Posted by Susan Doll on August 24, 2009
I love most two-dimensional animation with all its graphic qualities – vivid, saturated colors, a linear aesthetic, and characters created from simple, pleasing shapes. From the simplicity of Gertie the Dinosaur to the deep blacks of Koko the Clown to the richly colored animated features of classic Disney to the wacky wonders of Warners’ short cartoons, I appreciate that at one time during the animation process real artists actually designed and drew the figures while artisans painted the colors. Though I am slowly warming up to the computer-generated, modern-day 3-D classics of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, and others, the “art” of this 3-D approach sometimes skirts the basics of graphic design that makes classic 2-D animation so visually appealing. The characters of Toy Story, Shrek, Ratatouille, and Up look like the toys that the marketers at Disney want you to buy even if you don’t see the movies, and some of the color schemes in these films look dull or seem random. To me, nothing matches the design brilliance of Mickey Mouse, who was configured from ten circles of three basic sizes; no computer-generated color seems as bright as the primaries of Snow White’s dress; no blacks are as deep or frightening as the ink well that Koko falls into.
I have been thinking a lot about animation history because I have been researching the life of Alexandre Alexeieff, an experimental filmmaker who pushed animation in the direction of fine art, for a DVD project we may distribute at Facets Multi-Media, where I work. A former engraver of illustrations for books, Alexeieff wanted to animate his engravings, maintaining the chiaroscuro effects, the textures, and the shaded tones of this graphic medium. He had little interest in commercial animation, which was defined by its use of caricatures, simplified shapes, linear qualities, and flat blacks. Together with his second wife, Claire Parker, the pair invented and constructed the pinscreen, a specialized tool that allowed them to create the visual effect Alexeieff wanted.
Born in Russia in 1901, Alexeieff lived the sort of extraordinay existence one associates with an artist. As the son of an officer in the Czar’s army, he grew up in Constantinople where his father was part of the military attaché in the Russian Embassy. When his father died mysteriously on a mission in Germany, the family was forced back to Russia, where young Alexeieff attended the St. Petersburg Military Academy. He studied art at the academy from a progressive instructor who encouraged critical thinking.
In 1917, Alexeieff supported the revolutionary movement surrounding the October Revolution, but his enthusiasm soured when members of his family became victims of the Bolsheviks. A socialist uncle was jailed and killed, while his brother, Nikolai, disappeared in Georgia and was never seen again. By 1921, Alexandre was on his way to Paris, where 300,000 displaced Russians reportedly lived, including some of the country’s leading actors and theater talents. Alexeieff found work as a set designer, took painting and drawing lessons in bohemian Montparnesse, and embarked on a career as a book illustrator and etcher.
Paris during the 1920s became the home of expatriate writers and artists from all over America and Europe and quickly emerged as the artistic capital of the world between the wars. Just as the other arts were experiencing innovations and theoretic breakthroughs, the French cinema attracted the attention of dada and surrealist artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray as well as young filmmakers like Jean Renoir, Germaine Dulac, and Jacques Feydor, who blurred the boundaries between artistic expression and commercial filmmaking. The decade also saw the international influence of Soviet montage editing, German Expressionist lighting techniques, and Chaplin’s humanistic Little Tramp. All of this innovation and expression prompted the French to declare cinema to be the seventh art. The heady atmosphere of the period inspired Alexeieff to experiment with fine art and cinema by attempting to animate engraving.
A young American art student named Claire Parker was also living in Paris during this exciting time in history. (Sometimes I know I was just born too late. I would have made a great bohemian expatriate in Paris.) After seeing Alexeieff’s book illustrations, she tracked him down in the hopes of becoming his pupil. In 1931, Parked used her money to help Alexeieff design and create a tool that would achieve the effect he wanted in his animation. The tool constructed was the first pinscreen, which consisted of a screen-like surface stretched in a frame. The screen was uniformly perforated by thousands of small holes and then filled with headless metal pins that could easily be pushed back and forth in their respective holes. The screen was lit from the side so that the pins cast a shadow when pushed through the holes. By pushing the pins into the screen to varying degrees, images were created, photographed with the film camera, slightly altered, then photographed again. This process was endlessly repeated, resulting in the animation of the imagery. Dark areas were created by pushing the pins in only slightly; gray areas were created by pushing them in farther, and light areas were indicated by pushing in the pins the farthest.
The pair’s first effort was an animated short of A Night on Bald Mountain based on Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky’s 1876 symphonic poem. Alexeieff constructed the film shot by shot in his mind as he sat in the dark listening to the music. He made no preparatory drawings before shooting, and whenever a mistake occurred during production, corrections could only be made by starting over again. It took Parker and Alexeieff a year and a half to finish the film, which was exhibited in 1933.
The adjectives most often used to describe A Night on Bald Mountain are “poetic” and “lyrical,” and they are fitting descriptors for this rare marriage of music and image. The film is less like a narrative and more like a fluid succession of images that complement the music. The shading or modeling of the images facilitates their merging into one another, like figures or shapes in a nightmare. Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” referred to the witches’ Sabbath that occurred on the summer solstice on Mount Triglav near Kiev, Russia. Alexeieff never forgot the culture and history of his native Russia, and he was attracted to and inspired by Mussorgsky’s work because they shared a common heritage. While the Russian inspiration for A Night on Bald Mountain is undeniable, the imagery reminded me of the silent film Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau, the German Expressionist who achieved a chiaroscuro effect in his films through lighting techniques.
A Night on Bald Mountain created a sensation among the artists and creative types in Paris. The ability of the pinscreen method to add shading to shapes and figures exploited the entire gray scale, creating the chiaroscuro effect of printmaking, which Alexeieff desired. But, the idea that images were created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins was reminiscent of painter Georges Seurat’s pointillism technique. The results were the opposite of the flat and linear look of cel animation. To further distance themselves from the look and entertainment function of commercial cartoons, Alexeieff and Parker eschewed the medium’s dependence on caricature and comic scenarios. A Night on Bald Mountain was intended as a serious artistic interpretation of the music, and as such, it raised the bar for animation.
However, film distributors were reluctant to embrace this type of animation because it would not be profitable unless Alexeieff could manage to produce about a dozen shorts per year. Given the time-consuming nature of the pinscreen method, this was not possible. As a matter of fact, Alexeieff and Parker would complete only about half dozen pinscreen films over the course of 50 years. Parker and Alexeieff decided to turn their talents to more commercial pursuits by becoming involved with the advertizing industry, which was still in its infancy in the mid-1930s. In Europe, many fine artists earned money by working with advertizing firms or companies seeking high quality advertisements.
By 1935, Parker and Alexeieff had fallen in love. In circumstances that only sophisticated Europeans seem to thrive on, Parker, Alexeieff and the latter’s first wife, Alexandra de Grinevsky, worked together creating animated advertisements for wine and cigarette companies, which were exhibited in theaters. Parker and Alexeieff created the designs and images, and a fourth member of the team, Etienne Raik animated them. They did not use the pinscreen method but the more traditional stop-motion technique of animation. Parker seems to have blossomed with the advertizing shorts, because they make use of bold, bright colors. Alexeieff disliked color in films and animation, finding it too decorative. Their first effort was titled “Sleeping Beauty,” a 1935 short for Wines Nicolas.
During World War II, the pair moved to the United States but had no desire to work for either commercial animation firms or large corporations. In 1943, they ended up in Canada, where they produced their second pinscreen film titled In Passing (En Passant) for the National Film Board. By this time, Alexeieff had perfected the pinscreen frame, making a larger version that was easier to use, and En Passant was released in 1944. When the war ended, the couple, who had finally married in 1941, happily returned to Paris and continued to produce animated advertisements. The one below for Nescafe is typical of their work.
About once or twice a decade, the pair returned to their pinscreen technique. Film lovers unfamiliar with the names Alexeieff and Parker may have seen an example of pinscreen in the opening moments of Orson Welles’s version of The Trial. Welles, who spent much of his time in Europe during the 1950s, admired Alexeieff’s earlier work as a book illustrator, and he invited the couple to illustrate the prologue of his film. The Trial begins with a series of pinscreen illustrations detailing the parable of the Law, which is narrated in voiceover by Welles.
The following year, the couple made The Nose, which is based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol and features some of Alexeieff and Parker’s most distinct imagery. The Nose depends more on a traditional narrative structure than the lyrical A Night on Bald Mountain. The story follows the adventures of a barber who finds a nose in a loaf of bread, the young man who lost the nose, and the nose itself who wants a life of its own. The imagery includes a visual interpretation of 19th century Russia that once again indicates Alexeieff’s love for his native country.
In 1972, Alexeieff and Parker produced Pictures at an Exhibition, which can be taken as a sort of companion piece to A Night on Bald Mountain. Pictures at an Exhibition interprets the music that Mussorgsky had composed long ago that he hoped might aurally suggest imagery for painters to interpret. The music certainly worked that way for Alexeieff, whose chiaroscuro-heavy images tapped into his past recollections, memories, and dark visions of the legends of old pagan Russia. Unfortunately, this pinscreen animation was never fully completed due to practical issues.
Around this time, documentary filmmaker and animator Norman McLaren, who worked for Canada’s NFB, invited Alexeieff and Parker to demonstrate the pinscreen method to filmmaking students. McLaren produced a film based on this event in 1973 so he could capture for posterity the inventors of pinscreen animation using the tool and the techniques of this painstaking method. Titled Pinscreen, the documentary is the best way to learn both the beauties and the difficulties of this unique form of animation. The lengthy clip below features some image from the prologue for The Trial and footage of Parker and Alexeieff demonstrating pinscreen techniques.
Alexeieff fine-tuned the pinscreen frame one more time in 1976, and the following year, the couple began their last film using this method, Three Themes, which was based on three of the “Tableaux” written by Alexeieff’s favorite composer, Mussorgsky. The film was first exhibited in Milan, Italy, in March 1980 during a triumphant celebration for Alexeieff and Parker. The presentation of Three Themes in Milan proved to be the couple’s swan song. A year and a half later, Parker died, and in 1982, her husband followed her in death.
Given Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker’s backgrounds, artistic circle, and their specific ideas about what constituted animated art, you would think that their personal cinematic tastes might be rarefied, even snobby. But, one of my favorite stories is told by animation historian and Alexeieff biographer Giannalberto Bendazzi. After a long discussion about art and animation, Bendazzi once asked Parker what were her favorite films of all time, and she replied, “The ones with Tom Mix and his beautiful white horse.”
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