There’s something to be said about creative stubbornness. The drive to start an artistic project and then see it through to the end no matter what is certainly worthy of respect. Several filmmakers have earned this accolade, a distinction that may spark equal parts joy and frustration. Terry Gilliamfor example, spent 29 years trying to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made, finally succeeding in 2018 after numerous failed attempts that would have killed any sane person’s spirit. Orson Welles spent 40 years attempting to make his own version of Don Quixote, but even after completing filming he still failed to deliver a final product that satisfied his everchanging vision. Both films encapsulate the problems with auteur filmmakers. There’s no denying the joy of watching someone’s creative vision in all its splendor. Clinging too tightly to producing one’s artistic vision fully, though, can also lead to protracted development times, battling the unfortunate war between creating something that satisfies their artistic intentions and follows a reasonable timeframe that will succeed financially. It’s a fight every great filmmaker becomes embroiled in, and while creative control is a vital element all directors must maintain, it is nice when their artistic visions actually translate into a finished product.
Case in point, The Overcoatthe infamous passion project of famed Russian animator Yuri Norstein. His success with the short films Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales has led to vast praise. So it’s safe to say expectations have been high ever since he announced he was stepping into the world of feature length productions with The Overcoat. The film, an adaptation of author Nikolai Gogol’s titular short story, follows a poor government clerk who dreams of buying a new overcoat, and whose paltry salary forces him into poverty as he begins saving money to buy it. With a protracted development time of 41 years, The Overcoat has earned itself the record of the longest production cycle in animation history (and the second longest of any film period, beaten only by Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind at a whopping 48 years). While the film has suffered various behind-the-scenes troubles (including issues regarding funding and the death of one of its most important crew members), much of the reasoning for its protracted development can be aimed straight at Norstein. His ardent perfectionism and refusal to update his methods even when more efficient ones come available has earned him the nickname “The Golden Snail”, a title that’s very much a double-edged sword. There’s no denying that waiting for a film that’s been in production for twice as long as it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza would drive anyone to insanity, but the dedication Norstein has shown is worthy of admiration. Whether a finished version of The Overcoat will ever grace our eyes remains to be seen, but regardless of what happens, its place in the annuls of film history is beyond certain.
A crucial aspect of The Overcoat’s protracted development stems from the unique technique Norstein uses when creating his films. Rather than using a large group of animators to produce films in a reasonable timeframe, Norstein instead prefers a small team consisting of himself along with his wife. Francheska Yarbusova and his close friend Aleksandr Zhukovskiy, serving as artist and cinematographer, respectively. Using a form of stop motion called cutout animation, Norstein and Zhukovskiy shoot Yarbusova’s drawings through multiple panes of glass of varying depths (roughly one every 25-30cm) which can be moved horizontally or vertically to produce different effects. It’s an old and frankly outdated method, but it has given his films a distinctive look that resembles a painting that has magically come to life, and produces a far more picturesque aesthetic than any factory of CGI artists could create. Unfortunately it is also a very time-consuming process. As an example, when Norstein produced a segment for the anthology film Winter Days, he spent nine months on a sequence that lasted a mere two minutes. It was certainly one of the highlights in an otherwise mixed bag of a film, but the shockingly long production time for such a small piece of footage signifies just how laborious his system is.
It’s also a problem that, rather unsurprisingly, has been the source of many problems for The Overcoat. Norstein and his team began work on the film in 1981 while they were working at Soyuzmultfilm, the dominant animation studio in the Soviet Union, but were fired four years later due to how little progress they had made. Since then Norstein has worked independently, using his own animation studio constructed in his house. Since he no longer has the backing of a major studio, funding has come from a variety of places, including (but not limited to) TNK oil company and the Soros Fund Management firm. Norstein has become notorious for refusing assistance even from the most well-intentioned people, such as turning down the help of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run creator Nick Park when he offered his services. His perfectionist nature will make the prospect of anyone outside his inner circle contributing to the project an unlikely one, and even if he did, the work required to integrate another person into his team may prove more effort than it is worth. Norstein did have to cross this bridge in unfortunate circumstances in 1999 following the death of Zhukovskiy (an event that has loomed heavily over the project ever since), with filming only resuming two years later under the care of new cinematographer Maksim Granik, the only significant change to the film’s production team during its development. It’s telling that Norstein only made such a change when he was left with no choice, a decision that cuts to the heart of why it remains unfinished.
The Overcoat is the ultimate passion project. Rather than making it for cynical or financial reasons, Norstein is doing it simply because it is a story he cares for deeply. His motivation is purely artistic, and he gives the impression of someone who would rather see 41 years of work go down the drain than lead to a result he was unsatisfied with. This does raise the question of whether an artist should be given the levels of freedom he has enjoyed, with it arguably being the very thing that has hampered the project. Obviously creative control is an important thing all artists should have, but unlimited freedom is a different beast entirely. Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales have cemented Norstein’s place in the history books, but they were also produced under a major studio that realized the importance of getting a film finished every now and then. Their smaller scope would certainly have helped matters, but Tale of Tales is only half the length of The Overcoat’s intended running time and saw a release just four years after its predecessor.
Perhaps Norstein’s love for Gogol’s story has proven more harmful than helpful, creating an imaginary layer of expectations that can never be met. Nothing will ever be perfect. There’s always another sentence that could be improved, a note that could be changed, a shot that could be tweaked. Perfection can never be achieved, and attempting to do so would be comparable to madness. Talented artists can have a dream and set out to make it a reality, but the truly great ones understand when it’s time to draw a line under a project and move on. Norstein’s skills are undeniable, but no film should approach half a century of development and still have a question mark over whether it will even be released. His desire to not let his fans (or his team) down will only have exacerbated his problems, contributing to an endless circle of delays that will only worsen his perfectionist tendencies.
Only a few minutes of footage from The Overcoat have been released publicly. While even these show signs of requiring further work (lacking anything in the way of sound), they provide a stunning but painful look at Norstein’s magnum opus. The attention to detail is remarkable, and seeing how much character is breathed into every frame makes it clear that the spark that ignited this passion has never faded. With Norstein and Yarbusova now both being well above the retirement age, the question of whether The Overcoat will be finished shifts from “do they have the commitment to see it through” to “will they even be physically capable of seeing it through”. Regarding the first question, it is clear the answer is a resounding yes, and whenever the subject crops up in interviews it is clear they are just as determined as they were 41 years ago. The second point, however, is a more tragic one that anyone interested in the film will have to consider.
But maybe there’s something fitting about that. The protracted development of The Overcoat showcases an artist unwilling to accept anything but perfection, and if what he considers perfection cannot be achieved then maybe it’s for the best it remains unfinished. The passion he and his wife have shown towards the project has left an impact that will outlive anything they end up producing, and adds just another layer to Norstein’s impressive legacy as one of the great storytellers animations. It’s a tale everyone can find inspirational. Just be sure to take the right lessons from it.