no technical facilities, and the production group was scattered. Soyuzmultfilm could only produce short films, which it has been doing for years now. Our task was to turn the studio into a full-fledged player in the modern animation market .

Since we need to rebuild the chain, I decided to focus on 2D for our first year, because you cannot seize the unseizable. However, fate had different plans: in our first month of work we got a 3D series on our hands. Now it is called Naslednichki (Heirs), and its producer Elena Malyonkina has gathered a group for 3D production. In addition, we have inherited the Suvorov 3D full-length animation movie with motion capture, for which we have equipped a Mocap pavilion. We are producing it jointly with the Gorky studio and KinoAtis, because we cannot manage such a giant project on time alone.

Inside the studio, we can boast the development of a line of hand-drawn animation for serial production, which is basically unprecedented. We are also planning a thirty-part sequel series about Prostokvashino. It is a hand-drawn series made in Toon Boom, so it’s a drawing, but done on the computer. We will also have several projects with computer- animated cut-outs. We have moved the puppet shop here and equipped the pavilion for classical puppet animation. This year we are only doing short films, but we are also thinking about commercial pictures using puppets. We also have analogue animation with live-shot cut-outs, for example, a claymation project with Sergei Merinov, the creative producer of Tsiferki.

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The very first episode of new «Prostokvashino» has been realesed on VK.com in the beggining of April. Where else will it broadcast, will we be able to see it on YouTube?

It will definitely be available for free on YouTube, as we perfectly understand that at least half of our audience is there. There will be broadcasts on television; we are currently negotiating with TV channels, but most likely, Prostokvashino will come out in the web first, because we can upload episodes one by one, while TV channels will require the whole package at once, when we finish the production.

Many animation studios launch themed merchandise for their projects. Puma has announced a capsule sneaker collection in collaboration with Soyuzmultfilm.

For us, this is an amazing event, because Puma has no such experience in Russia. It seemed symbolic. We are just beginning to develop licensing activities. Soyuzmultfilm has a golden collection of popular existing projects, plus new projects. All this is more than suitable for licensing, this commercial pattern works, so, naturally, we use it.

Will you yourself wear such sneakers?

Yes, I really hope I’ll get them too (laughing).

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Do you have plans for the development of computer games, mobile applications, VR and AR technology-based projects?

Of course, we are going to use all channels to communicate with viewers and are now researching AR. We are building a brand, and it includes not only the production of consumer goods, but also cross-platform features. We will inevitably develop graphic art with our characters and universes, as well as everything related to content.

The duties of the CEO include the protection of copyright. The Aeroplane Productions studio has some 250 arbitration lawsuits per year. You have 15. Are you planning to get down to this business more closely?

We have a lot of legal proceedings. Those that more actively use licensing have more problems with piracy. Soyuzmultfilm still has many issues even with organization we have contracts with. Characters of new projects are usually more or less seen as someone else’s property, but when it comes to older projects, Soyuzmultfilm is considered a historical heritage and national property. Like Russian folk tales, it does not seem to belong to anyone, and everyone can use it and commercialize it. Such issues may not even reach arbitration courts. It is more often solved during pre-trial via correspondence. In any case, it is a large part of our activities, because it is important to keep our rights and relations with contractors in order.

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What specialists does Soyuzmultfilm need now?

I’d say we need everyone related to production. Now the studio is in a state of chain reaction. It is growing, and we have spent the first six months on management. Now we have just got down to internal production and some of it will be outsourced, because it is impossible to do all the tasks at once in the same house. At the same time, we want to build a full-fledged chain production with a variety of techniques, all computerized, and suitable for a large number of shows we have planned. This is why we need in 3D and 2D technology specialists.

I want to apply to Soyuzmultfilm. Where should I send my CV? Your website is down for some reason.

Send it at info@souzmult.ru. All mail goes to different departments from there. If you send a CV, we recommend to attach your portfolio as well. It goes to the HR, and if your specialty is immediately clear, then it gets to our creative producers, looking for talents. The Soyuzmultfilm website is down at the time, because it has to be remade from scratch. We will launch it again soon.

Where do your employees look for professionals when they need them?

As usual, by the word of mouth. Valuable specialists are handed over from one company to another. We have a strong team of creative and executive producers, as well as project producers. Igor Kovalev is our general producer. Our project producers are Elena Chernova, Alena Oyatyeva, Mikhail Aldashin, and Tatiana Ilyina. We use their contacts, but we also involve traditional recruiting resources.

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How big is your staff involved in production, like animation artists, designers, computer graphics specialists, modellers?

Approximately seventy people. With so many projects, this isn’t much; we need more. We actually plan to have 250 people employed, including managers.

Do you participate in recruiting?

I trust our producers. They do have an eye for good employees, and they are much more professional at that than I am.

What else do you have in the plans?

We have planned a lot. Over the past year, we started all activities we had planned, and this is actually surprising. First, one of the most important tasks has been done: we have moved to a new building. Before that, everything was too slow; we could do nothing about the production. Soyuzmultfilm was packed and ready to go, with no idea if the construction would ever end, whether the building in the Dolgorukovskaya street would still belong to us. Last summer we began to move; everything was finished by autumn. A lot of time was spent on the redeployment of the puppet shop, as we had to transport all the equipment and a huge amount of scenery that remained after the filming of the full-length Gofmaniada.

After that, life began to improve. We started licensing, marketing activities, and PR of the studio from scratch, because Soyuzmultfilm was already a brand. It does not happen too often that the studio name is so well-known. This should be done to ensure that Soyuzmultfilm as a brand continues to exist and does not dissolve in the media space.

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We also do research and development, because we need to compartmentalize the 80-year history, continue to study it. We are also engaged in exhibitions; we made an exhibition of Khitruk last year, this year we have three more themed exhibitions. One of them is devoted to the anniversary of the puppetry shop: Soyuzmultfilm started puppet animation 65 years ago.

We also do training, because some people need to develop their skills, and we have to get new blood. It is hard to find such numbers of perfect specialists, so we arrange refresher courses, teach people how to work with the specific software needed for our projects. Fortunately, the studio can now afford long-term planning for several years ahead, so we have some idea of what specialists we will need in the future.

Production groups can make something for third-party studios, and producer groups can produce projects that cannot be implemented in Soyuzmultfilm. We have started co-production with Wizart, Rocket Fox, and KinoAtis. We do welcome this line of work. It would also be nice to try co-production with foreign studios in the future.

We have two more new activities for Soyuzmultfilm, for which we had to fight within the Animation Film Association. We are now trying to establish cooperation with Skolkovo. We have the status of their resident. We want to start developing animation technologies at their territory. This year they are laucnhing a technology park. There will be an incubator for other studios, where they could come for cheap, by Moscow standards, and launch their animation project using the technologies of Soyuzmultfilm. We knew that Moscow provides a special economic status for technology parks, designed for science-intensive production. Animation fits there perfectly, except for the scale of the industry. It is so small that the government of Moscow will have to specifically tailor the standards to our needs, because they like the idea of having such a place in the city. This park could be used by any animation studio with a live project that needs pushing and cutting economic risks of its launch.

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Tell us please, why have you chosen Cerebro for project management.

We have had some experience with Cerebro in the Airplane Productions, so we already knew what the system was capable of. It was obvious that we could not do without it. There are a lot of projects, we have to multitask all the time. The probability of data loss is, of course, very high. That is why we have been using the system since summer or autumn, and it will be implemented into our pool of projects.

How does the implementation go? In which departments do you currently use it?

Cerebro is running the current series; the design dept is to switch to it soon, because their tasks are arranged similarly to those of the film crew. It creates a single information space, where nothing is lost. For example, I have no time to go into the details of all tasks, but it is important for me that opening Cerebro, I can immediately understand whether the projects are progressing, whether any issues arise. So first of all, I track it when something slows down.

I have recently heard that you plan to restore old cartoons. How will this happen? Will you outsource them, or will you work in-house?

We will learn to do this in-house, because fortunately, Soyuzmultfilm already has some experience with such things. We have purchased film scanning equipment, because the studio’s own archive consists of thousands of boxes with 35-meter film. In 80 years, the studio has made 1,500 different animations. Many of them are in the archives, and no one has even tried to digitize them, everyone has forgotten they exist, they are not shown anywhere. Moreover, they are on the shelf simply because no one had bothered taking them out, not because they are so outdated. But there are a lot of interesting things among them. At least professionals must be excited.

Some time ago, Georgy Borodin organized a wonderful and useful lecture dedicated to Dezhkin. It traced the evolution of a person on Soyuzmultfilm, his establishment as a legendary animation artist. We want to gradually digitize and restore our entire collection, because some materials are lost, and the film has degraded in some places. Of course, this will take more than a year.

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At the very least, we need to solve the problem with the jittering frame, also deal with abrasions, cracks, and scratches. The most global problem is when the original color is gone. This happens, for example, if the source master is lost and only copies with different color are left. There are only a few specialists in the country who have been doing such projects and can manage them. They find installation sheets, check all copies, look for differences. Then the material is digitized, made consistent, people search the archives for original sketches, tracing papers, celluloids, and with the help of all this we can restore the film. This is a huge process, very tiresome and slow. First of all, we will work with the more recent projects, then move to the past. For example, now we want to develop special software to restore full features, because they can be re-released in the cinemas. Distributors are somewhat interested, because it is at least beautiful.

What does a restored cartoon look like? Is it color corrected, noises removed?

We remove everything that is considered technical drawbacks; do color correction, restore the soundtrack. I cannot even say which is more difficult to restore, because the source images are usually saved, but the sound source may be lost forever. In this case, you have to add new sounds or re-voice the whole thing. We have just started, so we do not yet understand the scale of what is ahead of us. In any case, our main task is to restore the films as they were, not to remake them.

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Why should people come work for you?

Daria Strekalova: There are several reasons. First, we are a strong brand. The Soyuzmultfilm brand is simply nice to belong to. Second, although the studio has a long history, we are practically a startup now. At the same time, we are in a much more favorable situation than most startups, because we enjoy the support of the brand, the state, businesses, and a large number of experts. The support is so strong that any our project has very high chances of success. And why is it good to be in a startup? Because there is a lot going on around, and if you want to develop as a specialist and do interesting tasks, this is the place for you. Besides, when everything is just starting, you can participate in the establishment, building the processes the way they should look from your point of view.

Now you have a lot of completely different projects. How do you find specialists in computer graphics, design, animation, and artists? Do they come to you by themselves?

People know that Soyuzmultfilm is reviving, and we have a large stream of incoming CVs for different specialties. Many specialists want to participate in the studio’s development. We use all profile groups in social media. For some reason, there are more animation artists on VKontakte than on Facebook. We use job search websites as well, but we look for animation artists elsewhere. They usually come specifically to work with some heads of production groups. Our projects are managed by well-known producers, so the chance to work with them does sound attractive. Young specialists come too; for example, when a producer of a series gathers a group of students, trains them, chooses the best ones, and invites them to their team. Our project managers also teach in different colleges and institutions, where they can find talented and diligent young people.

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Have you ever had emergencies when you could not find a specialist?

This has not happened yet. Planned recruitment seems a nice way out of this situation. Then, if we assume it will be hard to find a person for a job, we can find someone with a lower qualification, but with suitable personal qualities and skills in advance and train them to the required level of competence. We are currently developing a training system at the studio, which will allow us to fill the positions not only with outside specialists, but with our own trained employees as well.

Tell us, what are your requirements to job seekers? Surely they are high. For example, if an artist wants to work for you, what do you require of them?

The artist has to send us their portfolio. After that we give them a test task. If we like the portfolio, and if the task is done well, then it makes sense to meet the person.

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Will the selection have several stages? Several meetings?

Apart from meeting the direct supervisor, the person must communicate with our department, because even those who come for temporary projects have a chance to get permanent employment. We have a pool of permanent workers, who perform different projects depending on the production schedule. We always meet with people before long-term cooperation, because if a person stays with us for a long time, no matter how we document our relations, they have to fit in. It is important that people are on the same wavelength. Now, as far as I can see, the team has already clicked together. We are working on it, and I hope we will succeed.

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