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Yuri Norstein: The Greatest (and Most Overlooked) Animator of All Time

Richard Wess September 15, 2021

Today marks the 80th birthday of the greatest animator of all time – Yuri Norstein (Юрий Борисович Норштейн). While Norstein is little known outside the former Soviet Union, today will be celebrated as a special day worldwide among Russians and high art lovers who cherish his special works.

Most people are introduced to Norstein’s distinct animation style through his magical short film, Hedgehog in the Fog. However, there is lots more that this genius artist achieved in his long career. And so, please enjoy an overview of Norstein’s interesting life and spellbinding films (which you can also watch below).

Early Life

Yuri Borisovich Norstein was born September 15, 1941 – just a few short months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Soon after his birth, his mother, older brother, and he were evacuated from their village outside Moscow. His father, meanwhile, was a soldier serving at the front. Fortunately for Norstein, his immediate family would survive WWII. However, his early wartime experience would go on to become formative pre-memories of his – and he shared this in his film, Tale of Tales, with a haunting, unforgettable beauty.

After the war, Nostein’s family moved into a communal apartment in Moscow. Times were tough for most Soviet people at this time, as the country rebuilt itself from the ravages of war. Norstein would later note that during this time his family’s conditions were not so bad and that perhaps some of his father’s pursuits rubbed off on him.

«По тем временам, неплохие условия. Папа был наладчиком деревообрабатывающих станков, умел все делать сам, обладал абсолютным музыкальным слухом. Вагнера свистел наизусть, хотя все его образование — незаконченный хедер.»

“For those times, conditions were not so bad. My dad was an adjuster of woodworking machines, knew how to do everything himself, had an absolute ear for music. He whistled Wagner by heart, although his education was entirely unfinished.”

After school, Norstein spent some time working as a carpenter in a furniture factory. No doubt this experience shaped his highly manual, delicate animation style of the future. He would go on to enter a two-year course at the principal Soviet animation studio, Soyuzmultfilm, in 1959.

From 1961 on, Norstein had an impressive and growing career at Soyuzmultfilm. He participated in a number of the most celebrated works from the period, including Roman Kachanov’s Mitten and Cheburashka.

However, despite working with great animators of the period, Norstein was restless. He was not attracted to the traditional drawn cartoons that dominated the screens of this day. Rather, he dreamed of becoming a painter and would repeatedly (unsuccessfully) apply to Moscow art schools.

«Жажда уйти со студии была равна моей нелюбви к мультипликации, потому что мечтал заниматься живописью.»

“The desire to leave the studio was equal to my dislike of animation, because I dreamed of painting.”

1965 was a turning point year in Norstein’s career. After repeatedly failing to be accepted by a Moscow art school, he changed his career direction. Inspired from reading Sergei Eisenstein’s Selected Works: Towards a Theory of Montage, Norstein decided he was going to become an animated film director. Another key event took place this year – Norstein met his future wife and artistic collaborator, Francheska Yarbusova.

The 25th, the First Day (1968)

Norstein’s directorial debut took place in 1968 with the release of the film, The 25th, the First Day. Dedicated to the October Revolution, this animation was created based on the works of artists of the Russian avant-garde, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Marc Chagall, Pavel Filonov, and Lissitzky (links include some stunning examples of their art). A line from the poem, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, by Vladimir Mayakovsky was the word-for-word inspiration for the name of the film. Meanwhile, music from Dmitry Shostakovich formed the background of the work. This directorial debut included truly an all-star cast of artists, directly and indirectly.

In The 25th, the First Day, Norstein created a montage of a demonstration on Red Square in 1919, an image of an angel from a painting by Marc Chagall, and a cut out figure of Lenin. The visuals fit together so seamlessly that the then editor-in-chief of Soyuzmultfilm believed Norstein had gotten hold of some previously unknown archival footage of Lenin. Sadly, this interesting part of the film is no longer visible, as censors removed both the Chagall and Lenin elements from the animation.

As a director, this was Norstein’s first run-in with Soviet censors. Though he would speak unflatteringly about artistic censorship in the USSR, Norstein would later in life go on to retrospectively praise the serious funding that Soviet authorities bestowed on the animation arts.

The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971)

Next up for Norstein was the historical cartoon, The Battle of Kerzhenets. This playful work, co-authored by Norstein and Ivan Petrovich Ivanov-Vano, describes the legend of the city of Kitezh, which disappeared into the waters of Lake Svetloyar during the Mongol-Tatar invasion.

The techniques which Norstein used in The Battle of Kerzhenets, namely in the making of the flat puppets, invoke ancient traditions of Russian fine art, like icons, frescoes, and miniature paintings. Meanwhile, just like in The 25th, the First Day, the music in The Battle of Kerzhenets comes from an amazing composer – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Battle of Kerzhenets would go on to win Norstein great critical acclaim across the festival circuit, all the way from the Soviet Union to New York. Following this success, Norstein became the director of the Soyuzmultfilm studio – the highest position an animator could achieve in the USSR.

The Fox And The Hare (1973) & The Heron and the Crane (1974)

The Fox And The Hare and The Heron and the Crane are a pair of cartoons that reflect the growth of a friendly and creative alliance between artist and director, Norstein, cameraman, Alexander Zhukovsky, and composer, Mikhail Meerovich. Based on a retelling by Vladimir Dal of two Russian folk tales, these two animations are stunning to watch. They also provide a fascinating viewing to better understand how Norstein the artist was operating right before the creation of his (so far) magnum opus, Hedgehog in the Fog.

Hedgehog in the Fog (1975)

In 1975, Norstein released Hedgehog in the Fog, the animation that would forever endear him to Russian hearts as well as rocket him to his well deserved reputation as the finest animator of all time.

Perhaps unusually for a short film, Hedgehog in the Fog was released for the public in Soviet cinemas. Amazingly, over the films 14-month run, it almost always booked sold out theatres – people absolutely loved this special animation.

Meanwhile, Hedgehog in the Fog became an instant classic in international animation and fine art circles. Today, Hedgehog in the Fog remains a cult phenomenon, and in 2003 was officially voted the best animated film of all time by the international Laputa Animation Festival in Japan. Second on that list was Norstein’s next big hit – Tale of Tales. Not bad, Mr. Norstein!

Hedgehog in the Fog grips audiences partly for its thought-provoking, though simple story, and partly for its mesmerizing animation style. The film follows a sweet little hedgehog who gets lost in the forest on his way to visiting his friend, the bear. In an existentialist journey that references some of the finest artworks, ranging from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Hedgehog in the Fog leaves you ruminating far after its brief story is over,

As for Hedgehog in the Fog’s incomparable animation style – many animation experts of his day were blown away by and could not understand how Norstein created it. When questioned about his magnificent fog effect by amazed Hollywood animators, Norstein explained he had used an ancient Chinese technique from puppet theatre. He hid celluloid cutouts of the hedgehog under transparent tracing paper topped with a thin layer of dust, and simply adjusted how close the paper layer was to the camera. This small example shows how, while most of the international animation world was pressing forward with new automation techniques, Norstein was staying true to traditional, and sometimes forgotten, artistic methods to bring his utterly unique works to life.

Tale of Tales (1979)

While Norstein was born in 1941, and so does not have well defined memories of the horrors of WWII, this gruesome period in history undoubtedly left a strong imprint on his life. In Tale of Tales, a nonlinear and phantasmagorical film about his childhood memories, one motif stands out before all others – the melancholic tango, Wearied Sun (Утомлённое солнце).

In the years leading up to WWII, the tango, Wearied Sun, achieved widespread popularity across eastern Europe. The song’s lyrics describe two lovers’ final meeting before they must part ways forever. Norstein overlays this brooding track with a series of unfocused, heartbreaking sequences.

The recording’s first appearance in Tale of Tales is nostalgic. It plays over a local town square dance between a group of men and their sweethearts. However, one by one, the men vanish, accompanied by jerky breaks in the music. Then, the men reenter the scene, marching off to war in one, long line of identical soldiers.

What follows is a devastating scene in which letters fly through the air like missiles, telling wives and girlfriends the horrifying news about their men at the front. Sinister, fast-paced music leaves you feeling unsettled and full of despair. However, this film is not just monotone misery – rather it is a sweeping symphony of emotions and explorations of memory and what is means to remember. There is much to interrogate and much to reexplore.

Tale of Tales is internationally recognized as one of the finest animated films ever. It was voted second best animated film (after Hedgehog in the Fog) by the international Laputa Animation Festival in Japan in 2003. On top of that, Tale of Tales was labelled the best animation ever made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1984.

The Overcoat (Still in Progress)

Norstein has been working on The Overcoat since 1980. The animation is an adaptation of the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. It is both frustrating and exciting for Norstein fans that this film has taken so long to make. Frustrating because we all want to see more of his work; exciting because The Overcoat seems set to be Norstein’s finest work yet. Supposedly over 40 minutes of this masterpiece have already been filmed. How much longer do we have to wait for the full production – who knows?

Norstein seems in no hurry to finish up The Overcoat. Rather, it seems like Norstein has developed quite the bond with The Overcoat’s main character, Akaky Akakievich. Norstein’s workshop hosts floor to ceiling lockers and drawers, all full with glued pieces of paper with labels like “Akaky’s mouths” and “Eyes of Akaky Akakievich.” It is almost as if Gogol’s character has moved in with Norstein, and he is in no hurry to evict him.