Moomins TV series

Finnish animation celebrates its centenary.

The mention of animation in Finland immediately evokes images of Tove Jansson’s Moomins. A constant presence in books, on screens, on mugs and in the hearts of Finns, these lovable characters have been a part of the Finnish culture since 1945.

Last year saw celebrations honouring Jansson on the 100th anniversary of her birth, with Moomins the centrepiece of her career retrospective. The Moomins have become Finland’s most well known animation characters, reaching a global audience and still continuing to grow in popularity. They also reach a huge audience in Japan. But why Japan, of all places?

“Finnish and Japanese people like to live quietly and peacefully and care about the environment,” explains Tuula Leinonen, an expert on Finnish animation, “The gentle and timeless world of the Moomins is built on these values.”

Tom Carpelan (Filmkompaniet), who owns the rights to the ‘70s and ‘80s TV series, agrees with Leinonen. “Finnish and Japanese people relate to the characters. The Moomins world is a very open and forgiving society, like the Finnish. In Japan the character Snufkin represents freedom.”

The appeal of the characters also stretches as far as Hollywood: Walt Disney was a big fan. “He liked the characters,” Carpelan reveals. “They tried to buy the idea at the same time they bought Winnie the Pooh. But the Jansson family did not sell it.”

“The reason? The people of Walt Disney came to the office a few months after Jansson’s funeral and asked the family to sign the paper. It was turned down without discussion.”

Moomins on the Riviera

An animated start

Finland’s history of animation began well before the first appearance of the Moomins. In fact the first works emerged in the early 1920s after inspiration came from animators in Sweden. The pioneers of Finnish animation were Eric Vasström and Hjalmar Löfving.

“Vasström has the honour to be the first, but we have not seen his animation work,” says Leinonen. “His 1914 film (title unknown) and images sadly have been destroyed.”

Thankfully, the animation ads made by Löfving have been preserved.

“He was a productive guy and knew how to animate,” Leinonen describes. In 1932 Löfving would also independently produce the famous animation Muutama metri tuulta ja sadetta (A Few Metres of Wind and Rain).

Jansson and her Moomin creations followed the next decade, boosting the local scene to previously unscaled heights of quality and popularity, and paving the path for numerous artists and animators.

Following this, the first serious steps in Finnish stop motion puppet and cut-out animation history were made in the ‘70s when YLE opened an animation studio.

Later that decade, Finland’s first animated feature, an adaptation of Aleksis Kivi’s iconic Seitsemän Veljestä (Seven Brothers), was released. Creator Riitta Nelimarkka was inspired by the watercolours and cut out technique utilised in Stockholm, where she had studied animation beginning in 1967. Nelimarrka worked on the film for almost four years, with a crew of only six people.

“Most of the film was made in my own home,” she recalls.

The story of Seven Brothers relates to the time before Finland became independent from Sweden in 1917.

“I liked the humour of the story and the characters,” Nelimarrka recalls. She also acknowledges the darker elements of the narrative. “The story has some tragic lines. Its message is that there is nothing wrong with having an own identity and being a Finn.”

Nelimarrka won a Jussi Award for her efforts in 1979, sharing space on the mantelpiece next to a pair of State Awards presented to her earlier that decade. Her mark on the history of Finnish animation is unmistakable. Having been appointed professor in art by (former) Finnish president Tarja Halonen in 2008, Nelimarkka says – with no small modesty – that she doesn’t consider herself as an animation legend. “But,” she says coyly, “I think I started the boom.”

Katariina Lillqvist also contributed significantly to the canvas of the local scene, and is considered by many to be ‘The Grand Old Lady’ of Finnish animation. She is well known for her ground-breaking puppet films, some based on Franz Kafka’s writings. Most of Lillqvist’s films have politics, philosophy, multiculturalism, tolerance and anti-racism as their main subjects.

Lillqvist was also awarded with the State Award in 2006 and won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 1996 for her perhaps most recognised effort Maalaislääkäri (The Country Doctor). The impressive film is about refugees from the Sarajevo war.

“I wanted to tell their stories. The Silver Bear felt as a true recognition, contrary to the criticism many people expressed.” Currently Lillqvist is finishing a book about her career in puppet animation and owns the Museum of Puppet Arts in Tábor, in her adopted home of the Czech Republic.

Estonia helps Finnish animation move forward

Further down the animated timeline and Finland made a switch to digital animation in the mid-1990s, with help from the Estonian animation industry.

“We had to go to Tallinn to do the puppet animation for the 13 series of Urpo & Turpo,” states producer Hanna Hemilä. “The Estonian animation was ahead of us. Nobody was able to do it in Finland.”

Maalaislääkäri (Country Doctor)

The cooperation did not go smoothly right away.

“There was not even a single computer, like in the old Soviet days. We brought in the Western way of making animation, and they had the technical knowledge and craft making with the puppets. Together we managed to create a classic series, built in a new era.” In 2001 Hemilä produced her second successful animated series Turilas & Jäärä after opening her own animation studio in Helsinki.

The series – with a claymation look – was shot in 35mm. Plans to produce a series of 150 episodes at a Chinese studio were scuttled due to financing issues. Nonetheless Turilas & Jäärä still enjoys reruns in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and other European countries and can be considered one of the first Finnish series to capitalise on merchandising.

One of the puppet makers on the Turilas & Jäärä series was Kari Juusonen. The talented young animator became one of the pillars of the current Finnish animation industry after independently directing his short Pizza Passionata (2001), which was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Juusonen’s next milestones were (co)directing Niko – Lentäjän poika (Niko - The Way to the Stars) in 2008 and Niko 2 – Little Brother, Big Trouble in 2012, two of Finland’s most successful animation features. A co production between Finland, Denmark and Germany, Niko - The Way to the Stars was sold to over 118 countries, had more than three million viewers in Finnish cinemas and also reached 26 million viewers during a US broadcast.

“Both films have been a catalyst for the current Finnish animated feature industry”, says Juusonen.

In March 2013 Juusonen made a surprising artistic transfer to Finland’s leading entertainment company Rovio, where he currently is directing the TV series Angry Birds Toons.

Both Niko films were produced by Anima Vitae, currently Finland’s leading animation studio. Animation expert Leinonen says the company (founded in May 2000) can be considered a ‘Finnish Pixar’, because of its success in producing feature films. Mikael Hed, CEO of Rovio – believes that ‘talent-wise’ Anima Vitae can be compared to Pixar. “I think they are awesome. They have done some incredible stuff. I have nothing but respect from them. We are super happy working with them.” Anima Vitae and Rovio are currently co-operating on the Angry Birds Stella animated series.

“The technical people from Pixar have visited us three times, and they were amazed how we – a small studio in Finland – achieved our projects,” states Anima Vitae’s CEO Petteri Pasanen, who also produced Juusonen’s Pizza Passionata. “From day one our company has been very passionate about quality, and technique.”

Pasanen says that the enormous global success of the Niko films opened doors. “We were lucky the Niko films brought us our international breakthrough. We had the aim to achieve success, and we did. It brought awareness, although not everybody directly recognises that Niko was a Finnish animation project. In the US we are considered a US-friendly company. It feels like a foot in the door. That makes it easier to work on new productions. I don’t have to explain who we are anymore.”

Currently Anima Vitae is also trying to get a foot in the door in Asia. The company opened a branch office in Kuala Lumpur, and is working on partnerships with Malaysian, Chinese, Korean and even Australian studios.

Angry Birds

As creators of the worldwide phenomenon Angry Birds, Rovio Entertainment is Finland’s biggest entertainment company. Following the Angry Birds Toons animated series that featured the contribution of Juusonen, the company set out to create animation on a global scale. This is set to be achieved on 1 July this year when the first Angry Birds 3D CG-animated film will be released, made in conjunction with Sony Pictures.

Such is their faith in the project, that Rovio CEO Hed revealed that Rovio is already preparing for sequels.

“The continuation depends of course on the success of the first one,” he adds. Hed emphasises his only true demand was that the film needs to be a great story. “There are so many game-based movies out there that are not that great.”

Juusonen says the animation aim of Rovio can be seen as an important new turning point in Finnish animation.

“This will take our animation industry to a high level.” Hed reveals that the animation process started while working on the the App. “Animation at that point was one of the considerations. Early 2010, long before Toons was launched, we did our first animated pieces. Animation was for us an important way of transforming Angry Birds from a game title to a consumer brand.”

To achieve their goals Rovio hired experienced animation director Eric Guaglione in August 2012. Guaglione, who previously worked at Walt Disney Animation Studio’s on Mulan, Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear, was also nominated for an Emmy award in 1995 for his work on Star Trek: Voyager.

DibiDogs continue to make a global impact.

“The worldwide phenomenon of Angry Birds was the main reason for my transfer to Rovio”, says the US-born director. “Working on the Disney properties had the same drive and integrity as working on Angry Birds now. Both understand extremely well how to work on characters and their stories.”

Guaglione says his work at Disney is not a blueprint for his current work at Rovio. “We want to create our own identity and ask the question: Where are we different from Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar? Angry Birds have a little edginess that Disney won’t do.” Hed explains that Rovio has the benefit to test out ideas in other mediums such as games, instead of making a 200 million-euro gamble on the animated films and TV series.

Guaglione says his main goal is to take the Rovio storytelling culture to a higher level. “We like to expand the characters of Angry Birds, from the gaming atmosphere, to an animation based dimension. Currently we are developing new properties and animation styles beyond Angry Birds. It doesn’t stop with Angry Birds.” The recently released character Stella is a first example of the new approach, according to Guaglione.

“It still branching out from the Angry Birds universe. We know that the Angry Birds franchise is very strong, we want to go beyond that,” adds Hed.

Rovio director Guaglione says it is an interesting question if the Angry Birds can be considered as typical Finnish characters, as the Moomins are.

“I think they became world citizens.” Hed adds, “Angry Birds are created by Finns, but have been worked on by such an international crew all over the world that they are cosmopolitan.”

Niko has been one of the most successful Finnish animation productions ever.

Coproduction is the key to success.

In the last 20 years Finnish animation companies have taken steps far outside Finland. The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture have even established Finnanimation, a non-profit association formed by Finnish animation producers in 2005 which carries out various promotional and cultural export activities on all continents.

Currently the best example of a Finnish international coproduction is the Finnish/Chinese TV series Dibidogs produced by Finnish Futurecode, owned by Jim and Pia Solatie, and Chinese Blue Arc, owned by Tommy Wang. They met in 2007, a year after the Solatie family created the Dibidogs characters.

“The original characters were drawn by my two kids Mikaela and Tom,” states Jim Solatie, “they also came up with the first storylines. We asked Finland’s bestselling author Tuija Lehtinen to help us with us with the scripts.”

Solatie and his wife, who had just sold their market research company, were so convinced that Dibidogs could work that they decided to invest all their money in a Chinese animation studio to work on the animation series.

“We travelled to China 50 times to find the right partners. In September 2007 we met children’s director Wang at Southern TV, South China’s biggest TV station.” With a budget of 7 million US dollars, the first season of 26 episodes of 23 minutes each premiered in April 2010 on MTV3 in Finland. Two months later Southern TV started broadcasting.

“Now, CCTV – China’s Central Television – is broadcasting Dibidogs nationwide”, says Solatie. “We have closed TV deals with Multimania in Russia and Korean KBC.” Dibidogs was sold to 32 countries. In 2014 Dibidogs was awarded for its international success by winning the Finnish Audiovisual Export Award HALDA.

Dibidogs is also broadcasted in European countries such as Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. Solatie says the victory march has not ended. “We are having talks with main channels in Southern Europe and will launch the unique DibiTales app where children can create and animate their own stories. The app will be launched in Chinese in the beginning of 2015, followed by an English version.”

And so, as Finns continue their international collaboration, with new and exciting projects emerging, the future seems bright for the local scene. With the industry’s centennial celebrations held last year, one could even suggest that there has never been a better time to get animated in Finland.

Peter Schavemaker