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Films of Yuri Norstein, The

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Director: Yuri Norstein
Writer: various
Producer: various
Composer: various
Principal Cast: various

For more details on these titles, visit the main EOFFTV site: Skazka skazok, Lisa y zayats, Tsaplya i zhuravl, Yozhik v tumane

Outside animation circles, the name Yuri Norstein sadly means very little. But this Russian-born animator has been hailed by animation experts as one of the masters of the form - in 1984, a group of leading animators hailed his 1979 masterpiece Skazka skazok/Tale of Tales as the greatest animated film ever made. Even with all the incredible advances in animation over the past two decades, it would be hard to topple this incredible short from its perch. Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, currently one of the finest explonents of animation anywhere in the world, has hailed Norstein as a "great artist" and has staged a Norstein exhibition at his Studio Ghibli Museum.

But Skazka skazok was just the culmination of a series of extraordinary films that saw Norstein steadily refining his art. Lisa y zayats/The Fox and the Hare (1973), Tsaplya i zhuravl/the Heron and the Crane (1974) and Yozhik v tumane/Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) form a loose sort of trilogy, each involving animals or birds in stunningly animated meditations on very human themes, particularly relationships.

In Lisa y zayats, his third film as director, relationships are fragile, treacherous and never quite settled - a fox, a rabbit and a rooster form a series of alliances with and against each other - while Tsaplya i zhuravl focuses on more intimate relationships, revolving around the attempts by a love-struck crane to propose to and deal with the rejections of the heron he wants to marry.

Tsaplya i zhuravl marked the first of Norstein's run-in with the authorities - studio bosses at Soyuzmultfilm were unhappy with the script he submitted for approval and they assigned veteran director Roman Kachanov as project supervisor to work the script into a more acceptable form. Norstein, commendably and at not inconsiderable risk, decided to just ignore Kachanov's input and shot the film as intended anyway. The studio were furious but the film turned out so well that they were unable to resist the temptation to distribute it and the film played across the USSR to great acclaim.

Both films draw heavily on Russian folklore, Lisa y zayats using traditional folk art based on ancient Russian prialkas as a source of inspiration. They also both employed a device invented by Norstein and his wife and frequent collaborator Francesca Yarbusova and cameraman Alexander Zkokovsky which allowed them to animate paper cut-outs of layers of glass, giving the films a greater depth and perspective than would otherwise have been possible.

But Norstein's masterpiece from this period - and some of us would maintain that it's even better than the much-venerated Skazka skazok, is the breath-taking Yozhik v tumane which charts the unlikely friendship between a hedgehog and a bear cub who spend each night trying to count the stars. But one evening, while on the way to the bear's house, the hedgehog gets lost in the fog trying to save a beautiful white horse. terrified and alone, the hedgehog tries to find his way out of a dark and sinister forest...

While both Lisa y zayats and Tsaplya i zhuravl had something approaching stories, Yozhik v tumane finds Norstein developing the more abstract style that would find its apogee in Skazka skazok. There's little more to the story than the brief outline above, but it's the atmosphere and mood that makes Yozhik v tumane such a profoundly moving film. And it is indeed a very moving experience - in just 11 minutes and with no human characters in sight, Norstein manages to make more weighty observations about innocence, friendship and trust.

Which is astonishing when one considers that Norstein originally intended Yozhik v tumane to be an "easy" film, what writer Sergey Kozlov called "a little fairy tale". But Norstein found more profundity in the story than was originally intended and his insistence on exploring these depths led to real creative problems. This remarkable film was made by just three people, not including his voice cast - Norstein himself, writer Kozlov and composer M. Meyerovich - and the making of Yozhik v tumane was a somewhat traumatic experience for all involved. Production company Soyuzmultfilm insisted that the trio complete the film to the same deadline that imposed on films with much larger crews and Norstein and his colleagues were unable to cope. As the deadline arrived, only a fifth of the film was actually complete. The chiefs of Soyuzmultfilm were so enraged that they sent Norstein to be reprimanded by meeting of the Communist Party. Luckily, a projectionist was suitably bribed with a bottle of vodka and the team were able to screen the work they had already completed and the committee were so impressed they agreed to let them finish the film.

And we should be eternally grateful to them for this moment of clarity and foresight - Yozhik v tumane remains one of the most amazing short films ever made and should be required viewing for anyone with even the remotest interest in animation. Happily, the film is available on DVD as part of the well nigh essential The Yuri Norstein Collection and the equally must-have collection Masters Of Russian Animation Volume 2

Last Updated on Sunday, 20 September 2009 09:06