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Life’s a river, especially in Eastern Europe

Oliver Luo ’13, a resident of Cabot House concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, Animation Studio Track, with a secondary concentration in Physics, was awarded an Office for the Arts at Harvard/Office of Postgraduate and National Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to study and work this summer with professional animators and studios in Estonia and the Czech Republic, and attend a traditional puppet animation workshop in Prague. His work has been exhibited at the Harvard Monday Gallery, Harvard SOCH Gallery, and CGIS Harvard Student Art Show. He plans to pursue a career in animation.

In the midst of my frustration over trying to nail down a post with an Estonian animation studio, I received a message from Priit Tender encouraging me to just fly over and flow along. “Life’s a river—especially in Eastern Europe,” he reassured me.

The way things have unfolded here in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, certainly does feel fluid, or at least within the circle of animators and friends. I met up with Kaspar Jancis, the multitalented animator, musician, and motorized bike designer, who ended up generously offering his artist den on the attic floor of an apartment for my accommodations. He showed me around the Tallinn puppet studio, Nukufilm, where I got the chance to chat with some puppet animators. The studio was on summer break so not many folks were around, but one can imagine the busy production from the plethora of character design sketches plastered all over the walls, the work stations strewn with wire armatures and wooden replacement heads of various expressions and—ah, of course!— the distinct aroma of silicone rubber casts.

The artistic clutter in the mechanical workroom of the Nukufilm studio.

Priit gave me a tour of EestiJoonisfilm, the drawn-animation studio which was also on hiatus (the Estonians apparently love their summer days of prolonged sunshine). Here, instead of the clutter of rubber limbs and dried glue globs, the shelves are stacked high with reams of meticulously drawn cels, separated by folders into scenes of films. We also got to talk a bit about a documentary that he is editing. For this film, he took his fantastically strange The Maggot Feeder, an animated film based on an ancient Chukchi folk tale, and traveled to the Chukchi Peninsula to talk to people about this oral tradition of storytelling and to show them the film.

Currently I am helping Kaspar with character re-design and coloring for his upcoming puppet feature film, a joint effort with animators from Canada and Ireland to re-adapt for the screen a storybook that Kaspar himself wrote called Morten on the Ship of Fools.

Sketches of the protagonist Morten in Kaspar's upcoming feature film "Morten on the Ship of Fools."

The Alice in Wonderland-esque tale follows a young redheaded boy named Morten who collects insects for his toy ship Salamander and dreams of sailing the open ocean, until one day through an encounter with a magician cockroach, he finds himself on an adventure aboard the Salamander itself. The story, written a few years back, was critically acclaimed, having been published with its own soundtrack album and adapted into a theatrical performance.

The work, though time-consuming as with any animation, lends an intimate look from a director and original scriptwriter’s point of view into the larger production process, while at the same time gives me enough flexibility to pick up some Estonian lore from the local library (in English, unfortunately, but I want to give the famous Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg a try!), watch some films, and experience the curious town of Tallinn.

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