How to VJ #6

Some VJs are machines. Literally machines. Programmes that generate visuals to synchronize with an audio input.

I picked out this film by Low North to show you what I’m talking about (link for more info). Watch to see pixel-per-pixel mapping of an audio track:

I reckon it’s a stunning piece of work. But you may feel differently. We’re desensitized to audiovisual synchronization by the everyday viewing of cartoons, music videos, even 3D fractal screensavers with their precise, ambient motion.

What’s so impressive about this kind of animation, and what are its precedents?

Low North pay homage to Lillian Schwartz. Here’s one of her seminal films – Pixillation (1970):

It’s not quite pixel-per-pixel, is it? But nearly 30 years ago, Pixillation was one of the first digital films to be shown as a work of art.

It was the result of groundbreaking work by Lillian Schwartz as a consultant and researcher in visual and colour perception at Bell Laboratories.

As she says in The Computer Artists’ Handbook:

“A computer can have (be!) an unlimited supply of brushes, colors, textures, shadings, and rules of perspective and three-dimensional geometry. It can be used to design a work of art or to control a kinetic sculpture.”

But Ken Knowlton, her Bell Labs colleague and author of the BEF LIX (Bell Flix) animation programme, spoke of a troubling dichotomy. Whereas artists – human animators – were “intuitive… sensitive and vulnerable”, programmers were “constricted… cold and inscrutable”.

Look just a few years further back to John Whitney. Is that dichotomy so clear?

Like Lillian Schwartz, John Whitney has immense stature in the history of the digital arts. He’s sometimes credited (see the Wiki) as one of the fathers of computer animation. And his vision was simple:

“Above all, I want to demonstrate that electronic music and electronic colour-in-action combine to make an inseparable whole that is much greater than the parts.”

In the 1980s, Whitney was responsible for the invention of an AV “synthesizer for the future”, the Whitney-Reed RDTD. But earlier in his career he worked with Saul Bass on title sequence for Vertigo (1958).

Imagine Whitney’s vision pre-electronic. Pre-computers. When you watch the minutely synchopated animation of Fantasia (1940), for example, you don’t imagine a computer in sight. You might, however, when you watch Oskar Fischinger’s work – because it has that level of detail and timing:

As the date will tell you, this animation involved no computer. Fischinger worked for Disney as an animator on Fantasia. He’d used charcoal-on-paper for his early works. He’d played with coloured liquids and a “Wax Slicing Machine” in between, and invented the Lumigraph (a colour organ) in 1950.

Some of the most visionary animators and filmmakers of the pre-digital era laboured with incredible precision to synchronize visuals with music. There’s a separate strand of film history – one that competed against narrative cinema, the talkie, but appeared to have lost.

You’ll see origins of this battle in the early 1920s, with films by the Dadaists and particularly Hans Richter.

If you want to VJ, in my opinion, you should be aiming for “an inseparable whole that is greater than its parts”. The results can be as revolutionary as you make them.

It doesn’t matter what you use to create. But when you produce audiovisual synchronization, regardless of programmes, software or dialectics, you’re pumping new blood into a rich, historic vein of cinema.

Make it human. Make it how you feel. Because an audience will feel it with you.

Feel like some more? Check out the Center for Visual Music.

1 comment so far

  1. Center for Visual Music on

    Thanks for the link. The clip you’ve posted above called Early Abstractions is NOT by Oskar Fischinger. It’s by Harry Smith. It was also called “Homage to Oskar Fischinger,” hence the confusion.

    Careful of youtube, all sorts of misinformation like this, especially about Fischinger and the Whitneys.

    See our vimeo channel for a clip from a Lumigraph performance, plus an early CG film by Jules Engel, and more


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