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The Tiny Fish

Filmmaker: Sergei Ryabov
Country: Russia
Year Made: 2006
Length: 9’ 30”
Technique: cut-out animation


A cat is stalking birds outside a house on a hill, surrounded by wintry brown trees. A little girl comes out of the front door and invites the cat to join her on a bike ride. They speed over the hills, followed by the flock of birds, until they come to a frozen lake. They venture out on to the ice and find an old man fishing through a hole in the ice. He catches a beautiful sparkling little fish and throws it on to the ice. The little girl rescues it and throws it back into the water, but the old man angrily grabs it out again and stuffs it into a bag. As he walks away, the snow starts to fall.

Later, children are playing in the snow and trying to build an igloo, watched by the cat, and by the little girl from inside her house where she is drawing and cutting out an image of the fish. The children yell at the cat and chase it away.

The little girl puts the fish cut-out on the music stand of the piano and starts to pick out a tune. A different, starlit environment appears and the fish seems to come alive. The little girl starts to play with the fish but suddenly the old man’s thundering footsteps are heard: the stars start to fall out of the sky and into his bag. The little girl and the fish start to run away but fall and are caught on the branch of a tree. Unable to reach them, the old man chomps through the trunk of the tree: as it falls, the little girl finds a series of staircases to climb, chased by the old man who gobbles up each staircase as she flees. She wakes up, still on the piano stool.

The little girl comes out of her house and calls the cat. Together they walk back to the lake through the deep snow. The little girl takes out the fish cut-out and drops it into the ice hole. The water starts to sparkle and we see the fish come alive again, winking at the little girl and the cat before swirling away into the deeper water. The little girl and her cat go back to the house, now lit up at dusk. As she goes in, the little girl invites the cat into the house.

Filmmaker’s comments

I became an animator because I didn’t want to grow up. My ideas for the film were: In the autumn the big snowfall has begun. Trees have put on white fur coats, a fluffy blanket has covered the earth. It is as wonderful as a fairy tale. I have tried to convey this mood to the audience. My main inspirations in this film were kindness, love and enigma.

Things you might notice

The music: all the music is closely related to the little girl’s different states of mind and helps us to identify with her feelings. The calm melodic tones of Tchaikovsky’s Mama (Opus 39 No. 3) open and close the film and are also used for the happy part of the dream sequence, while Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 is used for the exhilarating bicycle ride. Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’ocean (Miroirs III) is used to invoke the magical world of the fish, and the faster, more ‘anxious’ tones of Tchaikovsky’s Baba Yaga (Opus 39 No. 20) accompany the dream sequence chase.
Sound effects: winter sounds: the echo and crackle of ice when you first step on it; the creaking of footsteps in thick snow; the yells of children outside contrasting with the enclosed space and ticking clock of the room; the echoing boom of the old man’s stamping and biting in the dream sequence; the ‘flatter’ sound of the living room when the little girl wakes, in contrast to the resonant tones of the dream.
Transitions: from outdoors to inside; from ‘real’ to ‘dream’ and back again; the slow fade from the lake to the house at the end. How are these changes shown?
Duration: the long sequence at the end of the first part as the old man walks away into the snow. Why hold this shot for such a long time? Look at where there is a rapid succession of shots and where shots are held longer than you might expect, and consider why this might be.
Narrative structure: what’s the point of the scene with the cat and the children in the snow? Does it tell you things about Ryabov’s themes? What would we lose if it were left out?

Themes to explore

Moral judgments: Who’s kind and who isn’t? Is anyone really ‘bad’? We see the old man mainly from the little girl’s point of view, so he seems cruel when he snatches the fish away from her and throws it on the ice to die, and it is this image of him that returns in the dream, but his delight when he first catches the fish has told us that he is looking forward to eating it. A consideration of what we know or can infer about these two characters tells us that the little girl lives in a big house with a piano, but we may infer from his lonely trudge across the ice that the old man is much poorer. The gang of children trying to build a snow house act as one unit, reacting with rage and running screaming after the cat, and are contrasted with the little girl sitting alone and thoughtful in her house – is she missing out on the fun of playing in a gang, or are we encouraged to see her as more sensitive and thoughtful than they are?
Different kinds of reality: The little girl’s dream adds to what she has seen of the old man at the lake: his desire to eat the fish is translated into a desire to eat everything including the stars and the trees, and to grow bigger with everything he eats – a deep-rooted notion that many children find frightening. Look closely at the transitions between the paper fish, the dream fish and the real fish to see how close-ups are used and small features signal that the fish is coming alive. The sound track is key to the differences between the dream world and the real world: the booming echoes contrasting with the ‘flatter’ sound of the room. The dream world seems to operate on two levels but there is no ground or horizon and little detail, while the ‘real world’ of the house, the woods and the lake is rendered in detail.
Symbolism: It could be interesting to explore what the fish ‘means’ to the little girl, and why stars, a tree and a staircase appear in the dream world. This could lead on to wider discussion of symbolism and children using symbols in their own creative work (drawing, writing, oral storytelling or filmmaking). But note that ‘enigma’ is one of Ryabov’s themes.
Character: What kind of person is the little girl? What kind of person is the old man? If you use Strategy B (see p 6) you could ask this when each of them first appears, as well as returning to the question later. You could use the ‘still’ button to pause and discuss what impressions the children have when they first see each character and what inferences they make about what they may do or what may happen to them. The cat features throughout the story, but children could consider what it’s role is and what difference would it make if there were no cat in the story.

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