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Whitney 1996

SYMMETRY. Interactive animation.

INSPIRATION. In tribute to computer animation pioneer John Whitney.
STORY. From 1940s to the 1990s John Whitney, sometimes working with his brother James Whitney, created a large body of work as an independent animator. Some of my favorites include Five Film Exercises (1943), which featured mechanically synthesized images and sounds, Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952), a hilariously low tech and very effective visualization of jazz, and Arabesque (1975), his most mature computer animated work.
     John was quite an inspiration to me. I first saw his movie Permutations when I was in high school. One of the first things I did at college was to program Whitney-inspired kinetic patterns on an old Adage vector graphics computer. After my undergraduate years I worked for a summer writing 3d graphics programs for John to use on a commercial job. (John never did his own programming, he was more tinkering in the analog world.) When I wrote my first book Inversions in 1981, publisher Byte Books also published John's manifesto Digital Harmony, which put forward his ideas on creating visual compositions with the same sense of tension and resolution present in music. I later learned that Digital Harmony inspired my friend, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, to write his first computer program. He later incorporated Whitneyesque imagery into his computer game Moondust (forCommodore 64).
     I continued to visit John occasionally when I was in Los Angeles. Late in his life he was able to realize his dream of composing sound and image directly together, using a custom PC graphics program driving both a computer monitor and synthesizer. He intended the works to be viewed directly on computer screen. I had the pleasure of seeing the works in his home on one of my visits.
     Several images stand out when I remember the lovely home he shared with his artist wife Jackie: light reflecting off their backyard pool onto their living room ceiling making patterns much like his art, a huge circular flip book of his computer animation, childhood drawings by his sons (who continue to do pioneering work in film), and his workroom with computer, Tektronix storage tube monitor, 16mm movie camera and movieola.

This animation uses one John’s most basic compositional elements: a simple visual pattern that goes in an out of phase, creating shifting displays of visual dissonance and consonance. Here the H travels at twice the velocity of W, I travels at three times the velocity of the W, T travels at four times the velocity and so on. When letters reach the edge of the frame, they wrap around to the opposite edge. Eventually, when W has traveled the full width of the screen, the letters come back into alignment. Halfway through the cycle the letters coincide in two columns, a third the way through the cycle they coincide in three columns, and so on. These visual harmonies have the simple fractional relationships as the frequencies of harmonically related musical pitches. Similar coincidences happen vertically; I've drawn the letters of his name so they superimpose to make a square with four crossing lines.
     Some of John’s works were programmed by Larry Cuba, an accomplished independent animator in his own right, who has turned his lifelong interest in the history of "visual music" into a nonprofit institution called the Iota Center. The center is currently touring a film program around the country devoted to Oskar Fischinger, the prolific visual music animator who played an important but uncredited role in the creation of Walt Disney’s original edition of Fantasia. To learn more about visual music, visit the Iota Center web site, which includes a video store, links to artists, notices of events, and a mailing list you can subscribe to.

Copyright 2000 Scott Kim.
All rights reserved.