Yuri Norstein

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.

14 thoughts on “Yuri Norstein

  1. Pingback: Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Pingback: norman mclaren and ‘la poulette grise’ | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Watching Norstein work in that video was mesmerising. A rare talent. Thanks to Rima I’ve watched The Hedgehog in the Fog again and hope others pick it up and enjoy it. Since you recommended it to me I’ve told quite a few friends to watch it. Will Norman McClaren make an appearance in a post too? I’m still watching his films on the Canadian Film Board site and really enjoy them. I’m sure you will have other new names to share at the approrpiate time.I shall look forward to that.

  4. Clive, Yuri Norstein lectured at the University of Chicago several years ago. If you search his name and the University on youtube you will find the lecture in segments (translated to English). The process you are describing above is demonstrated well at this point in the lecture in particular:

    The sense of chiaroscuro and articulation of movement are uniquely felt in his work. In most stop animation, “film” would be a limitation. In Norstein’s work it appears as if the medium itself is like an actor. He uses the unique aspects of film to heighten the story and his characters and create a visual madeleine. Indeed he commands animation in the same way Seurat commands drawing.

    • Sean, I agree with everything you’ve written above. So often the mechanics of animation either become a barrier between intention and realisation, or so slick that wonder… and mystery… evaporates. But for Norstein, his technique is so uniquely his own, and so complex, layered and brimming with artistry, that tiny moments and subtleties mirror his thoughts and the thoughts of his puppet actors, and the results are revelatory. He is a miniaturist, making evident the dreams, fears and everyday human experiences in the trembling surfaces of his works. It’s like watching a sleeping baby breathing.

      Thank you for the wonderful film clip. This is what I saw in Cardiff, and I was mesmerised. Lightning in a bottle!

  5. Thank you for introducing me to this Clive… magical stuff… and for the links and comments here from Artloggers. I’m mesmerised by this work.

    • The Petrov glass painting makes my head reel, inasmuch that the artist is destroying each frame in order to progress to the next. That’s against the grain on every level for me, because there’s no going back to adjust any errors.

      But for sheer, ravishing beauty, it’s the Norstein that affects me most. What he creates shakes me to my core. And it works on every level. Its beauty, story-telling, atmosphere and animation qualities are without equal, save perhaps in one other animation from Canada that I’ll write about in another post.

  6. Oh Clive – you always pick the very best! Norstein seems to have popped up on my radar again lately. I adore his work. So envious that you got to see him work!

    I wonder if you know of Alexander Petrov, who animates by painting on glass. The Russians really are the masters at this. I’ve collected some of my favourite Russian animations here, if you’ve got an afternoon to while away…:

    as well as a few animation behind the scenes films too, here:

    and, I may as well link to the rest of my filmic hoardings whilst I’m at it! :


    xx Rima

    • Rima, I was going to link to Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog in another post, but now you’ve saved me the trouble. Thank you. You’ve saved me too with the Petrov, whose technique of animating by painting on glass I’d intended to draw attention to. We are so much in accord on these matters that I should probably be thinking about turning the Artlog over to you for a guest blog one day! ???

      Your own animation work is beautiful, and I’ve long admired it. My skills as an animator are really very primitive, but given what I have it in mind to conjure for this project, I think I’ll just about scrape by. However, I might wish you were here to help when it comes to the days of reckoning in April (two days of photography pencilled in) and a first tilt at getting the Mari Lwyd moving.

      • Ha! Bless you 🙂 I’d be happy to collaborate in any way, Clive!
        The playlist links seem to have turned into videos… there are actually many wonderful films in each list. Best to click on the last link and find the playlists from there.

        I have just acquired a new studio space so really hoping animation might be on the cards at some point soonish! I’m really only a beginner at it… I advise endless patience and no sneezing!

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