New Zealand multidisciplinary artist Len Lye combined the twin influences of the photogram and abstract painting with an ebullient sense of rhythm and “bodily empathy” to radically reshape the cinematic medium. Lye worked as a painter, printmaker, kinetic artist, and filmmaker. Working-class and self-educated in the libraries of his native New Zealand, Lye’s imagery is a synthesis of his dual interests in the indigenous cultures of the South Pacific and the modernism of European high art. Inspired by the poetry of Ezra Pound, Maori carvings, and Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Lye developed his ideas regarding primitive thought into a theory called the “old brain,” or the “sensory body’s heart and rump,” in contradistinction to the mind’s capacity for analytical rationality.
A Colour Box (1935) is a startling four-minute work generally regarded as the first widely seen example of direct animation. Lye created A Colour Box by eschewing photographic mediation in favor of painting directly on clear celluloid, his geometric patterns–triangles, circles, wavy lines–and vibrant colorfields providing accompaniment and counterpoint to “La Belle Creole,” a beguine by Don Baretto & his Cuban Orchestra. Though he experimented with scratch films a decade earlier, Lye’s subsequent experiences working in traditional frame-by-frame animation had proven frustrating and difficult to fund. Lye was so poor that he could not afford a camera or lights. He brought a sample of his direct-animation technique to John Grierson, an advocate of documentary and experimental filmmaking who was in charge of the civil-service film unit of Great Britain, which, through various bureaucratic machinations, fell under the jurisdiction of the General Post Office. Grierson encouraged Lye to make a film for him under the auspices of the GPO, giving the artist #30 plus materials. The film would thus be an advertisement promoting “cheaper parcel post.”
Lye found that the GPO’s industrial-production environment afforded him the opportunity to develop, in his words, “something not previously done in film technique.” That work opened up “the possibility of an accessible avant-garde,” one that definitively demonstrated that the “paint brush had to be accepted, once and for all, as a viable alternative to the camera” and directly influenced the work of paint-on-film artists such as Norman McLaren, Harry Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Jose Antonio Sistiaga. Lye’s other direct films include Trade Tattoo (1936), Colour Flight (1937), Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), Color Cry (1952), All Souls Carnival (1957), Free Radicals (1957/1979) Particles in Space (1966/1979), and Tal Farlow (1980).