Samantha Haggart – Nature and Technological Innovation in the Films of Iurii Norshtein

When analyzing the animated films of Iurii Norshtein, it is important to consider in depth not the finished product, but the process undertaken by Norshtein to produce the work itself. Many are unaware of Norshtein’s status as an inventor. To achieve the effects that define his films and cement his auteur position, he developed his own version of a multiplane setup, consisting of several glass panes arranged a few inches above one another, with a tripod-mounted camera perched on top, pointing down at the panes. This allowed his animations to boast a more three-dimensional look when compared to products created with traditional methods of recording animation, allowing the possibility of added depth and varied movement for his characters and sets.  Each of his films chronologically demonstrates the development of this method, essentially perfected by the time he released his award-winning Tale of Tales in 1979. Despite minor stylistic differences due to the ongoing development of the multiplane stand, Norshtein’s films still possess many common elements. Each of the films analyzed begin with the text “adapted from a Russian folktale,” and heavily involve anthropomorphized animals to act out the narrative. This suggests the films are appropriate and intended for a younger audience. However, more adult themes can be pulled from each seemingly innocent narrative, such as feelings of unresolvable turmoil, lack of control, and even direct references to wartime living.

Bearing these more aggressive themes in mind, in combination with Norshtein’s signature anthropomorphized animals and multiplane style, one can begin to draw connections between these elements. Norshtein consistently portrays elements of nature, such as animals, foliage, and water, as powerful and sinister, visually emphasized by his specifically constructed animation techniques. In all of the films analyzed in this paper, spanning a total of five years, nature dominates the narrative, dictating elements of film style, and, ultimately, the overall form of the film. This focus can furthermore be seen as commentary on the impact of Brezhnev-era issues such as the growing demand for stylistic conventionalism and rising television sales in the Soviet Union. An expansion of this idea will occur after detailed analysis of nature’s assertive appearance in Norshtein’s The Heron and the Crane (1974), Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), and Tale of Tales (1979).

The Heron and the Crane was Norshtein’s second project as a director, released in 1974. The plot documents the stormy romantic relationship between a female heron and a male crane. When one bird shows interest in the other, the feelings are not requited, and both act contrary to one another, even when the film concludes. This narrative is linear, which is in tune with Norshtein’s early directorial style. Norshtein’s technique for this film involves drawing the figure on celluloid and cutting out the limbs, but leaving some blank cel around the figure in order to impersonate the texture of drawn animation. This extra cel was then painted black to avoid reflecting light when recorded (Kitson 2005, p. 42). In the same vein as his multiplane animation stand, Kitson (2005) notes, “characters and even elements of the background tended to consist of more than one layer of textured cel,” which foreshadows the background layering in later Norshtein films, such as Tale of Tales (p. 42). It is also important to note that this was Norshtein’s first film to use the multiplane animation stand, whose movable glass panes assisted in imitating movements produced by a live-action camera, reducing the rigidity associated with early animation (Kitson, p. 43-44). The film is bookended with scenes of heavy fog, whose realistic appearance is due to Norshtein’s aversion to cleaning the glass panes, instead allowing them to collect dust, organically thickening the fog and giving the natural element narrative weight by virtue of position in the film’s formal and aesthetic construction (Kitson, p. 47). The fog appears as a light cream colour, which contrasts heavily with the dark blue branches of the surrounding trees, making the elements seem aggressive and competitive toward one another. Most importantly, the fog is so opaque it obscures all fine details of the heron, the centre of the plot, and also the centre of the frame. This occurs again at the end of the film, wherein both main characters are then obscured by thick fog, reflecting the ambiguous nature of their relationship. The contrasting of natural elements repeats later in the film, when a shot of the heron in the grass is immediately followed by a shot of a flock of birds flying through clouds, which then cuts to the crane in the grass. The grass features a dark black base, with deep green leaves, which does not compliment the light blue and white patches of cloud that the birds fly through. These two elements—grass and sky—serve to differentiate the flock of birds from the crane and heron, which are grounded and limited in their mode of travel. This reflects the central conflict of the film, with the two grounded birds unable to successfully mate, directly compared, via editing, to the birds soaring through the clouds in pairs. The choreography of the grounded birds is very heavy, with the heron tripping to highlight the weight differentiation when compared to the light and smooth-moving airborne birds. Finally, it is important to emphasize once again that these natural elements visually hide the characters from the viewer, concealing parts of their figures and even the scenery surrounding them, aesthetically directing the narrative. Kitson (2005) cites Russian animator Fyodor Khitruk’s discourse regarding the film, which highlights the importance of landscape in the animation, calling it a “third character” playing a major part in the overall product (p. 42).

The fog motif is continued in Norshtein’s next film, Hedgehog in the Fog, released just one year later in 1975. The multiplane animation stand is also used in this film, but the fixed animation camera is replaced with a movie camera, modified to capture single frames (Kitson, 46). This camera was also placed on a tripod, which allowed tilting movements in addition to basic horizontal and vertical movements, producing animation that possessed a more live-action feel, and ultimately provided the audience with a larger and more comprehensive view of the space. This film follows a hedgehog that travels through the forest at night to meet his friend the bear cub to drink tea and watch the stars. Similar to the previous film, the narrative is linear, and cut-out cels are once again used for characters and setting components. Elements of nature are portrayed as sinister: the fog causes the hedgehog to get lost, the river threatens to drown him, and the tall grasses obscure his gift for the bear, causing him to lose it. This is reflected in the filmic stylization of each element. The bright white fog consumes and hides objects from the viewer, an illusion created by moving a thin sheet of paper toward the camera each shot. Kitson calls the fog the “most important character in the film,” noting it has the power to “reveal parts of the hedgehog’s world” affecting how the narrative is relayed to the viewer (p. 47).  The river also has the ability to conceal setting—the riverbank is totally camouflaged by the blacks and browns of the river, making it impossible to see where the water begins and ends—as well as partially covers the hedgehog’s body, and entirely covers the stranger who rescues him, reinforcing the ambiguity originally produced by the fog. Not only are these natural elements nontransparent and often composed of dark colours, but they also encompass the majority of the frame, emphasizing nature’s power to dictate what the viewer is able to focus on.  For example, when the hedgehog wades into the fog, we can often see only his figure and seldom the background of the forest. Even the music in the film appears to interact with and highlight nature, specifically complimenting the movement and behaviour of the animals. A sudden violin is paired with the bat’s swooping, and a piano trills when the birds flurry around the hedgehog, its frenzied pace matching the birds’ chaotic movements. Finally, the camera angles help enforce nature’s superiority. When the hedgehog finds himself in front of a massive tree in the fog, there is a cut to a point-of-view shot of the hedgehog looking up at the tree. The low angle emphasizes the tree’s height and power, placing it physically above the main character of the story, the hedgehog. The tree’s importance is stressed further by the use of a camera angle not employed anywhere else in the film.

Tale of Tales, released in 1979, is significantly less linear in structure than both previous Norshtein films. The cut-out animation style is similar to Hedgehog in the Fog. Norshtein reveals in a later interview that the iconic house was produced using no less than ten layers of cel in order to create depth and texture in the final image, recreating “an absolutely classical principle in painting” not used by any other animation studio at the time (in Kitson, p. 42-43). Because the narrative is nonlinear, the story flows via associative relations, which Paul Wells (1998) defines as “models of suggestion and allusion that bring together previously unconnected or disconnected images to logical and informed rather than surreal effect” (p. 93). Norshtein uses associative relations to represent the memory-like approach by which his images are linked. Additionally, Norshtein creates a series of reoccurring motifs to help direct the viewer through the story, most based in nature. The presence of animals and other natural elements is heightened by the fact that humans are featured in the film, which does not occur in the previously mentioned works. Specifically, the grey wolf is a reoccurring symbol of nature that helps guide the audience through the vignettes, a task ignored by the fragmented human characters. This gives the wolf a significant amount of power, summarized well by Mikhail Yampolsky (1987), who notes that “each world possesses its own relatively autonomous space […] easily permeable only by the little wolf scurrying between worlds” (p. 106). The lullaby which opens the film warns the ostensibly child viewer of the dangers of this wolf, who will “nip you on the tum” and drag you into the forest if you behave poorly. This gives nature—the wolf and forest—a negative association immediately at the beginning of the film. This is later echoed in the park scene, in which a mother drags her son away from the tree he was sitting in and the crows he was feeding, foregrounding for the viewer the incompatibility of nature and humans, as they do not exist together in the frame. Nature also often influences the camera movement in this animation. Later in the film, there is a scene of a table, draped with a tablecloth, bathed in natural light. The wind lifts the tablecloth, and alters the composition of the shot, forcing the camera to follow the cloth as it flies to the left of the original frame, so the cloth does not completely disappear from the frame. This is a pertinent example of nature’s control over elements of filmic style in this animation. In his text, Yampolsky also comments on nature’s ability to challenge orthodox filmic style in Tale of Tales. He addresses the scene in which the old house is shown from a distance, the wolf standing alone in the doorway. The left half of the frame shows snowy white winter, and the right shows yellow fall, both drenched in daylight, but the porch, located in the center of the frame, is “dark, night-time” (Yampolsky, p. 105). This breaks conventional style, altering traditional concepts of time and space, illogically presenting two different seasons, and two opposite times of day, in the same frame. Even the bare branches of the tree carry a significant meaning, Yampolsky relating them to “a wound or a reminder of death”, which is a large assignment to an element that is typically considered a background element and devoid of such meaning (p. 110).

It is important to consider why Norshtein places such emphasis on elements of nature in his films, and why this portrayal situates nature in a negative and controlling light. To address this rumination, one must examine the historical context in which the art was produced, and attempt to draw connections between the product and the situation that informed it. As mentioned earlier, these films span a total of five years, from 1974-1979, which places them within 1970s Soviet Union, part of the Brezhnev era. The official policies of this period promoted “a model of filmmaking that combined ideological orthodoxy with entertainment qualities,” with a focus on remedying the industry’s longtime trouble producing mass entertainment films (Naripea 2010, n.p). Eva Naripea hypothesizes this is related to Brezhnev’s position to “make the economy more economical,” which encouraged the production and release of such entertainment films as they generated the most revenue (Naripea n.p.). This interest in cinematic style was also fueled by the fact that television sales were on the rise, and greatly compromised the significant profits once provoked by cinema (Naripea n.p.). Kitson seconds this viewpoint, and, more directly relating the changing policies to art, wrote, “this Brezhnev-era ‘stuffiness’, the lack of creative air so lamented by Norstein and his peers, began to pervade the studio” (2005, p. 37). In his films, Norshtein addresses the innovative deficiency imposed on artists during this period through these elements of nature, which often obscure or entirely cover up integral narrative components of the film, including main characters. In both The Heron and the Crane and Hedgehog in the Fog, fog conceals elements of the background, and, frequently, the main characters themselves. The selective nature of the fog literally censors what the viewer is able to see, which creates a very nondemocratic image, perhaps reflecting Norshtein’s feelings regarding the government’s position on and control over filmmaking at the time of production. In Tale of Tales, the opening lullaby appears to portray the will of the government, as it presents a warning to the individual to act accordingly or the wolf will deliver a punishment, akin to how censors in the Soviet Union would act regarding content restrictions. Also functioning similarly to the censor, the wolf acts as a guide throughout the nonlinear narrative, and the viewer is forced to identify with him as an element of power as he interacts with several vignettes, often dictating the time the viewer spends on each scene and what can be viewed.

Overall, the abundance of natural imagery in Norshtein’s films is correspondent with his technical innovations in animation, which allow many of the natural elements to be aesthetically pleasing in addition to serving a critical and structural purpose. The mulitplane animation stand permitted heavy layering of backgrounds and creation of depth, as seen in the forest backgrounds in Hedgehog in the Fog, and the panes of glass allowed dust to collect to make the illusion of fog and air more evident, which was previously visually difficult to represent in animation (Kitson, p. 47). Ultimately, natural features in the analyzed Norshtein films are portrayed as aggressive and powerful, echoing the strict Brezhnev-era filmmaking policies, which greatly restricted creative expression and experimentation. Ironically, the natural elements, especially the fog, present the capabilities of Norshtein’s own experimental technological innovations. In this way, Norshtein managed to evade artistic suppression by inventing and utilizing the multiplane animation stand, eventually leading from technical to conceptual experimentation in the thematic and visual styles of animation, as demonstrated by Tale of Tales in 1979.

Samantha Haggart is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto majoring in Cinema Studies and English. Her research focuses on spatiotemporal influences on the development of national cinemas. Specifically, she has completed extensive research on Japanese, Italian, Canadian, and Celtic cinemas, as well as European animation. She hopes to continue her study of cinema in post-graduate programs.


Hedgehog in the Fog. (1975) Dir. Iurii Norshtein. Soyuzmultfilm.

The Heron and the Crane. (1974) Dir. Iurii Norshtein. Soyuzmultfilm.

Kitson, Clare. (2005) Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Naripea, Eva. (2010) “New Waves, New Spaces: Estonian Experimental Cinema of the 1970s.” KinoKultura: n. pag. Retrieved from

Tale of Tales. (1979) Dir. Iurii Norshtein. Soyuzmultfilm.

Wells, Paul. (1998) Understanding Animation: London: Routledge.

Yampolsky, Mikhail. (1987) “The Space of the Animated Film Khrzhanovsky’s ‘I Am With You Again’ and Norstein’s ‘The Tale of Tales.’” Afterimage (Autumn): 93-117.

© Samantha Haggart

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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