Oskar Fischinger's Synchronized Abstractions

story © Michael Betancourt, June 19, 2011 all rights reserved.


An Excerpt from The History of Motion Graphics:

Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967) is the artist most closely associated with the production of abstract animations using a direct synchronization of note to form.

Much of what is currently understood about Fischinger depends on the promotion and historical work by William Moritz, who was Fischinger’s biographer, a family friend, and the foremost scholar on his work. Moritz’s close association with the Fischinger estate, and his work to preserve Fischinger’s work starting in the 1970s, is partly responsible for the survival of Fischinger’s abstract films. Most of what is understood about this filmmaker depends on research done by Moritz.

Fischinger arrived at the connection of abstraction-in-motion and sound after almost a decade of experiments with automating and reducing the labor required to produce animations. His early works involved demonstrating new technologies he invented that could reduce the labor-intensive aspects of frame-by-frame drawing and painting—precisely to avoid the laborious procedures used by other abstract animators such as Walther Ruttmann in making his Lichtspiel films. Of these early tests, Wax Experiments (1921-26) is composed from various kinds of imagery—abstract and impressionistic—produced using a wax-cutting machine developed based on the slicers used in delicatessens to cut lunch meat; he would use this device for the fantasy Seelische Konstruktionen “Spiritual Constructions” (ca. 1927). The fluid transformations and dreamlike space of the animation clearly required a level of preplanning comparable to what would be needed with traditional cel animation.

Another set of experiments are preserved in the fragment Spirals (ca. 1922-26). In this film Fischinger employed moiré patterns and other types of graphic interference effects to generate mandala-like swirls and spirals. This imagery was generated using rotating sets of graphic lines that when spun would interact to produce kinetic imagery on screen. All these early works reveal a series of attempts to arrive at technical means for generating abstract animations. It is a concern that reappears throughout the first period of abstraction, and into the second. With the development of video art and the digital computer, these mechanical attempts were replaced with electronic, then digital, technologies. These early experiments with abstraction demonstrate various physical processes that other artists, such as Jordan Belson, would rediscover later in the century and use in their film work.

But the primary influence of Fischinger’s films is not these early attempts at abstraction, but his later works done using commercial funding: he called these works “Studies”; Studie no. 3 (1930) and Studie no.4 (1930) employed sound synched to the animation. The remaining films have a formal orchestration of form and synchronized design: Studie nos 5 – 12 (1930–32); the last few of which were drawn by his brother, Hans. In each of these surviving films the formal design and organization of forms follow precisely from the orchestration of the soundtrack. These films are the earliest examples of the synchronous form in abstract film. Their design depends on the individual dynamics of each note and the progression of the musical phrasing as it can be tied to the movement and animation of form on screen.

Studie no. 5 (in Jazz) (1930), originally titled R-5, Ein Spiel in Linien (R-5, A Play of Lines), presents black and white animation of simple abstract forms moving on-screen synchronized to an instrumental version of “I’ve Never Seen a Smile Like Yours,” a piece of popular Jazz from the British film The Perfect Alibi (1930) directed by Basil Dean. Unlike his later films in this series, Studie no. 5 was initially synchronized to a record rather than the optical sound Fischinger would use starting with Studie no. 6. However, this work represents a breakthrough that enabled the commercial survival of abstract film—of the other three filmmakers involved with abstraction in Germany, Eggeling had died, and both Ruttmann and Richter had moved on to more commercial projects. Fischinger’s connection of his abstract animations to popular music enabled their commercial distribution, allowing a degree of formal experimentation while still retaining the essential commercial audience required by the expense of production.

Also unlike Studie no. 5, the other study films, Studie no. 6, no. 7 and no. 8 (as well as the last films in the series, Studie nos. 9—12 that were made by his brother Hans) were synchronized precisely through the use of the standard optical soundtrack, developing the direct synchronization of tone-to-form. The forms in all these films are linear, but have the same soft, tonal quality as the forms in Walther Ruttmann’s first two Lichtspiel films; the relationship between Fischinger’s film and Ruttmann’s forms could not be more apparent, differing only in speed of motion, size and—most clearly—their tight synchronization to the soundtrack. Forms synchronized to horns glide around the screen, pairing up and moving in tandem; a cymbal crash is a short burst of concentric circles. The shapes dance on screen, following the melodic phrasing up the screen in a visualization of the harmonic ascent of the music. The organization on view in these films is simultaneously guided and limited by the musical notes: duration and volume set the parameters of his work, while their placement on screen does not otherwise appear to be determined by the music.

The influence of the tight synchronization of abstract form to music that Fischinger pioneered cannot be underestimated. Close synchronization is the most common variety of visual music, at least in part, because it is the most commercial. Moritz has noted that Fischinger’s initial decision to adopt the tight synchronization in the Studie films was a result of demands imposed by his clients, the record companies:

[He adopted] tight synchronization partly because of his commercial ties with record advertising and partly because he found that audiences would more easily accept abstract visual art if it were linked to known music (abstract auditory art) they already approved of. [William Moritz. “Visual Music and Film-as-an-Art Before 1950” in On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950, ed. Paul J. Karlstrom, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) p. 228.]

The implication of this comment is clear: that abstract visuals present particular difficulties for audiences, so in order to ensure the commercial viability of his films, Fischinger was forced to make tightly synchronized films. However, this also implies a subservience of image to sound.

Kreise, (Circles) (1935) was initially produced as a commercial for the German advertizing company Tolirag as an animation around the slogan that appears at the end of the film: Alle Kreise erfasst Tolirag, “Tolirag reaches all Circles in Society.” The repurposing of existing commercial work as independent “art film” is something Fischinger would repeat with his later work done at Paramount. William Moritz has suggested this film was the first 3-color process film produced in Europe, an indication of the commercial success of Fischinger’s work and his connections with the advertizing industry.

He would produce several more abstract films as 'advertisements' in Germany before leaving for Hollywood in 1936. These color films produced between 1933 and 1935 enabled his escape from NAZI Germany to work for Paramount on a seven year contract; he would only work there for six months. It was the only full studio contract he would have, even though he would also work with MGM and Disney on individual projects under contract. The single film he made at Paramount used the Ralph Rainger piece Radio Dynamics (1936), but was never completed at the studio. It was designed to be an animated opening sequence for the feature film Big Broadcast of 1937, a star vehicle for various well-known radio comedians—Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Had it been used in the film, it might have been the first animated title sequence of its kind, something that would only become common in Hollywood features after the mid-1950s.

Even though Fischinger produced the Radio Dynamics animation in color, and shot it with on a three-color negative, the feature was in black-and-white, thus creating usability problems with Fischinger’s animation. Because the animation was designed to be shown in color, the chromatic differences between the graphic elements became indistinct once the color was removed—the dark reds and greens simply became a dull and indistinct gray. Fischinger proposed adding various representational images—cars, toothpaste, cigarettes—superimposed over the graphic elements to solve the aesthetic problems using black-and-white caused. He ran behind schedule in adding these elements, leading to his firing; and the sequence he created was not used. Fischinger would later buy the color negative from Paramount so he could release the film as a three minute color work under the new title Allegretto (1936-1943).

An Optical Poem (1938) premiered on March 5, 1938, but was actually shot and animated in 1937. It was his first film completed in the United States. Almost six months after losing his contract with Paramount, Fischinger contracted with MGM to produce a seven minute animation independently of the studio in the style of his earlier film Komposition in Blau (1935). The new film elaborated on the final sequence where colored circles fly through space. To achieve this effect Fischinger rented a space across the street from the MGM studio and built a scaffold to allow the manipulation of flat colored paper circles moving through a three-dimensional space. While Fischinger was contracted to receive royalties from his production, the studio accounting system applied very high administrative charges to the film; Fischinger never received a royalty for it.

The third film and final studio project Fischinger had in Hollywood was with Disney for Fantasia (1940), a film he left before completing the first sequence—Bach’s Toccata and Fugue—over disagreements about the degree and aesthetic quality of the animation. He would receive Guggenheim Foundation funding through the Baroness Hilla von Rebay, the director, to purchase the rights to Radio Dynamics, which he would release under the new title Allegretto. Rebay would also fund his film projects, An American March (1941) and Motion Painting no. 1 (1947). During the 1940s and 50s he would also produce various fragments and experiments that would remain incomplete until after his death in 1967.

Fischinger’s influence is coupled with much earlier assumptions about direct sound-image linkage (i.e. synaesthesia) technologically enshrined in various visual music instruments where depressing a key results in the projection of a burst of color or image. This framework leads to a restrictive understanding of sound-image relationships where the only “acceptable” one is the tight synchronization adopted by Fischinger in the 1920s. His commentary in the 1946 Art in Cinema catalog suggests an awareness of the synaesthetic heritage informing the early development of film:

Now a few worlds about the usual motion picture film which is shown to the masses everywhere in countless moving picture theaters all over the world. It is photographed realism—photographed surface realism-in-motion . . . There is nothing of an absolute artistic creative sense in it. It copies only nature with realistic conceptions, destroying the deep and absolute creative force with substitutes and surface realisms. [Oskar Fischinger, "My Statements Are in My Work," in Frank Staffaucher, Art in Cinema, (New York: Arno Press, 1968) p.39.]

An echo of the universal, hidden reality shown by synaesthetic forms and early abstract art appears in this statement. The idea of “realistic conceptions” can be understood as a critique of his own works as well, since this general statement about the failures of motion pictures due to their superficial realism conditioning everything about the work could also be directed at the tight synchronization of his own work. Immediately before he makes these observations in his article, his concern is with the future development of his own work:

The color film proved itself to be an entirely new art form with its own artistic problems as far removed from black and white film as music itself—as an art medium—is removed from painting. Searching, for the last thirteen years, to find the ideal solution to this problem, I truly believe I have found it now, and my new, forthcoming work will show it. [Oskar Fischinger, "My Statements Are in My Work," in Frank Staffaucher, Art in Cinema, (New York: Arno Press, 1968) p.39.]

The “new, forthcoming work” that Fischinger was making when he wrote this article is likely to be his final film, Motion Painting No. 1; portions of this Art in Cinema essay repeat in the statement “True Creation” published in the catalog for the 1949 Knokke-le-Zoute Film Festival where Motion Painting No. 1 screened in 1949. The “ideal solution” he identifies is not the closely synchronized relationship of all his work being screened, but rather a contrapuntal structure where the organization of the work and the organization of Bach music on the soundtrack exist as tangential elaborations that come into contact only at major points of structural change. The adoption of a counterpoint structure in this final film comes without precedent in his earlier film works, suggesting an entirely new direction his work could have taken had he produced more films after Motion Painting No.1. The implication this change has for his work is direct: that the closely synchronized works, while commercial, also recreate an illusion of surface realism—the connection of tone-to-form and tone-to-color; it establishes the idea of synaesthetic abstraction as a variety of formal realism. The transformation from direct synchronization to variable synchronization, implied by his statement and apparent in Motion Painting No. 1, becomes a locus of attraction for abstract film and visual music works over the next fifty years.

This piece also drew from Walter Schobert, The German Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s, and the work of William Moritz, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger,.

This post lacks images because I do not feel like fighting over what is fair use with the estate's manager. If you want to see images, please go to the Fischinger Archive.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  June 19, 2011  all rights reserved.

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