Yesterday a few of us headed out to Sainte-Croix to visit the atelier of François Junod. He’s an automatier, or automaton maker. Remember the machine man in The Invention of Hugo Cabret that Hugo was trying to repair? That’s an automaton, and they’re entirely mechanical creations without circuit boards or electronics. François makes automata in the same style, and his workshop is full of tools and machines for cutting and working metal and for modeling and sculpting figures.
I asked him how he got started — he’s in a town of watch makers, some of which could get elaborate, but automata are different. He said that he began working with an old man who made them when he was a boy, studied mechanics at a local school, and then went to art school in Lausanne where he studied sculpture and drawing. Afterward, he returned home and set up his workshop. At first if was just him. Now he has seven apprentices who work on their own projects in the workshop, each with an individual specialty that they teach to the others.
There were eleven of us on the visit, nine adults and two children, and we saw completed automata and prototypes. François showed us how he works out mechanisms and some of the smaller prototypes that he then built at larger scales. We asked questions about materials and process, and he showed us project binders of sketches, how he cuts cams, and the types of materials he uses in his sculptures.
In addition to creating new automata, he restores antiques. He showed us a music box with a mechanical bird from 1840 that he was trying to repair, and he said that these are particularly challenging because of a lack of documentation. Some techniques are described in books, but he had to figure out many for himself through trial and error. For restoration, he also wants to stay true to original materials, and the style at the time was to build mechanisms as tiny and finely as possible, so the materials are delicate and difficult to handle.
His masterwork is an automaton named Pushkin, the most complex automaton in the world. A common type of automaton is the dessinateur (dessin means drawing in French), like the machine in Hugo Cabret. Usually these automata write or draw the same thing over and over. Pushkin can produce 1458 different poems with a thematically linked illustration for each. François built randomness into his mechanical poet, so the poems are generated but follow rules so they make sense. It took him seven years to build. Most take 2-3 months to prototype and on average (for a dessinateur), another year or two to build. Here’s a stunning video of Pushkin by Alain Margot, who also filmed a documentary about François:
Late in the afternoon, we visited the Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art, or mechanical art museum, to see their collection of automata and music boxes. It was fascinating to see the final draft/display versions of some of François’s pieces after spending the day immersed in process and piecework. The entire day was so visually compelling that I (along with everyone else) took hundreds of photos and brief clips of video to catch the machines and mechanisms in action. Unfortunately I only had my iPhone, but I spliced together some of the video and pics I took to try to capture some of the chaos and wonder of the atelier: