There have been remarkable, innovative landmarks throughout the history of Russian animation. From the earliest stop-motion days of articulated beetle corpses, through embryonic computer assisted work, cel techniques, limited animation, eclair (rotoscoping) and paint-on-glass techniques (which we’ll come to shortly); something new and interesting was always on the horizon – or indeed, in the studio.
Aside from the techniques themselves, let’s not forget the wholesale embrace of the differing art styles employed too; ranging from found objects, constructed puppets, paint techniques in various styles and experimental hybrid visuals – all used to great effect. Admittedly, certain methodologies such as cel animation (as exemplified by Disney) and limited animation were ‘imports’, but these were hungrily embraced and utilised in such a manner that the envelope of the artform itself was pushed further in the process.
At the very least, the Soviets added their own stamp to the proceedings – with popular cel outings such as Nu Pogodi! and the wonderful Vinni Pukh. Alternatively, we witness breakthroughs into new ground both stylistically and dramatically (ala Polygon) that pushed the cel character technique into something approaching the ‘Uncanny Valley’. The ultra-primitive (by today’s standards) Kitty, tantalisingly spoke to us of a whole new world of CG animation -which we now take for granted- but was created 30 years before CG as we know it became mainstream. Remarkable.
One of the animators that exemplifies the extent of Russian artistry and creativity is undoubtedly Yuriy Norshteyn, that’s “Yuri Norstein” in Westernised form. I finished last week’s article with a look at his award-winning Hedgehog In The Fogi, but that alone is the creative tip of a rather wonderful and imaginative iceberg. Whilst capable of innovation, Norstein seems comfortable with classic techniques and artistry too, and with the lineage drawn between both camps.
I was particularly struck by his tale of The Fox and The Hare aka Fox and Rabbit (1973). Whilst not (quite) as lauded as ‘Hedgehog’ – released two years later, it is still a remarkably charming piece, executed in Norstein’s dour style, but reminiscent of artworks that have been around for literally centuries in Russia’s cultural history. Yes, The Fox and The Hare looks strikingly like animated Lubok.
This is a style of Russian folk-art popular from the early 17th Century, rendered as engravings, woodcuts, etchings and (later) lithographs. They were usually printed onto lub board (hence the name) and sold relatively cheaply as affordable -and often humorous- household art/decor.
Typically they would feature simple lines, bold colours and decorative printed borders – almost like a poor man’s Icon perhaps, though not exclusively religious or rigid in style.
So; The Fox and The Hare – animated Lubok perhaps? Either way it has an immediate folk/outsider-art charm, based as it is on a Russian
folk tale. It concerns the evicted Hare who seeks various animal assistance in regaining his domicile at the expense of the interloping squatter Fox. Misadventures ensue. Again the awards and accolades descended upon Norstein’s work:
Taken from norsteinstudio.com
1974 – First Prize at Baku VII Film Festival
1974 – First Prize at Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films
1974 – Medal from Sarajevo Bank
1979 – USSR State Prize for The Fox and the Hare, The Heron and the Crane, Hedgehog in
the Fog (awarded to Norshteyn, Yarbusova, and Zhukovsky)
Next time we’ll be looking further at Yuri Norstein’s work, particularly the style that he made his own: the remarkable ‘paint-on-glass’ method.