As visualists, the sad truth is we have a poorer sense of the history of our medium than musicians. Part of this is simply a lack of access. YouTube is a weak substitute, but it’s a start. In that spirit, Karl (Format K) sends us the minimal geometric machinations of pioneering electronic graphics artist and animator John Whitney. We’ve previous mentioned the role of Whitney and Larry Cuba in helping the modern computer graphics industry to be born – with a little help from a movie called Star Wars. Here, you get a real sense of an artist working within the restrictions of the technology to produce something beautiful. It’s a chance to recognize how we’re indebted to this kind of work. While the temptation may be to replicate effects like this with more modern tools, they also illustrate how you can focus on a technique within a tool – and perhaps there’s a digital equivalent of focusing on artistic limitations.

The musical score turns this into a dream collaboration, with the work of Terry Riley.

It’s nice to have access to this, but boy, would I love to have an HD-quality rendition of many of these films available for download or on a high-quality medium like Blu-Ray. Any chance a modern-day Voyager would re-release seminal visualist work from decades past?

  • Andreas

    Nice style, i like the minimalistic shapes. Try to search for "Oskar fischinger" on YouTube, he has made similar visuals in the 1930/40s.

  • massta

    Yes, not taking anything away from the Whitney's, but Oskar Fischinger created some great early work (not computerized) and had one hell of a Visual Music artist (read "Optical Poetry).

    I sometimes struggle with how long it takes to create a movie. My last was 7 months for 3 minutes of visual joy. While worth it, I think of picking up a paint brush like Fischinger did. He has some very inspiring paintings. He's also one of the original thinkers of Fantasia, but they fired him and basically stole his idea. Thanks Disney.

    Here are some great Whitney links:

  • massta

    Crap, I meant to say that Oskar Fischinger had one hell of a Visual Music life. "Optical Poetry" is a biography written by the late William Moritz.

  • TweakingKnobs

    Beautiful , and to me seems so "futuristic" i love it !

  • TweakingKnobs

    By the way how is it done ? programing ?

  • John

    If you like that you should check out Stan Brakhage,

    He did a lot of experimental animation in the 60s – 2000s

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  • cat

    I'll throw Len Lye into the mix as someone to check out too, making films from the 20's onwards, and fantastic kinetic sculptures after recieving no funding for his films as there wasn't a market for art films in the uk at the time.
    @massta 7months is nothing compared to some of these guys movies, hand painting every frame…
    Some early films took years…
    I also love
    Brackhage is ace too, but I started out hand animating 16mm so I've a soft spot for experimental film makers!
    TBH I love youtube for this kind of stuff, when I started (pre internet guys!) I read about films in books and saw stills, but didnt see some of them until they appeared in torrents and then the internet. They're in the library's of art colleges but I didnt do a degree so never got to see them…

  • zach

    Those in nyc should check out the New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center, which has just moved to Lincoln Center. They have a massive collection of 16mm film including a wide selection of the Whitneys, Jordan Belson, etc. A projectionist will screen them in a private room if you make an appointment.

  • chris_in_london

    Great post – more visualists need to learn their history, and do some ‘abstract cinema’ learning. The ‘old masters’ set the bar very high, and i’ve yet to see much modern visualism that gets close to this stuff.

    As mentioned by other posters, work by John and James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Hy Hirsh, Len Lye, Stan Brakhage and Pat O’Reilly should all be sought out.

    The Centre For Visual Music ( has some good DVDs of new and old visual music/abstract cinema. Seeing some of this work on film is a must another level though – such intense, pure colour – it takes it to another level.

  • David

    I like John Whitney, but James Whitney's Lapis is more exciting to me:

  • Bearmod

    I Love John Whitney's works! I spent a bit of time researching him earlier this year, also in the hopes of finding a DVD or some other high quality versions of his videos only to come upon this page:

    It would be really awesome if they could get some funding to restore the originals and produce a DVD!

    Btw, has anybody seen a picture of his original motion graphics machine made from the military guidance computers? The descriptions I've read sound amazing!

  • blair

    I’m a big fan of norman mclaren’s stuff for 40′s 50′s 60′s synesthesia visualists..namely synchromy ..john whitney’s stuff was always sort of boring/eyecandy (not representative of the music) for me (he also sort of admits that his work fell short of his expectations in his writings), although interesting in terms of process

    see norman mclaren here:

  • VJ Air

    lovely work and some great recomendations, always good to learn what has come before us to get a greater sense of where we are now.

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