Mary Ellen Bute is a fascinating figure who ties together many of the strands running through this study, from abstract painting to color organs, visual music, and filmmaking, and on through to kinetic sculpture and computer graphics.
In 1936 Bute, who worked with both light artist Thomas Wilfred and electronic music pioneer Leon Theremin, wrote an essay titled "Visual Music, Synchronized in Abstract Films by Expanding Cinema," the text of which is notable not only for containing the idea of "expanded cinema," but also for its detailing of a synchronized, synaesthetic program. With regard to her film Synchromy No. 2, (1935) Bute argued that the "music and the visual material are rhythmically related to each other in keeping with an ideas concept." Bute said that she "was determined to paint in film," and, working with engineer and eventual husband Ted Nemeth, created a series of "visual symphonies" and "seeing-sound synchronies" that often began with playfully didactic instructions to viewers to "see the sound" occurring on screen. Bute served for a time as her own distributor, and these short animations played in a variety of venues from art-house theaters such as New York's Sutton Theater to Radio City Music Hall, where her and Nemeth's collaboration with Norman McLaren, Spook Sport (1940), set to Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre, paired McLaren's direct animations of swooping ghosts, swirling bats, and flying broomsticks with Bute's colorscapes and played before feature films for nearly a year.
The labor-intensive process of traditional animation fatigued Bute, however, and by the early 1950s she was seeking a new means for bringing her abstractions to the screen. After she told Bell Labs engineer Ralph Potter that she "would rather use light to draw with instead of making thousands of drawings," he designed an oscilloscope for her. She saw the new tool as a "true pencil of light" and set upon using the oscilloscope to compose new imagery for two films, Abstronic (1952), and Mood Contrasts (1953).