Robotic Pinscreen

Alexeieff and Parker

Alexander Alexeieff and Clarie Parker

John Foreman and Lydia Greer are both 3rd year undergraduates at UGA, where they are Mathematics and Film Studies majors, respectively. They’ve been friends since highschool and are now married. Last year Lydia took a film studies course which dealt with the history of experimental animation, such as the work of Len Lye and Norman McLaren with their direct manipulation of film stock to create animations. Especially fascinating to Lydia, was the work of Alexander Alexeieff, an engraver turned animator who sought to develop a technique which essentially animated engravings.

The technique Alexeieff developed was called pinscreen animation. A pinscreen frame is created by shining a light across hundreds of pins pushed through a white board to create a black and white, completely chiaroscuro image out of the pin shadows. An animation is developed simply by filming frame after frame on the pinscreen, shifting the pins as necessary to create motion between frames.

John and Lydia both became very interested in this animation technique, however moving the pins by hand on a pinscreen is extremely labor intensive (it can take years to make one short film), and neither of the two students had the time to devote to such a project. Pinscreen modeling software had already been written, however computer animations often look too crisp, the nails look nothing like nails, and the shadows are too perfect.

Thus, the students decided on a computer-aided compromise. Beginning this past fall with the aid of CURO, ICE, and the National Science Foundation, Lydia and John built a physical pinscreen whose pins can be pushed via a robotic printer which communicates via infrared with a computer. The computer tells the robot where to push the pins by taking in live action digital photography and converting the digital frames into pinlengths to be transfered to the board.