Early American Computer Animation # 2 – Review

Poemfield – Stan Vanderbeek

The program featured some key films made between 1966-1969, spanning a wide range – the films were a mix of formal, educational and highly experimental.

The biggest revelation for was in the use of sound in these films. Often the visual output seemed as if it might have been sound reactive, although highly syncopated and syneasthetic – the sound was always added later on. Another interesting feature of sound was that some of the films juxtaposed non electronic music, such as African tribal chanting or Indian classical music, the outcome hinting towards a fusing of techno and the primitive. At times the sound and visuals were built as an aural/visual assault, this I suspect being a record of a time when certain perception enhancers were not uncommonly used when viewing this films.

Stan VanDerBeeks Poemfield #2 explored the representation of lines of text from a poem with geometric alignment, transformation and composition. The style of copy is pixellated and there is interplay between the background patterns and the foreground text. While not overly breathtaking seen in today’s climate of hypermedia and rich graphical environments, for its time it must have caused quite a stir.

VanDerBeek studied art and mixed with the likes of Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. Later he built his Movie-Drome theatre at Stony Point, New York, and produced shows with multiple projectors. Interestingly his shows utilised large number of random image sequences resulting in performances that were never the same.

Movie Drome Theatre – Stan Vanderbeek

‘Influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s spheres, VanDerBeek had the idea for a spherical theatre where people would lie down and experience movies all around them. Floating multi-images would replace straight one-dimensional film projection. From 1957 on, VanDerBeek produced film sequences for the Movie-Drome, which he started building in 1963. His intention went far beyond the building itself and moved into the surrounding biosphere, the cosmos, the brain and even extraterrestrial intelligence.’ – Jürgen Claus in Leonardo, Vol. 36

John Stehura’s Cibernetik 5.3 is a dense mesh of geometric figures that have an extraterrestrial sentience about them. In the early 60’s work on Cibernetik 5.3 was inspired by the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick – the algorithms used to animate the primitive shapes were based on genetic modelling. In evolving spatial environments shapes come in being, organisms made of light.

Permutations – John Whitney

Permutations and Arabesque are two very well know films by John Whitney. Showing these two films together allows us to see the development of Whitney’s work and how he essentially refined the same concept over a long period of time. Both films present the line or dot as dancer. Whitney must be the greatest contender for being THE precursor to the modern music visualisation plugin – the kind of visual output you’re used to from the MP3 player of your choice. This is audio reactive visuals at it highest – all though all the sound is added to these films after they have been made.

Peter Foldes ‘La Faim’ (Hunger) broke from preoccupation of abstraction of the earlier films to provide an animated satire of self-indulgence. Here computers were used to handle complex morphing, dissolving and reshaping throughout the animation. The film remains fresh and the style has been echoed in a lot of work since, particularly Flash animation with scripted timelines.

Googolplex by Lillian Schwartz & Kenneth Knowlton utilised their self developed graphical programming language EXPLOR to build a kinetic patchwork of binary grids pulsing to the sound of African tribal chant. The work, a result of research at BELL laboratories into the perception of sound and images, exists somewhere between a psychotic Cellular Automata and stroboscopic Bridget Riley. EXPLOR is an acronym for Explicitly defined Patterns, Local Operations, and Randomness. A very simple language for computer generation of still or moving images developed in 1972.

One of the astounding things about all of the works shown was the method in which they were made. Often there was only enough computer memory to produce one frame of graphics at a time. Each frame was output to an optical printer in black and white, then pieced back together a frame at a time and coloured. Music was then added and synched later down the line. Many of these short films took weeks or even months to make, as artefacts of a history, light-years ago in computer terms, they remain extremely interesting and inspiring to recent generations of computer artists.

4 Responses to “Early American Computer Animation # 2 – Review”

  1. fis writes:

    hey, there’s something wrong with name of the work by Lillian Schwartz & Kenneth Knowlton. It should be googolplex;-)

  2. paul writes:

    indeed! corrected!

  3. Rob Myers writes:

    I’m working on a Mini-Explor implementation:

    Open Explor

    Which means I’ve had to learn some FORTRAN. :-)

  4. paul writes:

    Heh rob, i came across your mini-explor implementation while doing a bit of research on EXPLOR last week. Id be keen to know whether you expect to release a working version for people like me to tinker with?

    btw did you do a presentation at last weekends dorkbot? I managed to make the latter half saturdays demonstrations and performaces, all seemed fantastic!

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