Le cinéma épinglé

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In yesterday’s mail, the DVD collection of Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker’s animated films. I ordered this after watching the Norman McLaren film about the operation of the pinscreen, not realising that the same documentary is included here, together with a shorter film from 1960 that shows the pair creating still illustrations for an edition of Dr Zhivago. In addition to five pinscreen films by the couple there’s also Mindscape (1976) by another pinscreen animator, Jacques Drouin, together with two reels of technical experiments.

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Most surprising of all is a lengthy collection of Alexeieff’s advertising films from the 1930s. These were made for French products such as Evian water, Renault cars and Gauloises cigarettes, with all of them photographed in a pre-Technicolor single-strip process, Gasparcolor, whose limitations made it difficult to use for live action but ideal for animation. The films are also surprising for being much more traditional animations of physical objects, there’s even a puppet adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. In the notes Alexeieff says:

We were the first to make colour films (Gasparcolor) in France, and immediately obtained a reputation for quality on the market. We established, I believe I am justified in saying, a class of films without precedent in this domain, and for which a certain number of progressive and powerful advertisers were ready to pay more and more… We made ourselves the champions of three-dimensional object animation. Into such one or two minutes film we decided to introduce, if only in one of its sequences, some sort of experiment, and never hesitated to invest time or money in inventions because an advertising film must strike by the novelty of its form.

The use of light and colour is indeed striking, especially when seen beside the monochrome pinscreen films, while some of the hazy, prismatic light effects are precursors of similar imagery being produced decades later by people like Jordan Belson. Alexeieff was too old to contribute to the psychedelic avant-garde but I wonder what he might have achieved if he’d been a generation younger.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Animating the pinscreen
The pinscreen works of Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
The Nose, a film by Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker

Animating the pinscreen

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Before the Law (1962).

The animated films of Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker have been featured here on several occasions even though they remain hard to find. I linked to a YouTube collection a few years ago but—typically for YT rarities—it’s no longer available. One example that many people will have seen is Before the Law, the short prologue and film-within-the-film that appears in Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Before the Law, like all the Alexeieff and Parker films, was produced with the pinscreen, a unique piece of animation technology invented by the couple. The pinscreen’s white board contains thousands of tiny pins whose angled shadows can be manipulated by pushing the pins in or out to create sharp lines or subtle monochrome shades.

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The pinscreen technique is almost always mentioned when Alexeieff and Parker’s work is being discussed but the structure and operation of the board hasn’t always been very clear. For a long time I thought that “pinscreen” was merely a useful name, and that the pins must be more like nails, rather like those desktop toys that mould your face or hand. This film from 1972, The Alexeieff-Parker Pin Screen [sic], opens with a detailed description of the device, immediately confirming that, yes, those really are thousands of tiny black pins set into a board. The documentary was made for the National Film Board of Canada by another great animator, Norman McLaren, who can be seen hovering in the background from time to time. McLaren and the NFB wanted to record Alexeieff and Parker discussing the pinscreen and its operation so a tutorial might be preserved for future animators.

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The pair are seen introducing a smaller version of their original pinscreen to a group of would-be users, a board containing 240,000 pins; the screen used to create Before the Law was four times the size with over a million pins. The operation of the device seems slow and cumbersome at first, especially when great care has to be taken to draw lines or shapes by raising or lowering the pins without damaging them at all. But having a surface that was both static yet manipulable must have offered advantages over more traditional animation methods using paint or charcoal. The most surprising detail for me was seeing Alexeieff and Parker working on both sides of the screen, with Alexeieff pushing in the pins to create light areas and Parker pushing them out again to return the area to its original black. The documentary ends with a short sequence showing animation experiments made by the students.

I said earlier that Alexeieff and Parker’s films can be hard to find but there was a DVD collection released a few years ago which I recall trying to order from some French website that wouldn’t co-operate. I thought it might be thoroughly unavailable by now but copies are still on sale at the very reliable Re:voir so I’ve just ordered one. For a taste of Alexeieff and Parker’s prowess with this kind of animation there’s En Passant (1944), two miraculous minutes illustrating a French-Canadian folk song.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The pinscreen works of Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
The Nose, a film by Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker

Spheres, a film by Norman McLaren and René Jodoin

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Norman McLaren’s dance films were a late development, previous decades having been spent creating animated films in a variety of techniques. Many of these were abstract works with a musical accompaniment, as is Spheres (1969), one of McLaren’s last films in this style. It’s not completely abstract: a butterfly keeps interrupting the multiplying spheres which dance through space to a piano piece by Bach. This being a Canadian production, it’s fitting that Glenn Gould is at the keyboard.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ballet Adagio, a film by Norman McLaren
Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren
Norman McLaren

Ballet Adagio, a film by Norman McLaren

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In which Norman McLaren once more brings film technology to the world of dance. McLaren’s earlier Pas de Deux (1968) used optical printing to multiply the movements of the dancers in a manner similar to Marey’s chronophotographs; in Ballet Adagio the entire dance is shown in slow motion, a common enough technique but one you seldom see applied to ballet. The music is Albinoni’s Adagio. The latter technique was employed again in the homoerotic Narcissus (1983) which can be seen in full at the NFB website.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Lodela, a film by Philippe Baylaucq
Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren
Norman McLaren

How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels, a film by Craig Welch

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Craig Welch’s 11-minute film was made in 1996. It’s a beautifully drawn and conceived piece of work, vaguely surreal as animated films often are but also with some Symbolist qualities:

Welch has stated that one of the original influences for the film was Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead as well as Norman McLaren’s 1946 NFB animated short A Little Phantasy on a 19th-century Painting, which incorporates the Böcklin work.

A pity, then, that Welch doesn’t appear to have made anything since. Watch How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels here. (And thanks to Jescie for the tip!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Secret Joy of Falling Angels, a film by Simon Pummell
Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk
L’Ange by Patrick Bokanowski