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Analog Computers  |  Biological Processes  |  Cameraless Photography  |  Color Organs  |  Digital  |  Direct Filmmaking  |  Ecological  |  Expanded Cinema  |  Light Art  |  Light Show  |  Oscilloscope  |  Projection Performance  |  Synthetic Soundtracks  |  Video

Analog Computers

Images from John Whitney, 'Catalog' (1961)

Advents in video synthesis were taking place at roughly the same time that pioneering computer artists such as John Whitney, Larry Cuba, and Stan VanDerBeek were making the first films with analog computers.

John Whitney’s Cam Machine, for example, was an analog computer. A digital computer uses binary code as its input. Analog computers require that some material–a drawing, or photograph–be put together before being fed into the machine, meaning, in Gene Youngblood’s words:

“that a great deal of handicraft still is involved, though its relation to the final output is minimal. The original input may be as simple as a moire pattern or as complex as a syncretistic field of hand-painted dots–but some form of handmade or physically demonstrable information is required as input in the absence of conventional computer software.”

This handicraft was the driving force behind Whitney’s invention. His modification of the military technology produced an apparatus with a rotating base that produced sine waves without tangling the wires of its attached pendulums. The device was a “precursor of computer animation stands developed nearly twenty years later.” It was a process the filmmaker had been wrestling with for ten years, and the Hitchcock film gave him the opportunity to develop his technology to the point of a breakthrough. Whitney’s interest in developing new technologies for abstract filmmaking led him to design machines used for the first computer-based animations. With assistance and funding from IBM, Whitney’s artisanal experiments in computer animation paved the way for the increased use of computers to generate imagery in commercial films.

Filmmakers include:

Biological Processes

Filmstrips from Thorsten Fleisch, 'Blutrausch' (1998)

Biological processes involve applying natural elements such as dirt, salt, leaves, or blood to the film strip. These could also include dunking the filmstrip in saltwater, or burying it in soil for months at a time.

Cameraless Photography

Moholy-Nagy, Photogram (1926)

Photograms are cameraless photographs, created by placing objects on photosensitive material and exposing them to light. As early as 1834, William Henry Fox Talbot had developed a method for creating “photogenic drawings” by coating paper with salt and silver-nitrate solution and exposing objects in direct sunlight, a process by which he achieved “distinct and very pleasing images of such things as leaves, lace and other flat objects of complicated forms and outlines.” Anna Atkins published the first collection of photographic images in 1843, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, blue-tined photograms of grasses and algae. These early examples of photograms were attempts at recording and representing the natural world, and they were viewed both as alternatives to and—as evinced by Talbot’s description above—alterative forms of drawing.

Moholy-Nagy’s interest in film grew out of his investigations into cameraless photography, which he called “writing with light.” By placing objects and projecting illuminations onto photosensitive paper and then exposing it to light, Moholy composed abstract pictures of image and shadow. He arrived at this technique independently, though Man Ray in Paris and the German painter Christian Schad, working in Italy, had already made similar inroads into cameraless image making. Using a variety of materials to shape and transform light including multiple light sources, metal, glass, tissue, oils, water, and acids, he concluded, “Since these light effects almost always show themselves in motion, it is clear that the process reaches its highest development in the film.”

Chemical Processes

Image from Bill Morrison, 'Decasia' (2002)

Chemical processes include bleaching film, dunking it in various chemicals, or applying materials such as paper, glue, food, or prescription medication directly to the filmstrip.

Color Organs

Thomas Wilfred, lumia composition

Color organs are devices designed to “play” color in the manner of a musical instrument. Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel created his clavecin oculaire in 1734. Castel considered himself a philosopher, though he was well-known as a mathematician. He penned two essays, the first in 1725, the second a decade later, regarding the creation of a “harpsichord for eyes.” Castel had studied the mid-seventeenth-century magic-lantern designs of German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher and wrote about transposing the pleasures of music from the ears to the eyes. In doing so, he also made a very early case for the development of visual music as an intermixing of the other arts, asserting, “The modification of light gives us colours, and that of sound Tones: the mixture of colours makes painting, that of tones Music.” Castel’s musical keyboard spanned five octaves: “When a key was depressed, a colored strip of paper or silk would appear above a black horizontal screen to the rear. The first octave represented the pure hues, the next the same hues ‘one degree lighter and the fifth octave the highest values.'”

Other examples of color organs the German doctor and naturalist Johann Gottlob Kruger’s Farbeclavecymbel of 1743, as well as a hand-cranked musique oculaire–a phantasmagoria machine that projected ghostlike forms onto smoke–by Edme-Gilles Guyot in 1770. Others were designed by Rimington, Bishop, and Hallock-Greenewalt, and Wilfred.


Image from Stephanie Maxwell, 'Runa's Spell' (2007)

Digital systems are data technolgies that use discontinuous, numerical values. Several contemporary handmade filmmakers are incorporating digital computer capture and editing technology into their work in order to produce new kinds of hybrid imagery.


Jennifer Reeves, 'Landfill 16' (2011)

Handmade films, by definition, would also seem to require the corporeal touch of the artist. Yet ecological films, wrought from nature, offer no less of a connection to the artist’s hand. It is only that the artist is not always human—or that the human artist quite deliberately engages in a collaboration with nonhuman actors and agents. Allowing nonhuman elements such as wind, water, air, or animals to play a part in the creation of cinematic abstraction prompts us to ask fundamental questions regarding the nature of authorship, intention, and collaboration.

Expanded Cinema

Stan Vanderbeek

Expanded cinema began in the late 1950s, arguably with Jordan Belson and Henry Jacob’s multimedia Vortex Concerts in San Francisco, and is the practice of using multiple projectors, screens, surfaces, performers, and media in non-conventional spaces. Rather than show film in a darkened seated theater, expanded cinema productions can feature exposed apparatus and mobile viewers, who may or may not participate in the event of the screening.

Light Art

Nicolas Schöffer's light sculptures

The characteristics of the moving image can be reduced to light and time so as to reveal the intertwined history of light art and cinema. By focusing on the development of color organs and the intermedia art of lumia artist Thomas Wilfred, as well as the light plays developed by Moholy and his colleagues at the Bauhaus, it is possible to show how light art occupies a liminal position located somewhere between cinema, sculpture, painting, and music. These early innovations, as well as their utopian underpinnings, were revisited in a new wave of light art in the 1950s and 1960s that, like that of the first handmade filmmakers, also sought to make moving abstractions in time.

Light Show

Joshua Light Show at the Hayden Planetarium, 2011

One of the premier historians of visual music, William Moritz, writing on the Los Angeles light group Single Wing Turquoise Bird, summed up the light show’s unrepeatable nature as “always only once.” In its finest instantiations, Moritz wrote, light shows constituted “a living art work of organic complexity considerably more interesting, challenging and satisfying than any of the flat, static art styles of the past, including painting and the traditional fictional cinema.” The light show enjoyed a huge swell of popularity in the mid-to-late 1960s–it is said that during that time there were more than one hundred light-show outfits in San Francisco alone.

The light shows represent an increasingly varied use of the elements of light and time to achieve new perceptual effects–effects heightened and intensified by the era’s preoccupation with and consumption of psychedelic drugs, which confuse figure-ground relations and radically redefine subjective experiences of space and time. Light shows also often featured collaborative work between artists working in a variety of mediums. Their ephemeral nature and use of nontraditional materials to make moving images have resulted in the light show being marginalized from any study of image making, either in art history, film studies, or media studies.


A Hameg 60 MHz analog oscilloscope

Cathode-ray oscilloscopes, designed to observe varying signal voltage, paved the way for artists’ interventions into the television screen: first via signal distortion, then via the construction of increasingly sophisticated artisanal devices that granted control over existing broadcast signals–and eventually created and synthesized new signals. Oscilloscopes were use by pioneers of synthetic sound and in early computer films.

Projection Performance

Bruce McClure apparatus set-up, 2010

Projection performance is the real-time manipulation of the cinematic appartus to affect changes in the look and feel of the cinematic projection. Techniques can include the use of other media, such as gels and screens, which are placed in front of the projector, multiple projectors, or multiple screens/surfaces. Bruce McClure, Ken Jacobs, and Gibson/Recoder are all artists who particpate in projection performance.

Synthetic Soundtracks

Norman McLaren painting on the optical soundtrack

Developed by myriad artisanal methods designed to alternatively re-create natural sound and forge entirely new systems of notation and music, synthetic soundtracks fulfill composer Igor Stravinsky’s stated desire for a “music whose true image–its original sound–could only be preserved through mechanical reproduction.” Synthetic sound systems not only afforded filmmakers an unprecedented level of control over their work, they also held the promise of a more direct form of communication between filmmaker and viewer. Some of the most dramatic examples of synthesized sight and sound can be found in the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger, Rudolph Pfenninger, James and John Whitney, Barry Spinello, Norman McLaren, and Tony Conrad. Synthetic film-sound practice transforms the film apparatus from a reproductive medium into a productive one, and simultaneously blurs the epistemological distinction between hearing and seeing in a way that recasts the very nature of cinematic engagement.


Stephen Beck's Direct Video Synthesizer, c. 1970

Nam June Paik purchased the very first Sony Portapak video camera in 1965 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation: He shot footage as soon as he could, showing friends the results that same night.

Zack Lischer-Katz writes that “using voltage control allows the user to manipulate in real time the parameters of the video signal—hue, chroma, luminance, horizontal and vertical sync—with signals generated by oscillators. Coupled with a variety of other devices, like keyers, sequencers and raster manipulators, synthesizer systems can create unique video effects.” In the early 1970s, many artists and engineers designed and built unique video synthesizers to distort, manipulate, and create video imagery, including the Rutt-Etra Video Synthesizer, the Sandin Image Processor, and the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer.

Close-circuit video was also used by light shows to display the performers playing onstage in real time on a screen.