Feet in the Water and the Desire to Press On: Jean Painlevé – Voilà, 1935


Jean Painlevé. Voilà, “Les pieds dans l’eau,” May 4, 1935 (2007.71.30)

“Jean Painlevé: décrit le travail ingrat mais passionnant des chasseurs d’images a l’affut des petits animaux aquatiques: les pieds dans l’eau” by Jean Painlevé.

les pieds dans l’eau
In our decade-long effort to develop a technique for making documentary science films, Geneviève Hamon, André Raymond, and I have come up against thousands of obstacles. But life is kind. Aside from a few dead ends, each difficult or perilous situation has brought happy rewards.

In choosing the aquatic world as a field of investigation, we have encountered two problems, nonexistent elsewhere:

1. Establishing the basis for the study of aquatic animals which, unlike that of land and air animals, has so far been conducted in a summary and backward fashion.
2. Obtaining photographs that are as clear and illustrative as possible under the most realistic conditions.

Our investigations continue today and often give rise to surprising facts that contradict previous findings. With each new animal that we film, our technique is modified. Each shot takes into account an animal’s individuality…


Jean Painlevé. Voilà, “Les pieds dans l’eau,” May 4, 1935, p.5 (2007.71.30)

The job has its joys for those who love the sea. (For those, that is, who love the sea to the exclusion of all else.) Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even when there is no hope of finding anything; investigating everything whether it be algae or an octopus; being hypnotized by a sinister pond where everything seems to be watching you even when nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of an addict, the ecstasy of a hunting dog bounding across a field, crisscrossing it with euphoric expectation, even though each hidden crevice it stumbles over reveals, at most, a rotten potato…

But there are consolations: the greatest being the ability to eat one’s actors — crab, shrimp, sea urchins, squid, all finely cooked in new and unusual ways. Of course, there is much to consider before tossing them in a pan. There are one hundred seven varieties of bouillabaisse to choose from. Should one use garlic or not? Prepare it au gratin? Sautéed in red wine? Add sardines? Classical gourmets may be offended, but the bouillabaisse of Marseilles cannot be imitated, so anything is allowed…

After several years of working on strictly scientific or surgical films — which earn nothing, or rather, no more than public documentaries do, but at least they cost less!—we returned to our investigations and created a new group called The Seahorse [1933]. (For those still interested in gastronomic matters, sad news: this creature can only be used as a toothpick.) This only proved that the difficulties continue. Whatever improvements had been made were quickly canceled out by new needs. Just like airplanes, the cameras we construct are obsolete the moment we try to use them…


Jean Painlevé. Voilà, “Les pieds dans l’eau,” May 4, 1935, p.6 (2007.71.30)

The biggest problems often involve the smallest subjects. For example, insects such as the tiny dytiscid, which we used in the film Freshwater Assassins [1947], were somewhat compromised. With bigger animals, success is a question of sheer willpower and tenacity. For The Seahorse, the enormous aquariums, which were made entirely of glass, shattered on two occasions…

…The next three days were spent constructing a watertight case that enclosed a camera so that I could use it, along with a breathing apparatus, in the Bay of Arcachon. It was lovely; the underwater beauty seductive. It is easy to lose oneself in the water’s depths.

So, in sum, just when you think you have finally perfected a technique, you are forced to change it. We now use color in some of our documentaries, just as cartoons do. And we now bring spotlights into the water with us. Through it all, however, we have kept the pioneers of film in mind: they exemplify the desire to press on, regardless.

Jean Painlevé. Voilà, “Les pieds dans l’eau,” May 4, 1935 (2007.71.30)

Translation by Jeanine Herman.
Andy Masaki Bellows, Marina McDougall, Brigitte Berg editors. Translation By Jeanine Herman. Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. San Francsico: Brico Press and Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000 pp. 124-128

Sources: Jean Painlevé Archives, Les Documents Cinématographiques, and Andy Masaki Bellows, Marina McDougall, Brigitte Berg editors. Translation By Jeanine Herman. Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. San Francsico: Brico Press and Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.


Jean Painlevé. Voilà, “Les Pieds dans l’eau,” May 4, 1935 (2007.71.30)

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