Apologies in advance to anyone who is not a crazed fan of stop-frame animation. This blog post may get geeky. Yesterday I drove down to Evergreen State College outside of Olympia, Washington with my friend and fellow Seattle animator Stefan Gruber, to attend a screening and lecture by Russian animation legend, Yuri Norstein. Norstein takes hundreds of subtly painted cut-outs, and manipulates them under the camera to depict the changes in his character’s movements, facial expressions, settings. His films have won awards, including ‘Greatest Animated Film of All Time’ in 1984.
It was an evening marred by technical difficulties and sub-par translation, but it was still a very magical evening. Yuri said some very interesting things, and I have tried to recreate them below as best I can, with the most fun quotes in bold for easy spotting. In this post I’ll give a breakdown of the evening, with some information about Yuri for those who might be as familiar, as well as descriptions of the films, and his comments. Enjoy.
We thought we might be late, but arrived about half and hour before the scheduled start time, and there was already a line outside the theatre doors. Outside the college was surrounded by towering evergreen trees and a heavy mist, most apt, we felt, for the creator of The Hedgehog in the Fog, probably Norstein’s most well-known piece. Inside we found some good seats near the Portland and Vancouver, B.C. contingent of animators, all of whom drove farther than us for this event. Altogether there were around six Seattle animators (including Clyde Petersen, Forrest Baum, Amanda Moore, Drew Christie, besides myself and Stefan); two Vancouver, B.C. animators (including Stephen Wichuk), and about five or six Portland animators/filmmakers/performers, including Peter Burr and Christopher Doulgeris of Hooliganship. It was a great confluence of talented people, and we joked that it would take another visit from a world-renown animation master to get us all to come together – who would it be – Jan Svankmejer? Caroline Leaf? The rest of the audience consisted of Evergreen students, faculty, and the odd older couple and young child.
A member of the Film/Video department at Evergreen, Ruth Hayes, came out, followed by Norstein. On the small side, older (Yuri Nostein is 69 years old), with a medium length white beard and white hair, and wearing a long cardigan, Norstein looked very unprepossessing. Ruth explained that they had managed to get Mr. Norstein to work their school into his pre-existing US tour schedule (Norstein is famous for his refusal to work abroad and his reluctance to leave Russia, so this was kind of a big deal). She also introduced the woman who was to be Yuri’s translator for most of the evening, a local faculty member, Elena Sonina.
We started the evening by watching an early piece, The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971), followed by The Heron and The Crane (1974). Let me say here that none of these films were new to me or indeed, probably to most of the audience. I know I, for one, poured over these films when I first discovered them, fast forwarded through most of the other Russian filmmakers featured in the ‘Masters of Russian Animation’ series, and stopped immediately at his work. I watched them again and again, eagerly read Clare Kitson’s Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey, the only English-language book about his work as far as I know, and acquired a copy of the The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein DVD. Still, it was a bit crushing when the DVD froze. Twice. Yuri rose to address the difficulties. Instead of apologizing for the DVD mishaps, he started by explaining that he works solely with film, and it is frustrating to him to see his work at the lower quality of video on DVDs. For this reason he hates DVDs and computers, and can’t stand working with them. Some cheered.
At this point Yuri said some very interesting things, and this is where the quality of the translation started to become a problem. The translator was very poised, but really, her English wasn’t fluent enough to translate his complex, abstract thoughts in an intelligle manner. We sat there straining, trying to decipher what Yuri was trying to say. Sentences were switched around, words were said that were obviously not English words, but English version of Russian words, etc. I know how hard it is to translated languages on command. It’s hard. But this was very frustrating for us, who were hanging on Yuri’s every word.
Some things we gleaned (in bold are the more juicy, direct quotes): in his films “there is mystery behind the plot, and this mystery is important because it means the story is not limited BY the plot – Who needs plot?” The audience has more freedom for their own interpretation. The film has more depth.
Against the grain of modern filmmaking, Yuri is working on a stop-frame animation film in black and white (his work-in-progress The Overcoat). Tone is very important. Before someone starts using colour, they should learn how to use tone in black and white first. Today in filmmaking colour = drama, but we do not have coloured movies, we have ‘multi-coloured’ movies. Today all movies are action, action action. Action is the focus. But one has to stop and think slowly in order to understand reality better, like when you read slowly.
Earlier he had said that when he first started making films, he did not like animation. “But I want to correct what I said. I did not mean I did not like animation, but that I did not like the stereotypical animation, and the mechanical approach to it. I believe that animation is a way to explore reality. My book (the 2008 Snow on the Grass, a compilation of his lectures so far only published in Russian) is not meant to be a manual, but is instead exploring the relationship of animation to reality. It is frustrating, because no one NEEDS animation. It is your own task to discover for ourselves the link between animation and reality.” This last point it was unclear whether he was referring to ‘you’ the animators, or ‘you’ the audience. Either way I felt it very apt.
At this point, having given up attempting to finish The Heron and The Crane, we watched Tale of Tales. If anyone out there has only seen Yuri’s more well-known The Hedgehog in the Fog (conspicuously absent from the night’s line-up, probably because it has been so well-seen), I urge you to watch his 1979, 29 minute-long, Tale of Tales. It is very different from Hedgehog and Heron, both based on Russian folktales and both, though magical (especially Hedgehog – if you’ve seen it, and recall the horse and the owl, you know what I mean), very linear and straightforward. Much more ‘plot’ driven. Tale of Tales is lyrical, poetic, and obviously very personal. Scenes and short storylines appear and reappear, weaving in and out.
There is a little wolf in an empty house, perhaps abandoned. We know that he is the wolf from a lullaby we hear playing. There is a baby suckling at a breast. There is a little boy standing in snow fall looking up at crows in the trees, and his modern, toxic parents. There are couples dancing to an accordion tango whose husbands vanish one by one to go to war. Only some come back. There is a whole location we visit that might be a better, idealized, nostalgic environment, very bright and blow out. Here we find a poet tortured by writer’s block, a lonely bull being bullied by a young girl, and a fisherman and his wife getting on with day to day life.
All these fragments weave together, and though I do not know exactly what Yuri meant by every scene, I sure am mesmerized every time I watch it. To me it means loss, mourning for an older time. The effects of a war that altered people’s lives, the yearning for the simple needs of a suckling child. The wolf is misunderstood – in the lullaby he is wolf to be afraid of – but this wolf is small, abandoned, lonely. He needs to find his way in the world just as we do. “Who needs plot?” Exactly.
After Tale of Tales, Yuri got up to introduce the next two clips we were going to see – excerpts from his film The Overcoat, based on the 1842 novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, that he has been working on for over 20 years. “It is about an old man who’s job is to copy manuscripts, and he enjoys his job very much.” The clip we watched had no sound, and started off with some fast scenes of people bustling along sidewalks. Some of these cut-outs had been animated on a slanted plane to give the impression they were going into the distance. Indeed, we see an old man, he is in the road, waving his hand at the ground, and writing out imaginary letters that appear large underneath him. He comes home and slowly, laboriously takes off his shoes and overcoat. He fiddles. His fingers twitch and twirl. He makes himself comfortable at the table and with glee takes out a large stiff paper – the manuscript he is to copy. He prepares his own paper, his ink, his pen, adjusts everything just so, and finally starts copying. Each letter very slowly and elegantly.
The clip was filled with gorgeous details and magical moments, like the man writing imaginary letters in the street, and the complex facial and hand expressions. But I have to admit, it was quite long. I believe the scene I just described of the man working at his desk was a full 15 minutes. I’m aware that this film is a feature, not a short, but it made me wonder about the rest of it – the balance. How was this long scene going to fit into the rest of it? Which I guess is a good thing. Before the last 3 minute clip from The Overcoat, Yuri got up to address what we had just seen.
Echoing his earlier comments, he said that what we have seen here is a black and white film with no sound (I’m assuming he is planning on having sound eventually, though this was unclear), and was therefore, a ‘Super Film’. He also discussed the project, why he was making an adaptation of a novel, why this novel. Unfortunately, the translation was garbled, and my friends and I spent time afterwards discussing exactly what he meant. Here is my best interpretation from notes and memory, of what he was saying:
“So why make a movie from a book? The Bible is a book that contains all the emotions, problems and passions of humanity. In this way, all art can be traced back to the Bible. When making a work you must think about how it compares to the great works. I can’t help but thinking of Gogol’s novel The Overcoat as an unwritten chapter of the Bible.
You know, when I was coming from the airport to Evergreen College today, one of the students in the car asked me something. She said she had read Clare Kitson’s book, and I had said in an interview that I would not consider living anywhere but Russia. That I need to stretch my elbows in my own land. I want to clarify. Any movie I work on is a part of me. All my life is reflected in my work.
We find our own reflection in art. I remember first seeing Rembrandt’s portraits, specifically St. Paul in Prison – it is a painting of St. Paul on a cot. His left foot is sandalled, but his right foot is bare, resting on top of his sandal. This detail amazed me. This is what happened to me when I was living with my Auntie as a child. She would come home and take off her shoes and there would be imprints of her shoes on her feet, because her feet had become swollen.
These details come back to you when working on a movie. This is why I named the book Snow on the Grass, because I would remember snow falling on grass as a child – so lucid, airy, and as soon as the sun came out it would disappear, as if nature is teaching you how quickly everything changes.
Animation is a very fleeting art. It is there, and then it is gone. I’m looking for this fleeting sensation in everything in film. It is probably the most difficult thing to grasp because comparing literature to film, you’re looking for the visual image that is missing from the text. For example, the character of the old man in the clip we have just seen, he is both an adult and a child. The movie is very concrete. I look for a way to show the physical side, without being aggressive and imposing your own interpretation, allowing you still your own interpretation.”
Yuri explained that in the story of The Overcoat, the old man becomes sick and dies because his overcoat is full of holes. He returns to the city where he lived and died as a ghost, and steals coats from everybody. It was unclear, however, where the clip we saw next fit into the sequence.
The old man is sitting in his room, examining his coat for holes. The folds alone I’m sure will make this movie worth watching. He runs his hands along the coat, his fingers poke out of holes, he finally lies down to sleep and covers himself with the coat. We see some flashes of a street scene, and a figure scurrying along. And right a the end there is a very powerful, almost abstract scene, of a wall with a series of high arches disappearing into the distance. There is light coming through the arches from the right, but the rest of the frame on the left is black. A group of tiny figures hurry through the main arch and throw another figure on the ground, as if expelling him. That last scene was only maybe 5 or 6 seconds long, but it was great to see. It showed that perhaps this film will contain some lyrical/symbolic elements, and not just be a very detailed, realistic reproduction of the book.
(See this 10 minute clip from a Japanese documentary, where Yuri is seen animating. It also includes the same clips from The Overcoat described above)
After the applause, it was time for a few questions. Someone up front asked what it was like to work with iconography in The Battle of Kerzhenets, because surely that era of art was not as popular as social realism at the time it was made. Yuri answered by saying that it was a myth that artists didn’t have freedom in Soviet Russia. If you look at the body of work coming out of Russia at that time, it is has great variety, especially the animation, more so than other countries of the same period.
My friend Stefan shot up his hand and asked if Yuri could talk about his immediate surroundings as he worked – his studio, the people. Yuri said “Good. This question goes right to the essence.” He said that he works primarily with his wife (Art Director Francesca Yarbusova) and until recently, a good friend of his and well-respected Director of Photography Alexander Zhukovsky (he passed away in 1999). “You can’t just turn to someone and ask them to be your director of photography. You have to know them so well that you are one with them. What has happened in the art world in Russia today is very depressing. Today artists in Russia are very competitive. That is capitalism. Capitalism and culture don’t work together very well. It is hard to keep going in this environment.”
Someone on the left asked if his book Snow on the Grass is ever going to be published in English? He said that as far he knew, no, because the book is very expensive to print (although I read somewhere that it’s been submitted to an English publisher). He said also that the publishing of the book is now what is mostly financing The Overcoat.
Our friend and animator Clyde Petersen asked if he storyboards his films in advance or no. I’m glad he asked that, because I wanted to. Lots of times I feel there is a divide between animator/filmmakers who storyboard, and those that don’t. Storyboarding is considered to ruin the spontaneity of the project, it is no longer instinctual. Well, maybe that’s just in my head. As someone who does storyboard, I really wanted to hear Yuri’s answer. “Oh yes, I do an insane amount of storyboarding. Storyboarding makes you find the economy of gestures, the least amount of gestures needed for that situation. I tortured my students with storyboarding for 60 years, but now they see the value of it. I always tell my students it is important to make really tiny storyboards, so you only have room to draw what’s most important. You only draw the essence of what you need to say, and avoid the trivial. I make sure the artist making the cut-outs follows those gestures accurately.” I should say that at this point the translator, stumped by a technical term (storyboarding), called up a girl who had obviously been a ‘reserve translator’, and she was amazing. It was like a breath of fresh air. All of a sudden full juicy sentences were coming out of her mouth and we all understood her. We all wondered why she hadn’t been translating all along.
I got the last question and asked him if he still teaches, and if so where? As soon as he said ‘Neit’ we all laughed. “No, I spent way too much time doing that, though I still go to Japan to teach the Masterclasses.”
And that was it. Ruth got up again to say that Yuri was selling prints of scenes from his films, and the sales would go towards financing The Overcoat. Just then they brought out a table, and within the blink of an eye there was a rush, and a crowd three people deep. The prints were lovely. I managed to snag a small one of the hedgehog, in fog, with the owl peeking at him. I had him sign it. Afterwards when the crowd slimmed I also went up to him and through the translator told him I was an animator who worked with cut-outs, and I would love it if he had a copy of my film (“even though I know you hate DVDs”). He looked as interested as I expected (I bet he gets this a lot), and asked if it was a PAL system DVD. Indeed it was. So who knows. I’m normally shy when it comes to approaching people I admire, but what the hell, the was Yuri Norstein, and it was probably going to be my one and only chance. I’m glad I forced my film on him. Sigh.
Here is a nice article about his recent visit to LA, where he talked more about his film influences.
This is another great clip of Yuri at the University of Chicago, giving a demonstration: