Norman McLaren’s 1971 ‘Synchromy‘ epitomizes a particular era in which visual artists were in search of the ultimate marriage between sound and image. There seems to be no other better example of how the two domains meet in perfect sync and graphic rhythm. Synchromy, however, also marks the end of an era and the beginning of another in terms of technique and technology. If the camera brought the canvass into motion and in line with sound and music for the first half of the 20th Century, it was the computer that was to steal the limelight as the new tool for bringing the visual and sonic together.
From as early as the sixties, research and development into computer assisted imagery was taking shape, yet the enormous cost for such a technology and the fact that the privileged domain of science was its main proprietor and knowledge base, meant that the computer was not considered for artistic expression. Indeed, it took until the 80’s; the birth of the digital home computer, desk top publishing and the first graphical user friendly Apple, before the computer really became an accessible and important artistic tool.
One man however, made astonishing developments within the field of computer assisted imagery, well before the computer became a fully boxed clock of zero’s and one’s: John Whitney. The life and work of John Whitney, along with his brother who often had the more artistic role, is rarely given the attention it needs to fully bring to life and present his work in a comprehensive manner. Many short essays and interviews can be found along with his personal writings on his art form, yet we still await a lot more to surface. He is often cited in connection with the term motion graphics, due to his company of the same name in which he developed his first mechanical analog computer and created titles and graphic fx for the film and TV industry. One of the rare pieces available today of this early motion graphics work is entitled Catalogue completed in 1961. As the name suggest, the piece is rather a compilation of the various visual effects he had perfected using his early analog computer. Without doubt, the first ever motion graphics demo reel !
His work ‘Permutations’ was his first cohesive film to have been created using a digital computer, the IBM model 360 along with a 2250 Graphic Display Console. Using a computer program, developed by Dr. Jack Citron, called GRAF (graphic Additions to Fortran), John Whitney completed the film in 1968 along with a 15 minute presentation of the work entitled, ‘Experiments in Motion Graphics’, in which is explained his approach to programming for motion design and the relationships between man and machine . Beyond this technological virtuosity there was an extremely important motivating force that drove Whitney’s artistic expression – the metaphor of music.
“The challenge of creating compositions with this computer instrument is very much like the task faced by all composers who must shape the voices of traditional music to perform harmoniously together. In a piano and string duo for example the interrelationship is usually complex and varied: the parts play together in parallel or opposed motions; one questions, the other replies; one is smooth and melodic – the other is percussive. The range of figurations and the musical partner in this new computer medium for a new World of artistic relationships and expression.”
Experimental Animation. origins of a New Art. Robert Russett & Cecile Starr. Second edition 1988, page 26.
John Whitney was a visionary who wanted to create a new visual language based on moving graphics and who had a strong interest in music. His vision of a new “visual music” takes root in the early European pioneers – Fischinger, Pfenniger and Richter. John Whitney had spent a year in Paris where he had been introduced to the musical compositions of Schoenberg and had later, on return to America, taken great interest in the early film avant-garde movement in Europe. Whitney clearly took a musicians perspective to his visual work, himself writing in an early essay, ‘Moving Pictures and Electronic Music’ that he took the point of view of a composer.
“Cuba believes that the numerical capability of the computer is adding a new creative dimension to the field of experimental animation just as mathematical perspective, for example provided additional visual possibilities for the Renaissance artist.”
Experimental Animation. origins of a New Art. Robert Russett & Cecile Starr. Second edition 1988, page 28.
Larry Cuba was part of the second generation, after having collaborated with Whitney on his ‘Arabesque’ in 1975. Although, he has only made four films to date, his work remains a reference in terms of how computer graphics was to develop and expand the concept of motion graphics with new visual images. Today, one only need to look at audio visual performances and VJ-ing to see the influence, permanance and development of this new ‘visual music’. However, to cite only Cuba alone would be quite wrong. What this essay in three parts has hopefully pointed out, is that the relationship between the sonic and visual has a long and rich history that has shaped the way we perceive and work with the two mediums today. This particular history is revealing not only major artists and their various techniques but also suggesting how certain disciplines of contemporary motion graphics such as VJ-ing has developed within a similar framework. A framework that many contemporary motion designers have followed in step to bring sound and image ever closer as an integral part of communication and entertainment. A framework that has equally developed in to a professional discipline and manifests as well as demands a unique syntax, extending our understanding of what the ‘audiovisual’ scope implies today.
>>> James Whitney Retrospective. Moritz, William 1984
>>> The Animator as Musician. Eric Barbeau. NFB 2005
>>> Visual Music. Larry Cuba’s Experimental Film. Moritz, William 1996
>>>Experimental Animation. Origins of a New Art. Russett, Robert. Starr, Cecile. Da Capo Press, New York 1988
>>> Expanded Cinema. Youngblood, Gene 1970