Thursday, February 6, 2014

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Pinscreens.

Before We Begin — A Quick Game of Would You Rather: 


Lay on a bed of nails? Or try to create a 7 minute animated short using only a bed of nails?

This article is for those of you who chose the latter.

Some of you may be thinking, “Erin, that’s not a fair question. Everyone knows that you can’t make an animation with a bed of nails.” And you’re right. What you need, isn’t a bed, its a screen. And you don’t need nails, just pins. Hundreds of thousands of millions of pins.

By obtaining these tools, (plus a camera and a directional light), you can finally begin your journey as a Pinscreen artist. 

Just kidding. You don’t know anything yet. First, a brief history lesson:

According to Animation Expert Marcel Jean, 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

Ok, Ok, a pinscreenPinscreen animation. But how does it work?

It’s simple. Have you ever played with one of those little pin art toys? You could stick your hand in and the pins would imitate the shape on the other side.

 The toy looks something like this:

A professional pin screen is pretty much a really, really, big version of a pin art toy.

See what I mean?

Let me break it down. Picture millions of evenly spaced pin holes on a white screen. The primary principle behind pin animation is the clever use of highlight and shadow. That’s where that directional light comes in. Once the light is placed on the side of the sheet, different degrees of shadows appear depending on how far you push in a pin. 

For example, when a pin is pushed halfway through the screen, it leaves a slight shadow that ends up looking grey to our eyes. (See below)

 When the pin is pushed fully into the screen, it leaves a much darker, harsher shadow. 

Like this:

And finally, when you want something to look white, you pull the pin out, exposing the white screen. 


 Sounds easy right? Rigghhht. Well here’s the thing, now that you finally got the perfect degree of shadow by manipulating your pin, you have to do it again: about a million (literally) more times. 
Now this animation technique, as you can imagine, is extremely fragile. One bump of the  screen can cause the pins to shift — ultimately destroying your hours of work. 

But forget that. Let’s pretend it all goes well and you create a beautiful work of pin art. You’re excited, impressed, and overall exhausted. You run to the camera and take a picture of the image. There’s a pause, and then you burst into tears upon the realization that you have just spent 4 days creating 1 frame of your animation. Seeing as film usually consists of around 24 frames per second, you can see why pinscreen animation is a rather rare art form.

Even the creators/most well-known pinscreen artists; Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker, only ended up creating a total of 6 short animations. The first of these animations was titled Night on Bald Mountain. The short was created using a 3x4 pin screen pierced with a mere 240,000 pins. If you play the clip, I bet you’ll recognize the famous Mussorgsky score accompanying the animation. 

Scary, right? I found it interesting to note that Night on Bald Mountain was released the very same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Coincidence? Maybe.

Let’s jump forward a few years to the 1976 release of MindscapeMindscape, created by Jacques Drouin, follows the journey of an artist that leaps into one of his own paintings. This animation looks crystal clear compared to the messy jumble of images presented in Night on Bald Mountain. Observe the remarkable detail of the animation and keep in mind the laborious method of production. Every instance of shading comes from hours alone with a lamp and pins.

At this point, many of you are coming to the conclusion that lying on a bed of nails might not be so bad after all. For those of you who have yet to be dissuaded, I applaud you. I found this video explaining in more detail the process of pinscreening and I wish you luck in your animation adventures.

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