Every Year In Film #13 - Poor Pierrot

Thoughts On: Poor Pierrot (Pauvre Pierrot, 1892)

Two lovers meet. A third man, Pierrot, comes to sing to the woman, but is scared off by her lover.

Made by Charles-Émile Reynaud, this is not only the first known movie to operate with perforated film stock, but is also one of the first ever animated and narrative films. Reynaud built toward these innovations, much like many inventors of these days, seemingly from his childhood. In such, he was raised by his father and mother, home-educated in painting by his mother, and mechanics by his father. This lead him into many apprenticeships as a young kid; he would work with optics, industrial design, precision engineering and also photography. However, one of his most significant meetings would come in 1864 when he went on to become the assistant of François-Napoléon-Marie Moigno, otherwise know as Abbé Moigno, a Catholic cleric, an educator, writer and lecturer of science. Working with Moigno, Reynaud had to operate the magic lanterns that would accompany his lectures - and such must have sparked an interest in projection that would come into play later on in Reynaud's life.

However, a year after he started to work for Moigno, Reynaud's father died and so he moved to Puy-en-Velay with his mother. It's here that his late father's cousin educated him in chemistry, engineering and other sciences. This would eventually lead to Reynaud working with Moigno again, however, this period of study was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which Reynaud served in as a nurse. After a period of retirement in which Reynaud tried to overcome the lasting trauma that his experience in the war had on him, he would be called upon by Moigno where he continued to work with magic lanterns in courses taught to students. After a few years of this, Reynaud would begin to significantly contribute to film history.

It was then in 1976, a year before Muybridge would shoot and project some of the first major moving images, that Reynaud produced his prototype praxinoscope. This is yet another device to add to a lavish list of pre-film inventions with crazy names. The praxinoscope was then an improvement upon devices like the early stroboscope, phenakistoscope, daedaleum and, most directly, the zoetrope. Remembering the early Every Year post on these devices, these were all mechanisms that would feature elements with moving images on that would rotate behind slits of some kind:

There were always three major problems with all of these devices, however, and Reynaud began to solve them all. The first problem with devices like the zoetrope was that they were too simplistic and impractical; they were mere toys. In such, to view the moving images, you'd have to bend down and look through the slits...

It's this fundamental restriction, which was largely a technical one, that deeply impacted film for years to come; for about a decade after the Lumières, films were seen as short spectacles and so, in certain respects, were simply more complicated zoetropes. However, this is a tangential idea that we may come to explore at a later date.

What Reynaud initially did to combat the impracticalities of pre-filmic devices was to invent the praxinoscope.

The similarities between the zoetrope and this device are obvious, yet subtly significant. Instead of using slits that act as a shutter of sorts through which to view fluid moving imagery, Reynaud used mirrors. Because each mirror was angled individually, the difference between one reflection and the next would have, in an around about way, acted as a gap or shutter between them. This is exactly what allowed for the the reflected image to be crisp and fluid - all without the arduous and intricate mechanics of actual shutters and stop-start mechanisms.

This is a significant device because it not only made the zoetrope a more practical idea with easier access, but approached light (reflections) in a more nuanced, yet ingeniously simple manner - which would later become pivotal to Reynaud's innovations.

In 1977, Reynaud patented this device and began to sell it commercially - which was met with much success and acclaim. However, despite being a significant improvement on the zoetrope, the praxinoscope was still, quite clearly, a toy. A major reason as to why the praxinoscope was still a toy comes down to its scale. Understanding this, Reynaud's next endeavour was the praxinoscope theatre.

This initially began as an extension of the original praxinoscope. In such, Reynaud designed a small theatre around his device with backgrounds and a peep hole...

Expanding upon this, however, he wanted to project his moving imagery in a similar manner to which he'd project magic lantern slides for Moigno. And it's here where the use of mirrors became an irreplaceable design choice. With a simple use of lenses and lights, Reynaud would bounce light from the mirrored moving image onto a screen...

This would then allow Reynaud to project his circulating, gif-like sequences with a background setting provided by a painted magic lantern-esque slide - all for dozens of people to watch at a time. You can see each of these elements by studying the above image, paying attention to the two projectors, one for the background and other for the praxinoscope image (whose own background was black so that it could be superimposed onto a setting). As is clear, with this, Reynaud solved the second major problem with pre-film devices whilst eradicating the first problem. In such, he made the device practical and accessible to numerous people at a time, increasing the scale of his spectacle.

It's this increase in scale that gives arts greater complexity and in turn leads to forms being respected as significant mediums of storytelling. But, as one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers of this entire era, Reynaud recognised that a looped sequence of movement wasn't a viable form of storytelling.

This is something so incredibly significant because, by this time, the only forms of 'film' were scientific and spectacle. In such, around the 1880s and 90s you had figures such as Marey, Muybridge and Demenÿ working on the study of motion itself. Added to this, you also had Friese-Greene, Le Prince and Edison rushing to produce the first viable form of spectacle cinema (Edison would win this race with W.K.L Dickson and the kinetoscope). What all of these endeavours lacked, however, was a narrative. Figures such as Muybridge and Marey were only interested in a few seconds of movement, never any form of storytelling, and the same can be said about Greene as well as Edison and Dickson; these figures were clearly more preoccupied with technological innovation rather than innovation in storytelling during the late 1800s. In such, you do not need complex moving imagery lasting at least an hour to put across the points that these figures were trying to make, as well as satisfy their intentions - which is not really cinema as we know it today.

Reynaud then distinguished himself from all of these figures because his innovation was clearly focused on bettering the content of devices such as the zoetrope as well as improving the manner in which audiences interacted with them. It's exactly this that we can see as the guiding force of his simplistic, yet substantial decision to project his praxinoscope strips and later out-do himself yet again.

It is in 1888, after quite a few years of producing and modifying praxinoscopes, praxinoscope strips as well as praxinoscope theatres, that Reynaud decided to confront his realisation that these short, cyclic images were not sufficient ways of telling stories. He did this with a patent of his Théâtre Optique. Reynaud's Optical Theatres' main intention was to extend the dozen-or-so frame cycles of praxinoscopes into something much longer through which a story could be told. So, as many people were at this point, Reynaud decided to approach film as opposed to solid static plates. However, he was not going to dive into the huge technological mess of photographing the real world with photographic film. Instead, Reynaud mimicked the form of film strips with his own flexible gelatin plates that he painted on and then fixed into cardboard and fabric, creating a reel of his own 'film'. These would then need to be perforated so that they could be spun on an outer frame.

The perforations on this film would be on the segments between each frame and would simply serve as holes that the sprockets on the outer frame (look to the largest upper circle of the diagram) would use to move the film. However, these original designs were modified with outer spools so that Reynaud could both move the film around the mechanism better, but also inject in his light system. You can see this here:

In the simplest terms, light would then be reflected through the film strips made up of up to 700 frames as it spun around the system. This light would be bounced off of mirrors and onto a translucent screen that simultaneously has a background slide projected onto it. To have a better practical understanding of this image, check out this brilliant visualisation:

What isn't visualised here is Reynaud's later use of sound. He would often animate his films to scores that would be played live, as well as inject synchronised sound effects, such as buzzers and drums, into his narrative through electronics (these effects and sounds have been injected into modern 'prints' of his films).

So, what we are seeing here is the establishment of sound in cinema - which, spoilers, did not just pop out of nowhere in 1927 - as well as Reynaud solving the 3 major problems with pre-filmic devices. He firstly made the devices practical, then took them out of the home, giving them a greater scale through projection and various attributes such as backgrounds and, finally, Reynaud found a way of telling actual stories through images; extended narratives in shows that would last up to 15 minutes. This, as anyone could recognise, was a huge jump in cinematic sensibilities, which is of course represented through our subject for today: Poor Pierrot, or, Pauvre Pierrot.

Made in 1892, Poor Pierrot was one of Reynaud's initial works to be publicly and commercially screened in Paris - which of course pre-dates the first Lumière screenings. However, on the note of the Lumières, with the rise of Cinématographe in 1895 came overwhelming competition from both the Lumières and their imitators. So, despite new films, modifications with colour and sound design as well as experimentation with mirrors, Reynaud's Optical Theatre was doomed to fail, and performed its last show in 1900 - a point at which over half a million people would have seen Reynaud's work.

The reason for this decline was quite simple. Though Reynaud had solved the 3 major problem with pre-filmic devices, his solution wasn't practical enough and the scale wasn't great enough to compete with the advancing complex motion picture photography and projection (which had of course caught up with him in the 3 years after he began the Optical Theatre). With Reynaud's decline, longer form narrative cinema was lost for a few years, but cinema nonetheless evolved past Reynaud's ingenious invention that was unfortunately too perfect as is; it simply couldn't evolve any further.

In the following decade, Reynaud moved on from his Optical Theatre to work on a stereo-cinema, but this never amounted to much. So, in 1910, depressed, financially ruined and almost entirely forgotten, Reynaud discarded almost all of his work, including his precious films and equipment, into the river Seine. He would then go on to die in a hospice during 1918 at age 73.

All but two of Reynaud's films were thrown into the Seine, Autour d’une Cabine and Pauvre Pierrot. It is through these films that Reynaud is then remembered as the founder of animated film and narrative cinematic storytelling who significantly contributed to cinematic technology as well as its publicly perceived image. Without much more to be said, I'll leave the importance of Reynaud to be articulated by one of his surviving films...

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