The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Animation in the Post-Industrial Era


By 1960 cartoon shorts were no longer screened as part of the regular programme in cinemas, and studio animation units were closed or producing exclusively for television. For independent animators the major distribution focus became the film festival, which could make films known to an international audience of entrepreneurs and connoisseurs who in turn might arrange for them to be screened on television, or in cinemas as part of package programmes. At first animation had to vie with live-action features at general film festivals like Cannes'or Venice, but after the creation of ASIFA (the International Association for Animated Film) in 1960, festivals specializing in animation began in Annecy, Zagreb, Ottawa, Hiroshima, and a number of other locations, allowing independent animators from around the world to meet yearly and share their films.


A small number of experimental animators had already enjoyed an alternative community for some decades, as a part of experimental art film. The presence of Oskar Fischinger in Los Angeles encouraged the brothers John and James Whitney to turn from music and painting to the creation of abstract animation, with hard-edged geometric imagery synchronized to astonishing 'electronic' music drawn directly on the film strip by a series of finely calibrated pendulums ( Five Film Exercises, 1943-4). In 1946 the San Francisco Museum of Art held the first of some dozen Art in Cinema festivals which screened classic avant-garde films of the 1920s (Buñuel, Man Ray, Cocteau) beside new works by Maya Deren, Fischinger, and the Whitneys. This encouraged two other young painters, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith, to take up abstract animation; Belson favoured dynamic polymorphous colour manifestations ( Allures, 1961; Samadhi, 1967; Light, 1973) while Smith tended toward geometric forms, at first handpainted on the film strip (Film No. 1 and 2, 1947-9) then later composed by the superimposition of pre-animated melodic units in a live, multiple-projector performance which was then refilmed from the screen (Film No. 7, 1931).

Fischinger, James Whitney, Belson, and Smith were all devoted to mystical, spiritual ideals. Smith combined his abstract imagery with sacred representational figures cut out from nineteenth-century lithographs and animated in intricate synchronization to the music of Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie (Film No. 10 and No. 11, 1955). While these four artists formed the core of a ' California School of Color Music', by 1957 Art in Cinema festivals had shown abstract films by seventeen other west coast and nine east coast artists. The 1949 Experimental Film Festival in Brussels not only awarded Fischinger the Grand Prize, but also recognized the Whitney brothers' Film Exercises as best use of sound. After the Second World War, John Whitney turned more to technological experimentation and became a pioneer of computer graphics, while James Whitney (like Jordan Belson) continued producing hand-made animations of great beauty and spiritual grandeur ( Yantra, 1955; Lapis, 1963; Wu Ming, 1976; Kang Jing Xiang, 1982).

Other abstract animation artists flourished in various locations. The New Zealander Len Lye created the 1928 Tusalava (drawings and cut-outs) in London and the 1958 Free Radicals (scratched directly on black film) in New York. He made ten other abstract films in between, while working for the British GPO unit (A Colour Box painted on film in 1933, and Trade Tattoo, optically printed live action and abstraction together, 1937) or supporting himself with painting, sculpture, and commercials. In Ohio and New York, painter Dwinell Grant made nine abstract films (including Themis, 1940; Stereoscopic Composition, 1945; Composition 6 'Dream Fantasies', 1985) while supporting himself by designing for the theatre and animating medical films. Hy Hirsh lived off still photography while making clever oscilloscope patterns synchronize with infectious Caribbean and African music (the 3-D Come Closer, 1952). He then turned to spectacular optical printing of live-action and animated footage (as Lye had done in Trade Tattoo), for Gyromorphosis and Autumn Spectrum ( 1958), Scratch Pad ( 1960), and La Couleur de la forme ( 1961).

This tradition of abstract animation continues unbroken to the present, with artists like Jules Engel who (in addition to commercial work at Disney, UPA, and an Academy Award nomination for the 1963 Icarus Montgolfier Wright) has created some thirty abstract animations. These range from refined computer graphics ( Silence, 1968) to dynamic studies in kineticism ( Rumble, 1975) and handdrawn parallels to his canvas paintings ( Villa Rospigliosi, 1988), and are all infused with a fine conceptual wit. Computer artists Larry Cuba ( Two Space, 1978) and David Brody ( Beethoven Machinery, 1989) control the complex potential of their technology to produce a subtle visual music, while artists like Sara Petty ( Preludes in Magical Time, 1987) and Dennis Pies ( Luma Nocturna, 1974) continue to render thousands of delicate drawings for each film.

The British artist Robert Darroll (now resident in Germany) created, by intricate layers of hand-painted images, a trilogy of films Lung ('Dragon', 1983), Feng Huang ('Phoenix', 1987), and Stone Lion ( 1990), based on his


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