Alexandre Alexandrovitch Alexeieff

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Alexandre Alexeieff

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Kazan, Russia


Alexandre Alexeieff was a Russian Paris-based illustrator and animator best known for inventing the pinscreen and totalization animation techniques with Claire Parker.

Alexeieff was born inKazan,Russiain 1901. However, the family soon moved to Istanbul due to Alexeieff’s father’s position in the military and temporary stationing. His father was often away, though the rest of his family, his mother and two brothers, remained close-knit. His father died suddenly during a mission in Germany, and the family moved back to Russia, first to Riga and finally settling in Catchina.

Alexeieff began attending the St. Petersburg Military Academy, taking art courses under the guidance of a progressive instructor. He adored his assignments, and fell in love with the world of art. He also founded a literary journal for his friends to publish work in – though the project did not take off among his peers, Alexeieff remained devoted to the project. Around this time, Alexeieff’s brother Vladimir caught syphilis and shot himself due to the pressures of the illness and the confinement required of him so that the illness did not spread.

The October Revolution of 1917 implicated several of Alexeieff’s family members. The military school closed for three days, and Alexeieff returned home to Lesnoi. His socialist uncle was imprisoned and killed, and his older brother Nikolai disappeared and was never seen again. While at his uncle’s summer home in the city of Ufa in 1921, he was suddenly forced to leave in order to cross Siberia with a group of fellow cadets. Taking several boats throughout their journey, they at one point ended up in Cairo, where their boat was bought by the British for product transportation. The crew stayed on for the time being however, and when the boat 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 in Paris. Alexeieff was successful, and so began to work for the theater as a set designer and painter. 

Career outline

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. At one point he experienced serious health issues due to the nitric acid he used for his aquatints, such that one of his lungs had to be removed and he was placed in a sanatorium. In order to keep supporting the family, Grinevsky-Alexeieff took up engraving and mastered the skills.

In 1931, a young and well-off American student from MIT, Claire Parker, came toFrance. Parker was born in Boston, Massachusetts in August 31 to a rich, prominent family. Upon arriving in Paris, Parker saw some of Alexeieff’s work in a bookstore and managed to track him down. They met and spent the day together, forming an immediate bond. Alexeieff took Parker in as a boarder and student. Parker, Alexeieff and Grinevsky-Alexeieff began to engage in several art projects together, both artistic and commercial. In total they produced about 25 films together, all of which were stop-motion and some of which brought in the collaborative efforts of other artists. Over this time, Alexeieff and Parker became lovers.

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.

Once a large pinscreen was crafted, however, Alexeieff and Parker began to work together on 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.

In 1936, Alexeieff was asked to lead an animation studio in Berlin. He moved toBerlinand made animated films for the studio, which were used for advertisements. In 1940, he returned to Paris just before Germany annexed Austria. Fearing the ever-rising political tension and beginning to imagine difficult repercussions and compromising assignments should he be asked to create propaganda films, Alexeieff left with Parker, Grinevsky-Alexeieff and Svetlana to theUS. Soon after they had all settled in the US, Alexeieff divorced Grinevsky and married Claire Parker. 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 toParis.

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. 


Bendazzi, Giannalberto (2001). Alexeieff: Itinerary of a Master. Dreamland.

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