An Excessively Brief History of Estonian Animation – 12 Days of Anime(tion)

The first known animated cartoon from Estonia is Juku the Dog. Voldemar Pats directed the short in 1931. Juku the Dog was a forgotten film until it was partially rediscovered in a national archive in 1987.

While the film itself is charming but not particularly memorable it serves as an important reminder of the history that did exist prior to nationalization.

The state owned film company in Estonia was Tallinnfilm. The Estonian Ministry of Culture founded Tallinnfilm in 1931. During this period the studio largely served as a film distributor.

In 1940 Estonia was forced into the Soviet Union and the Studio was nationalized. This takeover kicked off a period of increased production for the Estonian film industry.

Tallinnfilm originally restricted it’s animation efforts to creating opening titles for live action films. Elbert Tuglov ran the Tallinnfilm Titles Animation Department for nearly 11 years from 1947 until 1957.

The Puppet Men

The history of Estonian animation really begins in earnest with the founding of Nukufilm (a division within Tallinnfilm) in 1957. During the first few years of the studio Elbert Tuganov was the only director.

Nukufilm’s first production was “Little Peter’s Dreams”, directed by Tuganov. Notably, the film featured future Joonisfilm founder Rein Raamat as art director. The puppets for the film are somewhat crude but the simple sets remain attractive even today.

Elbert Tuganov won the first international film award in Estonian animation history with his 1961 film, Ott in the Cosmos. If you are going to watch just one of the two films make it this one.

It’s important to note that Nukufilm exclusively focused on puppet animation.  

The second director to emerge in Nukufilm was Heino Pars. Pars shifted into directing in 1962 after serving as Tuganov’s camera operator for several years.

Heino Pars directed his first film in 1962, Little Scooter. The film is beautifully designed. From the opening scenes you can see the attention to detail the former camera operator brought a shallow depth of field that leaves the background out of focus and enhances the fantasy of the film.

Also, the puppets are just downright cute.

Pars followed up his work on Little Scooter in 1964 by creating Cameraman Kõps, the first Estonian animated series.

Over the next 20 years both men go on to direct over a dozen more films each. Together Tugalov and Pars formed the bedrock of the studio’s early period.

Missing History

Cel animation was largely a nascent medium in Estonia until the early 1960s.

Kaliju Kurepold and Ants Looman produced some of the earliest cel animation in the country. These films came in the form of short segments produced for a soviet newsreel. As far as I can tell none of these are possible to view online at this time.

An unknown number of animated commercials were also produced during this period.

Joonisfilm and Rein Raamat

Estonian cel animation started in earnest with the founding of Joonisfilm (a division within Tallinnfilm) in 1971.

Rein Raamat established Joonisfilm with the assistance of notable Soyuzmultfilm animator/director Fedor Chitruk. 

Raamat took an artistically minded approach and often worked with notable people from outside the animation industry.

For example, Raamat’s 1973 film Lend had its screenplay written by poet Paul-Eerik Rummo. Raamat also worked with avant garde artist Leonard Lapin for his 1974 film Firebird.

For his 1980 film Big Tyll Raamat partnered with the painter Jüri Arrak. This pairing produced a film that is striking both in its equally dramatic imagery and content. The soundtrack is mix of hushed whispers and looped screams that does not leave you quickly.

He also notably worked with young designer that would become the international face of Estonian animation, Priit Parn. Parn would work on two films with Raamat, Gothamites and A Romper. The latter in particular hints at Priit’s future style and is just a fun watch generally.

The above films are just a small sample of Raamat’s range and it’s absolutely worth digging deeper.

Avo Paistik and Priit Parn

While initially hesitant Raamat relinquished the sole directors chair due to the realities of scheduling in 1973 and Avo Paistik became the second director at Joonisfilm.

His first film was Crayons. Paistik’s film is simple but attractively designed with a story that calls to mind the 1965 MGM film The Dot and the Line. The 1997 film Sunday is also notable due to Priit Parn serving as art director.

Priit Parn rose to the directors chair himself 1977 and the three of men served as the pillars of the studio for the rest of its existence.

You could write a book about Priit Parn and I’m sure we will revisit him in more detail at a later date. For now I’ll just say any animation fan should at least give Breakfast on the Grass and Time Out a chance.

Post Communism and the Modern Era

In 1994 the newly established republic of Republic of Estonia began to cut funding to the state run Tallinnfilm. During this transition the directors of Nukufilm and Joonisfilm banded together and managed to maintain artist control while taking both studios private.

Eesti Joonisfilm is now owned by the animator’s Pritt Parn, Janno Poldma, Heiki Ernits and Mati Kutt, alongside producer Kalev Tamm. Nukufilm is now owned by producer Arvo Nuut and animators Rao Heidmets, Hardi Volmer, and Riho Unt. 

Both studios are still active in both commercial and art films to this day, Eesti Joonisfilm arguably being the more commercially focused studio.  

As promised, this has been excessively brief. There is of course a lot of modern history and a number of artists working outside of the long established studio system.

This article is criminally indebted to Chris Robinson’s seminal book “Estonian Animation: Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy” and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more.

Leave a Comment