Oskar Fischinger – Optical Poem (1938) from Avant-Garde Cinema on Vimeo.

Before digital animation, the early works of abstract pioneers constructed meticulous sequences of images that transformed music into synchronized visual for the first time.

These works didn’t simply predict computer animation. They helped create it. The works we make now are heavily indebted to the ideas about abstraction and visualization that these works first established.

For just one example, here is Oskar Fischinger’s 1938 “Optical Poem.” Fischinger was one of the most significant early animators and special effects wizards, working with the likes of Fritz Lang and, on Fantasia, Walt Disney. This is one masterpiece among many, though sadly, apart from having to flee Nazi Germany, Fischinger found his work failed to earn him money. He created his own physical light organ, as well, the Lumigraph. Together with abstract animator Walter Ruttmann, Fischinger really represents the origins of modern abstract animation, particularly in regards to music.

An Optical Poem was set to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody for MGM, a tightly-constructed dance of papers hung on invisible wires, shot one frame at a time.

Keep watching: what first appears to be a simple construction of dots melds into beautiful compositions of shapes and textures, the flat giving way to dimensional space.

Fischinger clearly deserves a feature-length write-up here; if anyone would like to assist with research or suggest other resources, let me know. (Ruttmann, as well.)

I’m sure Fischinger would have loved to live to see today’s computer technology – the “imagine what he would have done with a computer” cliché here seems very real. It’d be nice to see some digital creations responding to this work, as well.

Thanks to Forrest Oliphant for the tip.

  • http://twitter.com/jean_poole jean_poole

    Another pre-digital animator with incredibly detailed synchronisation is New Zealand’s Len Lye ( I’ve written about him here, and included plenty of links to sites and videos: http://www.skynoise.net/2009/08/28/len-lyes-scratch-film-kinetic-scupltures/ ) Also worth a look: http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/

  • john

    awesome. thanks for sharing. when i see stuff like this, sometimes i wish nobody had a computer (except for sharing cool stuff, ya know)

  • http://www.facebook.com/chromatouch Leon Trimble

    i love mr fishfingers, i’m sure i’ve been responding to him for years, i adore ‘komposition in blau’ as well, not seen this before, thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stO.A.C.Orz Avant-Contra Luo

    Disney style XD

  • http://perfectplum.com/ Heather Kelley

    I’d love to see some behind-the-scenes shots of his setup with the wires and paper. And i hope to god the shapes were machine cut for him…

  • A fan


    His Lumia work is sublime :)

  • A fan

  • A fan (onar3d)…

    Excuse my attempt of doing youtube-style comments on a near 100-year old visual music video, I thought it’d be fun at the time :P

    On a serious note, the history of visual music / Lumia / abstract animation / optical poems (a great new term to me I’ll start using that!) is very rich and deserves attention. Not just for its historical value, there’s some truly beautiful work out there waiting to be rediscovered!

    This is an old favorite, by Eggeling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtBjFv46XLQ

  • http://www.facebook.com/krismkelley Kris Kelley

    I think the current top post on CDMusic (http://createdigitalmusic.com/2012/12/retro-futuristic-and-free-all-ds-10-music-from-decktonic-download-video-cc/) is a fantastic modern tribute to this. The music video for the Decktonic song is very similar in concept to me but with a modern feel. Those are kind of broad strokes I know. I just thought it was interesting that these two videos were the most recent posts on the 2 CDM Blogs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.todd.98892615 Michael Todd

    this is better than 99% of VJs out there

  • http://www.facebook.com/chromatouch Leon Trimble
  • http://twitter.com/vickikow vickikow

    don’t forget norman mclaren! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0vgZv_JWfM
    btw i highly recommend all the dvds off centerforvisualmusic’s website

  • Andre Hayter

    The parallax shot is great…well the whole thing is great, the complexity of some of those shots is a bit mind-boggling!

  • hamageddon

    Ingo Petzke knows it all :) His lecture of the history of german animation movie is a must read, if u can read german ;) http://w3.fh-wuerzburg.de/petzke/visart.html
    here’s a english version of the Fischinger part:
    bonus round: a lovely clip with his Lumigraph in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08oOC2JDQk0

  • http://www.facebook.com/antoniomhjduarte António Duarte