The Little Gray Wolf Will Come

Inside the world of the greatest living animator and the masterpiece he knows he may never finish

Inside the world of the greatest living animator and the masterpiece he knows he may never finish
Written by: Brian Phillips
Illustrations by: Lindsay Farrell

A talking cat lives outside his door. Every night, when he is falling asleep, it comes. If he opens his eyes he can almost catch its shadow, pacing along the gap where the light shines in through the door. The light is magical, he thinks; it holds enchanted things. He thinks of the cat, and happiness, and bread sprinkled with sugar.

He lives, by day, among the trees in the yard, with the other boys from the kommunalka. Climbing, fighting, catching insects, waging wars. His family shares a communal apartment with four others. In this part of Moscow, that makes them lucky, he knows: The flat upstairs holds 12. Fifty people under one roof. There are no social classes in the workers’ paradise, but his father is a machine-tool adjuster. Families who live in Maryina Roshcha are not well off. Bandits operate in the area; some of them prey on children. Some of them are children.

His family, the Norsteins, are Jewish. The word doesn’t mean much to him, but sometimes old women spit and call him Christ-killer, which is strange, since the atheist eyes of the state look upon the New Testament not much more favorably than on the Old. Sometimes his friends lash out at him. One day after class his drawing teacher pulls him aside and tells him not to come back. He cries when this happens, because he loves art more than anything. He does not understand that Stalin is stoking anti-Semitism for political purposes. He only feels that the mood of the world shifts unpredictably, and sometimes the days are bad.

“Later, when he is an old man, he will marvel at these memories. His childhood, when the days seemed so long.”

He knows who Stalin is because he sees his picture on the street. Joseph Vissarionovich says there will be no bread tomorrow. Comrade Joseph, who won us the war. He knows what the war was because he remembers it, a little, the fear and the fireworks and the close-typed lists of the dead. The war is why his Aunt Bella came home alone and pregnant, after serving with the air force on the front. He was very small then. When the baby died, Aunt Bella gave him her milk. There was so little other food, so little of anything. “Auntie, auntie,” he would call to her across the yard, “do you have any milk for me?” The war is why the nights are still so dark, why the streetlamps are dull and why the hallway bulb is dimmer than the paraffin stove, barely as bright as a candle. The war is why so many of the people he hears being talked about are people he never can meet.

He doesn’t mind the dark. It, too, is magical. When the moon is out he watches the wind sweep the leaves from the ground, like a big arm scooping itself up. He listens to the music playing somewhere, the accordion always sighing out the same song, the tango “Weary Sun.” After bedtime the dark belongs to the little gray wolf, who, according to the lullaby his mother sings, will take him away if he sleeps too close to the bed's edge, take him away and hide him in the woods, under the willow root. The little gray wolf is scary but also comforting, a familiar phantom. He has noticed that a kind of strange potential seems to surround his everyday life. It waits just past the boundary of what he normally sees and hears, and though he does not see it or hear it, it is always there, as real to him as the fathers and mothers and brothers who never came out of the war.

A bad day: His father is fired. Stalin is moving against the Jews, and the consequences reach all the way down to the machine shop. He feels the tension, sees the worried lines on his parents’ faces, without fully understanding the cause. Then an hour comes when the world pulls back in thrilling disbelief: Stalin is dead. Afterward people tell him about the transports, already prepared, that the dictator had intended to carry the Jews to a forced resettlement in Siberia.

Wood smoke and wax smoke. Potatoes rattling in a pan. Granny Varya, whose son spies for the government. Climbing the poplars, higher than the buildings, climbing hair-raisingly high. He knows every handhold, every branch.

Later, when he is an old man, he will marvel at these memories. His childhood, when the days seemed so long.

And leafing now and then through a book about Siberia: Well, well, Joseph Vissarionovich; but here I am.

Well. Here he is, an old man, onstage at the Dom Kino. Cinephiles of Moscow, your evening’s entertainment: Yuri Norstein, 74, white-bearded, small, stout, urbane, rumpled, and mischievous. Sitting in front of a pale gold curtain, with a bump on his nose the size of a pistachio shell. Considered by many to be a great, if tragically self-defeating, Russian artist. Considered by many to be the finest animator in the world.

He did not move to Moscow last week; he knows what they say about him. How he sabotaged his own career at what should have been its peak. How he has not managed to release a new film in 37 years. How he made Hedgehog in the Fog, a movie every Russian child knows by heart, and then Tale of Tales, which international juries have more than once named the greatest animated picture ever made. How he threw it all away to chase an absurd, unattainable ideal, an animated adaptation of Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” that he has toiled at for nearly 40 years and has never been able to finish. He takes questions at events like this, and the sequence is always the same. First a few respectful queries about his past work, his process, his inspirations. Then, when some brink of nerve has been crossed: When will you finish The Overcoat? Do you think you ever will?

Still: a good crowd tonight for his lecture. In the vestibule outside the hall, his assistant, Tania, has set up the usual table, selling postcards and picture books and refrigerator magnets. The faces of his most beloved characters look out from the racks, in tiny dozens; the same faces he’ll project, enormous, onto the screen behind him while he speaks. The little gray wolf. The poet’s cat. The hedgehog, the owl, the bull that turns the jump rope. Some people might find it strange to see their dreams living outside their heads. For him it is the other way around: The moments are rare when he is not surrounded by dreams.

He is introduced. Applauded. He takes out a flask of cognac, holds it up for the audience. Drinks. “I hope we will have a very serious discussion tonight.” Laughter. On the screen he projects an image of himself, sitting beside his pet. “The two people in this photograph,” he announces, “are both dogs.”

He turns his bright, sad eyes over the crowd. He has given this talk, and many talks like it, many times before. He has to give talks because he has to pay his rent. A few years ago he collected his lectures on the art of animation into a kind of memoir, Snow on the Grass; it sold so well he ran out of copies for Tania to stock at the table. His charm onstage is casual, but he knows how to hold an audience. He is romantic: He believes that humanity has lost its connection to a better, simpler way of being, that we have fallen out of harmony with nature and with each other. He believes that imagination, embodied in art, offers an escape from what is degraded and alienating in a society that wants to make us machines. But he is also a clown: He likes to shock people, he knows how to make them laugh. He has hidden a bottle of beer in the lectern. He’ll reveal it when the cognac runs out.

A scene from “Tale of Tales

He speaks of the great paintings, how they move when he looks at them. Here, consider Kandinsky: The lines go up and down like pistons, while the circles float like soap bubbles. Michelangelo’s bust of Brutus: electrifying, how it changes from different sides. He has never been to the Accademia in Florence, but in his mind he sees it in three dimensions. It makes his heart race.

He shows off his grandson’s drawings of a medieval battle, thickets of arrows plunging toward stick-figure armies. Such energy, such use of white space! Technical perfection is not the highest aim of art; art needs human vitality, which is why paintings by children can be riveting and why animation done with computers makes him feel physically sick. Small imperfections, which make a work human, make it beautiful. “If my hands shake,” he says, “it is not because I am an alcoholic. It’s because I’m honest!”

On his left wrist he wears an enormous watch. When he talks, he has a habit of rubbing it, carelessly, with his knuckles: the way you might run the back of your hand over the top of a purring cat’s head.

He speaks of his own work. Wolf and hedgehog, heron and crane. Here is the image of the infant at the breast that appeared in Tale of Tales. Here is a photograph of his wife, Francheska — his most important collaborator, the art director for his films — in a similar pose, breast-feeding their son Borya. (Can it really have been 50 years ago? It was: in the late 1960s.) He remembers how furious she was when he included the photo in his memoir. But he loves it so much; and then, he and Francheska have been married a long time, and they put up with each other, which is to say, she puts up with him. He tells the story onstage, and her long-ago anger tickles him. He chuckles.

He talks freely about The Overcoat. Why not? He shows sketches. He explains how scenes were made. He mulls over themes. The story — it concerns a poor clerk in St. Petersburg who has to save up for a new coat, only to have it stolen as soon as he acquires it — is one of the foundational works of Russian literature, as important, he says, as a book of the Bible. He says nothing about the film’s state of completion, but he plays clips, as he sometimes does, from what he’s finished so far, and wonder passes through the crowd like a bird ruffling its feathers.

He doesn’t treat it as an unfinished project. He speaks of it as something long accomplished, widely known. Perhaps this is backward, describing the making of a film that technically does not exist yet. But he cares about this work, which has consumed half his life. He cares about how it is received. If the film were a real overcoat, you could see light shining through its holes. But he knows what he has, and he knows what it has cost him. And what artist does not want to be praised?

From the stage, he looks out at the old movie palace. High ceilings, dusty light, faded velvet, better days. You don’t have to have seen the revelation to hear about God in a church.

A church: That is where they put him to work when he finishes animation school. Or not a church, precisely. It has stone walls and a bell tower, a steeple and onion domes; it is set back from the street behind a black iron gate. But the bureaucrats seized it from the priests years ago and, exercising their own power of transubstantiation, made it into something else. Now it is a puppet workshop that only happens to look like a church: in the same way that Eucharist blood once happened to taste like wine.

He works, posing puppets, for Soyuzmultfilm, the Soviet state animation studio. He doesn’t like the work; he would rather be doing something else. He is young, headstrong, frustrated.

At times he almost quivers with impatience. Listen, animation is not serious art. Not really! His dream, his whole life, has been to become a painter. But the state permits artistic careers only to those who have successfully finished art school, and when he tried that, all he managed to do was fail the entrance exam. That, however, he did very successfully: He failed it four times. He wound up in a furniture factory, pounding nails into packing crates. There was one way out: a two-year training course in animation. He thought it might offer a roundabout path to art school, which it didn’t. But what was he supposed to do, stay at the factory and get sawdust up his nose? What a waste of time!

If you believe in progress and the revolutionary logic of history, which treats time as a straight line, then the church is no longer a church and never will be again. It is a building like any other, a part of the neighborhood: the snow and the trash cans, crooked streets and barking dogs. But he is not sure he sees much reason to believe in progress. And he has never been sure he believes that time is a straight line.

The studio’s films embarrass him. Puerile Disney knock-offs, whitewashed for Communist children. He went to the Pushkin Museum not long ago, with his mother, to see the Old Master paintings the Red Army rescued from Germany after the war. The awe he felt in those rooms! A cloak painted so that you could feel the rhythm of its rippling in the wind. A staff painted so that you saw clearly how its angle would change as the bearer put weight on it. This, he felt, was what art should be: not entertainment, not instruction, but something that spoke to the highest possibilities of the human spirit. People say that now, with Khrushchev having succeeded Stalin, Soviet artists are finally free to express themselves; the Thaw, they're calling it. Besides, the bureaucrats see animators as harmless, so they have room to experiment, or at least the directors do. So why are they all so cautious? All he knows is that he yearns to create work worthy of Leonardo, of Goya, yet he spends his days tweaking the joints of a puppet shaped like a ewe.

“In his studio the dried flowers rustle like birds’ wings.”

He isn’t shy about sharing his opinions. Animators, like many Soviet workers, are strictly divided into ranks. It is true that, within the relatively relaxed, creative environs of Soyuzmultfilm, a certain irony tinges the observation of this hierarchy. Good morning, Animator Class 1, how are you today? About the same, Director Class 3, only I wish I slept better. Still, he speaks his mind impetuously enough that he annoys his superiors. Norstein, they snort; a talented boy, but why ask so many questions? There is one well-known director, old Ivan Ivanov-Vano, who spots his potential and tries to help him. But Norstein sees his peers moving ahead of him, watches as his classmates from the training course are entrusted with promotions and given their own films to direct. And he bristles, and he shifts a hoof 2 inches, and he sighs.

It isn’t a matter of capability; he can do things they can’t. He can do things no one has thought of. One day, on a film being made with cutouts — essentially two-dimensional puppets, drawings with movable limbs — he startles his colleagues by gathering all the cutouts and tearing the hinges out of their joints. Why rely on hinges when he can make them move more naturally as loose collections of shapes? Sometimes he senses a possibility in this, a faint stirring of potential. But it remains distant. He works on one film, My Green Crocodile, a lyrical, melancholy fantasy about a crocodile who falls in love with a cow, which makes audiences gasp with delight. But the experience is unsatisfying, because the film is made with puppets, and he has learned that he finds puppet animation too limiting. Why go to so much trouble to emulate realistic physical space, he thinks, when if animation offers anything, it’s the freedom to create any sort of space you can dream up?

At the studio he meets a young designer. She is dark, quiet, careful, and serious, all things that he is not. He sees immediately that she is a better painter than he is, a more skillful illustrator. Francheska Yarbusova: a film student, helping out at Soyuzmultfilm in the evenings. She had wanted to work on live-action movies, but her adviser convinced her that a woman would never be able to order men around on a set; she should try animation, where the men are imaginary. He is the son of a machine-tool adjuster not long out of the factory himself; she is the daughter of a famous psychologist who made important contributions to the study of the human eye. He is irascible, she is implacable. They are both opinionated. Their conversations are charged. Still, he thinks: Something good may come from this job after all.

It’s a good joke, him working where he works. As a boy he was banned from drawing class because he was Jewish. Now he spends his days in an Orthodox church, making children’s cartoons under a dome built for Christian murals. Saints and their serious faces, angels with fiery wings.

In his studio the dried flowers rustle like birds’ wings. He pads, in house slippers and cargo shorts, through the warren of dark rooms, holding a white teacup: Lipton yellow label, splash of milk. Kuzya, the dog, snores by the door. From outside, in the park, he hears birds singing. It occurs to him that Kuzya, who is deaf, can’t hear them, and he feels a twinge of pity: What would a life without birdsong be like?

He loves the park, with its soft light, its little ducks and trees. Every morning when the pond is not frozen solid he jumps in and goes for a swim. “Only not,” he sometimes boasts, “in the summer. The water is too hot!”

Now it is spring, and Moscow is noisy with construction. Jackhammers ripping up sidewalks; cranes tipping themselves above buildings like giraffes over watering holes. He hates what Putin is doing to the city. The old Moscow had an organic order to it, like a beehive: church, square, shops, neighborhood, church, square, shops, neighborhood, and again, in simple, untroubled succession. Now everything is haphazard. Every rooftop suddenly needs a café.

Skyscrapers shoot up, senseless clumps of them, as though rubles were drifting over the city like dandelion fuzz, and apartment towers sprouted wherever they took root. Which is in fact what is happening. The construction contracts make Putin's cronies rich and the luxury boutiques keep the populace docile. It makes him shake with rage. Many Muscovites keep dachas, country houses within easy reach of the city; his was once 45 kilometers away, but the new Moscow threatens to swallow it up. “I keep telling Francheska, ‘I’m going to write to these idiots, and I’m going to call them out,’” he says. “I know they could say, ‘you’re being offensive,’ but I’ll say ‘you’re offensive!’ I’m going to do it! Even though it won’t mean anything.”

At least the studio, where he lives as well as works, is his to arrange as he likes. Not that he owns it. This is capitalism; he pays rent like anyone else. It keeps him young, he thinks, having to chase his living. He has hung bells, many bells, from the low ceilings. Every surface in the small dark rooms is cluttered with books, lamps, dried blossoms, postcards, art: his sketches, other people’s sketches, children’s sketches, charcoal portraits of 19th-century clerks, religious icons, tubes of paint, a large wooden camel, a travel poster from Seville, hangers from Marks & Spencer, a magazine photo of a Brazilian soccer fan with her breasts spilling out, triangular rulers, tiny scissors, glass bottles, an old record player, a small green chair, stills from his films, interesting stones, rolls of masking tape hung on hooks, a spotted frog, and hedgehogs, dozens of hedgehogs, painted and molded and carved; people keep giving him hedgehogs because they love his most famous character, the little yozhik who goes to visit his friend the bear cub and finds himself lost in a fog. “Enough hedgehogs!” he says. In his bathroom he has taped a sign reading “Pirate’s Corner” — Pirate was his last, and deeply loved, dog — to the wall over a phalanx of miniature samurai standing in formation on a glass shelf. The cup beside the samurai is full of paintbrushes, encircling one single tube of toothpaste.

A scene from “Hedgehog in the Fog

On Saturday mornings, he opens his studio to admirers, who come to buy his pictures and his magnets and the children’s books he has made from his films. Tania takes payment in cash; she prints receipts with an adding machine. Most of the time, his Saturday crowds are small, but sometimes — on the day he released his memoir, for instance — the lines stretch around the block. Occasionally they include foreigners; his friend Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator behind classics like Spirited Away, sometimes compliments his films in the press, and that brings him some attention, Miyazaki being so well known. But mostly they are Russians, of all ages. He tells them jokes. With a flourish, with an exclamation mark, he signs their books.

Tania has worked for him for more than 20 years, and she loves to goad him, so while their Saturday callers flip through the racks of prints, she will sometimes begin explaining loudly what a terror he is to work for. Sometimes, she says, businessmen come to see him, professional people in suits and ties, and offer him money, as much as he needs to finish The Overcoat. “And whenever this happens, Yuri Borisovich begins to TREMBLE. ‘Don’t worry about anything,’ these men say. ‘We’ll take care of everything.’ And Yuri Borisovich goes into the other room, and he paces, and he hides. And after a while, he comes into the hall like THIS” — Tania imitates a stomping, glowering ogre, puffing out her cheeks and crossing her eyes — “and he POINTS at me, and he POINTS at the door, and he shouts: ‘Tania, YOU handle this!’”

Tania Usvayskaya: his former student. A talented artist in her own right, as he tells anyone who will listen, who has published books of cartoons in Japan. Only rarely, if he leaves the room, will she deliver the other part of her speech, about his unsurpassed skill as an animator. “Yuri Borisovich’s hands are not like other people’s hands,” she says. “They move differently. And Yuri Borisovich’s brain is not like other people’s brains. He thinks in half-millimeters. He lives” — she taps her head — “on a different cosmic timescale.” One of the challenges in animating anything by hand is how to keep the rate of motion consistent for objects moving at different speeds. Depicting one person running is easy, but when you have two people, and one of them is slightly faster than the other, making their movements line up from frame to frame requires all sorts of tricky calculation. But Tania has seen him, on The Overcoat, do this by pure instinct. He simply knows how much to move each figure, and he can improvise individual running styles for them, too. She shakes her head. “We ask him, why, why not take help? Why do you always make it so hard on yourself? But the only things Yuri Borisovich is afraid of are the things that might really help him.”

The trouble with Russia, he thinks, is that it’s so hard to trust anything. Many things seem real but aren’t; other things, like art, seem made-up but are really the places to look for the truth. This morning, for instance. This morning is perfect. The white clouds over the city are staggering, enormous. Someone will say that if you park yourself in the middle of Red Square and face St. Basil’s, the candy-bright cathedral will look, under the citadel of cloud, about 3 inches high. Well: beautiful. But Putin’s head is always poking in. Even into the weather, even into nature, where it ought not to be. The government seeds the clouds every April to ensure blue skies for the May Day parades, and that, people say, is the real reason the air over the city grows so dramatic in late spring. He, Norstein, only autographs picture books. Putin can’t rest until he has signed his name on the sky.

He keeps photos of Putin on the corkboard over his worktable: the all-powerful autocrat, caught making ridiculous faces. Scrunching his head down into his neck while counting money. Jutting out his neck, a blond turtle, to straighten his tie.

Once, on the side of a building near his studio, he found some old graffiti reading “a dick up the nose of the state.” He took a picture of it, which he likes to show to his guests. “Oh, how I wished I had written that!” he says. “Straight up their noses! I may not have written it, but I’ll tell you what I did do — I marched up and down the sidewalk shouting it for days!”

Here they come: the revolutionaries. Marching down the street. A band of jostling silhouettes, red, flat, wearing workers’ caps, with jagged bayonets affixed to the ends of their rifles. Their momentum pulls the angular city behind them into a line-streaked blur. Capitalists — fat, black-jacketed squiggles with fat round squiggles for faces — wobble out from the buildings, shaking fat fists and bellowing: Go back, stop this at once! The workers keep coming. The music is by Shostakovich, and when the cymbals crash, the silhouettes flash, they come faster. Faster. Running now, rifles akimbo, limbs flying: a red chaos, a sea serpent seething with spines. The capitalists gape and totter backward into their towers.

He is making his first film as a director. Finally, after so many years. He is 26 now, in 1967, and he feels that he has waited a long time. He and Francheska have moved into their own apartment, his first home away from the kommunalka, where he has lived with his mother since his father died. The film is an eight-minute short about the October Revolution. He is co-directing it with another animator, Arkady Tyurin. He and Tyurin share an enthusiasm for the avant-garde political art of the early Soviet era, the period of Tatlin and Malevich, and they have decided to bring the uprising to life by bringing revolutionary paintings and posters from the era of the uprising to life. This is, of course, a way to talk about politics that is also a way to talk about art, and about the relation of animation to art. He has learned a great deal in the years he has spent working on other people’s films, and he is eager to think about what he has learned, and about how the lessons might tie together to make a career.

One thing he has learned: He likes working with cutouts. The trick, in producing animated films, is how to make the labor manageable. The most straightforward way to make a picture move is to draw it over and over, changing it slightly where movement occurs: Think of the flip-book doodles you might make on the corner of a notebook. But this becomes prohibitively labor-intensive once you start to imagine scenes with many static elements — walls, windows, trees, background imagery — because each of them would have to be redrawn, in exactly the same way, every time a character turned her head or took a step. Traditional cel animation gets around this difficulty by placing moving elements on transparent sheets of celluloid, which are then overlaid on one background image. You make several drawings of the dragon flying, then photograph each of them, in turn, atop a single drawing of the castle. Run the photographs at high speeds, and you see the dragon soaring across the battlements.

“He thinks: I don’t care what happens to me, I am never going to compromise again.”

In cutout animation, the principle is similar, but instead of redrawing the dragon to make it fly, you make a dragon cutout, a jointed drawing with articulating parts, and physically move its wings. This is intended as a way of saving time, but he feels it as an artistic possibility. Cutout characters have a consistent physical identity, unlike in cel animation. But unlike in puppet animation, where the puppets are three-dimensional objects inhabiting the same physical universe as people, cutout characters can be integrated into their backgrounds in the same ways drawings can, with the same tricks of depth and perspective. Cutout animators interact with their characters like puppeteers do, but it is as if they are puppeteers inside the worlds created by their drawings.

The film takes its name from a poem by Mayakovsky: “25th — The First Day.” He and Tyurin incorporate works by Chagall, by Mayakovsky himself, by the revolutionary era’s great artists, then throw them together in hurtling juxtapositions; the pace and the use of double-exposed images recall Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, the groundbreaking work of Soviet silent cinema. But when they come to the end, a problem is waiting for them. They want to use a painting by the artist Pavel Filonov, whose aesthetic system, Universal Flowering, combined aspects of Cubism and futurism. They find this fascinating; but Filonov has been in disgrace with the authorities since the late 1920s. They are told to rework their script. Lectures in dismal offices: Some suggestions, comrades, for your ending. Ugly ashtrays, buzzing lights. The people need a film about Lenin. The people have no need of this frippery about art.

They try to concoct a plan that will please the bureaucrats while keeping the film true to their conception. But they are young and inexperienced, and they have no leverage with the studio. They are forced to insert a scene, made by splicing together photographs and old film footage, that shows Lenin giving a speech to a celebrating crowd. It looks and sounds like a newsreel, and it has nothing to do with the study of revolutionary art and its relationship to animation that he has tried to make. He feels ashamed — and his bosses hate the film anyway. He is rewarded for his contribution to the smooth functioning of the propaganda machine by being trucked off to produce a fire-safety video for children.

Well, comrade, what did you expect? You have a role to play in the state. You make light entertainments for the masses. Isn’t it a little late to pose as an aggrieved artist?

He thinks: To do what you see in your mind, you will have to learn to manipulate the system.

He thinks: I don’t care what happens to me, I am never going to compromise again.

If civilization is fallen, if the imagination of the artist offers our only model of a better world, then not to compromise is the artist’s first duty; a vision adulterated by outside influence is a vision infected by the malady it means to cure. But what if the refusal to compromise results in a masterpiece that cannot be finished? What if the prerequisite for producing great art makes a great artwork impossible to produce?

He begins The Overcoat at the start of the 1980s: a good time for him, a moment when his career feels like a fight he has won. Tale of Tales, his luminous, nonlinear film about art and memory, has been rapturously received at international film festivals; the authorities have allowed the film to travel, though not him with it. He has been in and out, and mostly out, of the state’s good graces, but he has on his side a group of fellow animators and artistic administrators that his friend, the writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, calls a “mafia of decent people.” They know how to maneuver against the censors to keep him in theaters, if not in favor. When Tale of Tales was under review, the authorities assumed that it must be subversive, since they had no idea what it was about. But his friends anticipated this, and arranged for his past work to win an important state prize just before the new film went before the functionaries. That way, the censors could not ban Tale of Tales without attacking the judgment of the powerful prize committee; they fumed, but they let the film pass.

He has learned how to obfuscate, how to plot, how to disguise his intentions. He has learned to speak a language in which yes means maybe and perhaps means never. He writes film treatments that bear no resemblance to the movies he wants to make, then, when the budget is approved, throws out the treatments and gets to work on the movie. And when the bosses complain, about unannounced changes, budget overruns, blown deadlines: But of course we can talk about it, comrade, nothing could be simpler. Perhaps we should assemble a committee? Delay till you can get them on your side. Delay till your film exists and can persuade them. Delay till they have a choice between releasing your film and releasing nothing; let them think about how, if they choose nothing, they will explain themselves.

The story of “The Overcoat,” Gogol’s story, is dear to him. Akaky Akakievich is a lowly clerk in St. Petersburg. This is mid-19th century, czarist Russia. St. Petersburg is the imperial capital. The functions of government are divided among a large class of civil servants, each ranked according to a rigid hierarchy, from the meanest scribe to the most exalted minister. One's place in the hierarchy determines, in many cases, one's whole life. It limits relationships, it defines circumstances. So here, already, we see the Russian national disease, the flaw that has unspooled from serfdom on, the flaw Communism was supposed to (but did not) correct: the obliteration of common human feeling by an overmastering mania for rank.

Akaky Akakievich’s rank is lowly. At 50 — pale, stooped, balding — he spends his life hunched over an inkwell, copying official papers. He has no friends, and his imaginative life is wholly confined to his work: Sometimes he brings pages home to copy in the evenings, just for his own satisfaction. But early one winter, when the snow is swirling and the cold is nipping at the heels of the clerks on Nevsky Prospect, he realizes that his old overcoat is too thin and frayed to last another season. He will have to replace it. An overcoat is a huge expense: He saves for months. He finds himself, quite uncharacteristically, fantasizing about his new garment: how warm it will be, how rich, how splendid.

At last the day comes when the tailor delivers the coat. Carefully, Akaky slips it on: It’s perfect. Everything seems different now that he has the coat. His small swelling of pride actually dizzies him. His colleagues, who normally tease him, invite him to a party. On the way home, he is stopped by robbers in a dark square: They steal his new coat. In shock, he goes to see a high-ranking official who, he is told, will be able to find his coat for him. But the official only upbraids and belittles him. It is freezing in St. Petersburg, and soon Akaky Akakievich catches a fever. He dies. After Akaky’s death, a ghost is reporting prowling around the city, a ghost that rips the coats off people’s shoulders as if it is searching for its own.

A scene from “Hedgehog in the Fog

He is drawn to “The Overcoat” partly because Gogol’s imagination seems ideally suited to an animated film; the details are so eccentric and so vivid. There is the tailor, Petrovich, with his deformed big toenail, “thick and hard as a tortoiseshell,” who curses at his thread when it won’t go through the needle: “You’ll be the death of me, you devil!” There is the “rather weakly built” policeman who, Gogol tells us, was once knocked off his feet by a “quite normal-sized, fully mature piglet which came tearing out of a private house.” But he also loves “The Overcoat” for the same reason the story has resonated so strongly in Russian culture: Its moral theme, the perversion of empathy by power, is a cry right from the heart of an everyday Russian tragedy.

He feels this with a passion he is barely able to contain. This is what art is for, this is what it can do: It can show people that fellow feeling runs deeper than the arbitrary distinctions that raise one person over another. Gogol’s story includes a moving scene. A clerk is taunting Akaky Akakievich, who responds, as he always does, by muttering, “Leave me alone, why do you have to torment me?” The clerk, who has been laughing, suddenly falls silent. And for a long time, Gogol says, those words will haunt the clerk, even in his happiest moments, because he hears the sound of others underneath them: “I am your brother.”

He thinks his adaptation will be 20 minutes long and take at most a few years to complete. But the film grows in the making. A scene that is meant to last one and a half minutes comes in at more than 16. Deadlines fly by. Perhaps it will run for 60 minutes instead of 20. Perhaps a little more. Problems hit the production almost immediately, and the problems compound. He and Francheska have furious arguments — they always fight when they’re working, always have fought when she’s designed one of his films, but this time the stakes seem higher because Gogol’s story is so important. The characters and the setting must look exactly right. They spend months searching for the precise downcast angle of the eyes, the precise worried furrow of the brow, to represent Akaky Akakievich. Production stops for months at a time while he maneuvers behind the scenes to get a promotion for his longtime cameraman, Alexander Zhukovsky, but the elitist buffoons who control the Soviet art system reserve advancement for university graduates. Norstein isn't one, and neither is his friend. The attempt fails, after consuming huge swaths of the calendar. By 1986, the studio has promised his space to another director: He is evicted. Soon he is out of the studio completely. He has no choice but to abandon The Overcoat or find a way to make it on his own.

“Art takes what it takes, and memory has a way of looping back on itself...”

While the structure of his creative life is collapsing, the whole world seems to follow suit. The Berlin Wall comes down. The Eastern Bloc disintegrates. With the rest of the world, he watches Yeltsin standing on a tank — Boris Nikolayevich, with his face like beaten dough — and witnesses the end of the economic and cultural regime under which he has labored for his entire career.

The problem now is one of how to live. How can he get by, with a stalled film and a back catalogue from which he has no clear hope of profit? He can teach classes, for one. He can give lectures. He finds that he is admired enough abroad, in Europe and Japan, for opportunities to present themselves; and now he is free to travel, so: Paris, Tokyo, art schools, film schools, museums. He plows his fees back into The Overcoat, or toward keeping his small team of artists together. He works on it when he can. When he takes on foreign investment, the deals go badly, because the investors want a say in what his film will be like, and he refuses to listen to them. The investors want him to work abroad, where they can watch how their money is being spent, and he does not want to move away from Moscow. It turns out that the tactics he has learned for operating under Communism, the oblique stubbornness and disguised perseverance, do not work in the same way under capitalism, where stricter accounts are kept; and he feels frequently unmoored, unsure of his reference points.

In any case, the troubled status of his film limits interest from investors. The endless production of The Overcoat costs him his chance at Miyazaki-like international fame, but then, what good would international fame be if it meant rushing or skimping on The Overcoat? The story matters more to him than ever; it is only the work that is slow.

And so, slowly, his status in the culture of the new Russia drifts into something curious; he is half laughed at, half revered. Once a decade or so, he releases a few minutes of new work: a series of sugar commercials in 1994, a set of opening titles for a long-running children’s TV show in 2000. In 2003, his tiny, two-minute sequence about the poet Basho appears in a Japanese omnibus film called Winter Days, featuring the work of 35 directors. Each of these pieces is, in its own way, marvelous; between their appearances, the people who remember him wait for The Overcoat, and ask him when he will finish it, and wonder whether he still works on it at all.

He thinks that time is strange. He has never quite understood the way other people seem to perceive it. To imagine life as something so finite, so headlong! Art takes what it takes, and memory has a way of looping back on itself; things that are forgotten are gathered up again and remembered, things that have gone slowly suddenly go very fast. Sometimes an unfinished work — there are portraits by Rembrandt like this — seems old when it is new and then, when it is old, seems new again. Sometimes, at his talks, he shows the crowd a clip from the scene in which Akaky Akakievich holds his old coat up to the light, to see whether the fabric can be mended. The footage is black-and-white. Akaky’s big, fretful head turns in the unsteady candlelight. He wipes his nose. He has been out in the storm. Shining droplets roll off the brim of his hat. He raises the coat and bunches the fabric in his fingers. He puts it over his head like a tent. His fingers slide out through small holes. It is as simple as that. He is quiet, careful, and serious. The scene is so mesmerizing, and so unlike anything the audience has seen before, that unless the crowd is full of animators, no one thinks to ask how a two-dimensional cutout could create realistic bulges and wrinkles in cloth.

How can a two-dimensional cutout inhabit a three-dimensional world? Animation is traditionally filmed by a camera that points downward, into parallel sheets of glass: This is the system that Disney, for instance, used from the 1930s through The Little Mermaid in the late 1980s. The lowest sheet holds the static background painting; the top sheet holds foreground elements, typically characters, either cutouts or drawings on celluloid. A minimal setup might have only two or three panes, but in a more complicated one, layers of glass between top and bottom might be used for objects in the middle distance, or to create an illusion of depth. The camera is suspended above the stack of panes, so that when it takes a photograph, it resolves the separate layers into a single image, the way your eye might if you looked through a series of windows, each with part of a picture painted on it.

A complex multiplane system, such as the one Disney developed, offered early animators a solution to one of the new medium’s trickiest problems: how to simulate advanced camera movement. Animators wanted their work to incorporate the visual grammar of live-action films, but a two-dimensional image behaves differently under a camera from three-dimensional space. Tracking shots, for instance, were almost impossible to achieve in early hand-drawn animation, because zooming the camera in on a flat background drawing would make distant elements grow larger at the same rate as closer ones, which is not how we perceive forward motion in the physical world: When we drive down the highway, the far-off mountain and the road sign do not grow at the same pace. With a multiplane animation stand, however, animators could simulate tracking shots by raising foreground and middle-ground planes toward the camera while leaving the background plane in place. An animation stand of this sort would typically be operated by several technicians working at once, and would require a great deal of calculation to make sure that rules of perspective were maintained.

He is allowed to make his second film as a solo director in 1974, when he is 33. For his text, he takes an old Russian folktale, a skazka, but when he thinks of the look he wants for the movie, he finds that his thoughts keep straying to some ideas he has about Asian painting, ideas that have been with him for a long time. The year his father died, when he was 15, he came across a book of Japanese poetry. He was thrilled by its combination of extreme concision and extreme openness, the way it painted tiny, vivid scenes that seemed to contain vast meaning. Now he thinks: Isn’t the haiku a perfect template for an animated scene? It offers one resonant action, one perfected moment: The old frog jumps into the pond. The dragonfly sees its shadow. The firefly lights up inside the soldier’s helmet. His love of Japanese poetry has led him, over the years, to Japanese painting, and then to Chinese painting, and he has been thinking about the ways in which these traditions treat perspective and background: not as a mathematical extension of foreground but as something free-floating, suggestive, something unfixed. The hint of a mountain in faint brushstrokes, ink flowing behind smoke.

He thinks that he wants to explore the potential of indefinite background depth in an animated film. He thinks that perhaps the way to turn animation into the kind of art he values is not to make it self-consciously “adult,” not to make it political or place it in explicit dialogue with avant-garde aesthetic movements, but instead to intensify what it already traditionally is: uncomplicated, lovely, with access to strong, direct feeling. He imagines a film that is technically marvelous, that is beautiful, but that places the most sophisticated techniques in the service of a haiku-like simplicity. What if it were possible to make films that could be loved by adults and children alike, because they made no distinction between work intended for one and work intended for the other? At their most childlike, they would possess a visionary beauty that linked them to fine art; at their most experimental, they would have the sincerity of lyric and the radiance of childhood memory.

“In a dark, overgrown garden, full of ruined pillars and fountains, live a heron and a crane.”

With Francheska, he has been exploring ways to merge his physical cutouts with their drawn surroundings. They have found that if they make the cutout from celluloid instead of card stock, and leave a margin of transparent cel around the outline of the character, they have more control over how the cutout blends into its environment. They have also decided to forgo static background painting altogether. Instead, they experiment with building each background element from multiple layers of cel, then arranging those layers across different planes on the animation stand to create a sense of texture and physical depth, what he calls “a play of the air.” So everything is a cutout, and everything is a drawing: Francheska, it turns out, manages this brilliantly. At the same time, he is working with Zhukovsky to design a new multiplane animation stand. It is radically, audaciously simple: three panes of glass that can be moved freely, independent of one another, and a few slots for additional panes, which cannot be moved. Unlike the laborious system used by most large studios, including Soyuzmultfilm, their stand can be operated by just two people, an animator and a cameraman. Instead of being optimized for mathematically precise, classical perspective, it is designed to allow the relation between foreground and background to remain unstated, like that of a Chinese ink painting.

So: In a dark, overgrown garden, full of ruined pillars and fountains, live a heron and a crane. They are lonely, and they would like to live together. But they are also vain. The crane thinks he is the handsomest bird in the garden; you can tell from the smug way he examines the tips of his wing feathers, like a lothario contemplating his fingernails. The heron is a bit of a snob. She walks with her head pointed up in the air, and when she sees the crane, she scans him from head to toe and says: “Hmph!” He brings her a bouquet of dandelions and asks her to marry him; she blows the dandelion fuzz in his face and says no. But then she thinks, Why did I reject him? I don’t want to live alone, so she runs after him and says that she will marry him after all. But now the crane is wounded and angry, so he rejects her. As soon as he does, he thinks, But why did I say that, I do want to marry her; I should go after her and tell her. And this continues, with each bird alternately acting as the pursuer and the pursued, through many transformations.

The story is a gentle satire of human pride, simple enough for a child to find it funny; the narration, by the legendary Soviet actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky, is a small masterpiece of baritone suavity. But the film becomes darker as it goes. The heron and the crane begin to seem trapped in a ritual they are powerless to escape, and at the same time their suffering begins to seem more real and less cartoonish. Some of this has to do with the way the setting behaves. The garden is a place of strange yellow mists hanging over faraway fields. The black treeline floats over the horizon. Time seems partly suspended because space seems partly suspended. The sudden rains that seem to blow through whenever the birds have an argument feel like iterations of the same recurring storm. In the last scene, the heron walks angrily through one such rain while the crane follows her, trying to shield her with an umbrella. We see them from the side, in profile, and from some distance away, behind long slashes of rain, so that they are only silhouettes. We can’t hear the dialogue, but the heron seems to snap at the crane to leave her alone. He falls back. Then he scampers forward, gives the heron his umbrella, and runs off into the storm. The heron, chastened by this gesture of kindness, takes a few tentative steps after him. Mist from the rain covers her up, and though the narrator tells us that the story keeps going, the movie ends.

Moscow keeps going. Moscow ends. It is 1976 and he is back in Maryina Roshcha, his childhood neighborhood, to see it before it disappears. The state is sending bulldozers to knock down old houses from before the Revolution. The people who live here are being moved somewhere else; soon, when the new apartment towers are finished, people from somewhere else will be moved here. Brezhnev has ideas about how the populace ought to be housed: Out with wooden matchboxes, in with concrete piles.

This year the autumn days are warm. He walks, with Zhukovsky, among the old, sunken houses, among thickets of dark trees. Zhukovsky takes pictures. Already the place looks half abandoned. In the yards are piles of broken furniture, plaster statues missing arms and heads, car parts, abandoned firewood. He sees a beautiful bent-wood chair under a poplar tree, propped up on an old nail crate. A cat slinks by. Zhukovsky speaks to it.

Later, when he sees the photographs, he will think: What a fine silver sheen we give to the departing world.

He is working on a new film. He has commissioned his friend, the novelist and playwright Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, to write the treatment. Petrushevskaya's bleak, intelligent literary work has been banned by the government, but animation isn't literature; why should anyone care if a writer wants to waste time on something as safe as a children's movie? Petrushevskaya has a new baby, and for weeks, the writer and the animator have been walking in the park together, pushing the stroller and arguing about ideas.

His last film, Hedgehog in the Fog, was a triumph, a picture-book story that left children breathless and animators baffled: How did he make this? The hedgehog sets out with a tiny bottle of jam wrapped in a spotted kerchief, only to find himself lost in a fog that acts like it is alive. The fog is too dense and deep to be a drawing, but it cannot be a cutout, and if it is a trick of light and filters, how is it controlled? It opens onto incredible visions, which the little yozhik watches with wonder-stricken eyes. It parts to reveal a huge white horse, a funny, scary owl, an enormous fish, a bounding dog. It explodes in a glitter of butterflies.

Hedgehog is immediately loved by almost everyone who sees it. But now, Petrushevskaya tells him, he has come to a dead end. He cannot possibly make a film more beautiful than this one. He needs to look in a new direction, she argues, toward the mundane, away from the magical. He needs to look toward the stuff of everyday life.

A scene from “Seasons

He thinks that he would like to make a film about a poet who is misunderstood. But he is also thinking about memory, about the way life is built up from fragments gathered and mixed together. When you look back on your own life, you never see it as a straight line; it comes to you in a series of moments, loops that play out of order and dissolve around the edges. He thinks: Perhaps I could capture the way that feels, that mingling. Perhaps the way to make animation into art is to animate the experience of time.

Petrushevskaya writes a proposal that is deliberately vague. The idea they are working on is not ready for the censors, and in any case, he is not yet sure what sort of film he wants to make. So she concentrates on finding the right tone. “This is to be a film about memory,” her draft begins. “Do you remember how long the days were when you were a child?”

They write draft after draft of a treatment about a poet. But when he begins to write the shooting script, he is drawn back to his visit to Maryina Roshcha. He goes to see it again, only to find that the bulldozers have been in before him and left it in ruins. He had thought of calling his film Tale of Tales, after a poem by the Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet. Now he thinks of a new title: The Little Gray Wolf Will Come.

He and Francheska begin working on designs. They have terrible arguments. He gives her sketches to work from, and he wants her to work quickly, so that her drawings have a spontaneous energy; she prefers to linger over each image until it is perfect. He stomps and thunders. She goes on strike. One night he dreams that he is flying over the earth with lightning bolts shooting out of his chest, killing people on the ground; Francheska tells him that this is all the nastiness coming out of him. But slowly, over months, the look of the film emerges and a loose structure takes shape.

What he comes up with is a work far longer than his other movies — 29 minutes — and far more ambitious. It will have no single plot, but will be made up of parallel stories, or fragments of stories, that emerge and subside and come back again. A girl jumps rope with the help of her friend, an enormous bull who stands on two legs and turns the rope. A fisherman rows out to sea. In the time of the war, a ghostly procession of soldiers drifts through the air. A mother nurses her infant, humming a lullaby. A poet works on a manuscript. The little gray wolf moves from story to story, watching with big, frightened eyes.

The stories look so different from one another that they might take place in different worlds. The jump-roping girl and the poet live in a warm, bright, seaside idyll with almost no color in it: They look like ink sketches flickering on parchment. Another story, set in a snowy winter garden, is vividly saturated with color: There is a little boy eating a green apple, and his coat is sapphire blue.

The atmosphere is melancholic. In the time of the war, young women and young men are dancing under a streetlamp to the tango “Weary Sun.” One by one, blip blip blip, the young men disappear. Loose papers, blown in by the wind, circle in the air. The women grasp for them, to read the names of the dead.

The little gray wolf makes a campfire near a tumbledown kommunalka: his, Norstein's, own childhood home. The doorway to the house glows with what looks like magical light. The little wolf walks timidly inside, and finds himself, unseen, in a room where the poet is writing. The poet’s cat is sleeping on the table. The magical light seems to emanate from the poet’s pages, lying on the edge of the table. The little wolf’s curiosity gets the better of him: He takes the manuscript and runs into the trees. Now he finds that instead of a manuscript, he is holding a crying baby. In a panic, he rocks the baby and sings a lullaby, the one every Russian child has heard before falling asleep:

Baby, baby, hush-a-bye,
On the edge you mustn’t lie,
Or the little gray wolf will come,
And will nip you on the tum,
Take you off into the wood
Underneath the willow root.

When the authorities review the film, they say: A suggestion, comrade, about your title. They think he should call it Memories of My Childhood. He sits in the office of the head script editor, and while the embarrassed representative of the state examines a crumb on the table, they agree that he will instead use the film’s original title, Skazka skazok: Tale of Tales. It isn’t a bad name, he thinks, only slightly jarring. Skazka is also the name for a fairy tale. A Communist bureaucrat’s office seems like a strange place to settle on “once upon a time.”

Once upon a time there was a writer whose fear of God was so strong that it killed him. Nikolai Gogol was an odd, thin, furtive, nervous man — tall, slightly stooped; you picture the cloak forever swirling behind him — with a fierce nose and a biting sense of humor. In 1828 he came to the capital, St. Petersburg, from a farm in Ukraine, and proceeded to write some of the most astonishing work ever put on paper: not only “The Overcoat,” but also the satirical play The Government Inspector, and “The Nose,” a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find that his nose is missing, and, worse, that it is traveling around the city in a hat and cape, posing as a powerful official. In 1842, he published the first part of his greatest work, the novel Dead Souls. He intended to write two more installments. But Gogol became pious as he aged, and he fell under the influence of a spiritual elder who persuaded him that his literary work was a sin. One night in the winter of 1852, in his rooms near a church where he loved to hear organ music, he threw the unfinished manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls onto the fire. He took to his bed and died a few days later — of starvation, it is commonly thought, though the official registry lists the cause of his death as “a cold.”

The irony is not lost on Yuri Norstein — how could it be? A great Russian artist failing to finish a masterwork adapted from a great Russian artist who died with his masterwork unfinished. Sometimes it seems as if the process is working in reverse: He set out to adapt Gogol, and instead, Gogol adapted him. But he has no interest in God and no desire to starve himself. “His children tease him,” Tania says. “They say, ‘Papa, Papa, why do you live this way, why do you make things so difficult? Come on vacation to Greece with us!’ But Yuri Borisovich says, ‘No, no, I need to be in Moscow. I need to touch the flowers. I need my cross-country skis. I need to feel the wind in my face!’” He likes to swim in his pond and he likes to sit with Kuzya in the studio, and on weekends he likes to visit Francheska at the dacha, where she now spends most of her time. He likes being applauded at his talks. He likes drinking cognac. He likes to storm and yell and fire his assistants, too, but he always hires them back before they get to the door. He looks through books of nature drawings and fantasizes about visiting the Arctic. He thinks that for all the damage people do to it, the world is too fascinating a place to turn away from.

There are long stretches when he does no work, while he summons up creative energies. But when he sets to work, Tania says, he works quickly: “Yuri Borisovich takes his little tweezers and goes tchk, tchk, tchk, and just like that, a scene is finished.”

He likes to tell a story about a time when Francheska surprised him. He has always been in awe of her intuitive connection to nature. One year, they brought home a bundle of nettles that turned out to be full of caterpillars. The caterpillars crawled all over the room; soon a chrysalis hung from every available space. One morning Francheska told him, “A butterfly is about to come out of that chrysalis.” And as he watched, “my heart pounding with excitement,” the shell cracked and a pair of wet wings came through. The wings began, slowly, to beat, and Francheska explained that the butterfly was drying itself, preparing to fly for the first time. “She knew in advance each action of the butterfly,” he says, and it happened just as she told him. When it is time, it is time.

Many years ago, when he was 15, he was chosen to attend a special art class for talented students, two days a week. The class was held in a stately old mansion in Moscow, near the planetarium. The bright, spacious quiet of the studio was utterly new to him, coming from where he did. After the dark, crowded kommunalka, it opened his eyes to a different world. He discovered ancient Greece through the alabaster statues in the art room: There was Laocoön, silently screaming; there was Socrates, bald and with a nose like a potato. He remembers the sound of the easels rattling, the clinking of the watercolor brushes in their saucers. It is good, he thinks, to have memories like these. He keeps them among his sources of enchantment — along with bright light, and sweet bread, and a talking cat whose shadow he can almost see.

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Creative Director: Rich Sancho