It is not an exclusively Russian practice, but animation-on-glass techniques have certainly been embraced by Russian ‘heavy-weight’ practitioners of the art. Indeed, it is their expertise with this method that has contributed to their deserved reputations.
Having worked at Soyuzmultfilm from 1961, Yuri Norstein started directing in 1968, utilising flat cut-out figures articulated in 2D stop motion, rather than the ubiquitous colour-filled cel methodology so favoured by Disney and its imitators.
To be fair, Disney’s output had come to define the form and nature of cinematic animation through numerous successes since 1937’s Snow White. Forget creative innovation; that style was what the mainstream paying public (and therefore the industry’s investors) wanted from animation and, by extension, the animators themselves.
However, there always has been room for a good deal of pure art within the Russian animation scene, its ideology existing separately from the overt capitalist market concerns and flavours that dominate in the West.
The 1970’s was a pivotal decade for Norstein, as his informal, delineated, cut-out style became increasingly refined, smoother and more atmospheric. Figures could now coalesce out of mist or shadow, dissipate into the virtual ether or fall into frame from the blurred fog of distance. This is his technique at its best. It speaks to the viewer of the ethereal and the uncertain, an antidote to the reassuring solid-line and fill of the most popular and populist titles.
Norstein’s method pushes at the constraints of the technique itself by shooting down through several panes of glass, each containing the separate elements of the scene, grouped by their relative positions along the viewer’s Z-axis. An assembly of three or four glass panes, spaced at desired intervals along a one metre depth for instance allows for convincing perspective effects.
What’s more: Norstein has given the mountings that hold the panes enough articulation to allow them to be moved along the X, Y and Z axes as part of the animation itself, for maximum flexibility of motion and perspective.
His work found national and international success, resulting in a number of awards and accolades throughout the late 1970’s and early 80’s. By 1985 however, his relationship with his workplace had deteriorated so much so that Norstein was ultimately sacked by Soyuzamultfilm for taking too long on his latest feature, an interpretation of Gogol‘s Overcoat. At the time of his departure, Norstein and his compact team had completed just 10 minutes of actual footage after two years of work. Such was his demand for perfection. After various diversions, stops and starts, the film is still under development today, with approximately 25 minutes of the project (and counting) having been completed and indeed tantalisingly displayed on tours of his work.
His work continues to attract accolades and awards from various world-class organisations, and having secured funding, Overcoat is still being developed. Various other highlights of his work include:
- 25th October, the First Day (1968), with Arkadiy Tyurin.
- The Battle of Kerzhenets (971), with Ivan Ivanov-Vano.
- The Fox and the Hare (1973).
- The Heron and the Crane (1974).
- Hedgehog in the Fog (1975).
- Tale of Tales (1979).
- Participated in Winter Days (2003).
(Photo by Ryhmäteatteri)