| 11 min 56 s
Animation on the Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreen
A National Film Board of Canada production
An animated short film created using the legendary Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreen, The Painting revisits the destiny of Queen Mariana of Austria through her 1652 portrait by Velázquez. Married at the age of 14 to her uncle Philip IV of Spain, who was 30 years her senior, Mariana had a bleak destiny: her five children, marked by generations of inbreeding, either died in infancy or were unfit to rule, ultimately ending the Spanish Habsburg dynasty.
Filmmaker Michèle Lemieux demonstrates incredible skill and precision in recreating the Velázquez portrait. She was guided both by a reflection on the brutality of institutionalized incest and by the dreamlike musings to which the pinscreen lends itself. The shadow play created by hundreds of thousands of pins and the effects of light and colour work hand in hand to animate eyes, distort faces and dissolve the very fabric of the painting. Simultaneously physical and intangible, painful and tender, this poem of a film reflects on its own (im)materiality, and on art’s power to capture the soul—or to soothe it.
ONE-LINER & TWO-LINER
A short film made using pinscreen animation, The Painting explores the 1652 portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria by Velázquez. Michèle Lemieux demonstrates incredible mastery of the pinscreen, playing with shadow and light to evoke the tragic fate of Mariana, who was married to her uncle at the age of 14. Both painful and tender, this experimental work is a poem of a film: a meditation on the brutality of institutionalized incest and art’s power to capture the soul.
Animated on the pinscreen, the film revisits the tragic fate of Queen Mariana of Austria and her 1652 portrait by Velázquez.
An animated short film created using the legendary Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreen, The Painting journeys back centuries to revisit the destiny of Queen Mariana of Austria through her 1652 portrait by Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Married at 14 to her uncle Philip IV of Spain, who was 30 years her senior, she carried the heavy burden of producing a male heir. Mariana was only 18 years old in the Velázquez portrait, but her eyes already betray a sense of sadness and solitude. The Habsburgs’ reluctance to marry outside the family meant that the five children born of this union were marked by 16 generations of inbreeding; they either died in infancy or were unfit to rule, ultimately ending the Spanish Habsburg dynasty.
Fascinated by the portrait and the historical dramas it encapsulates, renowned animation filmmaker Michèle Lemieux plays with light and shadow to bring an imaginary world beyond time to life. The film opens in a museum, lifting Mariana out of the Spanish court to reveal a mysterious, fragile and intemporal figure.
The artistic heir to one of only two active Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreens in the world, Lemieux demonstrates incredible skill and precision, but also wonderful creative freedom in recreating the Velázquez portrait. She was guided both by a reflection on the brutality of institutionalized incest and by the dreamlike musings to which the pinscreen lends itself. The effects of light and colour work hand in hand to animate eyes, distort faces and dissolve the very fabric of the painting. Small details blossom into a universe teeming with life—roots, organs, birds, storms—but tinged with death. The shifting light reveals troubling similarities, and indeed Velázquez painted Mariana’s face directly over an unfinished portrait of her uncle/husband. As if by magic, the shadow play created by hundreds of thousands of pins both forges the shackles of patriarchy and then melts them, freeing the captives.
Its powerful images heightened further by an evocative soundscape, The Painting is a poem of a film, simultaneously physical and intangible, painful and tender, heavenly and deeply human. Michèle Lemieux has created a monumental experimental work, one that goes beyond mere historical biography or animated painting to contemplate its own (im)materiality and the power of art to capture the soul—or to soothe it.
Though invented in the 1930s, the Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreen remains an enigmatic and little-known device in the wider world of animation. The model owned by the NFB is a vertical panel consisting of hundreds of thousands of tiny white tubes set in a frame. Each tube holds a tiny retractable pin that can extend out several millimetres. When the screen is lit from the side in a dark room, the pins project shadows whose lengths vary depending on the pins’ height, creating a wide range of grey tones, from deep black to bright white. When pressed down completely, the pins cast no shadows and reveal the white background.
To make a film, parts of the pinscreen are depressed with various small tools to create an embossed image, and a photograph is taken. The image is then slightly altered, another photograph is taken, and so on. It takes 24 photographs to create one second of animation. The tapestry of pins and shadows creates a range of tones that gives the animated image the look of an etching or charcoal drawing. Like a musical instrument, this rare and remarkable device lends itself to improvisation and intuitive exploration.
Michèle Lemieux first encountered the Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreen in 2006 at an NFB workshop given by Quebec filmmaker Jacques Drouin. She was instantly smitten with this distinctive technique and its world of possibilities. For years, Drouin was alone in using the pinscreen, making masterpieces such as Mindscape (1976) and Nightangel (1986), and thus preserving this precious legacy at the NFB. But he passed on the secrets of using and maintaining the instrument, along with its history and that of the other existing models, to Lemieux, who has since gone on to make two short films of her own on the pinscreen: Here and the Great Elsewhere (2012) and her latest, The Painting (2024), in which she experiments with coloured gels and moving light.
Michèle Lemieux is today one of the few artistic heirs to this legendary technique. The instrument she uses, dubbed the NEC (for nouvel écran or “new screen”) comprises 240,000 pins set into a 52 x 39-centimetre screen. The NFB purchased it in 1972 from the device’s inventors, Russian-born Frenchman Alexandre Alexeïeff and American Claire Parker, at the urging of renowned animator Norman McLaren. It is a more elaborate version of the original model designed in the 1930s.
There are only two working Alexeïeff-Parker pinscreens in the world today: the NEC in Montreal and the Épinette, built in 1977 and later restored by Drouin and Lemieux. For the past 10 years, the Épinette has belonged to the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) in France. In 2015, Lemieux used it in a pinscreen workshop for a group of filmmakers at Annecy. And so the tradition is passed on and new vocations emerge, giving the “Stradivarius of animation” a new lease on life.
Contact NFB publicist for broadcast-quality excerpts.
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Written, Animated and Directed by
Catherine Van Der Donckt
Original music and adaptation of “Mareta, mareta no’m faces plorar”
Robert Marcel Lepage
Sound Design Consultant
Baroque Guitar and Tambourine
Jean Paul Vialard
Additional Animation Sequences
Alexandre Morin, ZABELLE Inc.
Pierre M. Trudeau
Art History Consultant
Technical Specialist, Animation
Senior Production Coordinators
Rights Clearance Research
Inspired by the portrait Queen Mariana of Austria (1652–1653)
Painted by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville, 1599 – Madrid, 1660)
Oil on canvas
Height: 234.2 cm; Width: 132 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain
© Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado
Mélanie Boudreau Blanchard
Oana Suteu Khintirian
Special thank you
Animation Studio, French Program
National Film Board of Canada
© 2024 National Film Board of Canada
About the NFB
The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is a leader in exploring animation as an artform, a storytelling medium and innovative content for emerging platforms. It produces trailblazing animated works both in its Montreal studios and across the country, and it works with many of the world’s leading creators on international co-productions. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including seven Oscars for NFB animation and seven grand prizes at the Annecy festival. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.