Animation &Art Art &Norshtein 17 Feb 2010 09:20 am

Norshtein & The Overcoat

- I was pretty proud of the New York animation community. There was a full turnout for the Yurij Norshtein show on Monday night. All of the key people one hoped would show up, did show up. I was surprised at the many familiar faces in attendance: Amid Amidi, Richard O’Connor, John Dilworth, John Canemaker, Emily Hubley, the Rauch brothers, the Kraus brothers, Biljana Labovic, Jeremiah Dickey, Howard Beckerman, Matt Clinton, David Levy . . . the list goes on.
Norshtein and Reeves Lehman, dean of animation at SVA
And it was appropriate for him to
have a good turnout. Norshtein is the height of “Art” in animation, and he’s a beacon for us all. If ever one gave everything to the creation and forward movement of the artform, this guy is it. He’s been working on his film adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat for the past 25 years or so. He screened roughly 13 minutes of the film broken into two parts. Both were screened in silent B&W.

The first part was the opening 10 mins of the film. Throngs of shoppers and passersby in the snow on a crowded Moscow street. All I could think of was the enormous number of cutout parts for all these people, just to assemble one image of the film. Yet they were animated and the sequence was long. One guy did all the construction of those characters, all the animation, all the movement. How in hell did he keep each of those many people and parts of people in his head so that he knew how they moved? No computer assistance to help, only his brain. And to top it off the camera, with all those planes, is moving as well. It’s an extraordinary feat.

Then the lead character enters and we see what he sees – not the crowds but the writing in his head. He’s a lowly scrivener, a copyist; someone who spends his day copying documents. Obviously, he can’t remove the work and the words from his mind, though the world he walks in is filled with distraction.

From these street scenes he goes home to an extended sequence of warming himself up and eating a small bowl of soup. The character motion and development is all open to us in this incredible scene wherein we enter the tiny physical, introverted world of this man.

The final three minutes show him realizing how worn his overcoat has become. Threadbare doesn’t begin to describe it as his fingers easily poke through the fabric again, and again. When he puts the coat over his head, fibers end up in his mouth.

A long, very long display of character. All B&W and silent. It’s going to be another masterpiece from this brilliant artist. All done by hand by him on a complex and large camera set up. One person controlling all the pieces.

The Heron and the Crane and Hedgehog in the Fog were screened from the Jove dvd. Most of the evening was Norshtein answering questions. (There was a bit of an onstage struggle between two interpreters, during the opening segments, with the stronger interpreter doing duty for most of the event.) He took the dumbest of questions and turned them into answers we always wanted to hear. A question from a young girl about what his favorite animated films turned into a list of expected films that I was not surprised to hear: Night on Bald Mountain Disney, Crac Back, There Once Was a Dog Nazarov, and he admitted that it’s a list that’s constantly changing. He also spoke of recently watching a print of Bambi frame-by-frame on an editing machine. He said it was a film that has enormous beauty in every frame, in it’s backgrounds and layout, as well as in its whole as a film.

During his answering questions he spoke articulately to us about everything from animation to great painters to great authors. I have to say that I can’t remember any other ASIFA meeting where the “young” Michelangelo or Velazquez were discussed, nevermind Chekhov and Proust. In the past week, I’ve attended a number of Oscar parties – one for James Cameron, one for Quentin Tarantino, one for Sandra Bullock. If there’s a celebrity in New York, I’ve had a chance to meet them. I’d trade them all for that evening with Norshtein at that little SVA theater.

After the screening, they were selling photo prints in the lobby, signed by Norshtein. I bought two hoping in some small way to support him on this trip. They also serve as souvenir reminders to me that I have to be more of an artist in my own work.

Two preproduction images for The Overcoat

(As always, click any image you’d like to enlarge.)

You can read more details by Dayna Gonzalez about the event at the ASIFAEast newsletter.

And Richard O’Connor offers a collection of notes and quotes from the evening to his blog for Asterisk Animation.

7 Responses to “Norshtein & The Overcoat”

  1. on 17 Feb 2010 at 9:58 am 1.Stephen Macquignon said …

    I wish I could have been there.
    And for a moment I thought I could get out of work earlier to see him but that changed quickly to my disappointment
    Thank you for sharing your experience of the show the print are beautiful

  2. on 17 Feb 2010 at 10:37 am 2.Emmett Goodman said …

    I’m so envious! The minute I got to the theater, they announced the show was sold out! It sounds like it would have been an inspiring evening!
    And several of us missed it.

  3. on 18 Feb 2010 at 3:31 am 3.Robert Jersak said …

    “One guy did all the construction of those characters, all the animation, all the movement.” I’m no expert, but it’s my understanding that his wife paints and constructs the cutouts. I’d hate to lose the importance of her work in his beautiful films.
    Please think of the oddball, misfit international animation fans stuck here in the Midwest when you NY folks get a chance to be within feet of such a master. Michael, I wish I could have been there.

  4. on 18 Feb 2010 at 9:02 am 4.Michael said …

    His wife does paint the characters, under Yuri’s direction, but he constructs the character under the camera. Any small moving parts he constructs before assembling the whole under the camera.

  5. on 21 Feb 2010 at 11:21 pm 5.Niffiwan said …

    Did anyone ask him about what he has been doing recently, or if he has any future plans?

    I know that for a few years, he was working on the book “Snow on the Grass”, which was released in summer 2008… (I am lucky enough to own it – it’s a phenomenal work)

  6. on 22 Feb 2010 at 9:19 am 6.Michael said …

    Niffiwan, Norshtein led us to believe he was working on THE OVERCOAT. We have to assume that’s what he’s doing. He spoke of the difficulty of raising money, of producers that arrived with some funds and quickly disappeared.

    He spoke of “Snow on the Grass” and was surprised that so few people had heard of it. I think I was the one of two. He said he spoke in that book on several of the questions asked in greater length. Not very useful to us in America when the book is impossible to get in Russia.

    It was one of the more elucidating of his visits here, but a lot remains mysterious to us, and I think he likes it that way.

  7. on 22 Feb 2010 at 10:23 pm 7.Niffiwan said …

    Is the book “impossible to get in Russia”? Last I heard, it was possible to come by Norshteyn’s studio in Moscow and get it directly (maybe they’ve run out). It’s also sold in various stores, often at unbelievable prices.

    Outside of Russia, it’s a different story… My own way of getting it to Canada was pretty Byzantine, but sometimes Byzantine methods are the ones that work best…

    I had been planning to write a review of it after reading it, but frankly I think that I’d need to study it for years before I’d feel qualified. Every page is a class by itself, and there are over 600 of them…

    It would be a shame if it were never translated to English, but I think there are enormous difficulties for translation and publication. The translator would have to be fantastic (due to the difficulty of the original text, it would be all too easy to mangle it, and a translation would likely take years of careful work), and many rights to reprinting artworks from the world’s galleries would need to be re-obtained.

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