Animator Yuri Norshteyn:
'I couldn't imagine I'd have to go into business'

The creator of Hedgehog in the Fog, which is ranked the best animated film of all time according to an international poll of film critics, shares his thoughts about notions of horror in his animation, his love for Japan, and "pure creativity."

Alexandra Bazdenkova, RBTH
Legendary Russian animator Yuri Norshteyn is known for his world famous Tale of Tales, and Hedgehog in the Fog. On Sept. 15, he marked his 75th birthday, and since such jubilees are often celebrated over a period of 12 months in Russia, it wasn't easy to get hold of the man.

The artist still operates from his small studio in northern Moscow, where he's been working on the animated version of Gogol's short story, The Overcoat, since 1981. The more than 35 years that he's been making it clearly indicates that Norshteyn belongs to a different era and doesn't want to adapt to modern times where most people believe `time is money.' He just does what he loves and has no intention of stopping.

On weekends, his studio hallway is packed with people: they come to buy his books and have them signed, or just to see the living legend. The studio is filled with thousands of little things - scissors, scraps of paper, children's drawings, hooks and pins, wires, boxes and hundreds of books. "The divinity of cinema is in the detail," Norshteyn is convinced.
RBTH: The studio's website says: "The daily routine is such: the head of the studio, Yuri Norshteyn, slaps his staff upside the head and makes sure that troublemakers are put in the corner facing a wall… When the studio is not engaging in these very useful exercises, everyone drinks to your health. If there is any time left after all this is done, then they make movies, meet with the public, colleagues and friends, organize exhibitions, write books and basically don't let the tree of Russian animation wither and die." Seriously speaking, what is your studio busy with these days?

Yuri Norshteyn: With work. We must make money and not ask the state for it, and this is completely foreign to me. I don't want strangers to give us money. I don't like the concept of the tender, which is ubiquitous in our country today. The same applies to the movie industry, and I don't want to be a part of it. We try to survive as best we can.

To make money, you need to publish and sell something. So we publish books and posters. All this requires further promotion – it's business. If you asked me 30 years ago, I could not imagine that I'd find myself in a situation when I have to do business. That said, our products are of good quality. In that sense, I can proudly say that we have not ruined people's taste.
Hedgehog in the Fog
RBTH: In other words, the notion of "pure creativity" has changed?

Y.N.: Creativity is a road that you build within yourself. Only you can guess where this road will lead. Creativity is a connection between your work and the surrounding environment, which is comprised not only of the audience. For me, for example, looking at a tree is a form of co-creativity with it.

Creativity is what connects you to other people. Perhaps, it's easier to explain not using fine arts or art in general, but, let's say, the work of a turner in manufacturing. He too is a creative person, in the sense that he knows that his work must be connected to the work of someone else. Imagine, he makes a part, another turner makes another part, a third mill operator makes yet another part, and then all these parts don't fit each other. That means there was no creativity there. There must be this "divine connectivity." This is what gives your soul a moment of rapture and tranquility.
In making 'The Overcoat,' which is based on Gogol's story of the same name, Norshteyn uses a special technique of multi-level relining which gives the appearance that the characters are literally alive.
Kuzya the Dog is always hospitable with the studio's guests.
One can buy postcards with Norshteyn's animated characters, as well as books, magnets, posters and other souvenirs in the studio at token prices
RBTH: Does this "pure creativity" exist at all in the world of contemporary animation?

Y.N.: I'm sure it does, at least to the extent that the notion of innate resistance has not yet been abolished. You cannot get talent by bribing. You either have it or you don't. This is an area where corruption is impossible. Of course, corruption exists in art, but the results are immediately visible on the screen. Corruption here consists not necessarily in getting 'crooked' money from someone, but in that you start to act according to crooked ways that you created. Or in that you put yourself in the place of a zealous administrator, but at the same time you continue to do art. And in this sense, you immediately pervert yourself and your creativity ends; that's it!
The entire studio is the director's working space. Creative chaos is everywhere.
RBTH: You give lectures all over the world. Do you meet many gifted young people?

Y.N.: There are many gifted people. If we consider life from the very start, we can say that at the age of three all children are incredibly talented. All of them. Since they feel delight at life, they discover everything for the first time, and every day for them is a new one. That's why they're afraid to go to sleep and when they wake up, they wake up instantly and say: "Good. I'm ready for this day." Then, gradually, people lose this.

I love photos of children embracing each other, aged three or four. This is true brotherhood. That said, all children know how to play make believe. They're not liars; they're dreamers, and that's very good. In that sense, an adult can also be a dreamer. Then, the notion of creativity remains.

I love the story about when poet Alexander Pushkin visited the Vyazemskys (the family of Russian poet, Peter Vyazemsky - RBTH), and they weren't home but he saw their son playing on the carpet. When the Vyazemskys returned, they saw a wonderful scene: Pushkin and their son, crawling on all fours and spitting at each other. Do you see? Only a great man with the soul of a baby could do this. When this remains in a person, it means creativity remains.
"Chairs. Legs. Tables," "Cases and papers of Akaky Akakievich," "Storyboard. Night. Petersburg. Department"
There is no place for a computer in the director's creative space, because its precision doesn't allow for "divine mistakes."
The studio's chaos makes it very cozy.
RBTH: You must have had an opportunity to move abroad, to work there. Why didn't you?

Y.N.: I'm a stranger there, and foreign lands feel strange to me. I couldn't do it. It's a myth that those who emigrated found themselves over there. True, they had opportunities to write and to be published, if they were lucky. But not everyone is lucky, and not all talented people are lucky. There were, of course, major personalities such as Brodsky or Dovlatov - both were outstanding, both here and there. But they would have lived happy lives in this country, and not there. Because, be that as it may, both suffered from the lack of space in which they could hear kindred "screams." It's a complicated story.
RBTH: I know that as a young man you discovered Japanese poetry and fell in love with it. Has it had an influence on you?

Y.N.: I could never have imagined that Japan would have such an influence on me! Once, quite by chance in the early 1960s, I bought a book of 12th century poetry. I began leafing through and gradually entered that state, that feeling of poetic thought which both converged and did not converge with other poetry.

With time, I discovered Japanese painting, and engraving – they are also like a space that one has to enter, and are some of the most complex forms of art; but at the same time, some of the simplest. Simple in their message, because, generally speaking, Asia, unlike pragmatic Europe, does not try to get to the bottom of a thought.

My love for Japan is clear in the film, The Heron and the Crane, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Japan. But its structure and the way the space in it breathes came from Japanese poetry. To say nothing of Hedgehog in the Fog. When I read that fairy tale, although it had been considerably altered for the screen, I felt I could combine it with my love of Japanese poetry. How? I didn't even know then.
RBTH: What is the secret of Hedgehog in the Fog? Indeed, it's not a children's animated cartoon but a profound philosophical film. Yet children love it.

Y.N.: Children didn't love it at first. When the film came out, parents complained to me: "You are scaring children." And children were scared, because they did not get into that form of thinking. But then the film, with its rays, subconsciously affected a child's consciousness. I know this from my granddaughter. When she was two and a half, she was so happy watching that film. But when she became three and a half, when the "scary bits" began, she'd leave the room and come back only when everything was over. Although compared with today's horror stories that was an age of innocence!

These days few producers are concerned about the really outstanding qualities of a film. By outstanding qualities I don't mean what you see in Avatar, or Viking, but instead, a movie that is permeated with thought, compassion, empathy, knowledge of life, rather than 3D special effects. And, in this sense, I'm at odds with modern times.
Text by Alexandra Bazdenkova
Edited by Oleg Krasnov
Images: Mark Boyarsky, special to RBTH
Design and layout by Slava Petrakina and
Alexandra Bazdenkova
© 2017 All Right Reserved.
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