Mary Ellen Bute  

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

Mary Ellen Bute (November 211906October 171983) was a pioneer American film animator significant as one of the first female experimental filmmakers. Her specialty was visual music and, while working in New York between 1934 and 1953, made fourteen short, abstract musical films. Many of these were seen in regular movie theaters, such as Radio City Music Hall, usually preceding a prestigious film. Several of her films were categorized as part of the Seeing Sound series.

A native of Houston, Mary Ellen Bute studied painting in Texas and, subsequently, Philadelphia, then stage lighting at Yale University, focusing her primary interest on the tradition of color organs, as a means of painting with light. She worked with Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred and was also influenced by the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger.

Bute began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visuals. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940. Her final film, inspired by James Joyce, was Passages from Finnegans Wake, a live-action feature made over a nearly three-year period in 1965-67.

In the 1960s and 1970s Bute worked on two films which were never completed: an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Skin of Our Teeth and a film about Walt Whitman with the working title "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

Bute was a founding member of the Women's Independent Film Exchange.

Mary Ellen Bute died of heart failure at New York City's Cabrini Medical Center. She was five weeks short of her 77th birthday. Six months earlier, on April 4, she received a special tribute and a retrospectove of her films at the Museum of Modern Art.

Bute's archive and personal papers are at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. A finding aid describes this collection. Several of her films are at the Yale Film Study Center.

There has been discrepancies over the dating of Mary Ellen Bute's films, primarily due to inaccuracies published in online articles and websites. The dates below are verified by documents from her distributor and the Center for Visual Music.


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