Yuri Norstein was born to a Jewish family in the village of Andreyevka, Penza Oblast, during his parents’ World War II evacuation. He grew up in the Maryina Roshcha suburb of Moscow. After studying at an art school, Norstein initially found work at a furniture factory. Then he finished a two-year animation course and found employment at studio Soyuzmultfilm in 1961. The first film that he participated in as an animator was Who Said “Meow”? (1962).
After working as an animation artist in some fifty films, Norstein got the chance to direct his own. In 1968 he debuted with 25th October, the First Day, sharing directorial credit with Arkadiy Tyurin. The film used the artwork of 1920s-era Soviet artists Nathan Altman and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
The next film in which he had a major role was The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971), a co-production with Russian animation director Ivan Ivanov-Vano under whose direction Norstein had earlier worked on 1969’s Times of the Year.
Throughout the 1970s Norstein continued to work as an animator in many films (a more complete list can be found at IMDb), and also directed several. As the decade progressed his animation style became ever more sophisticated, looking less like flat cut-outs and more like smoothly-moving paintings or sophisticated pencil sketches. His most famous film is Tale of Tales, a non-linear, autobiographical film about growing up in the postwar Soviet world.
Norstein uses a special technique in his animation, involving multiple glass planes to give his animation a three-dimensional look. The camera is placed at the top looking down on a series of glass planes about a meter deep (one every 25–30 cm). The individual glass planes can move horizontally as well as toward and away from the camera (to give the effect of a character moving closer or further away).
For many years he has collaborated with his wife, the artist Francheska Yarbusova, and the cinematographer Aleksandr Zhukovskiy.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Norstein’s animations were showered with both state and international awards. Then, in a bitter twist of irony, he was fired from Soyuzmultfilm in 1985 for working too slowly on his latest film, a (presumably) feature-length adaptation of Gogol‘s Overcoat. By that time he had been working on it with his usual small team of three people for two years and had finished ten minutes.
In April 1993, Norstein and three other leading animators (Fyodor Khitruk, Andrey Khrzhanovsky, and Edward Nazarov) founded the Animation School and Studio (SHAR Studio) in Russia. The Russian Cinema Committee is among the share-holders of the studio.
To this day, Norstein is still working on The Overcoat – his ardent perfectionism has earned him the nickname “The Golden Snail”. The project has met numerous financial troubles and false starts, but Norstein has said that it currently has reliable funding from several sources, both from within and outside of Russia. At least 25 minutes have been completed to date. A couple of short, low-resolution clips have been made available to the public. The first 20 minutes of the film have also toured among various exhibits of Norstein’s work in Russian museums. The full film is expected to be 65 minutes long.
Norstein wrote an essay for a book by Giannalberto Bendazzi about the pinscreen animator Alexander Alexeïeff titled Alexeïeff: Itinerary of a Master.
In 2005, he released a Russian-language book titled Snow on the Grass. Fragments of a Book. Lectures about the Art of Animation, featuring a number of lectures that he gave about the art of animation. That same year, he was invited as “guest animator” to work on Kihachirō Kawamoto‘s puppet-animated feature film, The Book of the Dead.
On 10 August 2008, the full version of the book Snow on the Grass was released (the “incomplete” 2005 book was 248 pages). The book, which was printed in the Czech Republic and funded by Sberbank, consists of two volumes, 620 pages, and 1700 color illustrations. The studio stopped working on The Overcoat for nearly a year while Norstein worked to release the book.
- The 25th, the First Day (25-e — первый день, 1968), in collaboration with Arkadiy Tyurin.
- The Battle of Kerzhenets (Сеча при Керженце, 1971), in collaboration with Ivan Ivanov-Vano.
- The Fox and the Hare (Лиса и заяц, 1973).
- The Heron and the Crane (Цапля и журавль, 1974).
- Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане, 1975).
- Tale of Tales (Сказка сказок, 1979).
- Participated in Winter Days (冬の日, 2003).
- The Overcoat (Шинель, still in production).