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Computer Film as Film Art
Malcolm Le grice on the aesthetic potential of computer technology. From Computer Animation, 1974.

Surprisingly large numbers of people who have either worked as independent film artists, or who have developed in that area of liaison between art and technology which has evolved steadily during the last twenty years, have recently found themselves concerned in making computer films. On the following pages I have considered their work in its relationship to the field of computer art in general, to the computer film in all its existing aspects, and to the history of independent film art and abstract film.

Aesthetic Criteria in Computer Art

I want to attempt to discover if there are any aesthetic criteria which are special to, and grow out of, the use of the computer as an artistic tool, or as part of the artist's process. It would be dangerous and unhelpful at this early stage to try to define some kind of categorical aesthetic for computer art, but it could be valuable to indicate how such a basis for criteria could be established, and try to define some preliminary principles.

One must be wary of taking the 'negative' factors of certain present limitations, like the costs of computer time, and the sensuous poverty of interface equipment, and building an aesthetic around these. One should seek some common and more permanent ('positive') factors inherent in the functioning of computers, and see how these are related to the actual structure, image, sound, etc. of the output. What special capacities can the computer offer the artist? The need to produce a program as a means to achieving a work of art imposes one very significant process on the artist, that of some kind of analysis of the component factors of his image (or output), plus an analysis of the kind of principles by which these components are brought together. This situation is particularly true where an artist attempts to use a computer to create work similar in conception to that already produced without a computer. Or, where a person attempts to use a computer to produce work 'like' that already produced by another artist; in a sense, as a test of the accuracy of the analysis of that artist's aesthetic - for example, the Michael Noll Mondrian. This kind of work can be thought of as largely 'imitative' of non-computer art, and serves the valuable discipline of analysis. But there are a number of by-products of such work, chiefly the discovery that the output can be continuously modified without altering the basis principles of the program. It is this capacity to produce multiple output with perpetual variety which has been for the artist the most seductive aspect of working with computers. Taking this into account, we should try to define the most common general principles by which such variety is achieved.

The three most important methods are the use of systems of incrementation, permutation and random number generation. What is interesting about all these techniques is that they are widely used in computer work in general, and are highly suited to the basic programming methods. Before continuing with the discussion of this aspect of computer art, it is important to note that the developments of more interactive, real-time computer, and near-computer, art have not made such wide use of these basic techniques, but have rather been concerned with the use, modification, transformation and translation of current events in the environment into new input to that environment in an interactive feedback loop. It would be possible to discuss basic and recurrent principles which are emerging from this kind of 'interactive' art but we will limit this treatment only to considerations which may have some bearing on the problems of computer film.

Returning to the questions of 'product-orientated' computer art, we must begin to discuss the validity of the kinds of use that computers have been put to. There is little doubt that unless the underlying principles of a program are interesting, and the output from it is able to make a significant contribution to the field of art, no degree of continuous variety produced by the techniques described can make that work valid. However, what is also evident is that these 'variety' techniques have an 'appropriateness' to the computer which can provide one sort of justification for the artist's making use of it. The interesting questions arise when we ask if there are any similar cases of 'appropriateness', not so much in the field of output modification, as in the field of more fundamental algorithms of the program. This question can only begin to be answered with a more fundamental examination of what kinds of problems computers are most suited to deal with, and seeing this in relation to the needs and aims of artists. Without completely sidestepping this problem, it seems premature to deal with it in any but a preliminary and undetailed way.

Computers are ideally suited to dealing with complex relationships of data precisely and very rapidly, and they are being developed towards highly efficient indexing and retrieval capability. Although the second of these functions will ultimately be of great significance to computer artists, in the immediate future they will find themselves restricted to more limited data, and have little useful call on larger data banks. Another computer development of some significance is the more limited, computerised control of machinery to carry out processes previously dealt with at a time-consuming, manual level. Aspects of this general development will certainly affect the film computer artist, as well as the musician. Indeed, in the field of music, the computerised studio of Peter Zinovief in London goes a long way to providing this for music, and its structure could provide a useful model for the design of a computerised visual studio for the future.

We could go on from this to see two possible, justifiable reasons for an artist to make use of computers: the first, to explore aspects of art which would not be possible without computers, and the second to produce work more easily, which could nevertheless be made without the use of a computer. Of these two possibilities the former is the most challenging, and necessarily involves the artist at the level of program and even hardware development, and also implies that the events which take place within the program become an integral aspect of the meaning of the product, work. In its most extreme sense it also implies that aspects of the output must remain 'unpredictable' for if this were not so, the artist would simply be making use of the 'mechanical' production capacity of the computer, which would not be playing its role of expanding the range in which the artist can make conceptions.

The basic thesis is that computer art is of no real significance to artists unless it is significant art, and the area in which it is most likely to be significant as art is where it makes a positive use of the computer to expand conception, sensitivity and experience. That very little computer art can 'live' with such extreme criteria is mainly because most computer art now is primarily engaged in a struggle with the less interesting and peripheral limitations previously mentioned.

Computer Film Art

As with computers in general, the bias of computer-film hardware and software development has been towards science, technology and business. In many ways it is even misleading to talk of the development of computer film hardware at all. Until recently the possibility of making movie film on a computer has barely been 'designed' for at all. Films have mostly been made either by setting up a cine camera before a visual display tube, or by using a microfilm plotter, designed around the output of individual frames of static microfilm to produce consecutive animated frames. Many shortcomings of the film equipment available to artists can be put down to the relatively early stages of the technology and its slow development, but other limitations come about because the only point at which an artist has been consulted about the design is in the choice of shape and colour for the box and buttons. Between the computer-controlled film 'process' camera, or animation rostrum, and the microfilm plotter lies a whole range of possible computer-film output machinery which has hardly begun to be thought about in a coherent way by film artists and computer technologists. Much thought is at present going into the design of the display processor so that it can operate in a more suitable way for visual output, and the whole analogue and mechanical aspects of the display tube and camera are under development. The direction which such developments take (as well as the ever-present, and unavoidable economic factors) depends on the formulation of what kinds of output are to be needed, and it is important that the needs of the film artist are taken into account at an early stage.

At present it is very difficult for the film artist to achieve acceptable control over the output image at a sensuous level unless the film produced by the computer is used by the film-maker as raw material in further processing, using optical printing and colour filters. Most of the films made by artists on computers have been modified to a large extent in this way. Of the two most common existing computer film methods, the camera in front of a visual display system such as the PDP11, and the microfilm plotter like the SC 4020, the former has distinct advantages in flexibility of camera positioning, focus, and other forms of 'hand' intervention, plus the possibility of seeing and manipulating the images to be used on the computer screen and, even if slowed down below their projection rate, seeing some of the intended animation. This means that (which is most important for the artist) the whole process can be reasonably organic and plastic with a fairly rapid feedback. But the microfilm plotter, although allowing greater precision, is very inflexible from the artist's point of view and feedback is slow (being off-line), with no real visual output other than the photographic. (There is no recirculation through the data to keep it on the tube face.) In addition to this, most such machines have their cameras mounted and with lenses so as not to permit the whole film frame to be accommodated within the plotting area. This is because the plotting raster is square, and to fit all of this into the rectangular film frame a margin must be left on either side. This may be economical in terms of information storage, but for the film artist it gives a clumsy aspect to the image, unless an unnecessary and costly optical copy is made from the original film. Even if we discount the needs of the artist as a factor in such mundane technical considerations, we must allow that the same 'appearance' factors will apply if computer animation is to have any role as, for instance, a means of producing teaching films, where the costs involved in further processing can represent a major aspect of the budget.

These are examples of the sort of criticism which can be levelled at the existing machinery from the film artist's point of view and they largely result from designing with insufficient consideration for the film-making problem.

The next problem is of a different kind, and is simply to do with the present stage of development in technology. This is the colour factor. It is likely that the next generation of film plotters will be designed around a colour tube. It is by no means clear if the basis for this will be the calligraphic type of tube, or the television-type scan tube. However, from the artist's point of view it is not so important which type of colour output is used as long as the design of the camera relationship, display processor, capabilities and software are developed with the needs of film production in mind.

While the film artist waits for direct colour capability in the film output to become available, it seems likely that he will have to reprint (through colour filters) most of the work which he does.

We have examined some of the problems faced by film-makers brought about by the design of the hardware. We must now look at some of the problems in the software.

The calligraphic tube is most suited to the production of individual points, or of vectors from point to point. It is not well suited to the 'filling-in' of regions of tone, for if these are made by close-spaced lines, or dots, the information needed is prohibitive. The Beflix method of using the hardware character matrix, incorporated in the tube, in order to produce areas of tone, has been an important innovation, but it has to be admitted that the definition is too crude and strongly imposes its zig-zag character on all the output. However, both the linear mode and the Beflix-type approach offer a large number of possibilities for exploration. One of the major problems for the design of software for film is the comparatively large quantities of information needed to program a system not adequately designed at its output stage for film, or even visual work. It is difficult to see how the software can develop significantly until more suitable kinds of local storage in the display processor and a better choice of analogue and machine control capacity are incorporated in the hardware. In the interim, it would be valuable to work on programming methods which could combine some aspects of linear and tonal output in the same image, and, accepting the frequent need for some superimpositional reprinting, to establish a special-purpose film printer alongside the plotter and to consider the software in terms of outputting aspects of the final image on one length of film, and other aspects on other lengths of film, for later reprinting.

In the short period of computer-film production what kinds of films have been made? We could roughly classify the films produced by computers as follows:

  1. Films produced chiefly in the development of software by experimental programmers.
  2. Attempts to make visual equivalents for complex phenomena in physical science and mathematics. For example A. M. Noll's 4-Dimensional Hypercube and Forces Acting on a Steel Bar by G. A. Michael at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory and Galaxy Simulations by R. Hockney at Reading. Films like these are of particular interest because in many ways they could not be visualised or produced at all without the aid of a computer, which gives them an 'appropriateness' not always shared by the films in the next category. And as Professor Hockney has pointed out, in some cases the amount of data which is to be output by the computer makes animated graphics the only method of presenting it in assimilable form to the human mind.
  3. Explanatory or descriptive films, such as E. E. Zajac's Two-Gyro Gravity-Gradiant Attitude Control System, which often attempt to emulate the hand-animation teaching film but without the understanding of problems of film structure, and the visual 'attractiveness' available to hand-animation. Some of the best films of this kind are those produced at Boeing which mix some hand-animation techniques with output from the conventional pen-and-paper graph plotter; and while the limitations of the hardware remain as they are, this approach could serve as a useful model for the application of computer-film graphics to the teaching film in the immediate future. A more recent teaching film project by the Senses Bureau directed by Bob Weis (under Professor Kent Wilson in San Diego) called A Protein Primer not only has a new indirect approach to teaching but also uses the techniques of colouring the black and white material, developed by the film artists in the field, and is the most accomplished computer teaching film so far.
  4. The production of graphs in time. This development grows directly out of the single- frame, microfilm function, and in most cases, the products are more acceptable seen as a series of still microfilm images placed side-by-side, than as an animated film, because what is usually needed is the possibility of comparison across time rather than a sensation of the change, although a sensuous awareness of the comparative rates of change is often valuable and interesting.
  5. Films produced explicitly as works of film art, like those by John Whitney, which will be discussed at greater length later. For the moment we could simply observe that so far the films produced in this category often have a close relationship to those in the first two categories and the fact that they have been produced at all probably comes from an awareness that they can contribute to the impetus for the development of software.

Historical Background to Computer Film Art.

It seems a little curious to be considering the background history of something that has barely begun to exist. But it could help to clarify some of the possible directions which computer film could take. For this reason we must look at the historical situation of films with more than a superficial resemblance to the present computer films. However, let us begin with films which have the most evident link with the present computer films. It is impossible to be certain when the first totally abstract film was made but one of the earliest was Viking Eggeling's Horizontal Vertical Orchestra (1921) of which no copy now seems to exist, but his second film completed in 1924, Diagonal Symphony, is in many respects eminently suitable to have been made by a computer. It is largely linear and composed of simple abstract elements which are put together in a gradual formation of a single complex abstract unit. Not only is the image one which could be output on present computers, but, more importantly, the kinds of relationships and animated developments could have been analysed and programmed. This possibility would certainly have appealed to Eggeling and would have assisted his deliberate search for a conscious and describable language of visual form and movement. The title of this film together with his expressed aims indicate a surprising similarity to some of the intentions expressed by John Whitney about his computer work. Unfortunately Viking Eggeling died in 1925 and the search for a precise language of motion graphics was not taken up again until after 1940.

Another early abstract film which must be seen as having a bearing on computer film is Anaemic Cinema (1926) by Marcel Duchamp. This is a film which uses revolving spirals and texts in order to isolate certain perceptual problems, and while there is no doubt that this particular film would still be more simply achieved employing the original techniques, if it were to be seen as part of a larger exploration or examination of perceptual behaviour in time, the capacity of the computer to produce numerous alternatives with small basic variations would be a distinct advantage. Of other abstract film-makers from this period, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, Fischinger must be seen as a more important influence in later work. Fischinger made a series of abstract film studies from 1924 onwards. While these were often concerned with geometric forms, one major distinction beween his work and that begun by Eggeling is that it is difficult to conceive that any approach could be made to defining a series of algorithms for the processes involved in his work, or that such an attempt would have been of any great interest to him. He may well have welcomed any kind of machinery which would make his manual work less demanding, and this potential of computer animation may have interested him, but not the discipline of the analytical aspect of programmed art. However, Fischinger is important in another way. He is one of the many European artists who moved to the US in the 1930s and formed a link between the early avant-garde movements in Europe and the resurgence in the US in the post-war period. There is no doubt that Fischinger was very influential in stimulating the interest in abstract film which has provided the background, not only to strictly computer film, but also to the wider surrounding area of films using a variety of technological aids like the oscilloscope films of Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth and the early experiments of the Whitney brothers and the later lightbox work of Jordan Belson.

Two other Europeans of the period Alexandre Alexieff and Claire Parker have made a large number of films since 1932 using the 'pin-screen' technique which they invented. The similarity between this technique and Beflix programming is plain, and during a later period in Canada they certainly had some influence on both the Whitneys and Norman McLaren. While the relationship between the earlier abstract film-makers and later computer and technological films is obviously valid, it is also simple, predictable, and to some extent a product of using the present limitations of the computer output image as a filter screen through which to observe the historical background. If we accept that the future relationship between computers and film-making could extend to incorporate the manipulation of banks of live film sequences, or that the analogue aspects of the interface will become more flexible, then some other films and film-makers may appear relevant to the computer film. If one begins from the notion of programmability then there are some examples of films which do not have abstract images, but whose structure of image relationship or editing rhythm could be translated into program form. Many of the possibilities for this kind of film structure stem from the work of Dziga Vertov. His dissolution of narrative, and 'psycho-narrative' continuity in favour of thematic and associative continuity, in turn allowed continuity of live photographic material to be conditioned by abstract factors of motion, tonality, texture, rhythm etc. It is not purely coincidental that Vertov primarily worked editing newsreel material, and that the most likely early function for computer-aided editing of live action material will be in continuous televisual newscasting. However, though Vertov makes programmable live action a possibility, none of the films which he made could be described as programmable.

One or two of the films by the Viennese film-maker, Kurt Kren, however, certainly could be programmed, in particular his film T.V. which uses a single sequence of film cut into five short pieces and reprinted many times. These short pieces are presented in various orders according to a mathematical formula. Again making use of repeated sequences of live action, there are sections in some of my own films, particularly Castle II, which could be compiled in their present and alternative structures from a program. There are two other important examples of films of a different kind, which could potentially be produced from a program, the first by another Viennese, Peter Kubelka, called Arnulf Rainer and the second by the American, Tony Conrad, called Flicker. Both these films explore the simple situation of an alternating, completely black and completely white screen.

Both of these films would be equally 'programmable' as they are controlled by mathematical 'scores'. Whereas Kubelka explores the formal aspects of the film in time, the Conrad, like Anaemic Cinema, is concerned with exploring perception, in this case stroboscopic rates. What can be seen as having an enlightening relationship to computer film should not be too conditioned by the present limitations of the art.

Recent Developments in Computer Film Art

In post-war America interest in abstract film developed towards an interest in expanding film image technology of which strictly computer film-making is one aspect. Again we must look at computer film in the wider context to try and define what kinds of hardware and software development would be desirable from the film artist's viewpoint.

The earliest attempts to expand film machinery so that it could, in a sense, produce its own images were made in about 1942 and began as a collaboration between John and James Whitney. For two or three years they produced a series of film exercises, exploring a variety of techniques using an optical printer, cut-out cards, pantographs and filters. Their experiments included an electronic equivalent to Norman McLaren's hand-painted soundtracks. This involved a complex series of pendula connected to a single wire (a 'wiffle tree'), which carried the sum of all their respective oscillations to vary the slit size of an optical soundtrack printer. Another example of the continuity of direction which abstract film-makers have taken is provided by Oskar Fischinger who also experimented with directly constructed optical soundtracks in the 1930s and there is no doubt that the computer film could continue these experiments, but plotting a soundtrack directly on to film by a microfilm plotter is still not possible, due to the limited design.

In the 1950s, many experiments were made using the oscilloscope as the basis for producing film images. Mary Ellen Bute and her husband Lewis Jacobs, referred to earlier, made a number of films exploring this kind of technique. Norman McLaren made a three-dimensional film using oscilloscope patterns for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The film Eneri by Hy Hirsch used oscilloscope patterns with multiple colour superimpositions around 1955. Many of these experiments were interesting and decorative and satisfied the need for an 'electronic' image for a while, but although the image itself was a product of a machine, the changes had to be brought about by hand-manipulation.

During the same period, John Whitney continued his own experiments in the mechanical production of film images and sequences, including a stylus system working into a back-lit oil bath producing films like Celery Stalks at Midnight and some oscilloscope experiments, but his most significant step during 1957–8 was to link a war surplus analogue computer device to his very flexible animation table. This allowed the production of very complex spiral and concentric circular development to be made easily and mechanically from relatively simple, original drawn material. Although John Whitney did not make any single complete film with this equipment, the film Catalogue, completed in 1961, after another analogue computer unit had been added to his system, contains much of the most successful material produced during this period. It is also interesting that many of the products of this machinery were used commercially for film and television titling sequences through John Whitney's company, Motion Graphics.

His brother James Whitney, who had worked with him up to this point, continued his film work independently from about 1950, making Yantra, which was not completed until 1960. Although this is frequently described as a 'computer' film, it was in fact produced entirely by hand using the kind of animation technique developed by the brothers for the earlier Exercises. His next film, Lapis, however, was produced between 1963 and 1966 using a system similar to John Whitney's and including an analogue computer device. Both these mandala-like films are exceptionally beautiful.

The production methods of all the films made by both brothers in this period are very complex and varied. They certainly represent a movement towards the mechanical production of film images, and the desire to have modifications of the image mechanically controlled and programmable. Having said this, it is evident from viewing the films that a great deal of manual intervention in the machinery and subsequent reprinting and selection took place, and none of the films could really be described as wholly computer films. This does not alter their importance as works of film art, and furthermore they indicate, Lapis in particular, that at the present moment, if computer films are to be sensuously satisfying, the hybrid product may be preferable to a 'pure' computer film. At least, the lack of access to, or dissatisfaction with, existing computer film equipment can create some extraordinary and resourceful invention. This is particularly true of the first computer-aided film made by an artist in Europe.

Marc Adrian's film Random (1962, Vienna) was made by the extremely unlikely method of placing a camera with no lens directly against the face of an X-ray receiver tube linked to an IBM 1620–21 where the signal direction in the tube is reversed to extinguish the luminous cells on the screen, and the computer, instead of analysing patterns of X-rays from a patient, was used to program the signals to the receiver tube. Adrian's two later computer films, Text I and Text II, were more conventionally made in Berlin on a luminous, lineprinter type terminal, and are based on his earlier poem programs.

John Whitney and Stan Vanderbeek

Only since 1966 have film artists been able to use general purpose digital computers for film production. The two film-makers who have produced most work by this method are John Whitney and Stan Vanderbeek, and it is not surprising that theirs is the most significant work as yet available in this field. Both film-makers have a background of technical experiment in film. Much of the preparatory work of John Whitney has been described. Stan Vanderbeek was never involved in the 'abstract' film school which developed on the West Coast of America and provided the major context in which the Whitneys worked. He was more aware of the New York underground film developments and all his experiments were with figurative imagery. He has made many 'montage' films, mixing live action and still photographs of political and personal material and has experimented with transferring TV techniques onto film. The most evident characteristic of his work is its visual poetry of transformations. He has made about ten computer films, Poem Field one to eight and Collideoscope all made with Ken Knowlton at Bell, based on the Beflix program, and a new film, Ad Infinitum.

The main preoccupation in his computer films has been flow of words into each other, with the word become the field and vice versa, although his latest film Ad Infinitum was made by filming directly from an interactive visual display and is a linear, calligraphic film which relates much more to the flexible organic forms of his earlier hand-animation films. Unlike John Whitney he seems to have no special 'commitment' to computer films, nor any coherent plan or long-term aim for his work with them. His computer work is just one more aspect of an exploration of himself, through the exploration of a medium. Like Whitney he is well aware of, and uses, reprinting with colour filters in order to make his computer image more sensuously complex.

All John Whitney's recent work, excepting his latest film Matrix, produced since 1966 on an IBM grant, explores the possibilities available in a polar co-ordinate program developed for him by Dr Jack Citron. The images, although built up from dots, tend towards the linear mode which is common from the calligraphic terminal, and in spite of the relatively rapid pace of the animation, there seems to be a movement towards a greater austerity, the work being held within a set of fairly well-defined intentions. This tendency is continued in Matrix.

One feels that he will now accept the computer film as his central and permanent medium. He does not use the Beflix method and works on the more flexible set-up of a camera in front of a standard visual display. He is seeking to establish a language, or a coherent 'musical' form of visual structures. His present work is reminiscent of that of mathematical abstract sculptors like Naum Gabo, and in many ways accepts a similar aesthetic extended into time.

Until Matrix, which needs to be considered separately, it has been possible to criticise the work of John Whitney, on the grounds that many of his aesthetic concepts have been familiar, and that the formal structures did not pose any strikingly new problems. This has come about for a number of complex reasons, the most important being the general retardation of film as an abstract medium, compared with the other arts, and Whitney's own determination to deal with the formation of some kind of background abstract 'language'. Another reason is that Whitney has recognised the need for technical innovations, before the problem could be tackled, and has spent most of his creative time since 1940 making machinery rather than films. Much of his work is contained in experimental sequences, and he has only three complete digital films so far, plus the film Aspen Talk, which compiles some of the experimental work which preceded the making of his first digital film Permutations (1968). Permutations relies heavily on his ability to edit and reprint with colour the short sequences of film from the computer. Consequently, the structure of the film as a whole is not affected by the computer to any great extent. His next film, One, Two, Three, produced for the IBM Pavilion at Expo 70, Osaka, Japan, is much simpler, composed of white lines on black, and explores the development of a set of linear centre-oriented figures, with no editing or reprinting. Whereas in Permutations the structure of the film as a whole is complex, but determined by familiar, subjective, notions, in One, Two, Three, the problem is not dealt with at all. The austerity of this film continues into Matrix.

Matrix is in many ways the most advanced computer film produced by an artist to date. Unlike all the other work it does not use the computer simply as a convenient producer of abstract sequences of film for later manipulation. Whitney has talked of his work in terms of defining a language of motion graphics, and described configuration as being like words, and sequences as sentences. In Matrix we see the development of these elements towards an articulate whole structure, which grows out of the program. There is still some later manipulation of the material, and though it is coloured by the same methods as in his other films, this is done with a great deal of restraint. What is important in this film is the way in which all the major developments and transitions are an integral part of the program. It begins to explore the area where the capacities of the computer can be used to expand our notions of film structure.

With the present difficulties of computer film production, it is surprising how many of the films which have been made by artists stand as works of art in their own right, and not just as curiosities. Although only Matrix begins to satisfy the more rigorous criteria suggested earlier, it is important to consider the work of film-maker artists other than Stan Vanderbeek and John Whitney, at present experimenting in this area. In almost every case, what makes the work of the creative film-makers more accomplished than that by scientists and programmers is not, surprisingly, their visual and technical control, but in particular their editing, pacing, and colouring of the material. But this is also the source of the main weakness in their work; it is understandable that they should want to maintain the fullest possible sensual qualities and with the present state of the machinery and software to which they have access, so much time and energy must go into dealing with these limitations, that few are ready to take on the higher level programming problems. The conceptual and formal level of their work is very primitive. In some ways this makes certain of the films made by mathematicians and scientists more interesting than the artists' films, particularly those by A. M. Noll, G. A. Michael and R. Hockney mentioned earlier.

Other Recent Developments

Of the other film-maker artists currently working in this area, the most important to consider are; two of the sons of John Whitney, John Jnr and Michael, John Stehura, Lillian Schwartz and Marc Adrian. It is predictable that the films of the Whitney sons are highly developed, complex and technically accomplished.

John Whitney Jnr has produced some material on the digital computer, but his main concern is with the development of the analogue system begun by his father, and his three complete films have all been producing using it. The first film, Byjina Flores (1964), explored some possibilities of analogue-controlled split-scan techniques, but artistically does not match his second film, an untitled three-screen film completed in 1967, and shown during the Canadian Expo 67. This is an exciting film which explores fast-changing geometric forms in symmetrical configurations. It shows again that the specially designed analogue system can have immediate advantages in ease of control. The possibilities, and commercial potential of this system, are further displayed in his most recent film Terminal Self (1971). In this film John Whitney Jnr has begun to explore the use of a photograph of a girl as the basis for the transformations brought about by the analogue system. At the semantic level the symbolism of this film is naive, but the visual effects of interweaving veils of colour brought about by the system in a precise way are very impressive. His intention to develop the machinery further to incorporate the possibility of dealing with moving sequences at the input end, and using a digital unit in the control section could make it into a versatile and commercial piece of equipment.

The direction which Michael Whitney will take is uncertain; he has done some general work on the development of a computer language suitable for film application, and has made a digital film Binary Bit Patterns (1969) which utilises a 'game of life' program to create a symmetrical pattern of small dots and crosses, like a Persian carpet design. The centre orientation of this film echoes a preoccupation with the mandala image and the interest in Eastern meditative philosophy which is seen in the work of the whole family.


John Stehura has been concerned with the problems of developing computer language systems of general use to film animation. He began to study programming at UCLA in 1961, and started work on the film Cybernetic 5.3 in 1965, completing it in 1969. Throughout this period he produced many isolated sequences of film, as he developed the more general program. These sequences, together with some live-action material, subjected to various forms of colour filtering and reprinting, are all displayed in a spectacular, exuberant, loosely structured firework display. In spite of his command of programming his film shows in a more extreme way the discrepancy between the production of animated graphic sequences by a computer and the possibilities of using the computer to structure the general sequential output.

Lillian Schwartz is a film-maker who has very rapidly begun to do some important and interesting computer film work. Since 1969, she has completed five films, all of which contain large amounts of computer-generated material. Her first two films Mathoms and Pixillation interrelate sections of Beflix output with other film material, like microscope film. These two films began her liaison with Ken Knowlton, with whom she continues to work. Her next two films Olympiad and U.F.O.s use a development from the Beflix program, EXPLOR, designed as a crystal growth program. Olympiad is a decorative presentation of film of a running athlete cunningly built and animated as a special case of crystal growth; this film is brightly coloured and well produced with an easy flow, which will be of great interest to animators within the film industry. Even though the program which produces the figure is inflexible and special-purpose, it indicates the capacity to produce attractive, figurative animation on the current digital equipment. Although both the colour and the superimpositions are somewhat superficial in this film, in U.F.O.s she begins to examine colour perception, and the formation of Gestalts in a perceptual situation at a time threshold. Judging by a preview of the material from which her latest film Enigma has been made, it continues to explore the perceptual problems indicated by U.F.O.s.

The work of Marc Adrian is difficult to compare with that of the American abstract film-makers. His film Random has been mentioned already, but, though this film is of interest at a technical level, his two later 'poem' films are probably the most important and coherent 'computer films' produced yet by a film artist in Europe. Text I uses a largely random process for the placing and duration of the words and syllables, and Text II is based on a completely permutative program. In a special way these two films come near to the use of a computer program to determine the whole structure of a film rather than as a method for producing sequences for later organisation.

Most computer film work done by other film artists can only be considered as at an early stage of development, or as isolated computer films. The following work should be mentioned: Humming Bird by Charles Csuri and James Shaffer, Linesthetic by Lloyd Sumner, Genesis II by Richard Childs, '69 by Denis Irving, La Raison avant la passion by Joyce Wieland, and my own films Your Lips and Reign of the Vampire.

It is too early to indicate with confidence any general directions which computer film art might take. It is clear that the 'purist' abstract direction of John Whitney is well founded and suited to the present state of the technology. There also seems to be an indication of a desire to relate computer film-making to figurative animation, or to live-action film. Some indication has already been made about the potential of the computer to enter into the film process at the editing level, at present a relationship is only realised to the extent of incorporating computer-generated material with live action film. However, some impetus is there, and it is interesting to consider how this might be affected by extension of the most recent and spectacular technical developments in the medium, as indicated by the films City Scape (1968) by Peter Kamnitzer and Hancock Airport (1971) produced at General Electric. Both of these films are made from a TV type display, on which near-photographic images in colour are reconstructed and animated, digitally, in real-time, and in an interactive mode using a 'joy-stick'. It is unlikely that film artists will be given access to such costly systems, although the proportion of the films so far produced on computers which have been made by experimental film-makers is surprising. It is possible that the somewhat primitive film medium will be superceded quite quickly by videotape systems, or even digital image reconstruction. Certainly, interactive systems will become more common, and given these kinds of developments the 'single state' work which a film is may become archaic.

In the interim, as much thought as possible should be given to the design of 'hybrid' systems, which would have their own characteristic aesthetic, and to exploring the possibilities of applying the computer to film-making in areas other than the output of a graphic image.

There has been much mutual benefit from the amount of computer film time the industry has made available to experimental film-makers, but in future they should be consulted at the earliest stages of designing any kind of visual display, film or videotape system. The quality and method by which visual and graphic information is displayed is of great significance to the effectiveness of that information, and not a neutral factor to be thought of as only of special concern to the artist.

Malcolm Le Grice
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