World Magazine, Issue 2.5, August 1997
by Michael Whitney
A few months before his death, John Whitney helped Michael Friend, Director of the Academy Film Archive, to pack up boxes of film and personal papers for storage at the Archive vaults in Hollywood. Both had in mind the eventual restoration of old printing elements so that future viewers and researchers will have access to the rich history of early experimental filmmakers. In addition, in the early 1980s, John had established a non-profit foundation, Digital Harmony, to develop his ideas for the use of the computer for the artist. He had a life long passion for his work that he wanted to pass on to others.
John Whitney (1917-1995).
The Structure of Motion
Two elements helped shape his career that eventually spanned nearly sixty years. One was a talent for building things that served his artistic purpose and the other was his fifty year marriage to painter Jackie Whitney. The two provided a balance to the exposition of ideas that he called "a personal search for the complementarity of music and visual art." The relationship with Jackie began a lifelong dialogue between creative playfulness and emotional expression in counter-balance to his theoretical insights into the structure of movement. At the beginning they had planned to create animated films of her painted playful figures. They made rubber stamps as a start at animating the figures. Later on, working together at the kitchen table, they cut out the letters for the original Jack-in-the-Box logo. In the 1950s with children to feed he sought commercial work.
He built a twenty-five foot two-part Foucault pendulum in the back yard to create design elements for use in restaurant interior decoration. The designs were based on the lissajous figure. Tuning the pendulum by moving weights up and down began a hands-on tactile exploration into harmonic motion. He used a mechanized pantograph to create the animation sequences for Vertigo (contracting with Hitchcock's production company) and Bolshoi Ballet (with Saul Bass). He replaced the pantograph with the cam systems of the M5 and M7 anti-aircraft gun guidance computers available on the military surplus market in the late 1950s.
These mechanical analog computers contained interior mechanisms, which he assembled into an animation device that he called the "cam machine." With the ball integrators and cams he achieved critical insight into the significance of differential change or "drift" to create motion from precise repetitive action. He had created animation that began to have a mathematical basis for its development in time. Eventually, he used the term "digital harmony" to indicate laws of harmony applied to images in motion as well as to sound. The cam machine was a long way from his Jazz films of the late 1940s which were an improvisation - motion as an emotional expression closely related to music. The cam machine offered an insight into structure in motion. Intrinsic structure offered a new underpinning to gesture in motion.
His gift for building devices was a source of pleasure for him. He would often joyfully exclaim out loud when, as he made his way through the garage, he found just the right part to complete construction of a new or improved device. The building of tools meant that his palette of techniques for making images constantly changed. He seemed to be less concerned that these changes left him with tradeoffs. If he didn't have rich background color texture he had more control of foreground action. He was a realist, eager and able to move forward rapidly with whatever he had at hand. He devised a real-time projection direct to broadcast television that was perhaps the first proposal for what has now become MTV. He pitched the idea to friends at Capitol Records CBS in the early 1950s, but the project was never funded.
Moon Drum was released on video in 1991, through Mystic Fire Video.
The difficulty of transferring high quality images from the computer back onto film or video was a frustration to him. He was used to having a print to loan out for viewing. That was, after all, the only way his work was known, and he felt his most important work was therefore not known. Every attempt to distribute the computer pieces in his Moon Drum series failed to meet his need for fidelity to the original gem-like quality of the computer screen and its luminescent CRT colors.
The major periods of both John and his brother James Whitney's work fall naturally according to the technology and techniques they employed. James focused on an inner vision utilizing the methods available to him until he exhausted his technique and moved on to new techniques. At the end of his career, Jim was beginning to explore the image making potential of video but did not bring his work to completion. John continued into the final period of his career, 1985 - 1995, with a program RDTD evolved from the IBM research period of the late 1960s with the aid of programmer Jerry Reed. His final instrument gave him tremendous satisfaction. He really wasn't content unless he started his day early, making modifications to the Moon Drum pieces as he worked out ideas from the previous night's dreams. He recognized the limitations of his instrument, indeed, he suffered under the opaqueness of the DOS command language.
He longed for the ability to improvise and then refine the vision he experienced each day. In Moon Drum his instrument had some of the fluidity of the Jazz film period oil-tray animation and at the same time had a structural underpinning that echoes back to the "fine tuning" needed to make the pendulum produce a lissajous figure. This had been a long path. He felt strongly that at some point others would understand the need to underpin plasticity of motion with harmonic structure.
The Hope for an Archive
Michael Friend can be reached at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Center for Motion Picture Study. Funding is needed to catalogue John's extensive writings, to restore the stored film material and make the twelve pieces of the Moon Drum series available for viewing. Over the ten years when he used his RDTD composing program, he continuously reshaped each work. Only one version of Moon Drum is available commercially. In the few months that John lived after Jackie's death in May of 1995, the changes he made cut Moon Drum loose from his previous techniques; a vivid new spirit playfully emerges. Digital Harmony, Inc. hopes one day to have a version of RDTD available to artists, filmmakers and students interested in exploring John Whitney's astonishing range of ideas.
Editor's Note: AWM will continue to report on the progress of this valuable archive's creation.
Michael Whitney, MBA, CPA, is an independent filmmaker and producer, and is currently working for the State of Tennessee Department of Education. He assisted his father, John Whitney, with DOS, and has traveled extensively, lecturing and demonstrating RDTD and the Moon Drum pieces.
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