Ihor Kovaliov [also known as Igor Kovalyov. – Ed.] was born in Kyiv and worked at Kyivanimafilm Studio in 1972-79. Together with Oleksandr Tatarsky he co-founded Pilot Studio, where he as artist co-authored the animated films Plasticine Crow and Wings, Legs, and Tails. In 1981 he moved to Moscow, and in 1991 to the US, where he worked in the famous American series The Simpsons and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and directed The Rugrats Movie.
Kovaliov’s animation, in particular, his movies Hen, His Wife; Bird in the Window; Milch; Flying Nansen, enjoys worldwide renown and collects numerous awards at international festivals in Barcelona, Oberhausen, Zagreb, and Ottawa (he is the only animator in the world who holds three Grands Prix from the Ottawa International Film Festival).
At the Kyiv Cinematographers’ Center Kovaliov presented his new movie, a lyrical and simultaneously surrealistic story Before Love, and answered the journalists’ and viewers’ questions after the screening.
What do you owe Ukraine?
“My career began here. For me animation began at Ukranimafilm. My first teacher was Yevhen Syvokin, and I learned a lot from Davyd Cherkasky. Sometimes they write in the internet that I am the one who worked on Captain Wrongel or Plasticine Crow (laughs).”
What prompted your most recent movie, Before Love?
“An episode I witnessed: a man and a woman were kissing in a window, with a cat sitting on the window sill. I replaced the cat with a dog, and put a female character on the sidewalk instead of myself. If something starts worrying you, if you dream five nights in a row about it and you cannot get rid of it, you must do something. Then a snow block begins, and you keep thinking. My personal contribution was an episode with a frog that burst in a fishbowl, a recurrent nightmare from my childhood. The rest I have spied here and there. But I do not like Before Love, and I believe it to be my worst movie, and I mean no coquetry.”
“For anyone familiar with my previous movies, this is the most transparent plot, very easy to read. It is very banal, a romance triangle. The rhythmic composition is not the best, nor is the dramaturgy of the film. Now, I would do it in another way. I think that the people who tell me they liked the movie have a mediocre taste.”
So for whom is that movie meant?
“For me, and me alone. Let me be frank: when I make art films, I make them only for myself. I do not care for the public. Conversely, when I make a movie on commission (a TV series or a full length), the public are my primary concern: how old they are, how they are going to see it, how I should present the story.”
Where do you take those stories for your commissions?
“It depends on the commission. A lot of material is reviewed for the project, sometimes other series as well, which can often prompt a good idea. The script for Before Love could be used for a feature film. It has absolutely nothing to do with animation. I did it on purpose. I don’t like animation at all, I watch it at festivals. Normally, I only watch feature films.”
Why don’t you make feature films, then?
“Because I am a coward. I would love to do it, I had the first impulse some two decades ago, but I will probably never get down to it.”
What scares you off?
“In animation I am free to do what I want. None of my movies harbors any surprises. Feature film, on the contrary, means working with actors. If I worked with them, I would tyrannize them, I would not allow them any freedom, I would treat them as puppets. And I would only cast amateur actors.”
Your characters speak a peculiar dialect: very expressive, but it is impossible to understand a single word of it.
“This language does not exist, I invented it.”
Have you ever used it to communicate?
“As a child. When I was six or seven, I had a friend named Petro Malyshev, we spoke such a language, reversing words. I did it on purpose because at some point in my life I watched foreign movies without translation, did not understand a word, but I loved those movies. When I was able to watch them with translation, I was very disappointed.”
A prominent place in your films is taken by various organisms. For example, there are lots of insects. Why is this image so important to you?
“Frankly, I consider myself a professional zoologist. Since childhood I have been crazy about zoology, in particular herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. I was convinced that after school I would go and study biology at the university. And yet there are much fewer animals in my movies than in some films for kids.”
Which of your films turned out the biggest challenge to make?
“I made my early pictures much faster and with more confidence. The older I got, the slower and more cumbersome the work was, and I am happy to just finish a film. By the way, I hate drawing. I love making up very detailed scripts, but I never do storyboarding. Even the sound is included in the script, with directions as to what and when has to sound.”
Curiously enough, with such a scholarly mind and a habit to plan ahead, you are given to metaphors.
“The more metaphors, the more wonders on the screen. I make my movies in such a way that each viewer in the movie theater could have their own opinion, feel the film in their own way. So don’t you think that if you don’t understand art, it is no art at all? Art cannot be understood, it can only be felt. Yuri Norshtein compares film with literature, but I disagree categorically. Film stands closest to music. The main thing that the viewer has to read is musicality, rhythm. Rhythmical contrast, certain accents: something is longer, something is shorter, the sound work. And only later it comes to literature or painting. Yet I do not trust many who tell me: ‘I liked your movie,’ because I know that this is not true. I try to keep emotions within the character. My movies are cold dramas. This is my way of self-expression.”
What sort of film do you personally like, in such a case?
“As a viewer I love comedy, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and I am mad about funny, comical situations.”