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Digital Harmony: The Life of John Whitney, Computer Animation Pioneer

William Moritz profiles the career of John Whitney and his significant contribution to computer animation.

moritzwhitney01.gif Pioneer computer animator John Whitney Sr. in 1959, operating one of the first computer-graphics engines, a mechanical analog computer built largely from surplus World War II anti-aircraft guidance hardware. The camera is in the upper left, aiming down through the apparatus that "paints" the film with light. Photo by Charles Eames.

Computers were originally developed as part of the British and American World War II defense efforts. They were first known as "Turing Machines" after Alan Turing who invented them to break Nazi codes -- the film of Andrew Hodges' biography was recently broadcast as Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi portraying the inventor. The young John Whitney worked in the Lockheed Aircraft Factory during the war and while he was working with high-speed missile photography, he was technically adept enough to realize that the targeting elements in such weapons as bomb sites and anti-aircraft guns calculated trajectories and produced finely-controlled linear numerical equivalents, which could potentially be used for plotting graphics or guiding movements in peacetime artistic endeavors. A decade would pass before he was able to buy some of these analog computer mechanisms as "war-surplus" and construct with them his own "cam machine," which pioneered the concept of "motion control."

In the meantime, Whitney had made about two dozen films in more or less traditional animation. Among these were: in 8mm, a time-lapse of an eclipse and several drawn Variations, in 16mm two Film Exercises accompanied by electronic music composed by Whitney with a system of pendulums he had invented, and about 10 abstract musical visualizations using an oil-wipe instrument he had also invented as well as three 35mm cartoons for the UPA studios. He also did various commercial assignments including the title design for Hitchcock's feature Vertigo (in association with Saul Bass), and the preparation (in association with Charles Eames) of a seven-screen presentation for the Buckminster Fuller Dome in Moscow.

Motion Graphics

With his computerized motion-control set-up, Whitney could produce a variety of innovative designs and metamorphoses of text and still images, which proved very successful in advertising and titling of commercial projects. By 1960 Whitney prepared a sample reel of these and other effects he could produce, and solicited work for his Motion Graphics, Inc. company. This company kept him so busy he did not have time to make personal films using the computerized motion-control set-up. His sample reel was artfully edited and ended with a lovely final image of a lissajous curve multiplied dozens of times, to appear twisting in waves, suggesting the time-lapse of a blossoming flower. The reel was released as Catalog and became a popular classic of 1960's psychedelica. John Whitney's younger brother James, who had collaborated with him on the early Variations and Film Exercises, used John's cam machine to shoot his fabulous film Lapis. By multiplying the hundreds of dots in his hand-drawn original artwork into thousands of dots he described the most complex mandalas writhing with life.

Not all of the motion-control effects business for Whitney's "cam machine" ventures went in his favor, however. One of the possibilities demonstrated in Catalog is the slit-scan effect. Someone else duplicated the effect for the feature 2001. Ironically, Whitney had submitted to them a proposal for a monolith as a computer-generated effect that would have looked different from anything else in the film. He was turned down.

Film Exercise # 4.

Whitney had an opportunity to work on the new high-powered digital computers between 1966 and 1969, when he was awarded a fellowship as artist-in-residence at IBM. Jack Citron programmed the IBM 360 Digital computers for him. His first computer generated film is rarely seen, but delightful. Whitney titled the film Homage to Rameau not only because Rameau wrote the baroque music heard on the soundtrack, but also to reference Rameau's book Treatise on Harmony. This text focused the direction of Whitney's aesthetic strivings, culminating in his 1980 book Digital Harmony.

At approximately the same time that Whitney worked at IBM in California, other artist-in-residence programs in the East allowed Stan Vanderbeek and Lilian Schwartz to work with Ken Knowlton at Bell Labs. Vanderbeek's Poem Fields mainly uses his clever texts as subject matter, and Schwartz's abstract music films, though colorful and well-paced, seem too similar, hampered by the limitations of the Beflix program. By contrast, John Whitney's computer films grew continually more intricate in their exploration of a genuine aesthetic goal: the establishment of a secure basis for harmonic events in audio-visual presentation. Harmonic Progression In each of John's next five films [Permutations (1968), Osaka 1-2-3 (1971), Matrix I (1971), Matrix II (1971), Matrix III (1972), Arabesque (1975)],he demonstrated the principle of "harmonic progression." For example, in Arabesque (programmed by Larry Cuba), Whitney experimented with the eccentricities of Islamic architecture, which, though ultimately harmonic, contain many characteristic reverse curves in its embellishments. Whitney also made three documentary films on the subject of digital harmony. In 1979 he completed Experiments in Motion Graphics. His 1973 Hex Demo for a lecture at Cranbrook was included on a laserdisc of his works issued by Pioneer in 1984.He also completed in 1993 A Personal Search for the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art which is available through Pyramid Film and Video.

moritzwhitney05a.GIF Left:Whitney's set-up for filming computer animation from a monitor screen, during an artist residency at IBM Labs. Right:From sequences of Spirals, a piece of "visual music" created by Whitney on a computer program he designed in the late 1980s.

In the later 1980s, Whitney concentrated on developing a computerized instrument on which one could compose visual and musical output simultaneously in real time. His first piece on this new instrumentation, which was improved and updated constantly, appeared as Spirals in 1987. Although the compositions were linked to the particular computer set-up, and defied many attempts to copy them onto film and video, Whitney continued to compose new visual-music pieces until his death in 1995. The Moon Drum series in 12 sections based on Native American ceremonial art was most notable. Although less brilliant than the original computer monitor display, a satisfactory video version of Moon Drum was released.

John Whitney's active filmmaking career endured over 55 years, and 40 of those years were devoted to computer work. This is a remarkable record for any independent filmmaker, but particularly astonishing for the continued quality and vision of Whitney's films.

William Moritzteaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.