Dimitar Petrov is one third of the board of the Association of Bulgarian Animation Producers (ABAP), his agenda being international relations. He’s also a founder, CEO and creative director of the animation company Studio Zmei, which he co-founded six years ago. The company offers services to animation companies, primarily French, but also works on its own projects. In the interview, Petrov introduced the situation in Bulgaria, the goals of ABAP, and also his series The Golden Apple.
What are you working on right now as a creator and as part of ABAP?
Right now, Zmei is also working for a big American studio, but I cannot publicly discuss this specific production. The studio has been growing very quickly; we are soon starting our own academy to train staff. As for ABAP, we are in close talks with the government about implementing a new film industry law that increases funding of animation and also introduces a cash rebate, which is very much needed. We are in the process of establishing a great partnership with the ministry of culture, which is necessary on the local scale, but we are also doubling down on our international presence and collaborations. I am the representative of ABAP in CEE Animation, so it is my job to find mutually best ways to cooperate. We are also part of Animation Europe.
What do you think the system needs to happen to work smoothly?
There are a lot of things that need to happen locally for the infrastructure to work and for us to be more competitive. There was, and I hope still is, a tradition of animation in Bulgaria, especially festival animation. This tradition, however, weakened in the 90s and even more in the 00s. Commercial projects were neglected even more. So, there is a lot to be desired – a long way to get back on our feet. For example, we are the last country in the whole of Europe that does not offer any form of tax rebates or incentives, which goes for the entire film industry, not only animation. Right now, we are still waiting for the new cinema law to take effect – we were granted a mechanism, but it is still not fully operational. There is still no way to fund an animated series. In fact, even though we have a new supportive law, a lot of large-scale projects needed to be stopped as it was still not possible to apply the law in practice. The aim of ABAP is to fight for such productions and to ensure that no changes in Bulgaria leave animation behind. We are on our way to fully integrating into Europe with Euro being accepted in a few years, and we must use this transition to create a fully satisfactory infrastructure.
How much animation does Bulgaria produce?
This question is more complicated than it might seem because official statistics exist only for state-supported projects. For 2019, it was 90 minutes of animation, based on the Ministry of Culture statistics – so this was state-funded projects. But only Zmei, without any state funding, produced at least as much as that through service work, not mentioning other ABAP member studios and their work. So, the actual amount must be much higher.
Are you sure there even is a way for a country of Bulgarian proportions to have a living system of animation?
I think Ireland can be a great example to follow. It is a similar-sized country, so the scale is applicable. It is truly a great inspiration to watch the system they managed to create and the animation that emerged from it. There is just as great talent hidden in Bulgaria, but it has not been fully realised yet.
Right now, we really only have a system for artistic festival films, while the commercial market is ignored by the state. This is a mistake – a healthy film industry needs art and commerce to support each other. I can give you a specific example: The Golden Apple series is based on Bulgarian culture, and it has, I believe, great artistic merit. But because it doesn’t fit the “right” format of “art film”, it must be produced as an international co-production with a French majority. I would like this not to be a necessity, to see a show like this produced in Bulgaria alone, or at least with the local majority. Of course, we love international cooperation, but in the current state, there is hardly any alternative. It also becomes a case of exporting the local cultural capital, which merits its own discussion.
You personally have a lot of experience from countries like Britain, where you studied, and America. Can you implement any of what you’ve learned there, or does Bulgaria need something completely new?
Of course, it’s a combination. On the one hand, the world is connected today, so you can learn something useful everywhere; on the other, every environment has its specifics. In Europe and America, for example, the organisation of filmmaking is entirely different. All the gained knowledge from abroad needs to be adapted; you can’t just copy-paste whole systems, not even in cases like Ireland, which I mentioned as a great example. That’s why the platform CEE Animation is so important – it integrates countries that face similar challenges and offers them a chance to cooperate.
People with experience from abroad, including me, can also use what we learned to work with international clients. From their perspective, it is desirable to get the service they are used to.
What is the general approach to animation in Bulgaria? Do “normal” people accept it as a potential art-form for adults, like in France, or do people usually see it as a genre for children?
Like in most countries, the general public sees animation primarily as a product for kids; France is a rare exception. But Bulgaria loves animation: mainstream animated films get to box office top 10 every year. All of those are films for children, but it shows us that Bulgarians do like the medium; the potential is here. They just maybe need to learn more about its possibilities.
It also seems to me that Bulgarians care about animation based on the local culture or at least Eastern European culture. I think there is not enough content to meet this demand, and we are trying to do something with it with The Golden Apple, among other things.
Isn’t it a bit strange that people want to see animation based on their culture? Animation, in principle, is a very free form, not bound to our world as much as live-action. In animation, we can create what our own fantasy allows us, yet people wish to see something familiar.
I think this is the natural way to approach art and stories. And I see this especially in Central Europe, where people maybe feel that the American pop culture takes away too much space. In this regard, it makes sense viewers want to see something related to their heritage. I think maybe we have seen too many stories about samurais and English knights, so we believe “it’s our turn”.
Of course, our ambition in ABAP is to give local culture an international appeal. Ideally, we want to support and create work that is based on local stories but can also be sold abroad. And I think, in fact, that is exactly what the international market needs and wants. In filmmaking, stories are a great commodity; everyone is looking for interesting, original, and different stories. And there is yet a lot to discover in Bulgaria’s canon, just as in entire Eastern Europe.
For a long time, people used to say, “No one in the world knows or cares about Slavic legends.” But when we see how extremely successful The Witcher became, that idea has obviously been proven wrong.
We heard all of that as well, and we discussed it a lot in the past. In the end, The Witcher showed us it’s not true that people outside Slavic culture don’t care about it. On the contrary, people care about everything that is well made and presented suitably. The Witcher stories are exactly that – good books, good games, a good TV show. It is based on Slavic legends, but it is also a well-crafted product prepared for the global market. There is a lot to learn here. All Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries sit on a huge pile of culture, of stories that are new for others and offer unexpected insight into the experience of life. Of course, this is not enough – it needs to be presented in a way that can compete as a product worldwide, because especially young people have access to everything at any time. You need to create something really good, and I believe all CEE countries should work together to learn and help each other to fulfil the potential of the stories we share to some extent.
Your Golden Apple looks like a show made by an American network, at least at first glance. Is that deliberate?
Yes, very much so. We want for people who are randomly switching channels not to be able to distinguish The Golden Apple from shows like those on major international animation channels. It is quite an ambitious goal – there was no similar show produced for television in Bulgaria in the last 30 years.
Your studio cooperates with France. The Golden Apple is a French majority production, as we discussed.
Yes. It was quite straightforward, to be honest – we got in touch, discussed and pitched some ideas, and started cooperating. We used this opportunity to learn how the international industry works, and we have tried to prove that we have the capability to work on a professional level. We hired a lot of new talent because of it. The problem is, of course, local funding – we have people, we have ideas, we have the know-how, but we have nothing to offer in terms of finance. To bring it back to ABAP: it is its goal to change that.
So, you do have people? Because usually, the problem is that there are not enough people for big projects. For example, Wes Anderson couldn’t produce Isle of Dogs in the Czech Republic because there just weren’t enough animators to hire.
That’s true. By that, I meant that the people we have are capable. But it is a fact that we need more of them. ABAP must work on that, and it does – very actively.
We have two universities with animation programs, but students there tend to aim at artistic festival production; they are not ready to work on big commercial projects. So, when we need to work on a big scale production, we need to hire people from abroad. We had to found our own school, our own academy to train our own animation team. We still rely a lot on international freelancers, but we are trying to add as many locals as we can. Right now, the infrastructure is not self-sufficient.
You talked about the necessity of proving to the people “in the West” you are capable. Do you ever feel any prejudices against Bulgaria or Eastern Europe?
You know, in the West, when CEE countries are in the news, it is probably not for a good reason. That much I learned during my studies. And sometimes we reinforce this bad reputation with our incapability to promote ourselves better and communicate with others. So, I know where these ideas come from. Sometimes you meet a person, or a company you feel doesn’t like you very much because of that, but other times you meet people who just want the job done – and when it is done, they remember it. You need to know when not to bother and when to grow a professional relationship. I think, in the end, animation works in the name of merit. When you show talent, it will work out eventually.
For ABAP, this is very important – we know we must actively promote our qualities, that is why we currently work on a new website, for example. The presentation is important, and we need to be seen as modern, approachable, and capable.
Do you think CEE animation can compete with CGI 3D from America, or is it more practical to focus on other techniques and styles?
I honestly believe everything is possible if you build the right infrastructure. It is realistic, at least at the CEE level, to achieve a professional level of CGI animation. If enough countries are willing to allocate enough means, that is. In fact, we can compete with any production in any style. There are several VFX companies in Bulgaria that are capable of working on Hollywood productions. And several big game companies. So obviously, it can be done. If you can produce an AAA game in Bulgaria, you can produce a mainstream CGI feature. You just need money, people, and time.
The Irish animation industry has 2000 people. If you can put together that many people in Ireland, you should be able to do it in Bulgaria, which has almost twice as many citizens. We need to stop repeating “Bulgaria is a small country”. This is nonsense. Smaller countries than us do better! The only factors are choice and willingness. That’s how it works in France – their results do not come from space or through some magic force but from investments. As we discussed, at this moment, the Bulgarian system is only willing to invest in festival films. And don’t get me wrong – thank God for festival films, we need them, they are important. But they can’t be the only thing we care about; we need to establish a whole system that supports itself. We probably can’t do films for 250 million dollars, but we definitely can compete with France and Germany.
There is really no need to compete with 250 mil movies – it’s really not necessary for the viewing experience of kids to render thousands of hairs on one head.
Of course. We do need to watch trends and evolve, but we also need to adapt and figure out ways to do things our way. In a way, our task is to learn how to achieve a similar quality or a unique look with vastly different resources and approaches.
What do you see as the best format to distribute? Feature? Series? Short?
Everything works. Or everything can work if you know where to sell it. Animation is very diverse, and you can easily use it for projects of any kind. ABAP is, in fact, very careful to support every format there is because, again, a healthy film industry can’t focus on one thing only. That’s why I talk so much about the necessity of applying the new laws to the full extent and for all formats, including the TV Show, which was impossible in the past. Now it is possible in theory, and we are still waiting for action.
The interview was conducted for CEE Animation by journalist Martin Svoboda.