All the Small Things

In an age of high-tech special effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI), the state-of-the-art has begun to overshadow the art of moviemaking itself. Although it may seem that most animators have succumbed to the flash and convenience of CGI, Yuri Norstein will not be moved. Making an appearance last week at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center during a rare visit to the United States, the acclaimed Russian animator explained that his opposition to computer graphics extends beyond mere Luddism: “In movies, the complicated thing is to overcome the materiality of the material…I wish to create a different aesthetic of cinema beyond technical effects.”

Norstein spoke (in Russian) before a packed audience, and UofC professor Yuri Tsivian, an expert in Russian art and cinema, offered simultaneous translation and commentary. The event included a special screening of Norstein’s highly acclaimed film “A Tale of Tales” and a fragment of his adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Norstein is famous for his perfectionism and has been dubbed “the slowest filmmaker of all time.” The label isn’t undeserved–he has been working on “The Overcoat” since 1981 and it is still unfinished. For his films, Norstein uses a specially designed machine comprised of three tiers of glass, which produces an unusual tension between depth and two-dimensionality in his animations.

Following the screening of each film, Norstein explained his techniques and how they are informed by his philosophy of art. Sketching a character from “The Overcoat” and then tracing over the image to demonstrate how computer programs decompose faces into parts, he criticized CGI for reducing a man to geometry. “The computer imposes its own aesthetic,” Norstein claimed. When using a computer, “the director is unable to limit himself” and inevitably yields to the “aesthetic of pleasure, of verisimilitude.” For Norstein, who was active during the Soviet period, art is improved when it confronts challenges. “Limitations develop your imagination…Even censorship limitations have their own advantages. Censorship sharpens the artist.”

These boundaries have indeed allowed Norstein to focus his work inwardly and to take advantage of small details to show the depth of human experience. The intricate sum of his characters’ movements adds up to a poetic, sympathetic portrait that Hollywood’s obsession with technology could never match. “If art has a purpose, it is to give an image of the world–in a condensed way, perhaps,” he said, “but it is reality that has to be condensed.”