Alexandre / Claire Alexeieff / ParkerOccupation / Title:
18/04/1901 & 31/08/1906Date of death:
9/08/1982 & 03/10/1981Birthplace:
Kazan, Russia & Boston, Massachusetts
Alexeieff and Parker were a husband and wife duo who developed the animation technique of pinscreen animation in Paris in the 1930s, a new form of animation that created a gradated chiaroscuro effect.
Family and early life
Born in Russia on April 18, 1901, Alexandre Alexeieff moved to Paris due to events following the October Revolution on 1917. He was forced to leave the city of Ufa in order to cross Siberia with a group of fellow cadets. Taking several boats throughout their journey, they at one point stopped in French Riviera Alexeieff left and set out forParis. Armed with a letter of recommendation, he sought out the Russian-born set designer Sergei Soudeikin who worked at the Pioteff Theater inParis. Alexeieff was successful, and so began to work for the theater as a set designer and painter. A few years later, in 1923, Alexeieff married Alexandra Alexandrovna Grinevskya, an actress at the Piteoff Theater. They had one daughter, Svetlana, who was born in 1923. During this time, Alexeieff had transitioned to working as an illustrator for several books being published in Paris.
Claire Parker was born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 31, 1906 to a wealthy and privileged family. She graduated from MIT and decided to move to Paris in 1931 in order to further pursue her interests in art. She requested to meet the Russian-born artist Alexeieff, who was working at that time as an illustrator and engraver, after seeing his illustrations in a Paris bookstore. Extremely impressed by his skill and ideas, she asked him to take her on as a student and apprentice. She moved into Alexeieff’s home, where he lived with his wife Alexandra Alexandrovna Grinevskya and daughter Svetlana. Initially, her role seemed to be primarily financial however, supporting the cost of building the large pinscreen used to make the first pinscreen animation and supporting his family so that they could devote time to the project. While at first Alexeieff, Grinevsky-Alexeieff and Parker collaborated on animation projects together, Alexeieff and Parker began to work on developing the technique of pinscreen animation as a duo. They also began to fall in love, and in 1940 after moving to the US, Alexeieff decided to divorce Grinevskya-Alexeieff and marry Parker instead.
Alexeieff and Parker worked on pinscreen animations as a duo, without Alexeieff-Grinevsky, who had actually been crucial to the initial development and production of Alexeieff’s first pinscreen. Pinscreen animation is a rarely used and extremely intricate technique. A perforated board with a million movable steel pins is lit, then each steel pin is pushed forward a certain amount such that it casts a proportional amount of shadow. These varied and controlled shadows great a soft, gradated, chiaroscuro effect. Each frame of a pinscreen animation is created by manipulating pins into soft, shaded images, which are then photographed and run together in sequence (thus, animated). The process is truly unique, and also carries tremendous challenges. As each frame was created, the previous frame was simultaneously destroyed – thus there could be no returning to original frames if one needed to be redone. Furthermore, Alexeieff did not create storyboards and instead composed each frame from his mind, in sequence, so there was also no external reference from which to edit or work from. The process was also extremely costly, both in terms of time and resources. Few studios, excepting the National Film Board of Canada, patronized the work.
The first pinscreen animation the two created was Night on Bald Mountain (1931), based off of the piece by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. The tale is about a witches’ Sabbath on the summer solstice, celebrated on the top of a Russian mountain. The animation was shown at the Pantheon, and garnered a tremendously positive reception from audiences and critics.
The two produced a second pinscreen animation with the National Film Board of Canada, In Passing/En passant (1944). In 1946, all four (Alexeieff, Parker, Grinevsky and Svetlana) returned to Paris.
The next period of Alexeieff and Parker’s collaborations consisted of advertising films. During this time the duo developed a new animation technique called totalization. Totalization involved the filming of a moving object with long exposures, so that the trace of motion is captured on film. The result is motion of an object appearing as one solid object. They began to use this new technique in their advertising work.
In 1962, they created a prologue to an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The prologue was done in pinscreen, and featured several separate tableaux that were not animated together. Ironically, though the prologue is not actually animated, it is probably Alexeieff-Parker’s most well-known and widespread works. The following year, they created a third pinscreen animation called The Nose (1963) based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name.
In 1972, they were invited to come to the National Film Board of Canada to tutor other animators in the art of pinscreen animation. They created yet another (unfinished) pinscreen animation that same year, based on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This animation used two pinscreens in order to create a 3D effect. Alexeieff and Parker released a final pinscreen animation in 1980 called Three Moods, which was also based off of Mussorgsky’s compositions.
To read more on Alexandre Alexeieff: http://rarebit.org/?people=alexandre-alexandrovitch-alexeieff
To read more on Claire Parker: http://rarebit.org/?people=claire-parker
Bendazzi, Giannalberto (2001). Alexeieff: Itinerary of a Master. Dreamland.
Neupert, Richard (2011). French Animation History. John Wily & Sons.