Mysterious Youtube Videos of Famous Dancer

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer. This week's Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker had an amazing piece about a series of mysterious youtube videos of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky is known as the best male dancer of the twentieth century. Unfortunately Nijinsky died retired at 29, and left behind no known footage of his dancing. Yet about a year ago videos of Nijinsky dancing began appearing on youtube, such as a clip from "Afternoon of a faun" seen below. If there is no known footage of him, where was this archival footage coming from? From the New Yorker article:
"Because it turns out, these aren't films. They are computer-generated artifacts, made by Christian Comte, a French artist who has a studio in Cannes. Reached the other day, Comte acknowledged his authorship. "These films are animations of photographs, achieved thanks to a process that I invented," he said. "I work as an alchemist in animated cinema." He uses still photographs and, by employing a computer to alter them--tilt a head, move an arm--fills in the gaps between successive shots."
Link to the New Yorker Article, Comte's youtube account of the strangely mesmerizing videos.


  1. So they’re not really videos of Nijinsky dancing. They’re another artists interpretation of how he would have moved. While its probably close in terms of movement, its safe to say that the subtleties of Nijinsky’s timing would be off.

    1. its safe to say that the subtleties of Nijinsky’s timing would be off.

      Films of that era were hand cranked, so timing was up to the projectionist, anyway.

  2. Kind of like the videos circulating of James Joyce and other deceased writers reading their works (actual audio recordings synced to alterations of still photos).

  3. Yeah, neat but not convincing in the least. The movements are so artificial looking that it doesn’t even enter into the uncanny valley.

    I am glad someone’s giving him the attention, though.

  4. Nijinsky was born around 1890 and die in London in 1950. He stopped performing around 28-29 and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He didn’t die.

  5. Nizhinskiy ‘retired’ at 29 to spend the rest of his life in and out of insane asylums.

  6. “alchemist in animated cinema”

    “achieved thanks to a process that I invented”

    My kid makes animated gifs of her Barbie flying. Gt vr yrslf Frnch.

  7. What, he invented dancing like a late-80’s CGI figure? The flat stained glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes moved better than that.

  8. cunning: Does she animate them after the barbie has been destroyed, based on a few surviving photos, and recreate fairly believable video in between the photos? If not, get over yourself, non-frenchie.

  9. “Fairly believable” for dwellers of a two-dimensional universe, perhaps. Get over yourselves, non-two-dimensional-space dwellers!

  10. It’s so obvious to me that is computer animated, and not even very well. So it’s hard for me to understand the people who don’t see that.

  11. Whoops, I knew/meant retired but wrote died without thinking. Kind of harsh on retirees… Sorry Grandpa, I do not consider you the walking dead, I promise!

  12. “Fairly believable” it ain’t. First-year undergrad work with Poser, maybe.

    It’s sort-of-convincing as an “I processed this clip so that it looks eighty years old” experiment, but as dance? Forget it. If Nijinsky had actually moved like that, he’d be unknown today.

  13. It’s so obvious to me that is computer animated, and not even very well. So it’s hard for me to understand the people who don’t see that.

    Well it wasn’t obvious to me. It looks more like stop motion animation with wooden dolls.

    If Nijinski danced like that, nobody would have heaped any praise on him during his brief career.

  14. It would be hard to make stop motion move that mechanically.

    I guess I know more about animation than about early 20th century dancers, so that changes what filter I view this through.

  15. Not like 29 is all that young to retire from dancing… Are there a whole lot of active dancers over 30?

    (I’m older than that, so settle down, fellow codgers.)

    1. Are there a whole lot of active dancers over 30?

      Nureyev performed into his 50s. Margot Fonteyn retired at 60.

  16. Hey! He invented animation! COOL! Now all he has to do is go back in time and tell all those old people that invented animation 100 years ago how to do it so that the space-time continuum can continue uninteruppted.

    I’ve worked on moving photographic animation for documentaries since 1997, and I’m hardly the first one, so I kind of doubt he ‘invented’ this process.

    His liberal use of the ‘film damage’ filter along with youtubes low resolution may fool some people, but there’s no way that anyone who knows anything about animation would think that this is footage of a human moving. It’s too bad that he didn’t spend more time getting his keyframes less robotic, it may have been more convincing.

  17. “I work as an alchemist in animated cinema.”
    The ‘Phiosopher’s Stone’, this is, surely, not.

  18. Yes, well… I have recently used this technique to animate a still photo of Marlon Brando that actually turns out to give a better performance in ‘On the Waterfront’ than Marlon Brando did. I simply extrapolated what would quite obviously follow a particular mouth position originated by the admittedly talented actor. After following the rigid logic of my calculations, the performance rendered by my Brando far exceeds in emotive brilliance the performance generated by the biologically-limited Brando.

    I will be submitting this film of Mr. Brando’s true performance to the Motion Picture Academy for consideration in the upcoming Oscar competition. For sure it will win.

  19. A surrealist’s dream, like an artificial wonderland. This is a fantastic work of art. Form and fiction.

  20. Big similarities here with “the footage” in William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition”.

  21. See, I know this is all bunk because Vaslav Nijinsky isn’t either of the Nicholas brothers, and therefor can’t be considered the greatest dancer of the 20th century.

  22. @9 cunning, or anyone else:

    Where has the ‘no vowels’ meme come from? Is it 4chan, or leet, or something else?

    What is it supposed to signify?

    Anyway, I kind of like it, b/c for me it signifies ‘this is unreadable, so don’t bother reading it’. It’s like a comment that deletes itself (while still wasting space).

    Cunning, could you say what you intend with no vowels? Has this been discussed in some more appropriate place?

  23. In his seminal book “The Outsider,” Colin Wilson had a fascinating section on Nijinsky, arguing that his personal torment had much to do with “seeing too much and too deeply” into a human society which no longer held a proper place for mystical temperaments, placing Nijinsky in a category with such other “outsiders” as van Gogh and T.E. Lawrence. Wilson recounts an episode during World War 1 when Nijinsky told his family, “I will now dance you the war,” and proceeded to move in a savage manner which frightened them.


    The film “Diaries of Vaslav Ninjinski” is a little overdone, but has some beautiful dancing and some insights into Vaslav’s diary, which was mostly written after he was institutionalized. I think in the film they talk about the complex and unique system that Ninjinski had for writing down the choreography to his dances. Some of the dances are “recreated” in the film, while a narrator reads from his diary. I saw this on Australian Broadcasting Corporation one night, and it was really interesting and beautiful, although slow and a little over the top.

  25. This effect is actually very simple. Excessive temporal filtering has been applied to a sequence of still images treated as video, which results in each image seeming to morph into the next. The effect is hidden with the image degradation filters and especially the simulated shaking of the camera. It looks like he ran it backwards and forwards at changing speeds to get the results he was looking for.

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