Code in Motion: Early Experimental Computer Animation

Programmed by Clint Enns. Presented by Plastic Paper: Winnipeg’s Festival of Animated, Illustrated and Puppet Films in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Park Theatre on May 7, 2011. Presented by Vector Festival at Cinecycle in Toronto, Ontario on February 19, 2014. Presented by New Media Art & Sound Summit in Austin, Texas on June 12, 2014.

The works in this program explore both the mathematical precision of computer graphics, as well as the uncontrolled, the uncontrollable and the random. Early examples of both experimental and narrative computer animated films will be shown including works by John Whitney, Sr., Mary Ellen Bute, John Stehura, James Whitney, Stan Vanderbeek and Kenneth Knowlton, Lillian Schwartz, Pierre Hébert and Peter Foldès. As an added bonus, innovative computer generated commercials produced by Robert Abel and Associates will be shown between films.


Around is Around | Norman McLaren & Evelyn Lambart | 1951 | 10 min.1
Abstronic | Mary Ellen Bute | 1952 | 7 min.
Catalog | John Whitney, Sr. | 1961 | 7 min.
Cybernetik 5.3 (1960-65) | John Stehura | 1965 | 8 min.
Lapis | James Whitney | 1966 | 10 min.
Poemfield No. 2 | Stan Vanderbeek and Kenneth Knowlton |1966 | 6 min.
The Artist and The Computer | Lillian Schwartz | 1976 | 11 min.
Around Perception | Pierre Hébert | 1968 | 16 min.
Metadata | Peter Foldès | 1971 | 8 min.2
La Faim | Peter Foldès | 1974 | 11 min.
Various Robert Abel Commercials, Various Dates

Special Thanks:
Center for Visual Music and Cindy Keefer, NFB, Kathy Elder, Colin Geddes and Sebastian Di Trolio.

Critical Discourse

Exploring the blueprints of CGI

Sandee Moore, “Exploring the Blueprints of CGI,” Uptown Magazine (May 5, 2011).

The heady days when Eastern mysticism, pictorial formalism and beatnik experimentation met algorithms that could generate complex geometries and computers capable of such boggling calculations are visited in Code In Motion. Curated by Clint Enns, this collection of early computer animations from 1961 to 1971 shed light on the innovative beginnings of CGI.

Using the targeting mechanism for a Second World War anti-aircraft gun, John Whitney Sr. built a “mechanical analogue computer” that enabled him to mathematically plot the separate movement and rotation of many “design templates” and cameras at once. His demo reel, designed to advertise Whitney’s services to the feature film industry, was later released as a film. Aptly titled Catalogue, it’s a sequence of dazzling abstract effects set to Whitney’s own avant-garde string composition.

Code In Motion also includes synethesic work from Whitney’s younger brother, James. A swirling mandala of hand-painted, computer-plotted dots set to shimmering sitar chords, Lapis is new-age psychedelia at its peak. Previewing this tripped-out, glowing kaleidoscope on Enns’ Pentium 3 in his bedroom, I can only image the queasy sensations seeing it projected large in a dark theatre will provoke.

Just why are artists attracted to making work using computers? Time saving is one clear and obvious reason. Peter Foldès’ La faim pioneered the use of keyframes, using the computer to fill in the frames in between. Foldès’ spare and expressionistic line drawings are stretched and transformed in comical and grotesque ways, illustrating the obscene appetites of a man (who occasionally becomes his car!) in this allegorical 1971 Oscar winner. 

A documentary on computer animator Lillian Schwartz, The Artist and the Computer, points to another reason: the addition of random, unanticipated results (in other words, mistakes). Schwartz gleefully appropriates code and graphics cast off by scientists. Her work was gorgeous, innovative and had socially relevant content that has aged well; even with its bouncy synth soundtrack, this doc provides an excellent overview of this artist’s pivotal works. 

Crass but kinda cool, Robert Abel and Associates’ TV commercials are interspersed throughout the program and show another side of early computer animation — one funded by corporate big bucks rather than research councils and university labs. The highly polished surface and craft of advertisement is a refreshing contrast to the formal investigations and serious ideas advanced by the artists in Code In Motion.

Through an enjoyable and wide sampling of genres, Code In Motion shows how the computer can be used to warp the mind, trick the eye and break the rules of physics. Oh, yes, and make awesome art!

  1. This was only shown at Vector Festival. []
  2. The was only show at Plastic Paper. []