Yuriy Norshteyn stands as one of the most accomplished animators of all time, the quality of his work and his dedication to the art surpassing that of all his predecessors and contemporaries. Notorious for his ardent perfectionism (leading him to be nicknamed "the Golden Snail"), Norshteyn has never produced anything less than brilliant, every single frame a veritable work of art. 'Vremena goda / Seasons (1969)' was a gorgeous classical stroll through the Russian countryside at various time of the year. 'Yozhik v tumane / Hedgehog in the Fog (1975),' probably the director's most widely known film, is a timeless ode to the power of childhood, dreams and adventure. Norshteyn's greatest film and, indeed, probably the finest animated film in cinema history remains 'Skazka skazok / Tale of Tales (1979),' a heartbreaking metaphorical journey into the depths of the mind.
'Tsaplya i zhuravl / The Heron and the Crane' was released in 1974, and was written by Norshteyn and Roman Kachanov, with cinematography by the director's long-time friend Aleksandr Zhukovskiy. The story, which is based on a Russian folk tale and narrated by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, concerns the peculiar romance of two would-be lovers, Heron and Crane. Each desires to marry the other, and yet each bird's sense of pride and self-importance continually prevents them from accepting the other's marriage proposal. It is a delicate courtship ritual, a hopeless cause thwarted by either party's inability to overcome their own conceit, even if the cost is their lifelong happiness. The story really does have a sense of tragedy about it: "and so it still goes on like that, back and forth one after the other." The Heron and the Crane are destined to remain alone for the rest of their lives, always with an unattainable happiness dancing right before their eyes.
The animation of 'The Heron and the Crane' is, of course, absolutely stunning to look at. Like 'Vremena goda' of five years earlier, it has a certain classical charm to it that is unique to Soviet cinema. The world in which the birds live is cold, bleak and foggy, and gaining the ability to animate convincing mist would have been a tremendous aid in the production of 'Hedgehog in the Fog.' For this film and to be used in his later efforts Norshteyn's four-person crew invented a special piece of equipment that allowed them to animate on layers of glass, give the images a unique, three-dimensional appearance. 'The Heron and the Crane' is not the director's greatest film, but it is the work of a meticulous and assured hand, and, like all his films, has a beautiful timeless essence. Unfortunately, I was only able to find the film online, and the picture quality was less than optimum. I'll be certain to look out for a clearer copy; it's very much worth it.
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