Pin Screen Evolution: Alexeieff-Parker and the MIT Tagible Media Lab

Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker invented the pin screen back in the 1930s. The same year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the duo used the pin screen to create Night on Bald Mountain, a haunting visual adaptation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839 – 1881) occult inspired score.* Night was the first animated film to use their pin screen, a 3×4 foot rectangle containing around 240,000 pins that move laterally in order to create different shadow lengths, like that thing your friend had when you were a kid but much more intense. Since 1930, Alexeieff and Parker used the pin screen to make 5 more short films that are singular in their imagination, beauty, and craft – as well as awe-inspiring in the how’d-they-do-that kind of way.

To get a better understanding of the apparatus and animation process, here are some stills from The Alexeieff-Parker Pin Screen (1972), a film that documents a presentation Alexeieff and Parker gave to a group of animators at the National Film Board of Canada.

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The pin screen is made up of hundreds of thousands of staggered holes with tiny pins stuck in them. The pins can be manipulated back and forth to protrude from or be flush with the board’s white surface.

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Through a combination of the peg’s position and the angle of the light source, different shades can be created. Making impressions directly onto the pin screen’s surface then makes each cel of the animation. To create different textures and shades, Alexeieff and Parker used a wide variety of tools from Russian dolls to large coins to the spoon shown above.

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Once an image is completed, a process that can take several hours, a photographic still is made of the pin screen and the artists move on to alter the existing image or create a completely new one. On film, one second of moving image is made up of 32 frames, so . . . well you can do the math. “Painstaking” seems to be a gross understatement of the amount of effort put into these images, which might be why Alexeieff and Parker only produced six short films with the pin screen.

The folks over at the MIT Tangible Media Lab have recently unveiled inFORM, “a Dynamic Shape Display that can render 3D content physically.”** The pin screen has come alive. Positioned horizontally and powered by a computer, inFORM’s “pin screen” is a distant cousin from the Alexeieff-Parker contraption. However, inFORM’s design team is still interested (though not necessarily from an “artistic” standpoint) in the aesthetic and functional roles of everyday objects. Using Donald Norman’s concept of perceived affordances, the MIT Tangible Media Lab created inFORM to redefine Human Computer Interaction (HIC).

InFORM’s breakthrough is that it uses a combination of Graphical User Interface (GUI) and Tangible User Interface (TUI). This allows the user to manipulate passive objects from a remote location (hands play with ball), use passive objects to manipulate the pin screen (bowl and ball), or simply sculpt the pins manually – all of which can be enhanced by images projected onto the pins themselves. InFORM is a much more self-contained apparatus than Alexeieff and Parker’s pin screen, but nonetheless fascinating. Just think of the possibilities if inFORM adopted the 240,000 pins of the Alexeieff-Parker screen.

Check out The Animation of Alexeiff available on Facets Label.

Big thanks to Prosthetic Knowledge for brining inFROM to my attention by posting the project on Tumblr.

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*The score/sequence is probably best known for its use in the Disney classic, Fantasia (1940).

** Claire Parker actually graduated from MIT back in the late 1920s. COINCIDENCE!?

 

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