It Took 240,000 Pins to Make the Most Innovative Short Film of the Year

'Here and the Great Elsewhere' uses a one-of-a-kind analogue animation device to represent a cosmic journey.

Michèle Lemieux's Here and the Great Elsewhere uses a one-of-a-kind analogue animation device to represent a cosmic journey.

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National Film Board of Canada

In the most innovative short film of this past year, bulbous figures and strange creatures float and flit about a mutating visual landscape. Accompanied by blipping sounds of something bubbling into being, the abstract animation captures the fundamentally astounding universe.

The look of this rounded world in Michèle Lemieux's 14-minute Here and the Great Elsewhere (Le Grand Ailleurs et le Petit Ici) was rendered with thin metal pins, smaller than the tiniest sewing needle, that were part of the world's only working pinscreen. Invented in 1930s by Alexandre Alexeïeff, a pinscreen is a small metal frame (sort of like this toy) that holds thousands of movable pins in small tubes. Each pin is five millimeters longer than the tube that holds it, so it can stick out and cast a shadow. As the pins are moved horizontally to cast a shadow, the images change.

Short animated films are the testing site for new ideas—after all, Pixar started as a commercial and short film company before moving into features. But what do we mean when we talk about innovation in animation? Starting with the release of Pixar's Toy Story in 1995, animation has chased realism, perhaps achieved with the nearly photograph quality look of the Scottish landscapes in Pixar's latest feature, Brave. At some point animation solely in the pursuit of the life-like prompts the question: Why not just shoot a live-action film?

Lemieux's innovation was to take an old, rare device to make a film with an old, increasingly rare aim: not towards realism, but rather a sense of the human touch, painterly animation, and abstraction. Having toured with Disney and Pixar short films as part of the 14th annual Show of Shows animated showcase, Here and the Great Elsewhere is both radical and anachronistic, and well worth seeking out. (It's available on DVD).

Lemieux, a Canadian who used to write children's books, is the guardian of the pinscreen, the only filmmaker in the world with access to a working frame (though there is one in France that needs thorough restoration). When she began her first animated film Stormy Nights, based on her eponymous children's book, she met Jacques Drouin. It was well timed. Drouin had been working on the pinscreen for three decades and was on the verge of retiring. The National Film Board of Canada, which supervises the pinscreen, was looking for its next master. "I instantly fell in love with it, the first time I was allowed to touch it, to guide it," she says. "First of all, Jacques taught me, you are the protector of the instrument before you are an artist working on it."

Unlike with most animation, meticulous planning would be detrimental to working with the pinscreen, Lemieux says: "It's not a technique. It's much more parallel to a music instrument. It has its own mechanics and you have to find out the way to work with it, and it doesn't always do what you want it to do." So, Lemieux sketched her ideas and created four acts around themes, but primarily, she created as she went along: "It's direct animation, inventing on the spot."

Here and the Great Elsewhere has little in the way of plot. Rather it's a big-ideas meditation, similar to this year's brilliant animated feature Don Hertzfeldt's It's Such a Beautiful Day. In Here and the Great Elsewhere, a man who lives inside of the pinscreen emerges to discover a surrounding world of floating jellyfish creatures, shooting stars, scuttling spiders. Other scenes center on mating atoms, creation, and collision. Here and the Great Elsewhere is tangled and gorgeous, like moss or wildflowers; it has a certain natural logic, but it seems to sprout unintentionally to the viewer's eye. It's about the universe in the way of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life: disparate images, floating into one another. It's about discovery, not understanding.

The short film concludes by referencing its creator and the source of its unique painterly aesthetic. The final shot tracks away from the pinscreen, revealing the enormous frame standing lonely on two legs. The image recalls a quip from pointillism master, Georges Seurat, who pursued similar effects with his artwork: "Painting is the art of hollowing a surface." Here and the Great Elsewhere is a poetic ode to its tool, inspired by Lemieux's first interaction with the pinscreen. "This idea came right away when I was first touching it," she says. "It gathers together to create life just as particles gather together to create life. I could see the metaphor in front of me, that the universe is inside of this instrument."