Computer animation and the liberation of cinema

An essay about John Whitney and his role in cinema, written for an Experimental and Avantgarde Cinema module.

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Cinema is just over a century old, and it has yet to achieve maturity as compared to other art forms. From its advent in the late 19th century till today, it is still primarily regarded as a medium most suited for the translation of narratives – as an elevation of literature into visual form, or an integration of the element of time into visual images. We speak of going to the movies as going to the pictures, and to some, that is all cinema means – moving pictures. Although technology in the development of filmic images has leapfrogged over the past century, the perspective regarding it remains largely the same. Even today, cinema is still being used widely as a tool for adaptation. Its only perceived strength is in its accessibility. Cinema is a medium still subservient to others.

The emergence of computers and the role it plays in cinema however may signal a new direction into which cinema can come into its own. In this essay, we will examine in particular the person of John Whitney – his work, thinking, influences, and where they stand in the larger context of cinema.

Surfacing the repressed knowledge of what lies behind


“This Is Not A Pipe” from The Treachery of Images

René Magritte, 1929

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!”

– René Magritte (Matteson Art, 2009)

Magritte tells us that this is not a pipe; it is a painting of a pipe. Likewise for film, we momentarily forget that what we are looking at is a screen, and that it is simply light shone through a film and what we see is actually just a blown-up image of the film’s surface. The word “film” has even become dissociated from the material, but more with the art form. Have you seen the latest film? We say yes, although what we saw was shot and projected digitally.

Humans interact with interfaces. We communicate between interfaces, and it is easy to forget what lies underneath. One problem with the progress of a medium is that as a collective human consciousness we are conditioned to ignorance of to what makes a medium actually work, with the exception a few key individuals that we need to ensure it does. It can be compared to building a tower; after a certain height we begin to lose sight of its foundations.

To make a parallel to the oldest interface – the exterior human body. The way we interact with the human body is mainly via its face, and the skin. We do not see or remember the heart, the lungs, the intestines, and the brain. We have dissociated ourselves from the conscious knowledge of it in order to get through our day-to-day lives. So when we witness the deconstruction of this interface in Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), we are finally enlightened to what we have so detached ourselves from, and it frightens us. And like his film, the spirit of the avant-garde is to make aware, to help us realise what we are actually seeing. Avant-garde cinema seeks to get to the bottom of things, because like an autopsy, that is where the truth lies.

Another Brakhage film, Mothlight (1963), makes us conscious of the cinema and its roots in the medium of film. Did he paste the moths manually on each frame? Do the moths and other materials shift or get eroded slightly on the reel each time such that every screening is different? We become aware of the surface on which what we see originates. We go beyond the interface, by being aware that there is one.

The admission of material is a nod to the spirit of animation. As Manovich (2001) notes, “Animation foregrounds its artificial character, openly admitting that its images are mere representations…Cinema works hard to erase any traces of its own production process, including any indication that the images that we see could have been constructed rather than simply recorded.”

Computer animation presents a major shift in cinema because it separates the interface (final product) of the art form from its vehicle. There is a tendency to regard “cinema” as a single medium, the same way Marshall McLuhan conflates the idea (McLuhan, 1964). But as Umberto Eco criticises, medium is an oversimplification which includes the channel, the code, and the message (Debray, 1996). Digitisation changes primarily the channel, while the message remains the same. The medium of cinema has thus been distilled, by divorcing its process of creation from the usage of film material.

John Whitney asks, “Why film?” – to Whitney, “film was simply a means to an end – moving images can be made via other means, and just as well” (Zinman, 2012). Computer animation could present a new way to understand what cinema is and can be. It graduates cinema from capture to creation, and by this virtue it frees it from narrative form as well. It is also no longer limited by frame rates, materials, and physicality. The only limit is our imagination and perhaps, electricity.

The frustration of John Whitney

John Whitney is a pioneer in computer animation not just because of what he can do, but also because of what he understands and how he is able to help us see (and I do not use this term literally, because in many ways he has helped us ‘feel’ cinema as well).

There are times when art and science briefly touch, and there is a point when the lines become non-apparent. And that is when art and science is least abstracted, at a point where they are the most practical, even if it does not seem so at that point. The disciplines of art and science when they interact however, is still limited by the process of communication and the lack of mutual understanding of context. This communication barrier is broken when the understanding of both sides converge in a person. A person like this is often described as “a renaissance man” – Leonardo da Vinci was an example of this. John Whitney is another such person in the world of cinema, someone “who is both artistically and technologically conversant” (Youngblood, 1970).

John Whitney Sr.’s (1917–1995) life has been a balance of technical expertise and artistic inspiration. After his college studies, he spent a year in Europe to study photography and music composition (Youngblood, 1970). He was married to a painter, Jackie Whitney, with whom he enjoyed a fifty-year long marriage. According to his son Michael Whitney (1997), his marriage, together with his talent for building his artistic tools, gave the balance to the discussion of ideas which he called “a personal search for the complementarity of music and visual art”. This search was to characterise his 60 years of work in inventing and filmmaking. Also, such a creative home environment was probably fertile ground to cultivate the aspirations of his three sons (Michael, Mark, and John Jr.), who turned out to be filmmakers as well.

When John Whitney first started out making abstract films, he worked closely with his brother James who had an interest in abstract cinema as well. One of their early efforts was a collection of film exercises featuring amorphous moving light shapes created by their own optical printer. But what was also amazing about the film was its electronic soundtrack, which was composed with a series of pendulums (Moritz, 1997). Before the perfection of recording tape, the pure tone qualities were impressive. Five Film Exercises (1940–45) went on to win a prize for sound at the First International Experimental Film Competition in Brussels in 1949 (Moritz, 1985)

But John Whitney would go on to push the boundaries of his art. It can only be intellectual frustration that led him to tinker and invent new tools to realise new ways of creating his graphics. The cybernetics systems developed in war was the platform on which he progressed to next. Repurposing WWII M5 and M7 anti-aircraft gun guidance computers from military surplus markets, he created a complex mechanical analog computer, the results of which can be seen in his film Catalog (1961) (Moritz, 1997).

In mainstream cinema, his machine was used in the development of the opening credits of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), on which he worked together on with graphic designer Saul Bass. This can be said to be a pre-cursor to the application of motion graphics to opening credits. Growing up with the dominance of Hollywood films, our minds are conditioned to perceive narrative as meaning in the cinema we watch. This was thus groundbreaking because it shows us how it is possible to convey meaning without narration, in this example, during a non-diegetic part of a film such the opening credits. John Whitney continued to work on title sequences with the company he started in 1960, Motion Graphics – and creating title sequences became the most frequent application of his analog computer (Zinman, 2012).

Working on mainstream films was the best way for John Whitney to support his family, but the larger benefit for the rest of us was his input into the more widely received area of mainstream cinema. John Whitney continued to perfect his analog computer, patenting it as his Cam Machine, and also developed his slit-scan technique, which was later appropriated by Douglas Trumbull in in the Stargate corridor sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Zinman, 2012). Vertigo has been considered one of the world’s best films and recently topped the 2012 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time (Christie, 2012). Many eyes have seen the work of John Whitney, and the mainstream film industry continues to benefit from and be inspired by him many years later.

But John Whitney was not easily satisfied. John helped James with the creation of his visually complex abstract film Lapis (1966), using his machine. But while James was content with the tools he already had, turning his attention to the exploration of inner religious meaning. John was already looking forward technically, feeling restricted by the tools at his disposal. At that point, he felt that “Lapis was near the end of what I could do” (Zinman, 2012). He had the ability to see just beyond what was present to what was possible, and adequate frustration to propel him in that direction.

“As I continued to develop the machine I realized it was really a mechanical model of the electronic computer. Anyone experimenting with the medium of cinema as opposed to working in the industry is forced into a direct confrontation with his technology. People tried all different techniques of abstract cinema, and it’s strange that no one has really invented anything that another experimental filmmaker can take up and use himself. It’s starting afresh every time.

– John Whitney, in an interview with Gene Youngblood (Youngblood, 1970)

In 1966 he was invited to be the “artist-in-residence” at International Business Machines (IBM), the first for a major corporation. He soon moved on to computer-generated graphics, the culmination of his efforts of which can be seen in Arabesque (1975). He continued making computer films until the day he died, fine-tuning his instruments to express his aesthetic vision of graphical and musical harmony.

Abstract films as enlightenment

The immersive nature of cinema shows in the way we engage with it. When we view a film, it occupies the prime focus among other stimuli, in a sense, the distance between the viewer’s real space and the image space collapses. Psychologically you have moved from one mental state to another, to be enclosed by the image space. This process is largely invisible, we hardly realise it. When film is used to capture the world, we imagine what we see as a three-dimensional space – André Bazin’s window into the world. But when film is used to create, like in abstract film, it brings us back to realise that we are looking at a screen – the constructivists’ frame. The simplification of filmic images into shapes or lines leads us to think more about our ideas of perception and the process to putting together these images. It encourages a more thinking, self-engaged audience. Just by staring at the spinning shapes of Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinema (1926), we obtain a better understanding of how we perceive depth in two-dimensional image space. Whitney’s work accomplishes this as well – the lissajous spirals in the opening credits of Vertigo do bring to mind Duchamp’s work.

John Whitney’s work also invites comparison with that of other abstract filmmakers, such as those from Absolute Film movement that included Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, and Viking Eggeling. However, Whitney did not associate himself with other filmmakers, and claimed that his work was closer to that of composers and painters, and was “particularly impressed by Stella and Jackson Pollock, Larry Poons, and the Constructivists”. He also mentioned Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, and Arnold Schoenberg as important references (Zinman, 2012).

By examining his mention of Mondrian as a reference, we get a better understanding of his thought process. Piet Mondrian was involved in the Dutch artistic movement De Stijl, or neoplasticism, which found expression in the abstract forms of simple geometric lines and colour. Mondrian’s lozenge works exemplify this idea. Whitney’s films follow similar principles of pure abstraction in shapes and color, but applies it to the medium of film. Moving on to a digital medium provides an even better vehicle where the vector shapes and lines result in purely abstract graphics.

Whitney’s films however, was concerned with more than abstraction. From his early work in Five Film Exercises to his later digital films, they were all attempts to form a sense of digital harmony; a sort of musical interaction of shapes and lines. He drew the same concepts of rhythm, tension, and balance for the visuals of his films. Like Michael Bate (1987) observed, “each frame by itself means nothing”, like how “a single note of music means nothing”; these singular units, in the words of John Whitney, are abstract. But combined through a passage of time they create harmonic patterns and stir emotion. Whitney however was hesitant in overuse the parallel of music so as not to lose focus on the essence of his medium. His images are not meant to be accompaniment to the soundtrack to which they are played with, but rather, to show it as a possible analogue to music and to interact with the music. Diagonal Symphony by Eggeling integrates the similar concepts with Bergson’s philosophy of duration and Kandinsky’s theory of synaesthesia (Rees, 1997). This thus puts Whitney’s thinking in line with the filmmakers of Absolute Film, even if he did not intend for it to be so.

Cinema’s identity shift (again)

There are different schools of thought to what cinema actually is. Christian Metz, a film theorist, wrote in the 1970s that “most films shot today, good or bad, original or not, ‘commercial’ or not, have as a common characteristic that they tell a story; in this measure they all belong to one and the same genre” (Manovich, 2001). Director Andrey Tarkovsky, believes that “cinema’s identity lies in its ability to record reality”. To him, there is no such thing as abstract films (Manovich, 2001). The narrative is regarded as what gives cinema meaning.

Abstraction therefore becomes a dirty word that is subconsciously equated to meaninglessness. But that is only from the frame of reference of narrative cinema. As Youngblood (1970) quotes Mondrian, “The essence of cinema is precisely ‘dynamic movement of form and color,’ and their relation to sound”. As Youngblood (1970) clarifies, in the sense of this definition, films like Whitney’s films are not abstract, but concrete. Whitney’s concept of digital harmony positions itself closer to music, which does not require narrative to create meaning and emotion. As Walter Pater famously wrote in 1877, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (where subject and form are one). In an oversimplified analogy, it is similar to how country or rock music are not the only genres of music, but instrumental and symphonic music are able to exist as well. Such forms of music are largely interpretive, and the audience’s interpretation plays an important part in the experience of the music. Likewise Whitney’s films do not have a clear definition but play on the audiences’ subjective experience as well.

In fact, as Manovich points out (2001), digital cinema is a pro-cinematic return to nineteenth century practice “when images were hand-painted and hand-animated”. While the spirit of this survives but is sidelined in the painted film of avant garde filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger, James Whitney, and the collages of Stan VanDerBeek, it now returns ubiquitous in the filmmaking process in the form of digital animation. Manovich observes:

“Live action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated by hand … Manual construction and animation of images gave birth to cinema and slipped into the margins…only to re-appear as the foundation of digital cinema. The history of the moving image thus makes a full circle. Born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its boundary, only to become one particular case of animation in the end.”

(Manovich, 2001)

None of us would have been able to foresee John Whitney’s actions would have on cinema. His love for building devices out of the parts from his garage expanded the technological possibilities for filmmaking, and his practical need to provide for his family led to a diffusion of his ideas within mainstream cinema (Whitney, 1997). As a synecdoche, we could refer to it as the return of animation to cinema.


If you show John Whitney’s digital films to someone today, what probably first comes to mind are the music visualisers we find in iTunes or Windows Media Player. It may seem like a simplistic comparison, but they do represent the final result to one of John Whitney’s goals – to bring immediacy to the expression of graphic motion, like that of music. He admitted that the limitation of technology still meant that there was large delay between the creation of computer graphics and the display computer graphics, in contrast to music immediacy from its creation on instruments (Grundmann, 2004).

Many technological developments today (both inside and outside of cinema) are built on his technical innovations, such as Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and the Graphical User Interface (GUI). In addition to that, the way his work synthesises ideas from that of other filmmakers, painters, and musicians brings to us a better understanding of our own perception and heralds new ways that we can experience cinema.

In the study of experimental and avant garde film, there is no need to divorce our focus from narrative film (it is after all the form that has dominated a large part of cinema’s history). But such study brings a greater clarity in understanding when we return to narrative cinema. And in the future, the co-existence of both schools of capture and creation may lead to a new understanding of cinema’s identity. Cinema could be something else altogether – most of us just don’t know what it is yet.



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