lexandre Alexeieff (August 5, 1901 – August 9, 1982) was a Russian-born artist, filmmaker and illustrator who lived and worked mainly in Paris. He and his second wife Claire Parker (1910 – 1981) are credited with inventing the pinscreen as well as the animation technique totalization. In all Alexeieff produced 6 films on the pinscreen, 41 advertising films and illustrated 41 books.
Alexeieff was born in the town of Kazan in Russia. He spent his early childhood near Istanbul where his father, Alexei Alexeieff, was a military attaché.
Alexeieff had two older brothers: Vladimir, who caught syphillis from an Moscow actress and killed himself before the disease took his life. Before dying, he left a note to Alexandre saying, “You are very talented. You must draw, do it, so that I myself can love.”. His second brother, Nikolai, disappeared in Georgia, Russia, during the Russian Revolution of 1917. He was never heard from again.
In his unpublished memoir Oubli ou Regrets, Alexeieff wrote that he rarely saw his father who was frequently away on work. His mother likewise was distant. Every morning he would be presented to her and the rest of the day he spent in the company of his nanny.
Alexieff’s father died mysteriously in Hauxienne, Germany on an official trip at the age of 37. No one every discovered the cause or reason of his death but there were rumors that he knew too much about the Middle East. His mother travelled to Germany without telling the children where she was going or why and only when she returned did Alexeieff learn that his father had died.
After the Death of his Father
After his father’s death, the family left Constantinople. Alexeieff’s memoir gives the impression of a confused childhood, in which his brothers and mother moved around quite a bit and he was left to stay with different family members and friends at different times, often without knowing where he was or where the rest of his family was. Whether this is a literary device, a product of memory loss in his later years, or reflects the fact that he was very young at the time of his father’s death is unclear.
At some point he lived in Riga, Latvia where Alexeieff saw a film for the first time. He was fascinated by how it seemed that the image on the screen was reflected and distorted in the projector lens, although in fact he later realized that the image on the lens was the “original” image.
He also recalled accompanying his mother to government offices while she was trying to get her pension and other benefits appropriate to the widow of a military attache. Apparently his mother felt the sight of an orphaned child would invoke pity in the bureacrats. He recalls that when he was 7 years old, his mother “ went deep into the hall and opened a small door-some kind of elevator door or a telephone booth. She went in and said, “Wait for me here. Be a good boy. I’ll be back.” The doors closed and I knew that she would never come back. A small boy standing near the billiards table holding a cue stick told me, “My mother left, too. She won’t ever come back.. Let’s play billiards.” After sleeping, I was taken somewhere else; I was again in Gatchin (Russia). I went home alone by the stone path of our garden, along the wooden fence, which stretched out to my left. I shouted through the slats so that my brothers on the other side would hear me, ‘Mama died. We need to go to school.’ I had a feeling that Mama took herself as a sacrifice for us, went into the ‘office of death’ so that we could go to school and grow up.”
However, his mother did return and Alexeieff’s family settled in Gatchin, a suburb of St. Petersburg and later moved to nearby Lesnoi.
Alexeieff entered the Naval Cadet Corps Academy in St. Petersburg (Now, the St. Petersburg Naval Institute), where he took his first art classes. His art teacher was apparently a realist, training them to copy items from observation and from memory. He would frequently ask them to draw an item and then hide the item and have them draw it again. The teacher would also ask them to portray events such as dance or a holiday feast, or read them text and have the students illustrate it, a task Alexeieff particularly enjoyed. He also liked to sketch statues from the Museum of Fine Arts in his free time, and was afraid his teachers would not be pleased that he was doing unassigned drawings. However the teacher preferred his sketches to his class work.
Alexeieff also founded a literary magazine at Cadet school with original works by students. While his friends did not take the project seriously, Alexeieff apparently did, petitioning the school for funds and access to the library.
His older brother Vladimir was also a student in the school but he rarely associated with Alexandre.
When the Russian Revolution of 1917 began with general strikes in St. Petersburg, school was closed for three days and Alexeieff returned home to Lesnoi by train. However his brothers Nikolai and Vladimir had not returned and his mother was in a state of panic. Eventually his brother did return having been caught in a fight between the police and revolutionaries. Shortly thereafter he received word that Tsar Nicholas the Second had been arrested and abdicated.
An animal sits in a pink and gold crib in the middle of a field .
Illustration by Alexeieff from Russian Fairy Tales
At first, Alexeieff was a supporter of the Communists. However the arrest and execution of his uncle by the Bolsheviks, as well as Nikolai’s disappearance in Georgia led him to rethink his position. In 1921 he left Russia for France, where it was safer. He found work as a set designer, illustrator and engraver. He lived in Montparnesse, a bohemian area of Paris.
Life in Paris
In 1923, he married Alexandra Alexandrovna Grinevskya (1899-1976), who had been sent to Paris in her childhood because she was the illegitimate daughter of a St. Petersburg dignitary. Grinevskya was an actress at the Pitoyeva Theater. Konstantin Stanislavski once came to see the well-known troupe at the Pitoyeva Theater and was so impressed with Grinevskya that he invited her to return to Russia to act in his theater, but she refused because she did not want to leave Alexieff. Grinevskaya was also a talented illustrator in her own right and influenced Alexeieff greatly. She was the only person that Alexeieff would show his drafts too, in order to get her critiques.
In the same year, they gave birth to a daughter, Ludmilla Svetlana. Another child, a son, died early in life.
Alexeieff was a disciplined and painstaking artist with a love of detail and nuance. However he did not have a great eye for color. When doing illustrations of books he would take a large number of notes on the text and sit very still, thinking for hours.
While the invention of the pinscreen is often credited to Claire Parker and Alexeieff, Grinevskya was the first to help Alexeieff invent the pinscreen, going to the store to buy thousands of pins for him. As Svetlana later recalled, „Mother was the person who first helped him build the pinscreen. He told her to buy pins in some big Parisian department store. I was 8, and was with her. I remember how the salesgirl talked about us, that we were out of our minds. When we returned back home, Father said that we hadn’t bought enough. We went back and cleaned out the store. And the salesgirl called the other girls to see this crazy Russian woman.”
At some point in this period, Alexeieff spent seven years in a sanatorium due to damage caused to his lungs by chemicals he used in xylography, etching and aquatinting.
Parker and Alexeieff
In 1931, Claire Parker (1910 – 1981), a wealthy American art student and graduate of MIT traveled to Paris to study art. In Paris she was given a book of Alexieff’s prints and was so impressed that she made arrangements to meet him. She recalled later: „I figured I would meet an old, dignified man with a white beard…but [instead] I saw this tall, brown, handsome, aristocratic 30 year old guy. Our first lesson ended on the banks of the Seine, hand in hand; and there was never a second one.”
Alexeieff and Grinevskya agreed to take Parker on as a student and boarder primarily because they were poor and needed the money. Even though Parker and Alexieff became lovers, Alexieff, Parker and Grinevskya lived together and collaborated on projects together, including the pinscreen, which was funded mainly by Parker and is Alexeieff’s main contribution to the art of animation. Parker was a student of both husband and wife, and was naturally talented at camera work and the plastic arts.
Alexeieff, Parker and Grinevskaya made around 25 stop motion-animated commercials to sustain themselves financially, though they reportedly did not see much difference between their „artistic” and „commercial” films. At times, when making traditional animated films and commercials they also had a fourth partner, animator Etienne Raik. Although most of their commerical and artistic films are credited to Alexeieff and Parker, it is difficult to separate out the contributions of each individual in their team, including Grinevskaya and Raik. Both of his wives were great influences on him and partners in his works, as well as artists in their own right. His first wife, Alexandra Grinevskaya would criticize him harshly whereas his second wife, Claire Parker, was more patient with him and praised him more frequently. Claire was quoted by her biographer as saying, “”Between us, he’s the genius.”
In 1931, Alexeieff and his team began work on the first pinscreen film, Night on Bald Mountain, an adaptation of the symphony by Mussgorsky, his favorite composer. Depsite having left Russia, many of Alexeieff’s films and illustrations took Russian literature and music as their source. The film took one and a half years to make and was released in 1933. Because the pinscreen itself is changed when it is animated, there is no record of the previous image. This meant that any mistakes had to be corrected by redrawing the original scene on the board. Adding to the impermanence of the pinscreen itself, Alexeieff made no sketches for the film, composing each shot in his head and filming them immediately. The theme of Mussgorksy’s composition and the film is a witches’ Sabbath on the summer solstice on Mount Triglav near Kiev, Russia. However the film is less narrative and more poetic, a succession of images rather than a story.
Critical reception to the technique was extremely positive. Artists and critics felt that Alexeieff and Parker had succeeded in creating serious animation for adults, moving away from cartoonish, childish animation. However the time and costs involved in using the pinscreen ensured that it would never be a widely used medium. No major film studio ever picked up the pinscreen as a form of animation.
Alexeieff worked briefly in Berlin, returning in 1933 to Paris. During this time he also combed the area where his father died, looking for his grave. He was unsuccessful.
In 1941, Alexeieff divorced Grinevskya and married Claire Parker.
During World War II, Parker and Alexeieff moved to the US to escape the German occupation of France during World War II. In 1943, they moved to Canada and produced their second pinscreen film, In Passing (En passant), with funding from the National Film Board of Canada. It was released in 1944.
When Parker and Alexeieff returned to Paris, they concentrated mainly on advertisements. Many of those films made use of a technique called Totalization of Illusory Solids which they invented. This process involved filming a moving object at long exposures to capture the entire path of motion. The resulting image was a solid object. For example, the path of a pendulum filmed in this way would appear to be a solid semi-circle. This technique gave their advertisements a unique look.
In 1962 Alexeieff produced the animated 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 Prologue to The Trial 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.
On August 7, 1972, Alexeieff and Parker were invited back to Canada in order to demonstrate the pinscreen to a group of animators at the National Film Board of Canada. This demonstration was filmed, and released by the NFB as Pin Screen. This film appears on disk 7 of Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition, along with Pinscreen Tests (1961).
In the same year, they also released another film again, based on a work by Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. This film used two pinscreens. In front of the main pinscreen, they installed a second, smaller one. This second pinscreen could be rotated thus giving more of an illusion of three-dimensionality. However the film was never completed.
Their last film,*Three Moods (Trois thèmes), was made on the pinscreen, and first shown in Milan, Italy, in March 1980. It was based on three works by Mussorgsky.
Parker passed away in 1981, in Paris, of natural causes and Alexeieff took his own life the next year. He and Parker left no children.
Although Alexeieff and Parker strove to create serious works of art and shunned any commercialization in their films (excluding their paid work doing advertisements, of course), when asked what her favorite films were, Parker answerd „The ones with Tom Mix and his beautiful white horse!”
Main article: Pinscreen
Alexeieff is most famous for his invention of the pinscreen which he used to make about 6 short films.
A pinscreen is a white screen that consists of thousands and thousands of pins in small holes. Light shines from the side of this platform causing each pin to cast its own shadow. Each pin, being able to slide easily back and forth through the holes, can cast different shadows. The white screen becomes darker the farther the pins are pushed out. The more the pins are pushed in, the lighter the screen becomes, giving a grayish tone and eventually an all white screen again. Smaller, cheaper models have since been developed as a 5×7 inch toy version called „Pin Art”, sometimes sold in Science museums or through the Web and printed catalogs.
The first pinscreen was constructed by Alexeieff, Grinevskaya and Parker in 1931 although Alexeieff had had the idea of animating engravings for a long time. Funding for the pinscreen came primarily from Parker and her family. The first movie filmed on the screen was Night on Bald Mountain, an adaptation of the symphony by Mussgorsky which took one and a half years to make. Alexeieff made no sketches for the film, composing each shot in his head and filming it immediately. Due to the unique nature of the pin board, which leaves no trace of the previous image, any mistakes had to be corrected by redrawing the scene on the board. Critical reception to the technique was extremely positive. Artists and critics felt that Alexeieff and Parker had succeeded in creating serious animation for adults. However the time and costs involved in using the pinscreen ensured it would never be a widely used medium.
According to Claire Parker, the images created by the pinscreen made it possible to make an animated movie which escaped from the flat, „comic” aspect of cel animation and plunged instead into the dramatic and the poetic by the exploitation of chiaroscuro, or shading effects.The original pinscreen used by Alexeïeff had 240,000 pins which were usually pressed with a small tool, one pin at a time. Alexeieff and Parker did develop some specialized instruments, but primarily used everyday objects like forks, spoons, knives, brushes, cups, prisms and rolling pins. Frames are created one at a time, each frame modifying the one previous to itself. This means that if the animator makes a mistake, he or she must start over entirely. One unique feature of the pinscreen is that no copy of the previous frame remainsan image without pauses. The pin and frame assembly was built very solidly and mounted in a secure fashion to offer a stable image to the animation camera day after day, week after week as each image of the movie was painstakingly composed. This form of animation is extremely time consuming and difficult to execute, rendering it the least popular method of animation. An additional reason for its unpopularity is its expensive nature. Individually, the pins are relatively cheap; however, it is not uncommon that a million or more may be used to complete a single screen, quickly increasing the cost of manufacture
Grinevskya and Alexeieff had one daughter, Svetlana Rockwell (neé Alexeieff) who is an artist in her own right living in Boston. Her son, Alexandre Rockwell followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as a film maker. Alexandre Rockwell acknowledged the influence his grandfather had on his work writing in his contribution to Bendazzi’s collection of essays on Alexeieff, „I can safely say there has been no greater influence in my life, and in that I know I am not alone.”
Giannalberto Bendazzi wrote a book about him titled Alexeieff – Itinerary of a Master which featured essays from various famous animators such as Yuriy Norshteyn, as well as his family and colleagues.
Members of the IMDB Classic Films Message Board named Alexeieff and Parker as one of the 100 most important directors of animated film of all time, citing Night on Bald Mountain, En Passant) and The Nose