Multiplane Master: Yuri Norstein
Stop motion, as a technique, holds records of its roots deep within the rich history of both animation and filmography, and reaches almost all the way back into the final years of the 19th century. Specifically some time around 1898 the earliest account of stop motion is noted to be accomplished by two men, Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton in the film The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898) made for their studio Vitagraph Company of America.
From that point after the turn of the century a variety of different artists, animators, and studios begin to use a similar process as Blackton. To the good fortune of these new stop motion animations almost all of them did exceptionally well with audiences across various different countries and cultures. And during some time in 1912 stop motion animation takes another step in techniques with Modeling Extraordinary (1912) taking the spot of being the earliest introduction to clay animation. This introduction of clay opens up the possibilities of more free-form stop motion animation.
About a decade later, stop motion animator, Lotte Reiniger, known now by most for her stop motion film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), creates a camera rig that would later blossom into the multiplane camera at the hands of, Disney animator, Ub Iwerks around 1933. The multi plane allowed for a more realistic sense of three dimensional space in a two dimensional setting, but was difficult to have for continued and reliable use in a studio setting as it was not cost effective or time effective. However, it is because of these successive events and advancements that allow for one Russian man to rise to a high level of fame and become known as one of the most prolific and legendary stop motion animators of all know history, Yuri Norstein (1).
Norstein is a Russian born, Jewish man given life during his parent’s World War II evacuation in the village of Andreyevka, Penza Oblast. In his youth he grew up in a suburb of Moscow where he attended an art school for a number of years. After his time at the art school Norstein finds work at a factory and then takes up a two year animation course that leads to his next job at a Russian animation studio, Soyzmultfilm. During his time there at the studio Norstein works as an assistant animator on upwards of about fifty animated films, but is finally able to take charge of direction and animation on his own film 25th October, the First Day (1968); which used art from 1920s soviet artists (2). From here Norstein’s involvement in larger scale films only increases.
But it was sometime during the 1970s that he is able to focus on the progression of his own style; which becomes ever more sophisticated and detail oriented over time. His figures and scenes begin to look less like flat cut outs and more like smooth, high quality paintings or sketches. This increase in quality is found to be most prevalent in Norstein’s films The Heron and the Crane (1974), Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), and Tale of Tales (1979).
There is an almost eerily too smooth sense of overlap with objects and environments with his work. There are many moments where as a viewer you might feel as if you aren’t watching a stop motion animation but actually a standard technique, high quality, two dimensional cell-based animation.
This is immediately prevalent and taken advantage of by Norstein in his film The Heron and the Crane. The film itself is based on an old Russian folk tale about a male crane and a female heron that, despite having clear romantic feelings for each other, keep rejecting the other’s proposal of marriage out of self-importance and pride, and continue to until the end of their days. However, there is more of a lingering feeling that there is a sort of importance placed on to the technique and the technical skills used to make the piece instead of just being the tools used to tell the story.
Constantly throughout the film there is a nice handful of both long and short panning shots of the entire scene between the homes of the crane and heron. These give a perfect sense of the scale of not just the overall scene of the story but also seems to be showing off the fact that with the technology of the multiplane camera rig Norstein and his team can create dramatic pans that can be both long and short in length. With that display of their multiplane rig Norstein goes even further with what it can already do and brings to a level of smoothness of transition and overlap not seen before in stop motion films.
Used almost in conjunction with the use of the dramatic camera movements between the homes of the two characters is a field of tall grass that is used to not just show the distance between them and the tone of the setting but to add a layer of literal depth to the world of the characters. Norstein makes use of the tall blades of the grass to not just set a background behind the characters but to also set a foreground and middle ground that interacts in real-time with the characters. When the crane or the heron crosses this field there is clear resistance against their forms by the grass. And it’s not just that. Norstein makes use of this grass in transitions and to obscure parts of characters. But it is not just the grass that works in a similar way in terms of overlap.
There is a scene near the beginning of the film when the crane needs to pass by two columns in heron’s home; one in the background and one in the foreground. Without the loss of the sense of depth or the realism of the world of the film the crane begins to pass between the two of them but stops and places his wing on the front side of the column in the foreground. Something similarly clear happens near the end of the film when the two characters are dancing near an iron furnace. Again without any loss of clarity and believability they pass by the front of the furnace and then around the back side of it. If it had not been for the specific camera rig they were using there would have been a very clear and obvious overlap of resources in both scenes.
There are scenes that show similar examples of the sublime use of the multiplane camera rig used by Norstein all throughout the entirety of both Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales, and really all of his other films. In Hedgehog in the Fog a great example of this uninterrupted smoothness is a scene about half-way into the film where the hedgehog character realizes that he has lost his package and begins frantically looking for it around a large tree that has a whole through it. The hedgehog passes around the tree’s trunk and through its hole with that same extreme sense of believability and uninterrupted smoothness.
Similarly in Tale of Tales there is almost immediately a show of this un-interruption of depth as a girl skips rope with help from a tree and an anthropomorphic ox. The rope is only but a thin line but never once breaks the illusion or reality and depth as it passes in front of and behind the girl. Although this example is to a seemingly less impressive degree as the others it still holds true to Norstein’s design principle and sense of perfection in his and all animation (3).
This semblance of upmost care and quality in his films has become Norstein’s hallmark. And he has been given the title of the “golden snail” due to the fact that while he holds perfection for his films to the highest it also causes the speed at which he can produce full length animations to diminish to a snail’s pace. Even now, at age 65, he works on the film The Overcoat, a film that started production in the 1980s and has but only roughly 25 minutes out of an expected 65 minutes to show of it. But regardless of any faults that one may try to find against Yuri Norstein there is absolutely no denying his devotion and essential mastery of his craft as his work will always speak for itself in this regard.
(1). Finn, Peter (31 May 2005). “20 Years of Toil, 20 Minutes of Unique Film”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
(2). Maya Balakirsky Katz, Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation (Rutgers University Press, 2016), chapter 8
(3)*. Shenderovich, Viktor. “В студии Юрий Норштейн.” Радио Свобода. N.p., 4 July 2004. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
*The majority of information uses source (3), but instead of putting (3)’s everywhere I just set one at the end of where I stopped using any sort of information from it