(Night on Bald Mountain)
Directors: Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker
Production: Black and white, 35mm, animation; running time: 8 minutes, some sources list 9 minutes. Released 1933, Paris.
Narrative development: Alexander Alexeieff, inspired in part by Moussorgsky's music and notes, and a short story based on a Slavic fairy tale by Gogol; music: Moussorgsky; arrangement: Rimski-Korsakov, "His Master's Voice" interpreted by: London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Albert Coates; animation: Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker.
Alexandre Alexeieff (catalogue), Edinburgh, 1967.
Rondolino, G., Alexandre Alexeieff , Este, 1971.
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Bisaccia, Antonio, Alexandre Alexeieff: il cinema d'incisione , Castel Maggiore, 1993.
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Martin, A., "Alexandre Alexeieff et les cinémas possibles," in Cinéma (Paris), no. 81, 1963.
Alexeieff, Alexandre, "Reflections on Motion Picture Animation," in Film Culture (New York), no. 32, 1964.
Alexeieff, Alexandre, "The Synthesis of Artificial Movements in Motion Picture Projection," in Film Culture (New York), no. 48–49, 1970.
Arnault H., editor, "Le Chant d'ombres et de lumières de 1,250,000 épingles," in Cinéma Pratique (Paris), no. 123, 1973.
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The power of Night on Bald Mountain derives from the extraordinary versatility that Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker brought to their unusual medium. Their "pinboard" ( l'écran d'épingles ) is an upright perforated screen, three by four feet, with 500,000 (one million in later films) headless steel pins as its physical matrix. Images created on the pinboard take their character from the depth of the pins and their oblique lighting. Pushed forward, the pins create an entirely dark surface; when fully recessed, they produce a white ground. By varying the depth of the pins, one creates between the extremes of white and black a wide variety of subtle shades the brilliance and delicacy of which exceed that of engravings. The pinboard screen yields a single picture at a time which must be photographed as part of a sequence of thousands of such shots to shape the cumulative effect.
This frame-by-frame creation during the process of filming, rather than before it, is the earliest form of direct animation. Alexeieff acknowledges the pointillism of Seurat as analogous to the character of his images. The delicacy of this process of image-building becomes apparent when one realizes that four minutes of production requires a year of work. Since the artist can see only the current frame, the procedure is akin to writing a short story sentence-by-sentence and locking away each one until completion of the narrative. During the interactive process of creating and filming, the only original of a pinboard picture that remains is its photographic negative; there are almost 12,000 for this eight-minute film.
It is important to note that Night on Bald Mountain has about as much affinity to Walt Disney's evocation of the same Moussorgsky work in Fantasia (1940) as Lotte Reininger's Cinderella has to Disney's version, i.e. the relationship is one of contrast more than of comparison. While Disney's Fantasia used cell animation in a direct and explicit way, which includes a sketching from life of Bela Lugosi as a Moussorgsky demon, Alexeieff and Parker employ indirection and impression, eminently conscious of art's power to universalize experience, of animation's power to create movement that is not "live" in the conventional ways of narrative, feature-length films. Their technique is most closely akin to the music that they visualize in their manipulation of time and space through shadowy referents. More physicists than engineers, their mobile structures reflect the changing character of thought and feeling, depict imaginary rather than static worlds. To photography and painting's laws of perspective they add the suggestive movement of implicit images. To the dance they add weightless figures whose unlimited metamorphoses invoke the license of Ovid's epic poem or the transitory, spatial and temporal fluidity of musical patterns. More than do other approaches to cinema, that of Alexeieff and Parker embodies Suzanne Langer's description of cinema as a dream mode.
Night on Bald Mountain is a nightmare, a Walpurgisnacht , inspired by Moussorgsky's music and written notes, by childhood recollections, by the Russian short-story writer Gogol's record of an ages-old Slavic fairytale, and by a dancing windmill in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin . The film's witches, demons and skeletal horses, in contrasting day and night reflection of each other, create a feverish tone poem that Moussorgsky's music "describes" as powerfully as would a verbal soundtrack. The description, however, of both sight and sound is poetic and lyric rather than narrative and prosaic. The correlative and opposing patterns of visual and musical images create unexpected harmonies whose tonalities are both elastic and balanced. The clash of old and new realities, of expected and unexpected sights and sounds that regularly, rather than continually, complement each other provides the conceptual unity that is finally as satisfying as it is initially troubling. The audience comes to realize that the animation and the music are metaphorical equivalents to one another and that in combination they tell a tragicomic story of life and death, which calls upon the vertical complexity of poetic allusion and brevity for its thrilling and very temporary resolution of basic human contradictions.
The first pinboard was built in 1932, for Night on Bald Mountain , and was used by Alexeieff and Parker for all their non-commercial films. Jacques Drouin's Le paysagiste ( Mindscape : National Film Board of Canada, 1976) continues their tradition. Because of the difficulty of the technique, however, Alexeieff and Parker have had many more admirers than cinematic descendants.
Following the traditional path of successful experimenters, they earned well deserved critical acclaim, but the applause only gradually expanded beyond the ranks of film experts and film society aficionados. Initial success in Paris did not yield widespread distribution in spite of John Grierson's generous praise in the Autumn 1934 issue of Cinema Quarterly . In 1970 Norman McLaren proclaimed Night on Bald Mountain "first and foremost" on his list of the world's best animated films, and in 1980 it earned inclusion on a list of the eight best short animation films of all time.
—Arthur G. Robson