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"Jacques Drouin: Complete Pinscreen Works" Presents Masterful Artisanal Animation

by on December 15, 2009

Not many animators go into stop-motion, due to the painstaking, labor-intensive process required. The stop-motion device known as a pinscreen, though, positively drives off all but the most dedicated. Invented by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker in the early 1930s, the pinscreen is made of hundreds to thousands of pins embedded into a vertically oriented screen. The animator can create images in relief on the pinscreen by pushing the pins in or out using a variety of implements, photographing the results a frame at a time. The finished film often looks a bit like an animated sand table, while also producing powerful shadow effects. The pinscreen also frees stop-motion from the physical constraints of puppets, since the pinscreen possesses the same fundamental malleability as hand-drawn animation.

Alexeieff and Parker were the earliest pioneers of pinscreen animation, doing some of their best known work for the National Film Board of Canada, which is also where a young filmmaker named Jacques Drouin discovered their work in the early 1970s. More than thirty years later, Drouin is still one of the few animators to work with the challenging device, and nearly all of his body of work is now available on a DVD set from the NFB titled Jacques Drouin: Œuvre Complète sur Écran d’Épingles/Complete Pinscreen Works. It is a disc that is probably going to be more interesting to hardcore animation process junkies, but the work on this disc will be fascinating to any more adventurous animation fans willing to give it a shot.

Embedded video via the National Film Board of Canada.

At the core of the set are the six short films Drouin did for the NFB between 1974 and 2004. “Trois Exercices sur l’Écran d’Épingles d’Alexeieff” (in English, “Three Exercises on Alexeieff’s Pinscreen”) are Drouin’s first experiments on the pinscreen set to music. Even so, the images produced are incredibly striking and memorable, demonstrating the technical skill and visual daring that mark the rest of his films. “Le Paysagiste/Mindscape” (embedded at right) is perhaps Drouin’s best-known film, with the dream-like movie centering on an artist who steps into his own canvas and into the recesses of memory. Despite being only his second full film using the medium, “Mindscape” is a remarkably mature work, demonstrating enough mastery of the demanding pinscreen to produce incredibly evocative images of living, breathing woods, city streets, and even open flame.

“L’Heure des Anges/Nightangel” is a collaboration with the Czech stop-motion animator Bretislav Pojar, and is probably one of the most narratively satisfying of the movies on this set. The movie is about a young man who temporarily loses his sight, but who then has visions of a beautiful woman who helps him learn to adjust to his new condition. Pojar’s wonderful stop-motion puppetry forms the core of the movie, with Drouin’s pinscreen animation used to depict what the lead character sees in his imagination. It is also the first film where Drouin cracked using color in pinscreen animation, although he would abandon it for the stark black-and-white again for “Ex-Enfant/Ex-Child,” a tragic story of child soldiers inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The short is tremendously effective at producing highly charged imagery, despite the fairly obvious and straightforward narrative and openly moralistic tone.

Embedded video via the National Film Board of Canada.

“Une Leçon de Chasse/A Hunting Lesson” is Drouin’s longest work, adapting a book by Jacques Godbout about a boy who befriends a former big game hunter who moves to their provincial country town. It is probably the only other film that can challenge “Nightangel” as a narrative, although it is also the only other film that truly has one. This is the only one of Drouin’s films that uses dialogue, and one can easily forgive Drouin for avoiding animating lip sync. “A Hunting Lesson” also makes wonderfully subtle use of color, dominating most early sections of the movie with a nostalgic sepia tone and then tinting other scenes later for emotional effect. The last of Drouin’s films on this set, “Empreintes/Imprints” (embedded at left) is his magnum opus, evoking the same sense of visual poetry from “Mindscape” to produce a playful stream-of-consciousness film that mixes color and music with sophisticated work on the pinscreen and a few camera tricks that emphasize Drouin’s medium and the process of making a pinscreen animated film.

The NFB would merit great praise simply for providing Drouin the means and equipment to make his films, but this DVD set is a remarkable and loving chronicle of one artist’s work and distinctive vision. All the films receive a clear and beautiful presentation for DVD in their original full-frame aspect ratio and a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack; the disc is regionless, and should play internationally without a problem. In addition to the films, the NFB has included numerous extras, with two of the best being the documentary biographical film “Jacques Drouin en Relief/Jacques Drouin in Relief” and the 90-page booklet of essays (which is in both French and English, meaning it really contains 45 pages of material in 2 languages). Combined, these two works provide a solid survey of Drouin’s body of work, placing it in its proper historical context. Several of Drouin’s shorter works are also included on the disc, including four of his student films, shorter animated sequences from other movies with audio commentary by Drouin, pinscreen animated trailers for Canadian film festivals and organizations, and another, much briefer survey of Drouin’s work done for the Essai sur le Temps webzine. Sadly, commentary is only available for the shorter works and not the longer ones, and there is a slightly disappointing lack of material covering the technical aspects of creating films on the pinscreen. However, these are minor concerns for an excellent DVD set.

* * * * *

He'll never get ahead nowCédric Louis and Claude Barras’ “Land of the Heads/Au Pays des Têtes” was one of the more amusing shorts on the NFB’s Animation Express DVD, and it has now received a standalone DVD release from the NFB as well. It is a wonderfully macabre stop-motion short about a henpecked vampire trying to satisfy his unduly particular wife and her demand for a new head to replace her current one (which hangs on the wall). The gruesome little jokes sprinkled throughout the film make it a real delight for anyone with a sufficiently mordant sense of humor. Three more short films by the pair are also included on the disc as bonus features:

  • “Icefloe/Banquise:” A plump little girl bombarded with messages about being thin decides to hide herself under layers of winter clothing at the peak of summer. This surprisingly unsettling short seems to be done with cel-shaded CGI, and draws blood in its own quiet way.
  • “The Genie in a Tin of Ravioli/Le Génie de la Boîte de Raviolis:” A mostly comic stop-motion short by Claude Barras working alone. A mellow ravioli factory canner finds a genie in a tin of raviolis in his house, gaining two wishes in the process. Amusing, but fairly lightweight in comparison to the other shorts on this disc.
  • “Sainte Barbe:” Another stop-motion short that was included on the Animation Express DVD. A little boy visits his grandparents in the forest, especially enjoying his time with his bushy-bearded grandfather until the old man passes away. The ending is ultimately rather sweet, but there’s a whole lot of appealingly odd and borderline creepy imagery along the way. This short is visually closest to “Land of the Heads” but mixes in that short’s tone with the bite of “Icefloe.”

All the movies are presented in anamorphic widescreen in stereo. Those shorts with dialogue (“Icefloe” and “The Genie in a Tin of Ravioli”) are in French with optional English subtitles. While I rather like the shorts on the disc, it does seem disappointingly short.

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