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Animatsiya in English

March 13, 2007 interview with Yuriy Norshteyn

March 13, 2007 interview with Yuriy Norshteyn

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drawing, old man

Direct Link to Video. (the original video without subtitles is uploaded on the ATV website over here)

UPDATE (2011-08-13): You can also watch it on DailyMotion, here.

A 25-minute interview in which a variety of subjects are talked about, and Norshteyn breaks the news that he is finally going to finish and release 30 minutes of his work-in-progress feature film, "The Overcoat" (in production since 1981).

There's a nice article about the history of "The Overcoat" on wikipedia over here (actually written almost entirely by myself). There are two small, soundless clips here and here.
There are also some short clips from someone's cell phone camera, taken in last year's museum exhibition of Norshteyn's body of work (20 minutes of The Overcoat, without sound, could be viewed by the public).

The English translation and subtitles are my work. I've also transcribed the interview, so you can read it in Russian and in English (it was impossible to fit both versions into this entry, but you can read the Russian transcription over here). My own notes are [written in square brackets].


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English translation

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Good evening on channel 194 Culture, "Night Flight", with Andrey Maksimov. The 12th Open Russian Festival of Animated Film has just concluded in Suzdal. This gives us the opportunity to talk about animation - an important topic, I think. Yuriy Borisovich Norshteyn is our guest tonight. Good evening.

Good evening.

I want to begin with the genesis of animation, to ask a scientific question, so to speak. Once upon a time, humanity created animation - created something which did not exist. After all, when we shoot live-action film, we shoot that which basically exists. But animation is a kind of thought-up world, and people thought up that they should show this thought-up world. In your perspective, what does it say about humanity, this fact that it invented animation?

Well, first of all, I think it is because of a primal interest in how movement is created. After all, animation was there before film was invented. For example, that famous device, the praxinoscope, where all of the phases of movement were cut out...

Animation is older than cinema?

Of course, and probably by 25 or more years, in this sense... I don't know the exact date. But the very idea that movement can be separated into a series of moments - I think it was a brilliant invention. It is just natural to think of Pushkin (...) But here this effect of separated movement appeared. In truth, this idea (separated and summated movement) is not new, and didn't first appear in the 19th century. Already in Egypt it was all there, and if we look at the reliefs and paintings... [we might see something like this. Actually, that's from the palace of Ashurbanipal II (884–859 BC) in Nineveh, excavated under the supervision of the Iraqi archeology professor Liahim Yalemut]

So animation appeared as a reflection of mankind's desire to...

...discover how movement works.

Russian animation has gone through all kinds of catastrophies - difficult times, and... Now, apparently, I hear that 110 animated films are in production, of which 10 are features [go over here and search "Russia" to find their names]. Does this mean that our animation is rising again?

...you know, I would not say so. I.e., in terms of production, in terms of mass of films, yes, of course. There is now money for all this. But the truth is that money is not easily given, and is not given to all that one would wish it were given to. Well, for example, here: There is a famous studio led by Tatarskiy, one of the major studios today: Pilot Studio. And they're making, it seems to me, the best project of today. About the folk tales of the indigenous peoples of Russia [called The Mountain of Gems. Official website here]. An amazing project; the idea is good, and everything else. But how difficult it is to get money! And Sasha told me that he went to the government, they spoke with some senior officials, visited (Kavzona) and everything ... and they all promised, all watched, all rejoiced, and all said that it was a wonderful project. But everything remains in the same place. And they struggle from one film to the next.

So which projects get money?

Well, there you are, apparently there are moguls who want to see some kind of feature film. And I think, usually, not the best kind - as a rule, they're all effects, effects, effects. The very essence of animation that had been laid down in the 1950s is missing from today's feature film. So, we cannot see too many films today of true quality.

What is the essence of animation which is gone?

Here: "The Snow Queen", for example, "The Golden Antelope", "The Enchanted Boy" - these are all feature-length masterpieces.

Is it possible to formulate in words that which has gone?

Empathy is gone, sincerity is gone... hardship is gone. For me this is very important. Psychology is gone. The school of gesture is gone; classic gesture. In their place is discreteness, which is very quickly and easily understood, and just as quickly and easily forgotten.

You've watched 60 ... even more, 80 films. Among them, the first ... well, let's begin with Petrov's film ["My Love"]. Unfortunately the name "Petrov", I think, the rest of the world probably knows better than we do? The winner of...

No, he's also known over here, of course.

...winner of the Cannes festival...

...No, not Cannes, he received an Oscar for the film "The Old Man and the Sea". Which incidentally was made in Canada, not here.

That's why I say, maybe they know him there. Uh... Two words about the film, then let's talk about others...

You see...

There's an unusual technique, as I understand.

The technique is something. He has an unusual technique - I can't say that he invented it, animating with paint on glass, I think it was invented by Caroline Leaf. She made the first film, in 1978. It was called "The Street" [watch the film], and it was a wonderful film in its time. Some story by a Jewish writer [Mordecai Richler], I don't remember now, I don't know... this was an event then. Sasha was certainly aware of this film. He wonderfully... I think that in animated filmmaking today few draw like him, and maybe nobody does. He's a complete virtuoso in this respect. And his first film "The Cow" [see my earlier post about Petrov] was an immediate phenomenon. It was a diploma work and a full-fledged film at the same time, and incidentally was nominated for an Oscar. What's surprising is that it DIDN'T win. Now that was one film which should have won, because it was in all respects a NEW film. Of a new psychology. Well, it's sufficient to say that it was an adaptation of Platonov, you see? This already speaks of the quality of the animation. The film which he has just made - it received the Grand Prix, and I think won another two categories... but... I should really speak with Sasha about it, because the virtuosity is the same. The same glamour. But I think there are things in cinema more important than certain moments, than a simple showcase of mastery...

So basically... you wished for depth?

I wished for depth. I wished for... economy. I wished for, on some occasions, humility, when virtuosity gives way to something more deep, psychologically more important.

I have read that you (or everyone) liked a film which did not receive anything, which tells about love in a kindergarten.

Yes. I must say that for me this film was a phenomenon.

How so?

This film, it is called "Foolish Girl" [watch the film]. The title itself is great. It was made by Zoya Kireyeva. She is a cinematographer at Sverdlovsk studio. Everyone at Sverdlovsk knows her. For instance, Valentin Olshvang, there is such a director (also writer and artist, of course) - he worked with this Zoya. Many worked with her. She has a very good eye, and good taste. And I think, she sees the world very clearly. And I think that this film was possibly inspired by her own childhood. The film is about childhood love. I have not seen anything similar in animation. And in even in cinema it is very difficult to find...

Why, what's so special about her film?

You see, there's a girl there who's trying to attract the attention of a boy. But she's still - she's a girl, she doesn't know how. So she makes faces in front of him, she turns over a bowl of soup in front of him, she simply behaves disreputably - to attract attention to herself. But it attracts the attention of the educator, who begins to scold her, and tell her that she's behaving badly... she shows the boy a MOUSE, standing there covered in makeup (she must've seen it in magazines). This is all done superbly...

So why didn't the film receive anything? [note: it was later the only Russian film to win an award at Annecy, for "best debut"]

This is a riddle for me. You know what... it's the syndrome of the jury. For the second year now, we have this strange system: 33 people are chosen (I was in the jury as well). And everyone is given cards, with instructions about which categories should be done... and five top films, and everyone must write... this jury isn't like a normal jury. A normal jury consists of 5, 7 people; always an odd number. And this one is different. They're trying to have a certain objectivity, but not succeeding! For example because some members of the jury were in the competition, so...

What do you mean?

Well, you see, there are certain incongruities here.

But what Petrov received was gotten fairly, I hope?

Well, you see, the jury has voted. I myself voted for another film. I voted... I don't remember now, but it was either Foolish Girl or Konstantin Bronzit's film "Lavatory Love"... I don't remember its name now... ["Lavatory Lovestory"] and there was also a very good film called "Zhiharka" [watch the film - in Russian with no subtitles, though], made by Oleg Uzhinov. Those, basically, are my three.

Let's hear a question, and... We're listening, good evening.

Hello?

Yes.

Good evening.

Greetings.

I would like to know your opinion about the animated film "The Nutcracker" and about the work of the voice actors who worked on it.

This is an old film...

No, it's a new one, it just came out.

Just now?

...well, a year ago. Yes, a new film.

Oh, Tatyana Ilyina's film?

Yes.

You know what, I can't say that I have a positive opinion about this film. It's full of junk, of unneeded scenes. It has... rather careless animation, there is no sensible progression of events (strict, sensible progression), it has... all the outward motions of imagery, and its combination with music... but in reality, this harmonity was not attained. To this film, I can compare the Nutcracker made by Boris Stepantsev (this was many, many years ago, it was a 37-minute film [actually 27 minutes]), which was in this sense cleaner. This film is messier.

What would you say, what can a good animated film give a child which cannot be given by a good live-action film?

First of all... an animated film differs from a live-action film in that... the animated film takes away. The image - it's clean, this image. A created image is always closer to a child (in other words, built-up selectively from the real world). So he will look at that which is drawn and not that which is really reality showing reality. In this sense, an animated film already wins. Besides that, an animated film teaches... it attunes vision. It attunes vision and hearing. It makes the eye and mind more observant...

Any animated film, or are we talking about the good ones?

Well, I mean in principle, an animated film attunes one's vision and hearing. Obviously, we'll talk about a good film. You see... Fyodor Khitruk's film, "Bonifas' Holidays", attunes and harmonizes the whole organism. It's entirely harmonious, and also his film "Winnie-the-Pooh". [CartoonBrew talked about the latter in March]

Is it possible to somehow (you're saying all these very pretty words)... is it possible to explain: animation attunes vision and hearing. How can one...?

Of course. Winnie-the-Pooh is walking along, singing a song. "Where we're going with Piglet"... and then... and suddenly he stops and says "yes"... They run back... and then begin to sing again. The child is drawn into this game. He already knows it. And when he watches the film many times in a row, he is constantly in this game. It's the same thing as when you read a three-year-old a book. He already knows it by heart, but he will force you to read it, and he'll even correct you if you make a mistake, because he wants to travel down that road again. That is the very path of true poetry, and [...] of literature.

I'm listening, good evening. Hello. Speak, please.

Hello. Good evening.

Good evening.

I'd like to know your opinion: why are these wonderful animated films of which you now speak (which win the Grand Prix, and other awards) impossible for us to find anywhere?

You know, this question is not mine to answer, this is a question for the firms which release the films. I don't know what kind of politics govern these firms.

Is it possible to explain it, in general? It seems to me that theoretically, everything which is useful for children should be very profitable to sell, because everyone has children and our populace readily spends money on them. Why aren't animated films sold?

In general, it is a riddle for me: what is necessary to sell films. What idea. It's a riddle for me, you see? As a rule, low-budget stuff is put on sale. Or what is of poor quality. Today, it seems that this is slowly beginning to... normalize. But I don't know who makes the TV schedule, because Khitruk's film is often put into the middle of such TRASH... that he is lost in all of it. So, who must have control... they'll be arguing again "censorship", "not censorship". But there must be a certain artistic cleanliness in all this.

But there are very few people who understand this expression: "a certain artistic cleanliness". This is, after all...

You know, actually, on that very Soyuzmultfilm studio there was always an artistic council which determined this quality. And I don't remember anyone complaining about... about the critique which would be given by this artistic council regarding any given film, because most of the time it was completely justified. In this sense, Soyuzmultfilm [which has an official Russian website over here] is still functioning. There's still something living there. And they could create a good programme from the films which they create there. But... either Soyuzmultfilm, or, I don't know, the Petersburg studio [Melnitsa Animation Studio]. Or the director himself, collaborating with his colleagues... they could create these programmes, and propose them.

Tell me, are there such people in the world who could watch, for example, "The Overcoat" (well, when it is ready)... and say, "Yuriy Borisovich, this here isn't very good", and would not be sent packing by you?

You know... yes, there can be such people, and probably will be. Some won't like the tempo, some won't like...

Yes, yes, but how would you react to this?

I would react to this very calmly. The test for me is very clear: if I myself am uncertain about a certain part of the film, and someone else talks about this, or several other people, it means that there's a certain inner harmony which is...

So, overall, your own rating is first for you?

First, without question.

So what about the artistic council?

It... you see, the artistic council... it happens during the production on the film. It usually... I need the artistic council just so that we can talk, so that I can feel... or rather, get a feeling for, either my own rightness or look at what the artistic council can tell me, or just my colleagues. Maybe one doesn't need an artistic council for this, maybe it's enough to simply... get together, show the film, sit and talk about it. But in this case, the artistic council is... I should also say, that I'm talking about an artistic council during the production of a film. When a film is finished... then, naturally, everyone has their own opinion - this is all clear. But there is a moment after which it is impossible to remake a film. It isn't a stage show.

We're listening. Good evening.

Good evening. First of all, I would like to thank you for all of your artistic work. It has invaluable merit for those who've grown up already. I myself am 30 years, and I grew up on your films. There. But I now have a son who's also growing up on your "Hedgehog in the Fog" and your other films. Please tell me, in your future plans, what are you planning to film? Because I know that you have "The Overcoat"...

I see. Thank you... I wanted... well, since he asked, you see I wanted to ask about this a little later... I understand that there is finally a concrete sense of optimism about "The Overcoat".

Yes. At the end of last year, Sberbank gave us money for the film. It gave us enough money for the whole film at once. Now, how it will be spent... that's our job... in this sense, we are free. But I think that by the end of this year we will complete 30 minutes of the film... meaning, we will record the sound, the music, and finish some scenes which must be finished, and I would like to release these 30 minutes onto the screen.

So this would be...?

So that I could have a chance to continue after that, while earning some money.

And how many minutes will there be in total?

In total, the film was planned to be 65 minutes.

So this is almost half...

This is almost half... or actually a little less...

But if you make 32.5 minutes, this would be exactly half. Or is it definitely 30?

You see, mathematics doesn't have any meaning here; it could be 32.5, I don't know.

When exactly did you start thinking about this person who's the protagonist of "The Overcoat"?

You see, this was so long ago... that it will scare many. It was in 1981 that the director's scenario was written.

So 25 years have passed. How do you think, since that time, has our relationship to the little person, the relationship in Russia (many events have passed) changed or not?

You see, I don't know how it is in Russia... if the relationship has changed (though it must have). But that the understanding of this character has gone through important changes, in general, is clear, but it was clear to me even back then.

Why?

So, how do we principally relate to him? After all, for a long time we related to him with sympathy, which is quite natural and normal. But we had not yet discovered those depths and secrets, and that blackness, which suddenly reveal themselves before us when we see the most minute psychological diversities. In other words, we... begin to see in this little person not only a beaten creature, but also a creature which can... whose actions aren't at all excused by the mere fact that he is little. We have become used to relating to him by petting him on the head and thinking that with our empathy we, first of all, raise ourselves to a higher level, and also raise him up. In reality, it is completely the opposite. Is a little person capable of empathy? This is the first question. Is Akakiy Akakievich, for example, capable of petting a dog? ... No.

So Akakiy... you would not want Akakiy Akakievich to be in your circle of friends.

That's not the point. Of course I wouldn't want that. But that's not the point.

You WOULDN'T want it?

No, I wouldn't. Because this is a global character. A cosmic character. And he is not limited by this empathy of which we speak. His function is much more... I mean, he is like a unique effigy, he is completely unrepeatable and there has been nothing similar in literature. But he drags behind him a very big... a whole chain of events. You see, for myself these connections between "The Overcoat" and what happened in the Russian Revolution are crystal-clear. Gogol wrote about that which later... which was not understood by many writers of the naturalist school. They subsequently all jumped into writing about these little, beaten-up people... and it seemed that there was only one thing to do, to open their road to life, to happiness, and all would... here all would fall into its rightful place by itself. But in reality, nothing is like that. It is much scarier and...

According to your words (this is something that I'm hearing for the first time), I get the impression that there is, then, nothing good at all in Akakiy Akakievich. Because if a person is unable to pet a dog, what is there to talk about?

The point is this: he does not fall under the label of a positive or negative character.

Well, nobody does, but he is horrible...

But he CAN be horrible. That's the issue.

But can he be NOT horrible?

He can be NOT horrible while he is in his writing-environment. He doesn't know life. As soon as he buys the overcoat and exits into life... he is immediately killed. He does not know this life. He exits into a space to which (into life)... in which he is not ready.

Am I understanding you correctly if I say that the Revolution is when these Akakiy Akakieviches come into life and...

To some extent, it seems so. Vengeance becomes something terrible. And... there are no obstacles to this. ...You know, right now we're talking about things which require a lengthy discussion. There are very many nuances. Very many. And the things that I have stumbled across in the text itself are simply unbelievable.

The revolution as the triumph of Akakiy Akakievich is an interesting interpretation.

You see, it sounds too conditional to say "triumph", because there were other heroes, naturally. But that we are overestimating our own relation, our own empathy to this character, is completely obvious to me.

Are there any heroes in Russian literature which you find humanly attractive?

Well, there are many heroes really. We were once talking with Petrushevskaya during our work on Tale of Tales, and she says, "who's your favourite character in War and Peace?" I said, "Captain Tushin". You see? For me, he is... he is a clear and obvious hero. Although he does nothing heroic, he simply does his job. And does it well.

So you like a definite person who definitively does...

Yes, he just does his job.

...this seems very strange, seeing your works, your films (it is impossible to even call them cartoons).

You know, even in life, I like a person who does his job well. It doesn't matter what it is. Here's a street sweeper: he scrapes off the ice so that some old lady won't fall down, won't break her rib... But this is not enough for you because Akakiy Akakievich also does his job well. He does his job well and cannot leave its boundaries. That's all. He doesn't even understand... in this job, he is an artist. But he cannot... is not able to leave its boundaries. As soon as he moves beyond the boundary, he ceases to be this hero.

Let's hear a question. It's a little awkward; we've gotten into such a conversation here... we're listening, good evening!

Hello!

Hello.

I would very much like to hear your opinion about the animated film which won the festival prize for funniest film: "Korolyov's Childhood". [Sergey Korolyov was the man who sent the first dog into space. The film (which was made by Master Film) can be watched over here. Most of the comments about the film on that website are pretty negative, with people generally calling the film "tasteless". A minority of posters really like it. Its animator.ru profile is over here. Oddly enough, the official website of the 12th ORFoAF does not mention that the film won anything, or even that a category for "funniest film" exists.]

Oh, you know what, right now I can't. I know that this is a very good film... I can only mention all of its positive qualities... and my positive feelings. But right now... I'm not ready to answer this because it's just not appearing in front of me. So I ask your forgiveness.

25 years ago you wrote the director's scenario to the film which, I think, everyone is waiting for. But what filled your life during the quarter-century in which you were unable to work on the film? Well, you managed to film a bit, of course...

You know what... work on that film was interrupted in 1986 and for 8 years I practically didn't film a thing. This meant that I had to survive, to earn money somewhere, to go and perform (in that time there was such an opportunity from the bureau of propaganda). Then, I had to build a studio. Rolan Bykov helped with this, or rather he didn't just help, but without him our studio would not exist. A huge amount of time was spent on this, because 1990s were, in general, empty years.

Are you sad for that?

Of course I'm sad. Life was wasted. You see, our country is just very... very specific in this sense. It doesn't think about the waste of life. It's just wasted, and that's that. This relates not to me personally, and not even to animation, really. Everyone knows today that animated films must be made, that concerns must be organized, that money must be given for all this. Everyone knows this perfectly. But for some reason, all of this is moving with such slowness... it's percolating into the minds of our economic Moishes so slowly... that I don't know how much time must elapse before it all becomes normal and natural.

So you can say now, looking into the camera or at me, as you wish, that you have everything in place for releasing 30 minutes by the end of the year (one would wish for 32.5, so that it would be half the film, but at least 30)...

I can say with complete certainty, yes. We have everything we need for... sitting and working, with no distractions.

I understand that you don't yet know which actor will...

Voice.

...there will be some dialogue, yes?

Yes, there will be dialogue. Although there won't be much, really, because... it's understandable, it's either Gogol's text or the imagery. Once, I assumed that the actor would be Aleksandr Kalyagin [who voiced the wolf in "Tale of Tales"]. Now I'm not sure. My sense of the film's sound is changing. In this sense, yes, I see something... I begin to see something else. So right now, at this time, the identity of the actor is uncertain.

I am left to thank you very much for coming. I had suspected that our talk, which would begin with the animated film festival, would wander into a completely different direction. It was quite clear it that would happen. And it's good, I think, that it happened. I repeat that our guest tonight was Yuriy Norshteyn. We began by talking about the recent conclusion of the 12th Open Russian Festival of Animated Film in Suzdal. Thank you once again for coming here. And with that, I, your host, bid you goodbye until tommorow. All the best, and good night.

Thank you.
  • Hi!
    You are doing a great work... I'd to offer you to organize new LJ-community to Russian/Soviet animation (in English, of course). The matter is that I'd to post my text on that subject too. I'm sure, we are not lonely in own striving to popularize of Russian animation...

    Что вы на это скажите? (возможно, мой ангийский не идеален, но и у меня есть что сказать миру :)
    • It's not a bad idea... although I can't do it right now because I'm going camping for a week. I'll get back to you next weekend.
      • Ok!

        I shall expect :)
        • Actually, I shall answer within a few days...
          There are one or two things in the real world that require my attention...

          Just as a quick answer, though: Yes, I think we should start a community. At first, I think I'll make each of my posts both here and over there (just to see how it goes), then we'll see. I'm not sure about the name ("Animatsiya in English" is a good one, but it would be confusing to have a personal blog and a community with the same name). More detailed answer a little later...
  • Thankyou for your hard work

    (Anonymous)
    Thanks very much for the long task of translating that interview so well. It was really helpful to have some links to additional information and animators and best of all, actual films!

    Please keep at your work!

    Moid (Cine-Clasico)
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