Space, Oskar Fischinger, and Desktop Computer Animation; copyright by Byron Grush

Recently, my animation class at Northern Illinois University screened some of the work of the pioneer animator, Oskar Fischinger. We watched films from the videodisk series which includes Optical Poem, Composition in Blue, Radio Dynamics, some of the Film Studies, the Murrati Cigarette Commercials, and the marvelous cut-out animations, Spiritual Constructions. I've been interested in the work of Oskar Fischinger for years, feeling a strong "spiritual" connection to the magical quality of his abstractions.

Usually, the discussions about Fischinger's films center around comparisons: the conflicts between Fischinger's goals as an artist (Bill Moritz calls him the first "underground filmmaker"1) and his encounters with Hollywood, or the contrast between Disney Studio's use of music to illustrate, set the mood, and provide temporal structure (sometimes called "Mickey Mousing") and Oskar's use of music as rhythmic counterpoint. During this screening, I was struck by the consistent development of 3-dimensional compositional space throughout all of the films.

The charcoal Film Studies from the early 30's, like almost all Fischinger's work, are composed of abstract, non-objective shapes. Because of the negative printing of the Studies, one might say the shapes appear as a multitude of comets flying through outer space. They move in groups, like a school of fish or a flock of birds, not exactly in unison -- but with slight variations of their flight path. They flow, float, swing, jerk, twirl, spin, jitter through a virtual space which appears to extend beyond the limits of the flat projection screen. Curiously, there is no point of reference for this space: no perspective lines, no horizon, nothing to set the scale, no sense of lighting or camera. Yet we feel so strongly the height, width, and depth of Fischinger's space against which his forms fulfill their antic play. Few animators, particularly abstractionists, are able to create the feeling of 3-dimensional space so well.

To try to describe these shapes and their movement through space in figurative terms is to demote them to realm of interpretation. Fischinger preferred the terms, "concrete" and "absolute" in talking about his art2 because, I suppose, the term "abstract" implies a source or origin for a form or object. The object is "abstracted" by being simplified, exaggerated or reduced to an essence, but it retains some connection, however obscure, to its origin; this connection providing a meaning for which Fischinger had little use. One might as well interpret the music of Bach as so many bird chirpings or thundering rain (as Disney did in Fantasia -- after Fischinger had left the project!) The problem comes when we rely too heavily on verbal language to communicate our understanding of experience, particularly our experience of art. Verbal language is rich in metaphor -- dangerous, when attempting an analysis of the absolute!

At any rate, at the risk slipping into an interpretative mode, I must confess that for me, the movement of shapes through space in Fischinger's Film Studies reminds me of the tracing of the tips of the fingers of some ethereal symphony conductor. Close your eyes and listen to Brahms. "Conduct" the music with your hands and try to visualize tiny sparkles of light emanating from your finger tips -- but, please, do not think of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice! This is as close to suggesting the origin of Oskar's absolute as I will venture.

I once asked Elfreida Fischinger if her husband would have used a computer if today's personal computers had been available to him. Her emphatic "NO!" shouldn't have surprised me. After all, the precision and accuracy with which he rendered his forms must have been an all-important element of his own experience of his art. Supplanting his hand skills with a computer would not have appealed to him. Yet when I begin to think of some of the technology he employed, such as the wax-slicing machine, early experimental color film techniques, or the structural wire supports in Optical Poem, I can't help but wonder if the computer might not have given Fischinger another dimension to explore.

Computers are really just fancy adding machines. The illusion of virtual space via computer imaging is just the rapid squeezing of data through algorithms based on principles of mathematics that date back to DeCartes -- even to Euclid! Only the technology which delivers the squeezing has changed over the years. The advent of the "personal computer" is to today's computer artists what the 16mm Bolex movie camera was to "experimental filmmakers" in the forties, fifties and sixties: access to technology that was previously the exclusive realm of the wealthy and powerful. IBM clones, Macintoshes, Amigas and even low-end Unix machines like the SGI Indy are financially within the reach of all of us. Software, like Autodesk's 3D Studio is affordable, reasonably "user-friendly" and powerful enough to produce rendered 3D animation of professional quality. A DOS-based 486 including 3D Studio costs about $5000 -- less if you qualify for student or other educational discounts. Getting the images to tape or film -- well, that's another article to come!

So the issue is really not the tool (metatool: a device that can be reprogrammed to become many kinds of tools) or the technology but its impact on the art and artists of our era. I believe the Oskar Fischinger of 1920, could he be transported to the 1990s, would embrace the computer as a useful and necessary technology. I think the Oskar Fischinger of 1990 would have less interest in the computer as a way of producing animation, but might be intrigued with its other potentials, such as its ability to marry sound and image in a real-time environment.

  1. William Moritz, The Films of Oskar Fischinger, Film Culture, No. 58-59-60, 1974, page 81
  2. ibid., page 51