Ukrainian Animation Soldiers on Despite War: ‘It’s a Job for the Persistent’

Ukrainian animation keeps on fighting for its survival.

“At the beginning of the invasion, it was crucial to keep working. We had to show our partners and the international market that despite the war, we can deliver. And we did it successfully,” Anastasiya Verlinska, director of Linoleum Animation Festival, tells Variety.

“Our next step is to reorganize from in-house production to service companies. This is something that’s still in progress.”

At Annecy, Verlinska is busy organizing the Animation in Ukraine Now! pitch.

Five TV shows in development were selected for the showcase, including “Mavka. The Series,” “School for Little Monsters,” “Darling Zhu,” “Illogical Adult World” and “Yoyo. A Toy Turned into a Rebel,” the latter directed by graffiti artists known as the Feldman Sisters.

“At the beginning of the invasion, they made political animations about the war and were invited to create a mural in Brussels as a sign of friendship between Ukraine and Belgium,” says Nadiia Ovdun, producer at Falanstery Films. 

Apart from its “playful” animation, the viewers can find references to religions, historical figures and cult films in the series, as well as plenty of “dark irony.” 

“This animation was literally born out of graffiti,” she notes.

The second season, directed at teenagers, young adults and adults, will explore free will, the power of love and the battle between AI and human independence.

“Ukrainian animation is experiencing an inspiring shift: Women are taking charge as directors, animators, writers and producers. This is an important step towards equality and artistic diversity,” she says, while Verlinska underlines its flexibility.

“Ukrainian animation thrives on experiments. But the main strength of our industry is our talents and experience. We have trained a large number of professionals and, yes, we do work during the war. We are able to catch up with these deadlines.”

Instead of ignoring their new reality, local animation artists quickly responded to it, creating popular “Patron the Dog” YouTube series, based on the real furry hero who helped locate unexploded ordnance left by Russian troops.

“It teaches kids not to touch anything suspicious on the streets and to call emergency [services] if they spot anything,” she adds. Iryna Harkavets, behind “Illogical Adult World,” also mentions the “Graphic Battalion” project. 

“Under the eye of psychologists, volunteer animators were able to explain to children what to do in dangerous situations, that it’s normal to be afraid and that evacuation can be perceived as a journey. I am so proud of them,” she says.

“What Russia is doing to Ukrainians is unspeakably horrible. They are doing their best to destroy, slander and silence us. But I have been able to make 29 ‘metaphorical’ animations in response to these tragedies, trying to get people’s attention and collect donations.”

Now, she also talks about mental health, introducing a protagonist with an autism spectrum disorder.

“It came from my brother,” she admits.

“I wanted to break down harmful stereotypes and we have invited experts who will advise us on correct representation. I am interested in animation that tackles social problems.”

Still, some creators make a case for escaping reality. Like Anatoliy Lavrenishin, who welcomes his viewers to a delightful garden in “Darling Zhu,” a cross-media project consisting of an app, a book and now also a series.

“These stories can calm you down and give you hope that the world is, in fact, beautiful. They can offer you shelter,” he notes.

“Our main character is a girl, a magical creature called Zhu, so our primary target audience is little girls. However, many boys use the app too, including my sons.”

The story, focused on nature, got even more timely. 

“The consequences of war are always felt longer than the war itself. Now, Ukraine is experiencing a real ecocide that will affect not only Ukrainians but the whole world,” he points out. But it’s not a time to give up.

“Over the last decade, Ukrainian animation has been actively developing, which led to the phenomenon of ‘Mavka.’ Our strength is that we are Ukrainians. We are very hardworking, it’s not a secret and not an exaggeration. Animation is a job for the persistent.”

While the industry bets on international co-productions – “that’s what we are all focused on and interested in,” says Verlinska – local children still want “their own heroes.” Such as Mavka or other creatures straight from Ukrainian folklore.

“My grandmother used to tell me these stories and now, when I come back to them, I am struck by how universal these values and fears really are,” observes Roman Kepkalo, behind “School for Little Monsters.” 

“For example, there is a creature that distracts you from work by hiding important things or moving them from one place to another. It seems it has taken up residence in my own home!” 

But in order to reach many viewers, tradition should be combined with new realities, he stresses. With his producer Yana Palamarenko adding that projects should be released in several formats on different platforms, with its characters boasting their own social media profiles.

“A modern animated series should create memes,” he says. 

“Our biggest dream is to transform Ukrainian animation from something for enthusiasts to a real business. But so far, it’s difficult for companies to survive without the support of foundations and cultural organizations.”

Also, at the end of the day, Ukrainian animators want to be recognized for their skill. 

“Last year, we were really impressed by how many messages and emails we received from our foreign colleagues,” says Verlinska. 

“However, for us, it’s important to be supported not only because there’s a war in our country, but also because we are able to create high quality content for a mass audience.”

“Darling Zhu

Director: Anatoliy Lavrenishyn

Production Company: Anima Toll

Billed as a 2D series for girls, and part of a cross-media project, it sees a curious creature called Zhu who wants to play in the garden where she lives, but something always stands in her way. Including dwarves, fairies, forest spirits and the Gardener himself.

Lavrenishyn: “I started developing this project before the war. We want to show that people are not only part of nature – they are its guardians. We talk about why it’s important to plant trees, what harms our planet and why we should feel empathy for it.” 

“Illogical Adult World”

Director: Iryna Harkavets

Production Company: UFI Productions

A coming-of-age TV series that sees its protagonist, Alex – who is on the autism spectrum – discovering himself and trying to understand others. But he is not the only one struggling with the truly bizarre world of grown-ups and its absurd rules. In pre-production. 

Harkavets: “With this project, I want to bring normalcy and ordinary routine back into teenagers’ lives. The kind of routine where your biggest problem is about interacting with peers, not deadly Russian missiles. I want to bring back childhood, at least on the screen.”

“Mavka. The Series”

Production Company: Animagrad Studio

Green-haired Mavka has to face new challenges and help the forest recover after the battle between humans and Lesh, the forest guardian, as well as restore order and harmony. In the meantime, she will also make a new friend, Tumblewind. A real magnet for trouble. 

Kostyuk, producer: “War influences everything. We had a missile flying over our set [of a comedy series], we had panic attacks. But it’s so important for the creative industry to keep going. We launched a dozen of films during wartime and ‘Mavka’ proved to be a milestone.”

“School for Little Monsters”

Director: Roman Kepkalo

Production Company: Yarki Studio

In this animated series, legendary heroes and monsters are real. They are studying in the same class as Matthew, a wannabe blogger who just moved from the city. Inspired by Ukrainian folklore, as well as a real-life boy, Matviy, also forced to leave his home due to the war.

Kepkalo: “I am the godfather of two children, I have several friends with kids. We often talk about daily problems with them, and it’s easier to do that by imagining their favorite characters coping with similar issues. Such conversations inspire many storylines.” 

“Yoyo. A Toy Turned into a Rebel”

Directors: Feldman Sisters

Production company: Phalanstery Films

In a world where people trust technology more than themselves, everyone is super productive but dead inside. Except for Yoyo – the only person on Earth who can still be creative, funny and actually make friends.

Nadiia Ovdun, producer: “During the invasion, images of motanka dolls [Ukrainian talismans] appeared on the streets of Lviv, Dnipro, Kyiv and Odesa. In graffiti, where the directors come from, characters have to tell a story in a very short time, they have to be recognizable and catchy.”

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