(Sources: “Pinscreen” by Marcel Jean, Wikipedia, National Film Board of Canada)
In the early 1930s, engraver Alexandre Alexeïeff, a Russian émigré living in France, decided to go into filmmaking. Wishing to make films with an aesthetic faithful to the line and shading of his engravings, he invented a new type of device: the pinscreen.
The pinscreen consists of a white screen pierced by hundreds of thousands of pins that can slide back and forth, each in its own hole. When lit from the side, each pin casts a shadow, and when all the pins are pushed out, there is total darkness. But when pins are pushed in, their shadows are shorter, and the black become grey. When pins are pushed all the way in, they do not cast shadows and the white screen can be seen.
In 1933 Alexeïeff, with the help of his partner Claire Parker, completed Night on Bald Mountain.
In 1962, they used it to make the prologue to Orson Welles’ film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. This marks the only mainstream, widely distributed film that Alexeieff and Parker were involved with. Interestingly, the pin-screen was not animated for this sequence. Instead still shots were filmed while Orson Welles read Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” over it.
The Nose, based on Nikolai Gogol’s satirical short story was released in 1963 and marks the first narrative film made on the pinscreen. The film tells the story of a Russian official who loses his nose and the adventures of the nose itself as well as the barber who finds the nose.
In 1968, musician Maurice Blackburn, one of Norman McLaren’s regular collaborators, made a brief foray into directing with a short experimental film titled Ciné-crime. For this film, with its extremely complex concrete soundtrack, he used a smaller version of the device.
In 1972 Alexeïeff and Parker were invited to the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB had acquired a full-sized pinscreen, and the two artists gave workshops to train a group of filmmakers. McLaren seized the opportunity to shoot a documentary, Pinscreen.
Their visit had a major impact on the future of the process. It had long been thought that the pinscreen would die with its inventors, but then Jacques Drouin decided to use it for his films. In 1974 he made Trois exercices sur l’écran d’épingles d’Alexeïeff. Then, two years later, he came out from under Alexeïeff’s heavy shadow to express his own tone and style with Mindscape.
After the success of Mindscape, Drouin introduced a technical innovation when he coloured his images by filtering his light sources in Nightangel (1986), co-directed with Czech Bretislav Pojar. This film marries two techniques, as Pojar’s puppets play out a story against changing pinscreen backgrounds.
You can watch it here.
Drouin continued his aesthetic research in his next three films: Ex-child (1994), A Hunting Lesson (2001) and Imprints (2004).