Russian cartoon bear takes the world by storm
MOSCOW (AP) — A proverbial Russian bear has long alarmed Westerners as the symbol of Moscow's might and purported ferocity. But the Russian who has taken the world by storm is a sweet goof who hasn't fired a single shot.
Masha and the Bear, a Russian animated television series launched in 2009, now broadcasts in more than 120 countries including the United States. Its YouTube channel is in the top 10 most-viewed worldwide. While Russia's mammoth oil and gas industries grunt under the weight of low energy prices, the cartoon's producer Animaccord has a steady 40 percent annual revenue increase.
The cartoon, loosely based on a Russian fairy tale, centers on the mischievous and minuscule girl Masha and the towering Bear, a retired circus performer who falls victim to the green-eyed sprite's pranks. The cartoon is set in an idealized countryside, loaded with traditional bric-a-brac.
Their real home is a former Soviet kindergarten in Moscow's northern outskirts. There, more than 70 animators each produce 2 to 4 seconds of screen time a day.
It's slow work due to the highly detailed images, unusual for television series. The images have a convincing 3-D effect, move fluidly and are so precise that viewers can count Masha's tiny teeth. That costs money as well as time — up to $250,000 per six-minute episode.
Senior animator Andrei Belyayev can spend hours trying on a myriad of expressions for Masha's face as she bursts into the bear's house to announce an unexpected guest. The animators are particular about even small pieces of the cartoon such as food in the refrigerator and flowers on the lawn.
"Children are very discerning viewers," Belyayev said in a recent interview. "You think again and again how to tell this story and show the scene from a new angle so that children would not be bored when they watch it for the 10th or 100th time."
The cartoon has roots in the Soviet animated film industry, which had unusual freedom. Officials regarded cartoons as fairly insignificant and did not apply smothering censorship. Despite the industry's creativity, its cartoons remained largely unknown outside the Russian-speaking world until Masha and the Bear broke through.
Masha and the Bear's creator Oleg Kuzovkov, like many other Russian animators, moved to work in Los Angeles amid the post-Soviet economic troubles of the 1990s, before returning in 2003. He still divides his time between Moscow and Los Angeles; all pre-production for the series such as screenwriting and storyboard is done in California.
"Some types of professionals like storyboard artists are nowhere to be found in Moscow," Kuzovkov said by phone from LA.
While giant Russian companies like energy exporters complain of unfair treatment in the West, linked to economic sanctions against Russia, Masha's creators say they face no discrimination in the West.
"There is no animosity, no rivalry, and no one tries (in the United States) to protect their animation market from foreign projects," Kuzovkov. "When they see something unique and unusual, something they don't have, they take it."
Unlike many Russian companies, Animaccord has not lined up for state subsidies. It won two grants for a cinema foundation when the series was already established, but Masha's creators still want to steer away from government money.
"They have their own hierarchy there," he said. "I'm not part of it and I didn't want to waste time elbowing for a place at the feeder."
In 2015, Masha and the Bear won a prestigious Kindscreen award as the Best Animation and was listed as one of 250 shows "destined to be classics" by Animation Magazine.
The cartoon has gone on from critical acclaim to a commercial success, bringing the company 292 million rubles ($4.3 million) in revenues in 2013, according to the RBC business newspaper. Animaccord would not disclose its profits but managing director Dmitry Loveyko says they have been posting roughly a 40 percent increase in revenue annually.
About two-thirds of YouTube royalties that Animaccord receives comes from views outside Russia, Loveyko says. In August, Animaccord struck a deal with Netflix to bring the cartoon to the United States where Masha is dubbed by Elsie Fisher, who spoke for Agnes in "Despicable Me."
Apart from television deals and YouTube royalties, Masha and the Bear gets 60 percent of all revenues from goods licensing, and thanks to the deals with global consumer brands Masha's face is glowing from children's toys to tea bags at supermarkets around the globe.
Getting a foot in the door in the West was tough, but Animaccord found the better-regulated Western markets easier to navigate. In Russia, Masha and the Bear has to compete against a vast amount of counterfeit goods, which Loveyko estimates at 30 percent of the market, something that is not an issue in Western Europe or North America:
"The Russian market should be a kind of launch pad for testing ideas: if you make it here, on a very tough Russian market where everything is difficult, I think it will require only a small step to present yourself in the West."
The cartoon's creators never set out to make the cartoon to suit the mores and customs of other countries, but some elements of it turned out to be a happy coincidence.
Masha, who is dressed in a folk costume with a headscarf, became a household name in many Muslim nations including Indonesia. "It's a Muslim country, so we thought we're lucky she wears a headscarf and her legs are covered!" Loveyko said.
Masha's creator Kuzovkov says he is still baffled by the success of the one-toothed girl.
"It was conceived as a local project, tailored to the Russian audience but with all the trappings of the American industry like tempo, editing, a quality picture," he said. "The atmosphere, that TV set, the telephone, it's all from (my) childhood. This world is native to me — for them it's a new style."