Innovative Pinscreen Animations of Kafka’s “Before the Law”, Gogol’s “The Nose” & Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (1932–1972)

What do Franz Kaf­ka, Niko­lai Gogol, and Mod­est Mus­sorgsky have in com­mon? They stand alone among their peers for their dark­ly humor­ous sen­si­bil­i­ties, fas­ci­na­tion with the grotesque, imag­i­na­tive takes on cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, and a pre­dis­po­si­tion for the pro­to-sur­re­al. Like the odd fig­ure lurch­ing through the first move­ment of Mussorgsky’s Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, they are gnom­ic artists: enig­mat­ic and ambigu­ous, giv­en to the apho­ris­tic in sto­ries and tone poems of mon­strous and mar­velous beings. It’s easy to imag­ine the three of them, or their works at least, in cryp­tic con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er.

We might imag­ine that con­ver­sa­tion as we watch three works by these major Euro­pean artists—all of which we’ve fea­tured on the site before—animated via the painstak­ing pin­screen method pio­neered by hus­band-and-wife, Russ­ian-and-French duo Alexan­der Alex­eieff and Claire Park­er.

The two invent­ed the tech­nique in the 1930s. Ded­i­cat­ed to this extreme­ly labor-inten­sive process, they made 6 short films over a peri­od of 50 years, includ­ing adap­ta­tions of Kafka’s “Before the Law,” nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles, Gogol’s “The Nose,” and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Moun­tain.

We know the Mus­sorgsky piece as a ter­ri­fy­ing vignette from Walt Disney’s Fan­ta­sia. Sev­en years before that mar­riage of clas­si­cal music and ani­ma­tion came out in 1940, Alex­eieff and Park­er released their ver­sion, at the top. Steve Stanch­field at Car­toon Research calls it “one of the most unusu­al and unique look­ing ani­mat­ed films ever cre­at­ed.” Its “delight­ful and at times hor­ri­fy­ing imagery… chal­lenge the view­er to com­pre­hend both their mean­ing and the mys­tery of how they were cre­at­ed.” The same could be said of “The Nose” (1963), whose impro­vised sound­track by Hai-Minh adds dra­mat­ic ten­sion to the eerie ani­ma­tion.

Each of these films uses the same method, a hand­made pin­screen device in which thou­sands of pins are pushed by hand out­ward and inward for each frame to cre­ate areas of light or dark. The pair intend­ed to move beyond the flat­ness of con­ven­tion­al cel ani­ma­tion tech­niques and cap­ture the depth and con­trast of chiaroscuro. They achieved this through the most aching­ly slow process imag­in­able, yet “the illu­sion of dimen­sion­al draw­ing in ani­ma­tion has rarely been cre­at­ed bet­ter,” Stanch­field writes, not even in the most sophis­ti­cat­ed com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery.

Alex­eieff and Parker’s “Before the Law,” from a para­ble in Kafka’s The Tri­al, takes a pic­ture-book approach to the ani­ma­tion that would reward younger view­ers. Welles’ nar­ra­tion anchors the pro­duc­tion with even more than his usu­al grav­i­tas. In 1972, they returned to Mus­sorgsky, in the short Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, above. Here, after a pro­logue in French and the styl­iza­tions of the open­ing Pre­lude, the fig­ure of the “The Gnome” appears, a translu­cent homuncu­lus hatch­ing from an egg and danc­ing across the piano keys. I like to think Mus­sorgsky, Kaf­ka, and Gogol would find this imagery irre­sistible.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Kafka’s Para­ble “Before the Law” Nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles & Illus­trat­ed with Pin­screen Art

Night on Bald Moun­tain: An Eery, Avant-Garde Pin­screen Ani­ma­tion Based on Mussorgsky’s Mas­ter­piece

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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