Sia Bulgakova Stop-motion stories with a message of compassion and hope

A photo of a woman's head and shoulders in front of a blue background. Her face is replaced with a cutout showing blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

Sia Bulgakova’s stop-motion animations—created using a combination of self-portraiture, costume design, props, handcrafts and animation—have garnered a lot of attention on social media. She tells Alix-Rose Cowie how she hopes her short fairytale scenes can send a message of compassion, happiness and joy, and “give people their love for this world back.”

Sia Bulgakova was born in a small Siberian town surrounded by the taiga—thick forests of towering trees catching snow in pine needle fingers in the harsh winters. The hot summers she would spend in her grandmother’s village, and during the school year she studied music after classes. Growing up in a remote town, Bulgakova didn’t have access to the usual teenage paraphernalia: merch from her favorite music groups to adorn her bedroom walls, collections of sentimental trinkets or the latest trends in clothes. But these limitations spurred on her creative streak. “I had to turn on my wits and make these things with my own hands,” she says. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the hours she spent making her own teenage treasures were the origins of the art she makes now—bringing the things she imagines into the world. But she never thought that one day she’d be an artist.

At 18 years old, Bulgakova left her hometown to pursue a medical degree, graduating in parasitology, the study of parasites. But as she says, nature took its course, and at 23, “I realized how much I was drawn to art, that I couldn’t live without it,” she says. “I have dramatically changed my life, connecting it only with creativity.” Based in Kaliningrad, Bulgakova describes her vocation as “art photographer” but that doesn’t quite encompass all the multimedia elements in her most recent work. Traditional photography had begun to feel flat and she wanted something more. Her “mini stories” incorporate self-portraiture, costume design, props, handcrafts, stop motion and animation. “I like that I control everything in my work, every detail and color,” she says, “To create a whole story out of nothing is like bringing a painted picture to life.” 

In her work inspired by memories, Bulgakova appears holding a painted wooden cabinet of curiosities. Through imperfect motion captured in static frames stringed together, she opens the doors to reveal many smaller doors inside that open and shut spontaneously on home videos from her life. Animated white birds fly out of the cabinet, released from its painted forest scene interior. In her artwork about freedom, she unlocks a decorative heart-shaped rosette on her chest with a vintage key. It opens onto a hand-stitched word in Russian that translates to “it’s possible” as butterflies flutter free and flowers blossom.

A photo of a woman sitting at a table and carrying a blue cupboard. The frame around her is covered with floral patterns.
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All of Bulgakova’s ideas start with an image in her mind which she describes as a “visual flash.” “But these images are superimposed on feelings or events that have been spinning in my head for some time that I’d like to speak out about,” she explains. “When I feel the idea maturing, I immediately write down the thoughts and images that come up so that I can work it out in more detail later. If everything that came up resonates with me, then I rejoice like a child and think: ‘God, this is so cool!’” And then she gets to work. 

“The key detail of all my work is the props around which I create a story,” Bulgakova says. “I use various techniques to build them: papier-mâché, embroidery, sewing, designs made of paper, cardboard and wire, and many improvised means.” She teaches herself whatever skills she needs but doesn’t yet know how to do. After planning a detailed storyboard for the animation, she briefs collaborators: a stylist who helps her source the clothes for her vision and a make-up artist. She photographs each frame on a blank backdrop and brings them together, digitally adding the background and animated elements she’s made (flowers, butterflies, birds). It takes about 100-150 frames for a five-second animation, and can take between two weeks and a month to complete a project from scratch.

In between all these layers, the most important element of Bulgakova’s work is the message. “Love, compassion, dreams, happiness and joy are the most powerful feelings that can change the world, and this is exactly what I want to show people,” she says. Looking back, her dark earlier work was the opposite: “I was hurt by what was happening in the world. I was very angry at all the injustice, and it was all broadcast through my work,” she remembers. “But then I realized I didn’t want to live in pain and sadness anymore. Hatred only breeds more hatred, and this is completely the wrong way. I set a clear goal for myself: I will share light with the world.” Bulgakova’s favorite quote is by Armenian film director and screenwriter Sergei Parajanov: “I will avenge the world with love”. “It describes all of my work,” she says. “I want to give people their love for this world back.”