From Yuri Norstein’s The Overcoat
Seeing as my work right now is focussed on preparing animated Mari Lwyd sequences for the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra commission of The Mare’s Tale (music by Mark Bowden and words by Damian Walford Davies), over the forthcoming weeks I thought I’d post an occasional series in which I’d share with you some of my favourite animators and animated films.
I once attended an Animation Festival presentation at the Saint Davids’s Hall in Cardiff, during which the great Russian animator Yuri Norstein held an audience rapt while he built a character. Emptying the contents of a small envelope drawn from his jacket pocket onto the glass-plate of an epidiascope, countless tiny slivers of delicately inked acetate scattered across it like a shoal of fish. On the screen above we saw the animator’s hands working steadily. Slowly a head and shoulders of an elderly man coalesced as Norstein layered the acetate. Because the fragments were transparent, and because only black ink had been used, the layers created a silvery, etched quality. The image softly shimmered. Then to our astonishment, by the most tiny of adjustments made in lightning darts of his fingers, the features began to shift and move. And not move crudely, as with so much animation, but with the greatest subtlety. Shifting a single sliver of acetate would tighten the little actor’s jaw-line in concentration. Adjusting another would slide his eyes sideways, or a shuffle elsewhere would see weariness weigh down the set of his shoulders. The figure was the main protagonist of Norstein’s film-in the making, an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat. Afterwards in the foyer the great man sold prints of stills from some of his films to help raise funds to complete his masterwork. He began it in 1981, and it’s not finished yet.
Click on the link to see Norstein at work and some tantalising fragments from the film. Marvel at the genius of it. Everything that you see is generated from the layering and moving by hand of inked fragments. Watch the tiny hands of the character, and the articulation of the fingers. Note the way when he lifts a shawl to wrap around himself, it faintly shadows his bald pate. Norstein is not so much an animator as an alchemist, conjuring an illusion of life that enthrals us with its insights and humanity. Certainly he is one of the great artists.
The world has given itself over completely to computer-generated animation, and there is much out there that is admirable… wonderful even. But there is nothing, nothing like this.
(The film is in Russian with no translation, but it doesn’t matter because it’s eloquent even without subtitles.)
UPDATE: Sean Flenders has very kindly attached a link to his comment below, that shows Norstein at the University of Chicago creating the self-same magic that I saw in Cardiff. Absolutely wonderful. Thank you Sean.