On The Goods: A Film Podcast we are discussing classic animation this month, so I figured I’d go back as far as one can go. Poor Pierrot (or Pauvre Pierrot in French), created by French inventor-artist Émile Reynaud, is a proto-film created for Reynaud’s “praxinoscope,” which projected images with optical techniques similar to that of the spinning zoetrope.
In Poor Pierrot, we witness a scene that takes place in some aristocratic plaza or garden at night. A troubadour, presumably the titular Pierrot, is trying to win the heart of a woman on a balcony. But he keeps losing his mojo when a prankster pops out to mess with Pierrot. He hides behind stuff, pops out, pokes Pierrot in the back, then hides again. (Oldest trick in the book.)
There are many amazing things about this “film,” perhaps the most amazing being its continued existence. For the sheer quantity of lost early films from the first 20 years of the 20th century, it’s incredible that this not only survives, but in remarkably clean condition. The colors and shapes are vivid. It has been restored and placed in the public domain, so it can be viewed on any number of video websites, including YouTube. Perhaps Reynaud’s film stock of choice — thin strips of leather — is part of the reason the film survived so long.
There’s also the sheer amount of effort required to make what is, to modern eyes, such a simple lark. The film is about 500 frames, which played back on YouTube video I watched across 4 minutes, so significantly slower than the standard 24 frames per second. But all 500 frames were painted by Reynaud by hand. I imagine he used tracing or some other technique to maintain consistency in the backgrounds, but even still, it is obviously Herculean effort to create this. (All of that on top of the fact that Reynaud had to invent the projection technology himself.)
Although the short’s construction is primitive, there is clear artistry and comic instincts on display. The characters are expressive in a physical, vaudevillian sort of way. It’s not true character animation as we’d come to see in, e.g., 1914’s landmark Gertie the Dinosaur. But in simple strokes you get a sense of the premise and the characters, and with economical narrative strokes get to the punchline. The basic buddy comedy structure of cool ladies man and tagalong that gets in the way remains a staple of cinema, 130 years later.
It feels silly to note aloud regarding a film that predates my great grandfather, but this is not a film with much intrinsic artistic value in 2022. It is strictly a historical curio and precursor for what would come. But it is a deeply fascinating curio. It’s perspective-shifting to watch an artist cobble together the very basic concepts of moving pictures and creating something still universally recognizable as a comic visual narrative. Whether you want to call it “the first animated movie” or leave that crown for something else for semantic reasons, it’s a historic piece of art.