Feature - Early Abstract Film

When our friends from Moederschip mentioned that their new footage pack FingerPaint was inspired by the artist Len Lye, we started talking about the pioneers of our field. You cannot help but be amazed by what some of these boys and girls were doing over half a century ago. With all the amazing technology we have at our fingertips these days, some of the work they did still blows ours out of the water. Moederschip was so kind to enlighten us on a few classics, so read on and get edumacated.

Early abstract film

Throughout history, many artists have been aiming for a synergy between visuals and sound. Abstract film and music visualisation are closely related and their history often overlaps. Early projection techniques like the Magic lantern (around 1650) were often accompanied by music and storytelling, though those were not abstract works.

The Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo came up with a system to connect music and luminosity around 1590. This was only a concept, instruments to play it followed. Around 1730, the french monk Louis Bertrand Castel developed a more direct connection between both media: the Ocular Harpsichord (Color organ), an instrument that played notes and colours with the touch of a key. In a way the Ocular Harpsichord was much alike the lcd-projectors we use today: (60) small coloured glass panes (pixels) were covered by tiny curtains and opened briefly with the touch of the organ keys. A later version projected the colours with 500 candles in front of a small audience. The idea of visualising music (colour music) was developed further in the years and many translations of musical pieces were made. These pure visualisations of music found their way into our modern DMX controlled lights.

The invention of the motion picture film camera in 1888 and the film projector changed the landscape of music visualisation dramatically. The first abstract movies were directly painted on film by the Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna between 1911 and 1912. Unfortunately, these works are all lost, just like the abstract work made by the German Hans Stoltenberg in the same period. Through a series of prominent artists and their works we show you an impression of the first abstract experiments up to the first computer animations in art.

A very important film in the history of abstract film, called “Rhythmus 21”, was made in 1921 by the German dadaist painter and self proclaimed “first abstract film maker” Hans Richter:

Although the film was created without music, it has been accompanied by many soundtracks.

Around the same time the German film director Walther Ruttmann created his first of many abstract films “Lichtspiel Opus I”:

Lichtspiel Opus I was accompanied by a soundtrack written for the film and sometimes by a live cello performance done by Ruttmann himself. The film was created using “classic” animation techniques.

Two other interesting works in this period we have to mention are Symphonie Diagonale by Viking Eggeling (1921) and (though not truly abstract) Anemic Cinema by Marcel Duchamp (1926).

Mary Ellen Bute started creating abstract film around 1933. The following video was created in 1938 and shows a great example of the elegant music visualisation in her work:

The work of the New Zealand-born artist Len Lye is truly dynamic and rhythmic, matching the music with fluid motion and vivid colours. Len Lye used mixed techniques directly on film rolls, a beautiful example is “A Colour Box” (1935):

Norman McLaren,a Scottish-born Canadian animator created many abstract experimental film in the same period, a good and minimal example is “Dots” (around 1940):

The introduction of computer animations changed the field of abstract film for good. A great piece (in fact a showreel, not a single work) is “Catalog” (1960) by the American animator John Whitney:

In additon to these works listed, the contribution of many other artists have made the field of abstract film and visual music what it is today and still creative people and technology expand it further.

Posted by Joris on Wednesday May 2, 2012 at 15:30
Comment from Shorties:

:D Ah I am so glad you made this post. Taking an early cinema history class for my major was one of the main things that introduced me to early visual music and influenced me to learn more about VJing. That one you posted of Mary Ellen Bute is probably one of my favorites, I just love the way that it implements a very basic narrative arc within the abstract setting of that piece.

I hope you don't mind but I feel compelled to add one artist that I think is worth mentioning, Oskar Fischinger. He is probably my favorite visual music filmmaker from the early abstract cinema era. After he first began making abstract cinema pieces, he started working with the Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo in a multi-projector production of abstract film that accompanied Laszlo's live concert performance. According to Cindy Keefer "The first known simultaneous performance of abstract film, color organ light projections, and music was that of Hungarian composer Alexander László and Oskar Fischinger, in Munich in March 1926." I wish there was film or pictures of this. The only thing I've ever seen of this is this painting, but I don't think was of one of Laszlo's performances that included Fischinger's projections:
The films used in his multi-projector performance have been preserved but not digitized, the Center for Visual Music is currently looking for funding to digitize these films, see the bottom of this post for more info. They are also going to do a performance of the newly restored footage in june of 2012. I'm not sure where though.

He did various visual "Studies" which were short animations synced to music. This excerpt from "Studie nr 8" really shows how intuitive he was at utilizing motion to visualize the sound:

He later came to America and worked on various short films, commercials, and doing special effects. He always was talking about doing a feature length concert film, and ended up working with Disney on Fantasia. He designed the opening piece for Fantasia as a purely abstract piece, but they changed the abstract objects in it to violin bows, strings, bridges and other literal elements from concert instruments, which bothered him so much that he left the project, and was never credited for his contribution in Fantasia. (From what I understand the opening sequence still uses his arrangement of visuals, it is just the abstract shapes were changed to literal objects) This is that piece as it is in Fantasia:

Probably my favorite piece by him is this one, "An Optical Poem" (1937) though unfortunately this is the best quality I could find of it, the colors don't nearly pop as much as in the version I saw in class:

A few other great ones by him are Allegretto (1936) and Kreise (1933) but these were harder to find and aren't on Youtube or Vimeo. They are included in high quality on a DVD with 8 more of his films though.

Fischinger got disenfranchised with the whole hollywood film industry and eventually just worked on oil paintings towards the end of his career. But he also developed something called the Lumigraph which was a visual instrument that he hoped would become a standard for visuals in concerts, and hoped everyone would have one in their homes to perform for fun and for guests. According to Wikipedia "The instrument produced imagery by pressing against a rubberized screen so it could protrude into a narrow beam of colored light. As a visual instrument, the size of its screen was limited by the reach of the performer. Two people were required to operate the Lumigraph: one to manipulate the screen to create imagery, and a second to change the colors of the lights on cue." It never really caught on, but apparently there are a few of them in existence still, which are occasionally performed. I've only seen two videos of it being performed, one is a scene from the 1964 film "The Time Travelers", the other is a silent performance by his wife.

I sure wish he had been around in the age of VJing and performance tools like Resolume, who knows what he would have come up with. Anyway I added way more then I meant to, I just felt compelled to mention Oskar Fischinger. I also probably should mention that the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles, who have all his films in their archive, is trying to restore and digitize all his films in HD, but they haven't accumulated the funds yet to complete the project, they have options to donate to specific films or their whole restoration project here if anyone is interested in contributing. (Im not associated with them in any way, just a fan).

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