Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Yuri Norstein dilemma

If you’ve been reading my blog recently and I hope you have, you would know that I was in L.A. for the Annies and ran into Yuri Norstein who was also visiting the studios and talking about his work.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear him speak but I’ve been to a few of his shows before. He screened some of his classics “The Hedgehog and the Fog” and “The Tale of Tales” and his work in progress opus “The Overcoat” from gogols famous story.

He’s a very talented animator and a good filmmaker but the problem is he’s been working on his new film “The Overcoat” for over twenty years now.I’ve never really talked to Yuri (he speaks no English), he seems like a nice guy but I’m afraid he’ll never finish his film- here’s why:

A couple of animation societies around the world have voted “The Tale of Tales” the greatest animated short ever made. Now there’s a kiss of death if there ever is one. I’d hate to have this dubious honor because psychologically poor Yuri can never make a film to compete with “The Tale of Tales”. How can he make a film more perfect than “the best film ever made”?

Every time he tries to animate a scene it’s got to be perfect. If there’s one little imperfection he must start over again. It’s the same artistic crisis that crippled Richard Willams on the “Thief and the Cobbler”. I heard he redrew some shots four times.

I believe that hubris is one of the worst evils in the film business. Once you start believing when people say that you’re a genius and everything you make has to be perfect- you’re done! Your career is over!

I know my work has flaws. In fact I embrace the flaws. To me the flaws and imperfections are beautiful. They make the film human. It’s made by a human who is not perfect. Someone who’s struggling to make a statement and tell a story.

So next time someone says you’re a genius or you’re a god get someone to keep whispering in you ear “You’re only human, you’re only human”.


  1. No one's ever considered me a genius or a god, so I guess that's a good thing. My work sure has tons of flaws, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

  2. I'm not seeing how perfectionism isn't embracing one's own flaws in the same way a more spontaneous artist might. The Thief and the Cobbler may be incomplete, but it's a glorious incomplete work that greatly outshines the vast majority of finished projects. LIkewise, even if Norstein never finishes this film because of his perfectionism, he'll still have one hell of an unfinished film regardless, judging from the clip he showed at USC anyway.

    Leave perfectionists to be perfectionists. It's what they do. Kubrick and Orson Welles and Erich Von Stroheim may not have been better off with their habits, but the work sure was.

  3. Haha, i KNOW my work is full of flaws so thats a good bad thing right? sounds good to me.

  4. It's pretty much the same with spontaneous music - - the wrong note defines it's humanity.

  5. Disney always perfected his films. Though the difference is that Disney had hundreds of artists at his disposal Yuri and Williams are independent producers.

    My advice is never strive for perfection unless you have the hundreds of artists to back you up. Even then independent studios have that certain charm to their films that big corporations don't. Because places like Dreamworks and Disney spend to much time with other elements like merchandising and repeated formulas and not focusing on the pure artistic element.

    So It seems independent animators shouldn't strive to compete against the big fish just be yourself.

  6. Although this has not much to do with your point about the "kiss of death" dilemma. I wonder if you have heard this rumor about his wive Francesca Yarbusova being the creative force behind the success of his films?
    If true i imagine it could help them to cope with those enormously high expectations knowing they can share responsibility in case of failure. But off course in case of success he should then also acknowledge her role.

  7. Actually, he is capable of working fast and with great quality. He did a closing segment for broadcast television a a few years back and also a short film for Winter Days. The funny thing is that aside from his work on Overcoat, the short for Winter Days is easily his most expressive and technically accomplished animation. And from everything I've read it was done in a very reasonable amount of time.
    Maybe for him the Overcoat is not a film that depends on being finished. Maybe it is a kind of exercise, the very creation of it. Maybe this creative act is in of itself the value?
    Purely speculation of course.

  8. who can't read german its well worth studying.

  9. I agree with gingersoll, If you think about it in terms of Yuri's age, this is the final show. If you have been lucky enough to see portions of Overcoat in person you would quickly reconsider questioning the duration of time spent. This film is not a project to hurry up and complete. The making of it is the goal, not a deadline. Norstein has been in the US to raise funds, selling books and prints. He has also to my knowledge been turning down funding from other sources (Aardman) The goal is not to get it done, Just like Akaky, judgment of worth comes into question and a new understanding must be reached, When you're on your last project, what's the hurry, there is none.You pour everything into it. It is the final legacy. You just might agree when its all over that this film is more beautiful and more powerful and more exploratory than any previous.