An Evening with Yuri Norstein
I used to aspire to be a stop motion animator. In film school, the wacky idea I had for my senior film was originally written to be done in live action. After weighing the costs and logistics involved as well as my own lack of experience as a film director, I decided it would actually be more cost effective and artistically appropriate to do the project in stop motion animation. The film was called Seed and while it cost only a little over 5,000 to make (most of that spent on the purchase of a used DVX100), it consumed 2 years of my life and most of my sanity. After this experience, I decided that while I love stop motion animation as a unique and expressive artistic medium, my temperament is simply not suited for it. So instead of looking for a job at an animation studio after graduation, I became a news cameraman for VH1. 6 years later, I realize more than ever that the best stop motion art is the product of a very unique skill set - unworldly patience, skill and craftsmanship of an almost microscopic level, and single pointed artistic ambition. There are very few artists who have this unique combination of gifts.
Russian animator, Yuri Norstein, is one of those rare individuals. Though not specifically a stop motion "puppet animator", his cut-out style of animation employs many of the same techniques and is essentially an identical process. His 1979 short film, Tale of Tales, had a profound effect on me as a film student and inspired me to use animation to express what I felt at the time was a pretty big vision on a tiny scale. To me, Tale of Tales seems to be made up of the very fabric of dreams and memory itself. It's an absolutely incredible artistic accomplishment and anyone who is interested in storytelling should watch it. In my opinion it's a perfect example of what another Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, deemed "Poetic Reasoning", whereas a narrative forms slowly over a sequence of seemingly fragmented and disconnected images.
A few nights ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Mr. Norstein speak and present his work at the SVA Theatre in NY. The lecture was in Russian and most of it was unfortunately lost in translation as his humor and intellect are probably nearly impossible to translate into English on the fly. He's an incredibly passionate artist whose mastery over the medium is unchallenged by anyone in the world. As he put it, "he creates as if he were an author like Gogol, the characters are all him. Everything is auto-biographical." Every single frame of his animation is an independent work of art and every character is someone that he has painfully forced from his own psyche.
As fascinating as it was to hear speak him about his technique and watch The Heron and The Crane and Hedgehog in the Fog in his presence, the real highlight of the evening was the screening of 10 minutes of footage from his film adaptation of Gogol's The Overcoat. Work on this film began in 1981 and though he wouldn't say where he is with it or when it will be completed, by most accounts it seems that half of the 60 minute film has been completed.
What was screened from The Overcoat was silent, unedited, untouched, telecine from the B+W stock (details unknown). It was one of the most staggeringly beautiful things I've ever seen and to sit for 10 minutes in a theatre full of strangers in complete and total silence while watching these images was quasi-religious. Sounds crazy but it's that good. If this film for some unfortunate reason doesn't get finished or is never made available to the public, it will be a real tragedy.
So what's sad is that if you weren't there, you didn't get to see it and there's nothing available online that I can share with you. Be forewarned, if you search The Overcoat on YouTube there are a number of impostor animations out there. There is one 20" clip from the real film that is so degraded and unworthy that I don't recommend watching it. What I can share with you though is this beautiful print of a frame from Tale of Tales I purchased there. (tiny, lo-res so no copyright issues. Sadly, I got the impression he doesn't own the US rights to any of his films anyways.)
And though I'm loathe to embed such beloved material from crappy YouTube video, Here is Tale of Tales in 4 parts.
This is pretty great too - it's a taping of Yuri Norstein speaking at the University of Chicago and demonstrating the techniques used in The Overcoat.
These won't embed so you're just going to have to follow the links.
While I'm collecting links, here's part of a Russian documentary featuring Norstein:
Wow. There's quite a lot of content out there on Norstein! More than I would have thought.