© National Film Board of Canada

© National Film Board of Canada

© National Film Board of Canada

There’s an amazing amount of historical and technical information over at the National Film Board of Canada website. One of the most interesting links leads to an archive of writings, photos, objects and artwork by Norman McLaren. For those interested in his artistic as well as technical approach to animated film, you’ll be spoiled for choice. McLaren documented practically all his works and they make for revealing reading. He also embarked upon a little history hunting himself, writing a short piece on animated sound, entitled, A Brief Summary of the Early History of Animated Sound on Film. / by Norman McLaren. – 1952.

Other important texts include a booklet on cameraless animation. A statement written by McLaren commentating on key themes in his work. And a letter written by François Truffaut to McLaren.

Full Archive Here >>>

Gitane Catch… 1961. Production La Comète. Dir. André Sarrut et Jacques Asséo

Where would the advertising world be without animation ? That is obviously a question to be turned around too, each having fed and nurtured their forms reciprocally throughout their long collaboration. The communication and advertising agencies of today are more or less tightly linked with design and animation studios. Their history is a fascinating perspective on how animation has developed and may help pinpoint a particular shift from what was initially pure character driven cartoon animation to the more graphic design informed domain of motion graphics which seems to have taken hold as the dominant force in the advertising world of today.
After a return visit to the exhibition in Paris, ‘La Pub s’anime’, (Animated Ads), I wanted to jot down a few key moments along with the people that paved the way towards our present day marketing world. This is obviously a focus on the history in France but the question begs : How did advertising and animation develop in other developing countries ?

Gitanes La logique de Toto 1926. Robert Lortac & André Payen

** 1918 – 35 **

Robert Collard (1884 – 1973),often named Robert Lortac, sets up Europe’s first animation studio in Montrouge in 1919. The studio is reputed to have created quantitatively the greatest number of animated films in France and remained active up until 1945. Amongst the first 15 employees, a certain Raymond Savignac who was already a well known poster artist of the era. To begin with, animated ads were informed by graphic design and the poster format. Illustration and typographic elements were often taken from existing poster ads and animated, finishing off with a fitting slogan and the name of the product.

Gitanes La logique de Toto 1926. Robert Lortac & André Payen

** 1936 **

Animated ads were first screened as intervals for the cinema, however ad agencies wanted to keep people in the cinema during the breaks. Enter the cartoon character and storytelling. From this point on commercials become closely tied to
traditional cartoons and develop into saga long commercials that entice as entertain the public.

Paul Grimault (1905 – 1994) and André Sarrut ( ) set up Les Gemeaux production house. However….

** 1950 – 68 **

….in 1952, after misunderstandings, the two associates split and Paul Grimault opens, Les Films Paul Grimault and André Sarrut starts his own studio, La Comète, with animator Jacques Asséo.

In the fifties, France develops as a consumer society and the budget for ad agencies doubles. Consequently their is a mushrooming of production houses, some of which dedicate their activities purely to creating commercials. This is the case for Sarrut’s La Comète which made more than 2000 commercial films exporting 80% of their output and became the most important film company for animated commercials in Europe at the time.

Air Wick Pour ceux qui ont du nez 1955. André Sarrut & Jacques Asséo

>>>Watch Gitane Bleue


Gitane Bleue 1958. André Sarrut & Jacques Asséo

Total Oil 1958. André Sarrut


In 1953, Jacques Forgeot (1923-1969) opens Les Cinéastres Associaciés and employs some of France’s and indeed Europe’s leading animators : Raoul Franco, Etienne Rajk (1904-1976), Paul Casalini (1933 – ) and the Bettiol brothers. Not forgetting Alexandre Alexeieff (1901-1982) who had just come back from a passage in Amercia and had already a rich and innovative background in working for commercials.

Le Parisien Concourt 1960. Production Jean Mineur. Dir. Raoul Franco

EDF/GDF. Eau Chaude 1961. Production Jean Mineur. Dir. Raoul Franco

** 1970 **

Remains a minor period with struggling output due to high costs, competition from television ads and a return to live action.

** 1980 **

This is a major period of technological change – the arrival of digital imaging and the development of 3D. Exmachina becomes the third largest production house in special effects in the World. The likes of Pierre Coffin (1967..), Pascal Vuong (1960..) and the H5 Collective push forward the form and major production houses such as TBWA and Buf set up business specializing in CGI visual effects and animation.

Restore L’homme moteur synthétique 1984. Agence Hautefeuille. Dir. Jerzy Kular

>>> Watch a selection of French animated ads
>>> 1950’s Commercials
>>> Animated Logos

There are 7 parts to the interview. Click on the video to watch the remaining.

Still. Paul Rand Video © Imaginary Forces 2007

Born Peretz Rosenbaum in Brooklyn, 1914, Paul Rand started his first job as an illustrator before subscribing to the European aesthetics and principles of modernist design. A man of great conviction to clear communicative graphic design, his visual language conjured some of the best work of the Amercian modernist era.
Imaginary Forces have put in to motion some of Rand’s better known pieces, narrated by Rand himself, creating a charming four minute video that gives you a brief insight in to the essence of his working principles.


>>> Watch Paul Rand Video


The Film Library (BiFi) is the main center for documents on movies in France and it has become a personal place of refuge amongst the plethora of historical information at hand. There is no single document, to my knowledge, that attempts to trace the development of motion graphics from its origins. A virgin landscape lies before me, which makes research in the subject problematic yet stimulating. What has become undoubtedly important though in my research, is the fact that motion graphics is directly linked with film and animation history, especially in terms of technique, and this gives plenty of scope for sifting out key people and perspectives that may have played a part in the development of the discipline.
This month, the Film Library is presenting a retrospective on French animation, from its origins up to 1940. There will be screenings of some of the first ever animations with Emile Reynaud, finishing off with Paul Grimault’s essential work in the genre. I highly recommend to anyone interested in animation history, and who may find themselves in Paris this month, to take hold of this rare opportunity.

>>> More Info Here (in French).

Linear Squares. Oskar Fischinger, 1961. © Elfriede Fischinger Trust

>>> More Paintings Here

Square Symphony 1943.jpg
Untitled 1946.jpg
>And More Paintings & Info Here
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust


Sketch 1.jpg
Sketch 2.jpg
Sketch 3.jpg
Sketch 4.jpg
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

Screen shot from the Muntz TV Commercial. Oskar Fischinger 1952
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

A rare find of Oskar Fischinger’s work on the net. Watch them while you can.

>>> Muntz TV Commercial 1952
>>> Oklahoma Gas 1945-55
>>> Motion Painting N°1 1947

Constance. 1957

Unique innovators within the realm of animation, Alexandre Alexeieff and his partner Claire Parker are notably given attention for the distinct films created with their ‘pin screen’ technique. Night on Bald Mountain, The Nose and Pictures at an Exhibition are rare and beautifully poetic examples of this technique which was invented by Alexeieff and developed as a means for visual expression all throughout his career.

Alexeieff was indeed a tireless mind when it came to innovation and with each work he always attempted to push the medium and try out new perspectives. This can be clearly seen within his lesser known commercial work which took off after the War. It was working for large companies such as L’Oréal, Evian, Esso and Nescafe that Alexeieff and Parker could invest in experimentation which led to various innovative techniques. “Totalised Animation” is a procedure that entails long exposures of objects. Alexeieff created a system of pendulums that enabled him to plot precise oscillated forms which he then filmed using his totalisation technique. Superimposing frames and adding projected text in the final composite brought about unique effects that can be seen in his work for Nescafe and the film company Cocinor, both made in 1957.

Cent Pour Cent. 1957

Cocinor. 1957

There was a growing trend from the forties onwards towards making ‘synthetic images’ and Alexeieff seems to be historically well placed as amongst one of the protagonists, if not precursors of this method. Interestingly, others working within this field were to be found in America, (Alexeieff being in Paris), with the Whitney Brothers leading the work towards computer assisted images in the Seventies. Alexeieff and Parker will most probably be remembered foremost as artists with their fiercely independent and uniquely animated films. Their commercial work however was not merely just a means to finance their films, it was also a possibility to expand and innovate – a common trend of the advertising World of today. Advertising as a means to sponsor artists and push the boundaries of technological as well as aesthetic expression.

Rhythm in Motion
Part 2 of a 3 Part Essay on Music and Motion.
>>> PART 1 Read Here

The artistic developments in search of a ‘visual music’ took on a whole new realm for experimentation once the technological possibilities of movement were available. Film as a medium for expression amongst the early avant-gardes was a natural progression and in releasing the painting from its static state of the canvass, artists were given the means for spatial as well as rhythmic manipulation of their ideas. In line with this major evolution in the visual field, once again sound and music was to play a large part in influencing the artists’ visual palette.

In the Language of Vision, first published in 1944, Gyorgy Kepes writes, ‘The invention of the motion picture opened the way to a hitherto undreamed scope and flexibility of rhythmic organisation.’ (pg. 58 Dover Edition 1995). He continues with an analogy to music, quoting from a number of musical theorists on composition and making a direct link with the plastic qualities of color, tone, value, texture, form etc. with melody, counterpoint and rhythm. The shared temporal quality of motion picture and music had obviously been noted well before Kepes’ observations, however as he states himself, ‘The new possibilities of the synchronization of the temporal and spatial structure of the vision are, however, still barely touched upon.’

Early foundations though in these ‘possibilities’ had been experimented with, and one of the first purely graphical films with music still surviving today is Walter Ruttmann’s ‘Light Play Opus Nr. 1’, completed in 1921. It used colour painted directly on to the film stock, making use of tone and hue upon simplistic graphic forms that repeat in light synchronisation to an orchestrated music. Ruttman had gone to great lengths to indicate precise colour information on the musical score itself as an aid to the musicians. Although repetitive and rudimentary, the film had been a painstakingly difficult and complex creation for its time. It should be given more attention than it receives and stands as a brilliant example of the direction in which many would follow. It has been well documented that this particular piece had a decisive effect on a certain young compatriot who was to take the idea of painting music in motion as his life long creative quest, Oskar Fischinger. Fischinger had met Ruttman at the premier for Opus 1 and it is at this point that the influence as indeed the inspiration took its hold on the young artist. The work of Fishinger is a weighty subject and has been carefully documented by the late William Moritz of which a good number of his writings can be read on line. What is clear about Fishinger and his work, is that he remains, albeit with unfortunately modest recognition to this day, an historic cornerstone in the industry of the moving image. He helped develop new perspectives and was an inspiration for a generation of artists to come.

Oskar Fischinger with his ‘Sound Scrolls’

That first generation of artists to arise and draw upon these new perspectives in motion and sound comprised of Norman Mclaren, Len Lye, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson and the brothers John and James Whitney. All, except the Whitney brothers were to begin with painting directly on to film as a means to create and all were to work in strict syncopation with music. And a new style of music was to take hold, that of Jazz. It is interesting to note here, as a short parenthesis, how jazz became a huge influence not only on the avant-garde but also in creating strong ties with the modernist movement in general. The rise of graphic design saw it’s use for many an album cover from Columbia Records with designer Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora to Reid Miles for Blue Note and David Stone Martin for Verve. This of course marks the beginnings of a strong tie between the two mediums of music and graphic design which were to develop in a sort of harmonic symbiosis and continue right up to the present day. Classical music on the other hand had already undergone huge developments in the early twentieth century. Arnold Schönberg, the father of modern music had exploded the traditional form of scale and compositional form, his developments having an enormous effect on the beginnings of abstract painting with notably Kandinsky at the helm. Jazz, however, brought with it a completely new dimension and a new energy that excited many visual artists working in the film medium. Jazz had rhythm, from rag time to swing, be-bop to improvisation and this quality alone was to inspire a colourful visual palette for decades to come.

Len Lye’s ‘Colour Box’ title screen. 1935

A notable early work that epitomises this marriage and a sense of true experimentation between the two mediums is Len Lye’s extraordinary 1935 work, ‘Colour Box’. It is a mix of jazz and African rhythm, ‘La Belle Créole’ which is visually interpreted by myriad colours of pure graphic rhythm. The creation was one of the first really successful, as well as critically acclaimed pieces of early moving abstract works. What is striking in ‘Colour Box’, is the complex and dynamic spectacle that meets the eye. The explosion of colour conjures fascination leaving the imagination to swell yet the rhythmic syncopated style that is coordinated with the music keeps the attention focused. Even the juxtaposition of the music’s composition is cleverly interpreted in the visual continuity of the film. The pure abstract quality may be nerving for your average passer-by and for some the film has little to offer than it’s enlightened technique of painting directly onto film. However, the technique was indeed an interesting new perspective and one that developed into what became known as ‘cameraless animation’. The visual with the sonic had therefore come a step closer and the possibility for the artist to paint directly in sync with the musical composition became a reality.

Harry Smith. Copyright Brian Graham. 1988

Ten years on from ‘Colour Box’, Harry Smith must take claim as the first video disc jockey of modern times. It’s the mid Forties and Smith projects his early abstract works in a west coast jazz club, Bop City. Whilst the musicians perform live improvisation, Smith modulates his images on the fly using a multi-speed projector. Harry Smith was a prolific artist and had made at least seven films alone, which were dedicated to Dizzie Gillespie’s music. Inspired by the occult and eastern philosophy, as were many of his colleagues of the time, he often spoke of his films in terms of synesthesia much like Kandinsky, searching for an ultimate relationship between colour and sound.

John & James Whitney. Lapis 1963-1966.
Copyright Estate of John and James Whitney

Two other West Coast artists, John and James Whitney also shared a fascination with eastern philosophies. John, being perhaps the better known of the two for his groundbreaking work in computer graphics and his presence in the film industry. They both had met with Oskar Fischinger at a gallery in 1939. Although the encounter could be seen as a motive for developing in line with Fishinger’s work, they eventually went on to pursue a much more intricately detailed and purely electronic view of what visual music could be. This came with John’s innovations in new technologies culminating in the creation of ‘Variations’ and two ‘Film Exercises’. John had invented a pendulum system, which enabled him to compose electronic sounds in tight synchronisation with the visual. He later went on to construct his ‘cam-machine’ – an analog computerised motion camera enabling him to have fine control over plotting graphics on to film. This was most famously used in collaboration with Saul Bass on the film titles for Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. John went on to set up business for the production of further commercial work in film and founded in 1952 the company, Motion Graphics Inc. Arguably, the first use of the term motion graphics in film history. The Whitney brothers had started to work with jazz scores in their early film work but were to develop an affinity for more Worldly rhythms as well as themselves compose some of the earliest electronic music in the mid Fifties.

The Whitney Brothers
Copyright Carl Machover

Squarewave Cards used by Norman McLaren
Copyright National Film Board of Canada

The discovery of a new way to create sound via electronic means was however nothing new and indeed had opened up a different perspective in bringing sound and image together. It had been termed ‘Tonal Handwriting’ to begin with and later on, ‘Animated Sound’. Another man was pioneering not only in the visual realm in both animation and film but also directly in the musical, taking off where early Russian experiments with Avzaamov and the Swiss born Rudolf Pfenninger had layed down important work. Scottish born Norman McLaren was directly influenced by his own ‘visions’ and desire to express music through visual means and some of his earliest works demonstrate this with superb results. He described three methods of working for creating sound with film: Painting or inking directly onto blank film, scratching into black film stock and photographing and exposing on film ‘sound cards’ that each depict pitch and tone. It is this third technique, which had first been developed by Pfenninger in his piece ‘Tönende Handscrift’, (Tonal Handwriting) that McLaren takes to perfection with his 1971 ‘Synchromy’. ‘Synchromy’ is a purely graphic work and the most explicit example of the technique. A mammoth 7 minutes over of ‘visual music’ perfectly justifying McLaren’s claim that, ‘you see what you hear.’

Original exposure sheet by Norman McLaren
Copyright National Film Board of Canada

In his ‘Workshop Experiments in Animated Sound’, 1957 we encounter visual ‘bleeps’ and ‘blips’, foreseeing some of today’s electronic music scene and visual work by half a century and the likes of arcade video game music by twenty years. Other works of McLaren are also equally interesting and were successful films, the likes of ‘Blinkity Blank’, 1955 and ‘Neighbours’ 1952 both used synthetic sound techniques and are critically acclaimed pieces. And there is ‘Loops’, 1940, ‘Canon’, 1964 and even one of his very first films for the GPO in London, ‘Book Bargain’, 1937 had started out with experiments with sound.

>>> Part Three : Sonic Pixels

Resources :

>>>The history of synthetic music drawn directly on filmstock.

>>> The Harry Smith Archives.

>>> “Who’s Who in Filmmaking: James Whitney.”
Sightlines. v.19 n.2 (Winter 1985/1986): 25-27.

>>>The IOTA Center.

>>>Norman McLaren – The Master’s Edition. DVD. ONF 2006

>>>Oskar Fischinger. Ten Films. DVD. Center for Visual Music 2006

Krasner, Jon.
Motion Graphic Design & Fine Art Animation. Focal Press, 2004

Sons & Lumière. Une Histroire du Son dans l’Art du XX Siècle
Editions de Centre Pompidou, Paris 2004

Abstract Landscape- 1959 – Oil painting.
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

Circles-Triangles-Sqaures – 1938 – Oil painting.
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

Color Sinfony – 1957 – Oil painting.
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

Abstraction – 1939 – Oil painting.
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

Red & Green Concetric – 1952 – Oil painting.
© Elfriede Fischinger Trust

“..it is only that MOTION PAINTING N°1, as it unfolds itself, offers the viewer the same deep emotional feeling that he can receive from good music. Thus we find that music is not limited to the World of sound;there also exists a music of the visual World.”
Fischinger, Oskar (1951)

After Fischinger’s passing away, it is reported in an interview with his wife that he had always wanted to create a feature film, or as she expressed, “an audio-visual abstract concert feature”. Fischinger’s work is undeniably the ultimate expression of a profound and life-long search for a ‘visual music’ in the early 20th century. It is interesting to note that although he was first and foremost a filmmaker, he shared a growing interest amongst some of the greatest European artists of his time. That interest had its foundations in music and its abstract nature as an art form. Looking at the above examples, we can acknowledge a certain sense of rhythm and composition of graphical elements that were much a part of the aesthetic of his era and surroundings. Some may even be forgiven for reading Mondrian or Klee in the above works, for Fischinger was indeed conscious of the Bauhaus tradition developing in Weimar and the works of Klee, Kandinsky and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Maholy-Nagy had even rented Fischinger’s films on various occasions and had met with him during his time in Germany.

However, Fischinger was not only pushing abstraction forward, along the lines of the great modernists of his time. He was also pushing the form into a completely new medium that would lay the foundations for generations after. Len Lye, McLaren, Saul Bass, Binder, and right up to the present day. Fischinger had coined the word ‘Raumlichtmusik’, meaning ‘Space Light Music’. “Of this art….Plastic, dance, painting, music become one.” The ‘audio-visual abstract concert feature’ is only just beginning to find its place within contemporary culture, everything from art installations, danse, VJing to theatre and music concerts. I’m sure Fischinger would be overwhelmed with today’s plethora of visual musics in retrospect to how he fought, often alone, on a vision that was given little light in his days.

Sources :

Fischinger, Oskar “Sounding Ornaments”
First Published in Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, July 8. 1932

Fischinger, Oskar 1951 “A Statement About Painting”
The Fischinger Trust

Keefer, Cindy
“Space Light Art”-Early Abstract Cinema and Multimedia, 1900-1959
White Noise Exhibition Catalog. ACMI Melbourne. 2005

Moritz , William “You Can’t Get Then From Now”
Southern California Art Magazine, No. 29, 1981

Moritz, William Oskar Fischinger : Artist of the Century
Exhibition catalog. KINETICA 2. Los Angeles: The iotaCenter, 2000.

Other Material

Center For Visual Music – Oskar Fischinger DVD 2006


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.