Lessons from Norstein

A few weeks ago, Michael Sporn reproduced a compelling magazine article from 1980, written by Russian animator Yuri Norstein. I must confess, I’ve only seen one of his films, but it was unforgettable! It’s called Hedgehog in the fog. Reading the article got me thinking about the medium of animation; I’m quoting my favorite lines from it, along with the thoughts or questions that they sparked in my mind.

But first, here’s the best online copy of Hedgehog in the fog that I could find, for your enjoyment.

So, what did I learn from Norstein?

Lesson 1: Animation is not literature

An idea can be formulated in words; the means of expression used in the visual arts are not indispensable here. But there may be something more which I may find difficult to put into words and which perhaps is not necessary for me. I have in mind the ideas composed of concrete pictures, of the artistic context in which these pictures exist, of colours, tones, some kind of flora, words, music, all those devices which can create something that cannot he translated into a language of words

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet almost every animated feature today uses dialog as a crutch. Dialog isn’t necessarily bad, but too much dependence on it kills the fun, at least for me. It also disrespects the power of the medium itself.

Lesson 2: Plot isn’t everything

a clearly formulated plot constitutes the deductive side of every film, a side followed attentively by every spectator. But if a film is reduced to the unequivocal content of its story, the content ceases to interest the public when they see it for the second or third time. I think that if a film is interesting, the spectator will always want to see it again, in order to follow not the plot itself but those elements that are connected with reality and have been expressed in a definite artistic language.

This echoes what Hitchcock said about the film medium in his interviews with Truffaut. In adapting Vertigo to the screen, Hitchcock deliberately revealed the “surprise ending” earlier on in the film. He said that he’d rather focus on the visceral tension than the intellectual puzzle, as the latter doesn’t hold up to repeat viewing but the former does. I know exactly how the plot of Rear Window unfolds, but I can’t pull myself away from that film everytime it happens to be on TCM. Hitch and Norstein concur: Go for the audience’s gut, not just their brain.

Lesson 3: Limitations are a good thing

I think that both objective and deliberate, conscious limitations are necessary in animated films.

Limitations can be great, whether external or self-imposed. They can compel us to come up with creative ways of doing things. Some of the most memorable animated shorts (including the one above) are actually stronger because of their limitations in style or scope. Here are just a few examples:

 
 

Lesson 4: Be your own audience

…I think mainly about myself. This may sound cynical. For me, however, this is the most objective evaluation of what I am doing…I think that this approach to creative work allows me to come nearer the absolute which exists in my imagination…I think that films for children can only be made by an artist who understands children. If he can play with three- or five-year olds, it means he can look at the world through their eyes and can make films for them.

It’s hard to know the mind of the crowd, and trying to please the critics is often futile. Be true to yourself, and tell stories that resonate with you first.

There’s more interesting stuff in the full article, so do read the whole piece. These are just a few of my observations and comments that I felt like writing down, to remind myself and share with you all.

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11 responses to “Lessons from Norstein

  1. This is Big Buck the bunny, its an awesome animation. Here’s another one. its by a guy called Pez, its called Western SPaghetti, i love all his animations.

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