Hedgehog in the Fog: A Short Animated Classic by Russia’s “Golden Snail”

If you’ve never seen Yuriy Norshteyn’s Hedgehog in the Fog, then you are in for a special treat. And if you have seen it, you owe it to yourself to revisit this classic, animated film.

Hedgehog in the Fog is one of the most beautiful, evocative short films ever made. It won many prizes and awards on both sides of the Iron Curtain when it made the festival circuit in the mid and late 70s. In 2003 Hedgehog was named “the number one animated film of all time” at an animation competition in Tokyo.

The story is simple–a hedgehog makes his regular evening journey to see his friend, the bear cub. But on this particular night a fog has descended on the forest and the hedgehog has many frightening, transformative encounters. The cinematography of Nadezhda Treschyova, story by Sergei Kozlov, and music of Mikhail Meyerovich come together with Norshteyn’s animations to create a moving, memorable experience.

Norshteyn’s craftsmanship and originality, as well as his affinity for small, quiet details have earned him tremendous respect in the animation world. Nick Park is reportedly a fan, and the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, cited Hedgehog in the Fog as one of his favorite animated films and called Norshteyn “a great artist.” Miyazaki and Norshteyn both share an eye for natural beauty. The forest in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke may owe something to Norshteyn’s mysterious forest in Hedgehog, though Miyazaki’s final vision is certainly his own.

Norshteyn was born in a working class suburb of Moscow. His early artistic path was a difficult one, plagued by anti-Semitism and struggles within the education system. Norshteyn practiced carpentry and painting before learning animation.

Yuriy Norshteyn, Photo by Nikita Pavlov

Norshteyn works closely with his wife, Francesca Yarbusova, who is an important collaborator on his films. He uses a unique, multi-plane technique to give his work its remarkable sense of depth. The camera shoots down at a series of glass plates that can move horizontally and vertically, giving the illusion that characters are moving toward or away from the viewer.

This stop-motion technique, which does not employ computers, is incredibly labor intensive. His slow production pace has earned Norshteyn the nickname “The Golden Snail.” Since 1981 he has been working on a 65-minute production of Gogol’s The Overcoat. In 1986 he was fired from Souyzmultfilm (the primary Soviet animation studio) because he was working too slowly. It reportedly took Norshteyn and his small team two years to create 10 minutes of film.

While some critics have attributed Norshteyn’s slow output to his obsessiveness and perfectionism, one could also view his story as a remarkable dedication to craft and personal vision in an overly commercialized movie industry. It is a terrible irony that Norshteyn no longer has to contend with Soviet censors, but must now struggle to find capitalist funding for films that have no mass market appeal. In a 2005 interview in The Washington Post, Norshteyn railed against the state of cinema today: “There is no artistic freedom because artistry has been replaced by ignorance.”

Somehow, Norshteyn has found the tenacity to persevere in spite of tremendous setbacks. During the creation of The Overcoat, Norshteyn has endured continual funding problems, the death of his close friend and cinematographer Aleksandr Zhukovskiy, and the closure of the Moscow film labs that were processing the movie’s black-and-white film stock. (For now, Norshteyn has overcome this hurdle by developing the film himself).

Perhaps like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, the plagued production of The Overcoat should become a story in its own right. Undoubtedly, the final product will determine whether the film is dubbed Norshteyn’s greatest triumph or his greatest folly. If the film lives up to expectation, Norshteyn will likely be portrayed as a hero, and if the film is anything less than a masterpiece, he risks being dubbed the Captain Ahab of the animation world. Regardless, it is an incredible example of an artist remaining true to his vision even in the most difficult circumstances.

In the Post interview, Norshteyn succinctly describes his philosophy on art. An artist’s work should allow people to “experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art.”

If you’d like to explore Norshteyn’s work further, excerpts from some Norshteyn films are available on YouTube. (DVDs of his work are difficult to find, though I was able to track down one collection here). Norshteyn admirers may also be interested in Clare Kitson’s excellent book Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey. Kitson, who commissioned animation for the UK’s Channel 4 for 10 years, discusses Norshteyn’s life and his highly acclaimed film Tale of Tales, which she has seen more than 50 times. The British writer A.S. Byatt, who credits Kitson with making her a Norshteyn fan, discusses Kitson’s book and Norshteyn’s film in The Guardian.

You can watch Hedgehog in the Fog right here (full screen viewing is highly recommended). Even if you aren’t a big fan of animated movies or think “cartoons” are for children, I urge you to give this one a try. Surely you can spare 10 minutes? You won’t regret it.

By | 2016-11-11T21:56:15+00:00 03.19.11|Greatest Hits, Images, Process|3 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

3 Comments

  1. Sandro Del Rosario June 3, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I just wrote a comment on Anna Schuleit, but I can’t leave this space blank….I have to endorse this post, as Yuri Norstein is one of the absolute masters of experimental animation, and one of the greatest poets in animation! He was my true inspiration and the reason I decided to embrace animation as the “call” for my life. It’s indeed one of the hardest journey ever, as Yuri’s story and recent struggle with his – still in progress – work the Overcoat proves…Animators don’t receive MacArthur grants. They aren’t even considered artists with the capital “A”, often neglected by art shows and curators, with the exception of a few individuals who were lucky to break in, like William Kentridge…They’re totally absent from Art History books. What a SHAME! So it’s really brave and honorable that Michelle brought the AMAZING work of this incredible Russian artist to the attention of all the readers of Gwarlingo: more, please!

    If you haven’t seen it, please watch “The Tale of The Tales“, by the same author. It’s my favorite of his, and indeed one of the most beautiful, intense and lyrical animated films of all times.

    • Michelle Aldredge June 3, 2011 at 7:10 am

      Sandro, thank you for your thoughtful comments on Norstein. You are right that animators are too frequently ignored by the larger art world. There are too few opportunities to showcase work and too few grants available. And yet, animators like Norstein and yourself work with all of the same passion, dedication, and vision as any other artist. The amount of time that goes into creating an animated film by hand is remarkable, but because these films lack distribution and don’t easily fit into a neat category, they often languish, unseen and unappreciated by the larger public.

      I plan to showcase more animators in the months ahead. I have always been a fan of your work and hope we can share some of your own films with Gwarlingo readers in the near future.

      Until then, I encourage all of you to check out Sandro’s website. Click on “filmography” to view a clip of his experimental animations. It’s beautiful work. You can also learn more about Sandro’s new film Lo Sguardo Italiano (The Italian Gaze) currently in progress by clicking here.

      As Sandro said, Norstein’s Tale of Tales is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Norstein’s work is not readily available on DVD. You can view the entire film in segments on You Tube. Click here to see part one.

      • Sandro Del Rosario June 6, 2011 at 1:47 am

        Michelle, I’m humbled by your words and so honored to be cited on your comment! I didn’t mean to do any self-publicity, although I admit I wasn’t too careful in hiding the fact that I chose experimental animation as my art…

        You pointed out some of the complexity that lays behind the lack of recognition for animation as an art form: lack of distribution is part of it, sure. And for an art form that is already a hundred years old and still in constant evolution, the paradox is that a lot of the great work from the past is getting lost, as it’s not carefully collected in museums, or published in anthologies. There is much more to be said about the nature of this wild “beast,” and I’ll be happy ANY time to discuss this with you and your readers, Michelle.

        But let me go back to the wonderful Yuri Norstein: his work is actually available on DVD, and under multiple editions. I own one that is region free, and was published in Italy, but there is an equivalent published in English that features all the masters of Russian Animation. In fact it’s called “Masters of Russian Animation,” it has at least four volumes, and it’s available on Amazon.com, as well as on other websites. Even better, I encourage Norstein’s lovers to check his collection called “The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein” that is actually published as DVD NTSC, therefore for the U.S. TV system. Amazon has links to vendors who sell this wonderful collection:

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