An evening with animator Yury Norshteyn

John Harrison

The name Yury Norshteyn usually brings about a second or two of silence amongst people born in the Soviet Union, of anybody who has studied Soviet and Russian animation, as people try to find words to describe the emotions they feel when remembering his films. Over two generations of people have grown up in Russia or the other country that existed here – the Soviet Union – who are familiar with his immensely rich hand drawn cartoons: ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’ and ‘Tale of Tales’ to name but two of Yury’s masterpieces. Because they are painstakingly hand drawn, like all Soviet cartoons were at one stage, and Yury is a painter at heart, each of his films represents a fantastically rich tapestry of Russian folklore, surrealism, and pure and utter celebration of the cascading myriads of tiny and subtle contrasts and changes that make up life. We are lucky, because Yury is still with us.

The space at ‘Stakan’ in late November was overfull, with people perching on the stairs and on the edge of the balcony. Stakan’s administrator apologised for the fact that not everybody who wanted to come could get in – “600 people registered to come, so we had to limit attendance as this venue can only take 100.” The whole evening lasted for over 3 hours, so I have only transcribed a very few highlights of Yury’s fascinating speech and the very interesting Q&A session which followed. I have included a few bootleg excerpts from the many clips that Yury showed during the evening to illustrate his talk. Apologies for the quality of these clips. Some were shown without sound.

Yury started off explaining why he had brought with him ‘piles’ of books about his various films. “I don’t take money from the Ministry of Culture, so doing this [selling books] is essential, this allows our studio to continue its existence.”

We were then treated to a clip from Yury’s film ‘Shinel’ (the film ‘The Overcoat’ after Gogol’s short story of the same name which he has been working on intermittently since 1981). “In this film, through a massive number of pictures, I wanted to express what, to me, the world is made of.”

Short excerpts from the unfinished film ‘Shinel:’

Yury commented on ‘Shinel:’ “I have tried to analyse all the scenes that we have shot for this film. I have come to the conclusion, if we are talking about animation, that nothing good comes of endless analysing. You might come to the false conclusion that you are on the right road, you get into a frame of mind where you understand the film but at that moment you don’t feel it, and feeling it is the most important thing. What you felt yesterday that was yesterday, and what you feel today – that’s something new. One scene in ‘Shinel’ can take 2 or 3 weeks to animate, for a maximum of one and a half minutes. Working ‘in the dark’ that is, without being able to see the end result until the film is developed, even though there are ‘control’ methods now which enable you to see what you have just done, is best. You have a more difficult task, but the end result is better. It disciplines your memory. You have to hold in your mind the overall scene for the space of three or four weeks. For me, this process is incredibly beautiful. The computer is more convenient; you can correct your mistakes. But with the old method, you create a space where things can happen which can surprise you. After a week or two you get used to the images which you have created, and stop seeing them in the emotional way that you created them, so this working-by-hand method is very hard but for me – there is no other way …”

“I look at how some of colleagues animate using a computer. I watch how they correct this and correct that. A landscape, for example, on a computer is unreal, because it is too level. In real life, landscapes are not level. Somebody said that computers don’t make mistakes, and then I realised how divine mistakes actually are. There have to be mistakes. The hands of an artist may shake and at that moment some paint is thrown off the brush, it can’t be any other way.

“’Shinel’ has not been very easy; it’s not a simple project. The film has opened up many things for me, and not just in the area of animation. When you look at a film as being the reason for your life, it is ridiculous, but when you look at it as being part of the whole, then that makes sense. The film then has a different meaning and the most important thing, is that you as well begin to feel differently about the film.”

There was a question about the animated film ‘Loving Vincent’ (about the life of Van Gogh).

Yury said that he hasn’t seen it, as he said he has hardly seen any films this season, so he couldn’t comment on it. Yury did have a lot to say about Van Gogh though. “What is so interesting about him is the way that he thought. He is one of the only artists who somehow managed to get outside of himself and portray himself as somebody who is reacting to the times that he is living in. The question arises – when did he start to be Van Gogh the artist? He started to become the person we know as Van Gogh when he started to be himself. In this way, he was similar to the artists of the Renaissance, when they turned to the bible, they portrayed the great truths and described things that only the great artists can describe. They described fragments of the incalculably enormous, whole experience. Van Gogh, in this sense was portraying a fragment of the whole of existence. Take the sunflowers, he invested a huge amount of energy into portraying something as simple as a sunflower, but yet through that, we have a glimpse of the whole. He lived a short life, but nevertheless, managed to produce over 2000 works.

“It seems that today, there is a thing called overkill. People experience a sense of over confidence and satisfaction in themselves, and this is reflected in aesthetics, in relationships, in the Ministry of Culture…”

Yury then showed excerpts to a film made in Japan:

One of the many aspects about Japan, Yury said, was that: “you come across parts of Japanese culture which only change very slowly, if at all. And this is reflected in the weather. The snow always falls in the winter, in the autumn the leaves always fall, stones remain, with the same colours that they always wore, and this goes for the small stones and for very large rocks. Through the joining together of space and contrasts you hear the noise of time. In the small spaces you see birds and fish. In the open spaces you see the sky, some things never change, and this is when you begin to understand that country… Europe is pragmatic, but Japan, like Japanese philosophy is difficult to pin down, to contain and determine. Europe follows the laws of perspective whilst Japan follows the laws of reverse perspective, where space expands in the distance, and there is something in common here with Russian icon paintings.”

Yury spoke about the contents of his films and talked about the way that memories and impressions from the past, from childhood, and not only from childhood, often resurface in his films. “The joining of time and existence is what is all about.” He spoke at length about his love affair with painting, and also at his great disappointment at being turned down from entering Stroganovsky institute. “We all learned a lot from that,” he said ironically. Yury also spoke about the ‘essence’ of human life, and liked this to the existence of contrasts. In reference to his films for children, Yury explained how important it is for children to get involved with folklore, to get involved with perhaps the dangers and adventures of the heroes in these stories, as only through this kind of emotional experience can people be prepared for adulthood, which is full of traumatic situations.

Yury introduced some advertisements he worked on 2014. The films were never shown as the company which commissioned the films ceased to exist.

A promotional clip for ‘Goodnight Children’ made in 2000 for Channel 1.

In reply to a question about today’s world, Yury criticised the absence of a professional relationship that many people have to what they are doing. “The Critics don’t read, don’t understand painting, do not listen to music. You have to do what you are able to do, what you are good at doing, what you know how to do. But then once in a while, you meet somebody who shocks you because they really do know what they are doing.”

About religion, Yury said that he was not a religious person, “although if you are a creative person, you are already a religious person.” In reply to a question about post modernism, Yury said: “Doesn’t it seem to you that eventually there will be no more emotions left because everything will be shown to be the same. And when that happens, that will be the end of everything. That will be when we look around us and we cease to see contrasts and individuality. But in actual fact, twin dogs for example are individual, but you can only see that if you look very closely. A flock of birds flying together, they all seem to be the same, but when you look closely, you find that each one of them behaves differently. One flies slightly more aggressively than the other, one makes little signals to another and so on… Even leaves which fall from a tree. Every leaf falls in a unique way.”