Abstract film  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Abstract film or absolute film is a subgenre of experimental film and a form of abstract art. Abstract films are non-narrative, contain no acting and do not attempt to reference reality or concrete subjects. They rely on the unique qualities of motion, rhythm, light and composition inherent in the technical medium of cinema to create emotional experiences.

Many abstract films have been made with animation techniques. The distinction between animation and other techniques can be rather unclear in some films, for instance when moving objects could either be animated with stop motion techniques, recorded during their actual movement, or appear to move due to being filmed against a neutral background with a moving camera.

Contents

History

Abstract animation before cinema

A number of devices can be regarded as early media for abstract animation or visual music, including color organs, chinese fireworks, the kaleidoscope, musical fountains and special animated slides for the magic lantern (like the chromatrope).

Some of the earliest animation designs for stroboscopic devices (like the phénakisticope and the zoetrope) were abstract, including one Fantascope disc by inventor Joseph Plateau and many of Simon Stampfer's Stroboscopische Scheiben (1833).

1910s: Earliest examples

Abstract film concepts were shaped by early 20th century art movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Suprematism, Futurism, Precisionism and possible others. These art movements were beginning to gain momentum in the 1910s.

Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and his brother Bruno Corra made hand-painted films between 1910 and 1912 that are now lost. In 1916 they published The Futurist Cinema manifesto together with Giacomo Balla, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Remo Chiti and Emilio Settimelli. They proposed a cinema that "being essentially visual, must above all fulfill the evolution of painting, detach itself from reality, from photography, from the graceful and solemn. It must become antigraceful, deforming, impressionistic, synthetic, dynamic, free-wording." "The most varied elements will enter into the Futurist film as expressive means: from the slice of life to the streak of color, from the conventional line to words-in-freedom, from chromatic and plastic music to the music of objects. In other words it will be painting, architecture, sculpture, words-in-freedom, music of colors, lines, and forms, a jumble of objects and reality thrown together at random." Among the proposed methods were: "Cinematic musical researches", "Daily exercises in freeing ourselves from mere photographed logic" and "Linear, plastic, chromatic equivalences, etc., of men, women, events, thoughts, music, feelings, weights, smells, noises (with white lines on black we shall show the inner, physical rhythm of a husband who discovers his wife in adultery and chases the lover – rhythm of soul and rhythm of legs)." About a month later the short film Vitta Futurista was released, directed by Ginna in collaboration with Corra, Balla and Marinetti. Only a few frames of the film remain and little else of any Futurist Cinema work seems to have been made or preserved.

Around 1911 Hans Lorenz Stoltenberg also experimented with direct animation, rhythmically piecing together tinted film in different colors. He published a leaflet about it and claimed that many people growing up with the hand-colored films of Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca would try their hand on painting on film at that time.

In 1913 Léopold Survage created his Rythmes colorés: over 100 abstract ink wash / watercolor drawings that he wanted to turn into a film. Unable to raise the funds, the film was not realized and Survage only exhibited the pictures separately.

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt used templates and aerosol sprays to create repeating geometrical patterns on hand-painted films. These extant films were probably made around 1916 for her Sarabet color organ, for which she filed 11 patents between 1919 and 1926. The films were not projected, but one viewer at a time could look down into the machine at the film itself. The Sarabet was first publicly demonstrated at John Wanamaker's New York department store in 1922.

1920s: The absolute film movement

Some of the earliest abstract motion pictures known to survive are those produced by a group of artists working in Germany in the early 1920s: Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger.

Absolute film pioneers sought to create short length and breathtaking films with different approaches to abstraction-in-motion: as an analogue to music, or as the creation of an absolute language of form, a desire common to early abstract art. Ruttmann wrote of his film work as "painting in time". Absolute filmmakers used rudimentary handicraft, techniques, and language in their short motion pictures that refuted the reproduction of the natural world, instead, focusing on light and form in the dimension of time, impossible to represent in static visual arts.

Viking Eggeling came from a family of musicians and analysed the elements of painting by reducing it into his "Generalbass der Malerei", a catalogue of typological elements, from which he would create new "orchestrations". In 1918 Viking Eggeling had been engaging in Dada activities in Zürich and befriended Hans Richter. According to Richter, absolute film originated in the scroll sketches that Viking Eggeling made in 1917–1918. On paper rolls up to 15 meters long, Eggeling would draw sketches of variations of small graphic designs, in such a way that a viewer could follow the changes in the designs when looking at the scroll from beginning to end. For a few years Eggeling and Richter worked together, each on their own projects based on these ides, and created thousands of rhythmic series of simple shapes. In 1920 they started working on film versions of their work.

Walter Ruttmann, trained as a musician and painter, gave up painting to devote himself to film. He made his earliest films by painting frames on glass in combination with cutouts and elaborate tinting and hand-coloring. His Lichtspiel: Opus I was first screened in March 1921 in Frankfurt.

Hans Richter finished his first film Rhythmus 21 (a.k.a. Film ist Rhythmus) in 1921, but kept changing elements until he first presented the work on 7 July 1923 in Paris at the dadaist Soirée du coeur à barbe program in Théâtre Michel. It was an abstract animation of rectangular shapes, partly inspired by his connections with De Stijl. Founder Theo van Doesberg had visited Richter and Eggeling in December 1920 and reported on their film works in his magazine De Stijl in May and July 1921. Rhytmus 23 and the colourful Rhythmus 25 followed similar principles, with noticeable suprematist influence of Kasimir Malevich's work. Rhythmus 25 is considered lost.

Eggeling debuted his Horizontal-vertikalorchester in 1923. The film is now considered lost. In November 1924 Eggeling was able to present his new finished film Symphonie diagonale in a private screening.

On 3 May 1925 the Sunday matinee program Der absolute Film took place in the UFA-Palast theater at the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Its 900 seats soon sold out and the program was repeated a week later. Eggeling's Symphonie diagonale, Richter's Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, Walter Ruttmann's Opus II, Opus III and Opus IV were all shown publicly for the first time in Germany, along with the two French dadaist "cinéma pur" films Ballet Mécanique and René Clair's Entr'acte, and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack's performance with a type of color organ. Eggeling happened to die a few days later.

Oskar Fischinger met Walter Ruttmann at rehearsals for screenings of Opus I with live music in Frankfurt. In 1921 he started experimenting with abstract animation in wax and clay and with colored liquids. He used such early material in 1926 in multiple-projection performances for Alexander Laszlo's Colorlightmusic concerts. That same year he released his first abstract animations and would continue with a few dozens of short films over the years.

The Nazis censorship against so-called "degenerate art" prevented the German abstract animation movement from developing after 1933.

Other artists in the 1920s

Mieczysław Szczuka also attempted to create abstract films, but seems never to have realized his plans. Some designs were published in 1924 in the avant-garde magazine block as 5 Moments of an Abstract Film.

In 1926 dadaist Marcel Duchamp released Anémic Cinéma, filmed in collaboration with Man Ray and Marc Allégret. It showed early versions of his rotoreliefs, discs that seemed to show an abstract 3-D moving image when rotating on a phonograph.

In 1927 Kasimir Malevich had created a 3-page scenario in manuscript with explanatory color drawings for an "Artistic-Scientific film" entitled Art and the Problems of Architecture: The Emergence of a New Plastic System of Architecture, an instructional film about the theory, origin and evolution of suprematism. Initially there were plans to have the film animated in a Soviet studio, but Malevich took it along on a trip to Berlin and ended up leaving it for Hans Richter after the two had met. The style and colorfulness of Rhythmus 25 had convinced Malevich that Richter should direct the film. Due to circumstances the scenario did not get into the hands of Richter before the end of the 1950s. Richter created storyboards, two rough cuts and at least 120 takes for the film in collaboration with Arnold Eagle since 1971, but it remained incomplete. Richter had wanted to create the film totally in Malevich's spirit, but concluded that in the end he could not discern how much of his own creativity withheld him from executing the scenario properly.

1930s to 1960s

Mary Ellen Bute started making experimental films in 1933, mostly with abstract images visualizing music. Occasionally she applied animation techniques in her films.

Len Lye made the first publicly released direct animation entitled A Colour Box in 1935. The colorful production was commissioned to promote the General Post Office.

Oskar Fischinger moved to Hollywood in 1936 when he had a lucrative agreement to work for Paramount Pictures. A first film, eventually entitled Allegretto, was planned for inclusion in the musical comedy The Big Broadcast of 1937. Paramount had failed to communicate that it would be in black and white, so Fischinger left when the studio refused to even consider a color test of the animated section. He then created An Optical Poem (1937) for MGM, but received no profits because of the way the studio's bookkeeping system worked.

Walt Disney had seen Lye's A Colour Box and became interested in producing abstract animation. A first result was the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor section in the "concert film" Fantasia (1940). He hired Oskar Fischinger to collaborate with effects animator Cy Young, but rejected and altered much of their designs, causing Fischinger to leave without credit before the piece was completed.

Fishinger's two commissions from The Museum of Non-Objective Painting did not really allow him the creative freedom that he desired. Frustrated with all the trouble with filmmaking he experienced in America, Fischinger did not make many films afterwards. Apart from some commercials, the only exception was Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), which won the Grand Prix at the Brussels International Experimental Film Competition in 1949.

Norman McLaren, having carefully studied Lye's A Colour Box, founded the National Film Board of Canada's animation unit in 1941. Direct animation was seen as a way to deviate from cel animation and thus a way to stand out from the many American productions. McLaren's direct animations for NFB include Boogie-Doodle (1941), Begone Dull Care (1949) and Blinkity Blank (1955).

Harry Everett Smith created several direct films, initially by hand-painting abstract animations on celluloid. His Early Abstractions was compiled around 1964 and contains early works that may have been created since 1939, 1941 or 1946 until 1952, 1956 or 1957. Smith was not very concerned about keeping documentation about his oeuvre and frequently re-edited his works.

See also




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