Russian children’s cartoon Smeshariki is broadcast in sixty countries (the series has been broadcast in English as GoGoRiki and Kikoriki). Anatoly Prokhorov, the artistic director of Smeshariki, talked to us about the series’ educational concept and his views on the future of education.
Anatoly Valentinovich Prokhorov is a Russian film and TV producer, media critic, cultural critic, applied psychologist, member of the Russian National Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences, member of the presidium of the Eurasian Academy of Television and Radio, candidate of mathematical and physical sciences, primary advisor at the Institute of Education at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, one of the organizers of the Russian Academy of the Internet, head of the Laboratory of Internal Work, co-founder of Pilot, the first privately-owned studio in the Soviet Union, one of the organizers and art director of the Petersburg Studio of Computer Animation.
The art director and one of the creators of Smeshariki.
Winner of the Russian Federation State Prize in Culture and the Arts for the socio-cultural program Smeshariki, oriented on the education of the rising generation (together with Salavat Sheykhinurov and Ilya Popov.)
Winner of the TEFI Award (for best humorous program, Tushite Svet [Turn Off the Lights], on channel NTV), winner of the Nika Award (for year’s best animated film, Brat’ya Piloty [The Pilot Brothers]), recipient of the grand prize at the Montreal International Short Film Festival (for the film Gagarin), among other awards.
– Anatoly Valentinovich, what was the initial idea behind the project, and what goals did you have?
I’ll begin by saying that our goals changed a lot during the course of the project, and the moment connected with that change was incredibly significant. At that point I had worked for fifteen years at Pilot – a studio that Sasha Tatarsky, Igor Kovalyov, and I founded in 1988. There, in terms of positioning, our goal was very simple – create striking arthouse films for adults. We could judge how well we were handling this task by how successful we were at international film festivals. So our goal was put both simply and simple to check, and in this sense our positioning was static: once we’d set it up, it didn’t change. For fifteen years we made that type of film, and we were given an enormous number of awards. Every film made by Pilot participated in several competitions at foreign film festivals, and that’s a definite mark of quality. Only three animation studios in the world at the time got those kinds of results – Aardman Animation with its claymation films, Pixar with its shorts, and Pilot. Pilot was the third in this trio, but, nevertheless, it made it in, and naturally that was satisfying.
With Smeshariki everything was different. The project began as being very basic for children. But that was exactly why we didn’t know how to do it. Initially we came up with two ideas. The first was the rounded form of the characters as a design that gave them stylistic unity. The man behind the characters was artist Salavat Sheykxinurov from Ufa. Salavat came up with the second idea with his friend Ilya Popov, who at first was a graphic designer, but later became the general producer of Smeshariki. Their idea was to make the project super-ultra-huge. Prior to this we had unsuccessfully tried to raise Sasha Tatarsky’s famous detectives Shef and Kollega to a commercial level in the 1990s. Nothing came of it, because the children’s market in Russia wasn’t well-developed and wasn’t ready for it. And then, suddenly, seven or eight years later, these two young guys tell us that they want to film as many as 200 episodes and conquer the children’s market. I understand that when you have nothing aside from doodles of the characters, it’s ridiculous to even talk about that. But that kind of approach with a contemporary marketing strategy really amazed me.
Something else stood out about them – a characteristic that is fairly rare, by the way. They turned out to be ready to listen to other opinions, in particular mine, and accept constructive criticism. Until then these guys had had nothing to do with animation or film: Salavat was a bright comic artist who had graduated from the Academy of Comics in Belgium; Ilya was a graphic designer and manager. I gave them my expert opinion, explaining what I liked about their idea and what I didn’t find interesting, and how they could rework and develop the project. They could have ignored my thoughts and decided that Prokhorov didn’t understand anything about their brilliant project – that had happened to me many times before. But two months after our conversation they called me and said: “We redid everything that you recommended. Can we come over and show it to you?” They came over, and we took a look at their changes. We went onto the second stage of the design. I realized that I could work with these guys.
There was another very important thing – we taught each other. Until then I had never been an art director (at Pilot I had been the senior editor) – I learned how to be one while working on Smeshariki. These guys, on their part, learned how to work on movies.
– How did the Smeshariki team form?
Over a year there were dozens of meetings in Moscow and St. Petersburg with a large number of people. The project’s future director, Denis Chernov, came in. We were able to find a very talented scriptwriter who really matured while working on Smeshariki – he was Aleksey Lebedev. He is a theatrical actor and director, but at one time he was a systems programmer at an American company, so his brain is systematic. And as we all know, theatre can’t exist without systematic brains. There’s always a need to take the airy solitaire of an author’s idea and give it a firm structure.
We started doing the studio work in St. Petersburg. It was there that we started picking actors – the Moscow ones turned out to be too expense. The actors quickly mastered and fell in love with their characters. They started adding something of their own to the characters’ voices. And all of a sudden we began to realize that their characters were being born. A character is a very subtle thing that there is very little of in cartoons.
Smeshariki (from the Russian smeshniye shariki, “funny little balls”) is a Russian animated series for the entire family. The series has been aired since 2003. As of April 2014, Smeshariki is broadcast in 60 countries, translated into fifteen languages, and seen daily by fifty million people.
– Did you have a model of how the cartoon would develop? Any drafts of episodes or messages that you wanted to convey?
When the project began we didn’t have a firm plan or any particular ambitions. Everything developed gradually. The newborn Smeshariki weren’t pre-programmed; we didn’t know where we were going. We gradually began to understand what we were actually doing as we separated the good from the bad. First we weeded out the characters themselves. We started with a cow named Buryonka, but that didn’t work out. Then we suddenly saw this image of a pig – at first it was a teenage boy rapper. Then we decided to make it a girl, and Nyusha appeared. Her image was the opposite of the Russian “mythology of the pig”: that a piglet loves mud, puddles, and stuff like that.
At the concept stage we had a goose-genius – Guseniy, but then in his place appeared Pin – an inventor, a self-trained genius. He had a touch of the immigrant, of the outsider, who was brought in and accepted. If all the others were run-of-the-mill animals, here was, out of nowhere, a penguin. We wanted him to have an accent – Georgian, French, German, Estonian, and a little Jewish, all at the same. At least, that was the job we gave the actor. In the first recording he did a penguin with a clear German accent, but so convincing and exact that we decided to leave it that way.
An important breakthrough came in the third script, the episode “Plywood Sun”. When Aleksey Lebedev brought in that script, I literally went “Wow!” At the very end the narrator says: “They stood in the rain, drank tea, and understood that now this warmth would be enough until next summer.” It became clear that this was a subtle, adult story about human relationships. We understood that the series had an appeal for both parents and adults. We understood that it has this “false bottom” in terms of ideas. I talked it over with Aleksey, and he understood everything very quickly, so we started to develop in that direction.
By the fifteenth episode we had reached the necessary height. We had gotten into a good groove with the characters and their voices. We were able to combine very subtle characters with true-to-life stories. Later on, in the “show bible” for Smeshariki, the first point was: “The story should be: A) interesting for adults; B) something children can understand.” If it’s not interesting to adults, then there’s the chance it will veer off into baby-talk and naïve moralizing, which is only good for children who are two or three years old.
One of our goals was putting children and parents in complex real-life situations and making them think about things that a child is already capable of understanding. That’s why Smeshariki is an enormous library of true-to-life cases and nuanced solutions to everyday situations.
– So what is the target audience of Smeshariki? Have you followed who watches you?
We aimed for older preschoolers – from five to seven [note: in Russia elementary schooling begins at the age of seven]. But now, as it turns out, kids are beginning to watch us at the age of four. From 2007 to 2009 the TV channel STS carried out a series of viewer research projects that produced very interesting results. Boys up to the age of ten or twelve watched us, and then stopped. Girls watched longer – until twelve or thirteen, and then went over to Winks. From the age of 17 to 25 no one watched us at all. And then after 25 – that’s young parents – they started watching us again. And there were pretty good figures up to 50 or 55. Grandparents at first didn’t watch us because they thought Smeshariki was too grown-up for children.
– After all, a lot of the stories in Smeshariki were written for grown-ups. Did you do this deliberately?
Of course. For the first few years we were often accused of making Smeshariki inappropriate for the age group – we were too grown-up. In all the articles written about me I tried to explain Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of immediate development.” It needs to be set up for the child, and then it will develop from within. We even thought up a very elegant concept called “forward-looking dramaturgy”! Our stories and the ideas behind them were for young schoolchildren. But our target audience – older preschoolers – grew up faster, understanding that everything in life and in Smeshariki isn’t that simple. We even started to introduce new words whose meanings 5-to-7-year-olds don’t know – at first accidentally, and then deliberately. The first accidental word was “rarity” in the episode “Collection”. At that time we held focus-groups in two preschools in St. Petersburg and painstakingly recorded children’s reactions as they watched the shows: here they laughed, there they smiled… The teachers at these preschools told us that the children liked the word “rarity” so much that for a few months the kids were using it all the time. They used it as an insult (they said: “You’re nothing but a rarity”) and showed off with it (because they could, in that very zone of immediate development, grasp those words that were supposedly too hard for them.)
At the same time we kept to the comedic tone of the series. There are two types of theatre: drama and comedy. As someone who has studied human culture and applied psychology (and I’ve had to use both child and adult psychology a lot) I understand that using tragedy is not for the child audience. At first the child simply doesn’t understand, and then when he does begin to understand, it puts him on edge, and that’s not right. But comedy is a completely different thing. That’s why we have a tremendous assortment of comic sub-genres – the comedy thriller, the comedy mystery, the comic melodrama…
– What do you think is the project’s educational component?
We tried to do things so that by the age of seven to ten the child could easily make the jump from Smeshariki into the world of literature. I’m an enormous supporter of reading and an opponent of audiovisual education; as funny as this might sound, I’m against television and a large number of cartoons. Research by American psychologists from a six months ago shows that when children are given computers and tablets early in life, almost as early as the age of one or two, then by the age of six they start having problems with fine motor skills: they just can’t tie their own shoes! But the most important problem is thinking. The issue is that thinking is a left-brain-hemisphere function, directly connected with speech, and the development of speech is connected with reading, not with watching “audiovisuals.”
– Is Smeshariki a way to work with children in the twenty-first century?
Twentieth-century adults had a pretty two-sided attitude towards children – adults, of course, had already started recognizing and valuing them, but their attitudes toward them still remained frankly dismissive. Let’s say that two women are talking. A three-year-old comes up to them. And right away the talking-down starts: “Oh look who’s here!” This happens because it’s commonly accepted that a child won’t understand normal conversations, and that’s why at the sight of a child grown-ups have to put on a stupid grin, starts baby-talking, or something like that. This is an example of treating a child as if it were an unfinished person that has its “whole life ahead of it.” Note: not now – somewhere in the future! And that’s where the twentieth-century left us. In this sense Smeshariki is a step forward: we try to treat the child like a normal child who feels like he’s an adult. We set up a dialogue on an equal-footing with the child, and children, by the way, really value that. Something really telling happened in 2005 at the International Festival of Television Animation in Amalfi, Italy, where the episode “The Big Race” got the children’s jury’s award. The children themselves put it this way: “for being made as if it were for adults.”
– Do you think any new trends in attitudes toward children will appear in the near future?
Children will have an inner need for more and more “rights” to freedom within the family and within educational organizations (schools, daycare centers, clubs, etc.) This is what led to the appearance of a complicated and contradictory phenomenon – juvenile courts – in Europe.
Today the family is a building block of society, but it’s closed off. But why is the mother sure that she knows better than everyone else how to raise her child? Note that 99.9 percent of mothers given only one reason – possession: “Because it’s my child!”
Someone who is afraid of juvenile courts fears, most of all, that his children might have grounds to ask for help due to physical or psychological abuse in the family. But that’s only a small factor. The family should open up for another reason – so it can get qualified help, and so that the social position of a parent becomes a professional one. I often say that there are only four basic professions on Earth: the first is a parent, the second – priest, third – doctor, and fourth – teacher. Those are your four basic professions, and everything else is only building onto one of them. That’s why the opening up of the family into a social sphere is an incredibly powerful process, yet at the same time a difficult and painful one.
The competency and professionalism of parents will in time become an essential requirement. The role of the early development of a child before it turns five years old, and especially before it turns one and before it turns three, will rise sharply. For example, there is already the Prague Program “Child and Parent” (PEKIR), which is one way to professionalize parents for the enormous psychological and physiological work that goes into helping an infant develop.
Finally, the education system in its current form will simply cease to be needed. Even today children are beginning to lose their need for schools in their education. Over the past few years the percentage of external degrees in Moscow has grown from 5% to about 20%. And this is despite the fact that internet courses are still under-developed in Russia. Of course, they will not replace preschools and daycare centers, but they could easily replace some schools. And there simply won’t be any return to family education – the economy’s demands for educated people are changing radically and becoming much more complicated.
There’s another important tendency: so-called “stationary cultural norms” are disappearing or becoming unimportant. The evolution of cultural norms is visible already, but technological changes that bring about changes in ways of life mean that cultural changes will begin to take place not over a generation or two, but instead much faster. I think that changes in cultural norms will take place very quickly – in ten or fifteen years’ time. This means that there will be a need for enormous internal tolerance in the teenager and the adult alike. They will need to have a sense of tolerance for people like themselves but who have all of a sudden felt that they live by different cultural norms. Or they will need a sense of tolerance toward young people, because young people are the ones who take in the new and always-changing cultural norm fastest. In society – especially in our society – very severe tension might arise, and that tension might destroy or question the most important thing that large groups (nations, states) have – the social and psychological stability of a population.
– Animation – as well as its role in education – will change along with all of this, won’t it?
Many developmental and teaching functions will be loaded onto children’s cartoon characters. This is simply because the only way of motivating a child is through its interest. The child is always interested in a playful situation. Psychologically, the best maintainer of interest in a game is a favorite character. Today we’re already seeing the “gamification” of all sorts of social activity. And since in the future more and more work will shift towards teenagers, who will become participants in all sorts of ideas-based business, then that raises the question of how we will provide them with rapid intellectual development.
Cartoon characters will be a sponge that will soak up all kinds of heavyweight social tasks – the early development of children, their socialization, constant job counseling. Another important thing – games made up by their own players, what’s now known as Internet 2.0, where children construct characters and the rules of play.
As far as education goes, the lifecycle of knowledge will grow shorter at an incredible rate (what’s new today will be out-of-date tomorrow!), which will lead to the appearance of a lifestyle where the ideology of continuous education is dominant. Even today education is becoming something essential and constant in one’s life, just like eating.