Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pinscreen Animation / Écran d’épingles

Pinscreen Animation / Écran d’épingles

Pinscreen is an extremely rare but truly beautiful method of animation.  Currently the only pinscreen still in use is in Montreal, where Michèle Lemieux produced her innovative recent short film Here and the Great Elsewhere (Le grand ailleurs et le petit ici, 2012).  It won an Animated Dreams Special Mention at the Tallin Black Nights Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious Annecy Cristal and the Jutra Award for Best Animated Film. 

Pinscreen animation was invented in France in the early 1930s by the Russian artist Alexandre Alexeïeff and his American partner Claire Parker with additional design input by his first wife, the artist Alexandra Grinevsky.  Alexeïeff was an engraver and he sought a technique that would resemble animated engravings.  The result of their experiments with the pinscreen resulted in Night on Bald Mountain (Une nuit sur le mont Chauve, 1933), inspired by the compositions of the same name by Modest Mussorgsky.  The film was a critical success but because of the time-consuming, and therefore costly, nature of the technique, it did not catch on with other artists.

In 1940 Alexeïeff fled war-torn Europe for the United States with Parker, to whom he was now married, his ex-wife and their daughter Svetlana Alexeïeff RockwellNorman McLaren at the NFB was an admirer of their work and in 1943 the film board invited the couple to come to Canada to produce their second pinscreen film In Passing (En Passant, 1944).  Although they were to return to France in 1946, Alexeïeff and Parker’s ties to Canada remained strong.

Read about my encounter with their pinscreens at the Cinémathèque Française in 2012

In the late-1960s, one of McLaren’s regular collaborators at the NFB, the musician Maurice Blackburn, tried his hand at pinscreen using a smaller version of Alexeïeff and Parker’s original device.  The result was an experimental short called Ciné-crime (1968) with was animation expert Marcel Jean describes as an “extremely complex concrete soundtrack” (source). 

In 1972 the NFB bought the NEC pinscreen and in honour of the occasion, Alexeïeff and Parker were invited to return to Canada to give workshops to NFB filmmakers.  McLaren recorded this occasion with his short documentary Pinscreen (1972) which is available on Disc 7 of Norman McLaren: The Master’s Collection and the DVD Alexeïeff: le cinéma épinglé  (FR/EN). 

This event turned out to be crucial to the future of the pinscreen as an art, for the young Montreal animator Jacques Drouin decided to try his hand with the technique, creating the short film Trois exercices sur l'écran d'épingles d'Alexeïeff (1974).  After this introductory exercise, Drouin became more ambitious and created the poetic film Mindscape (Le paysagiste, 1976) which went on to win 18 international awards including the Special Jury Prize at the inaugural Ottawa International Animation Festival.   Drouin then took pinscreen animation a step further by adding colour through filtering his light sources and collaborating with Czech animator Břetislav Pojar to create Nightangel (L’heure des anges, 1986), in which Pojar’s puppets perform against metamorphosing pinscreen backgrounds. 

With Drouin’s retirement from the NFB in 2005, it seemed as if the time of the pinscreen was coming to an end, but Michèle Lemieux’s glorious Here and the Great Elsewhere breathed new life into this mesmerizing artistic medium.  Under the guidance of Jacques Drouin, she has described how she “instantly fell in love with it” and learned how “you are the protector of the instrument before you are an artist working on it.”  (Source: The Atlantic)  It is hoped that Lemieux will continue to make pinscreen films and will pass on her passion for the instrument to a new generation of Canadian animators.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

related terms:
pinboard, chiaroscuro, gravures animées  (animated engravings), pin art, digital pinscreen, Nagelbrett-Animation / Nadelwandanimation (DE)

Key names:  
Alexandre Alexeïeff (RU/FR, 1901-1982) & Claire Parker (USA/FR, 1906.1981): “the artist and the animator”
Jacques Drouin (CA, b. 1943)
Michèle Lemieux (CA, b.1955)


Key films:

Night on Bald Mountain / Une nuit sur le mont Chauve
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1933)

In Passing / En passant
(Alexeïeff and Parker, Canada, 1943)

The Nose / Le nez
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1963)

“Prologue” of The Trial
(Orson Welles, France/Germany/Italy, 1962)

(Maurice Blackburn, Canada, 1968)

Pictures at an Exhibition / Tableaux d'Exposition
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1972)

Trois exercices sur l'écran d'épingles d'Alexeïeff
(Jacques Drouin, Canada, 1974)  Watch/Buy : NFB

Mindscape / Le paysagiste
(Drouin, Canada, 1976) Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

Three Moods / Trois thèmes
(Alexeïeff and Parker, France, 1980)

Nightangel /L’heure des anges
(Bretislav Pojar and Drouin, Canada, 1986)  Watch: ONF blog

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse / Les quatre cavaliers de l'Apocalypse
(Jean-François Mercier, 1991) Watch/Buy : ONF
- documentary with pinscreen animated sequences by Drouin

(Drouin, Canada, 1994)  Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

A Hunting LessonUne leçon de chasse 
(Drouin, Canada, 2001)  Watch/Buy : NFB / ONF

Winter Days / Jours d’hiver
(冬の日/Fuyu no hi, Kihachirō Kawamoto, Japan, 2003) Order DVD: FR / JP
- pinscreen vignette by Drouin

(Drouin, Canada, 2004)  Watch: NFB / ONF

Here and the Great Elsewhere / Le grand ailleurs et le petit ici
(Michèle Lemieux, Canada, 2012)


Alexeieff at the Pinboard (A Propos de Jivago, France, 1960)

Pinscreen Tests (NFB, Canada, 1961)

Alexander Alexeieff: The Pin Board (Nick Havinga, USA, 1966)

Pinscreen (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1972)

24 idées / seconde - Écran d'épingles (Éric Barbeau, Canada, 2006)
Watch/Buy : NFB

Jacques Drouin en relief (Guillaume Fortin, Canada, 2009)
Warch/Buy : NFB

Jacques Drouin – Séquences animées (Guillaume Fortin, 2009)
Watch : ONF


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