Tuesday, October 7, 2014


John Whitney

"The compositions at best are intended to point a way toward future developments in the arts. Above all, I want to demonstrate that electronic music and electronic color-in-action combine to make an inseparable whole that is much greater than its parts."

-John Whitney Sr. 

John Whitney is considered by many to be the "Father of Computer Graphics". He started in the 1940s building clockwork mechanisms with lights to draw directly on film. Later, he bought WW2 surplus analog ballistics computers and eventually started using digital computers. I believe this one was rendered using a vector display.

"I don't know how many simultaneous motions can be happening at once. There must be at least five ways just to operate the shutter. The input shaft on the camera rotates at 180 rpm, which results in a photographing speed of 8 frame/s. That cycle time is constant, not variable, but we never shoot that fast. It takes about nine seconds to make one revolution. During this nine-second cycle the tables are spinning on their own axes while simultaneously revolving around another axis while moving horizontally across the range of the camera, which may itself be turning or zooming up and down. During this operation we can have the shutter open all the time, or just at the end for a second or two, or at the beginning, or for half of the time if we want to do slit-scanning"

John Whitney, Sr. died September 22, 1995 in Los Angeles, California, ending a remarkable career that linked music to experimental film and later to computer imaging. John Hales Whitney was born April 8, 1917 in Pasadena, California; he attended Pomona College, Claremont University before spending a year in Paris from 1937 to 1938. While in Paris, he studied Schoenberg's Twelve Tone techniques with Rene Liebowitz and worked on the animation of abstract designs.

Returning to the United States in 1939, he joined with his painter brother, James Whitney, to collaborate on several experimental films. Five Abstract Film Exercises (1940-1945) won first prize at the First International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium in 1949. The early Whitney films earned admiration from artists and filmmakers and led to a Solomon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 that allowed John Whitney to study the composition of music combined with graphics. He was particularly interested in a study of the music of sine waves. John said of this period, "The artist/composer shapes time with his hands." "Time has become visual." John made a mechanical pendulum device, an "audio-visual instrument," that emitted sounds that were combined with a camera apparatus to point and capture light in the production of abstract design films. John said that he and his brother James "were outsiders inside Hollywood."

Married to abstract painter, Jacqueline Helen Blum, they had three sons: John, Jr., Michael and Mark. An exceptional family, all of the Whitneys are interested in filmmaking.

In 1952, Whitney founded the Motion Graphics, Inc., for the production of commercial motion pictures and later in 1955, he directed animation films at UPA Studios where he was involved in the first major network, all-animation television show. From 1957-1959, John Whitney joined the Charles and Ray Eames Studio as a film specialist working on productions including Toccata for Toy Trains and Two Baroque Churches.

By 1959, John began his pioneering work in the development of mechanical analog systems which founded the principles and techniques of "incremental drift" and "slit-scan." Whitney's first analog computer was made from an M-5 Anti-aircraft Gun Director and later with modifications from an M-7 (p. 206, Expanded Cinema). An assemblage of visual effects was produced, Catalog 1961, to demonstrate the commercial potential of the techniques. Several feature film titles were created in collaboration with Whitney.

Permutations was completed in 1966; it was an early artistic film constructed entirely off the black-and-white monitor of a large computer system (IBM 360, IBM 2250 Display, written in GRAF and FORTRAN). Color was added by editing with an optical printer. It is an elegant abstract work composed of architectures of color dots that develop pattern while displaying a kinetic rhythm. This early work has had an immense influence on the later generations of computer animators.

In the early 1970s, John Whitney, Sr. completed the Matrix series and the Osaka series of computer graphic films. They were also colored and edited by optical printer. Arabesque (1975) was his final film using the computer/optical printer. This work was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and Information International.

Whitney lectured at UCLA and at Kyoto University as well as at numerous conferences worldwide. Among his many honors and awards is the Medal of Commendation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1986) for Cinematic Pioneering.

John Whitney wanted to create a dialog between "the voices of light and tone." All of his early experiments in film and the development of sound techniques lead toward this end. He felt that music was an integral part of the visual experience; the combination had a long history in man's primitive development and was part of the essence of life. "Painting and song share the earliest relationship in cave societies." His theories "On the complementarity of Music and Visual Art" were explained in his book, Digital Harmony, published by McGraw-Hill in 1980.

In 1986, John Whitney joined with Jerry Reed to develop a program combining computer graphics and music composing. From 1986-1992, the Whitney-Reed RDTD (Radius-Differential Theta Differential) composing program was refined. The product of this work was the invention of a music/graphic instrument that produces a direct matching of "tonal action with graphic action." Whitney said, "I believe that visual design belongs with musical design." He stated that with the development of computer technology, computers can now create and store images and music in infinite combinations and sequences to experience Complementarity and bring about a richer communication. Whitney believed that strong emotion flows from the combination of Music and Visual elements. "I've struggled to define my vision. The union of color and tone is a very special gift of computer technologies." He said that he would look to future artists to develop the communication further. His paper, discussing a major new audio-visual art medium, was published in the Computer Music Journal, Vol. 18/3, Fall, 1994.

I spoke with him recently at a computer art opening in Pasadena on August 5, 1995. He always had a great curiosity about the use of technology in communications and the arts and was soon to accept the position of Visiting Fellow to the Division of Electronics and Information Engineering, at Hokkaido University, Japan.

Throughout his life, John inspired young artists by showing them alternative means of expression through the use of digital techniques; many of these artists went on to become contributors themselves. John Whitney will be long remembered, as much for his inspiration as for his singular accomplishments in his fields.

James Whitney - Variations on a Circle (1941-42) 

John Whitney Sr worked with motion graphics and made neat animations. Moving into the 1950's, Whitney moved his work into the more commercial realms of Hollywood. After a short stint writing, producing and directing 16 mm films for television, Whitney worked as a producer of 1952 engineering projects for Douglas Aircraft, illustrating guided missile projects. His work as a director of animation at UPA studios in 1955 led him to a partnership with Saul Bass. The team produced such works as the opening title sequence for the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, and television graphics for shows with Dinah Shore and Bob Hope (Youngblood, 1996). This period of work proved to be beneficial to the artistic desires of John Whitney to achieve a "digital harmony" between his musical composition and abstract graphic animation. In 1960 he was able to found the aptly named company "Motion Graphics Incorporated".

Most of the work completed at Motion Graphics was created with a "mechanical analog computer for specialized animation with typography and concrete design" (Youngblood, 1970) that Whitney himself invented. After 10 years of commercial work, John Whitney would again have control over his own artistic experimentation (Youngblood, 1970). His work with the analog computer gave Whitney worldwide recognition, and one that did not fail to gain the attention of the International Business Machines company. In 1966, IBM awarded John Whitney its first "artist in residence" status to "explore the aesthetic potentials of computer graphics" (Youngblood, 1970). The film, or rather collection of analog effects entitled Catalog, was completed in 1961, a 7 minute, full color exploration of visual effects set to the music of Ornette Coleman. The film is characterized by its "overwhelming beauty" (Youngblood, 1970) and swirling templated shapes that critics even today feel is more successful than his later digital works.

Graphics programming by Dean Anschultz, music by Terry Riley

John Whitney's demo reel of work created with his analog computer/film camera magic machine he built from a WWII anti-aircraft gun sight. Also Whitney and the techniques he developed with this machine were what inspired Douglas Trumbull (special fx wizard) to use the slit scan technique on 2001: A Space Odyssey

"In PERMUTATIONS, each point moves at a different speed and moves in a direction independent according to natural laws' quite as valid as those of Pythagoras, while moving in their circular field. Their action produces a phenomenon more or less equivalent to the musical harmonies. When the points reach certain relationships (harmonic) numerical to other parameters of the equation, they form elementary figures."- John Whitney

John Whitney Sr’s first encounter with Dr Jack Citron, a physicist and researcher at IBM Los Angeles, in 1965, led to Whitney’s historic fellowship with the computer corporation between 1966-9. For Whitney, the IBM research grant was the ‘major change’ in his creative life: not only did it include ‘a modest annual income’, but it also gave him access to the latest, most advanced generation of mainframe computers – the IBM System/360 – with which to pursue his realisation of an integrated audio-visual motion graphics.[i] The computer architecture of the System/360 was innovative on its release in 1964: it was designed to be tailored to different kinds and scales of use, allowing customers to add to or ‘upgrade’ whilst preserving integration of components and programs through the same operating system, OS/360. IBM offered a range of different processors, giving unprecedented increases in speed courtesy of its own ‘microminiaturised’ Solid Logic Technology; storage capacity was claimed to be ‘virtually unlimited’ (from a few kilobytes on the model 20 to several megabytes in the later model 95 used by NASA for Apollo 11); and all components had built-in remote operations capability via a range of peripheral devices and interfaces – including the 2250 Display Unit featured in the IBM promotional film, Frontiers in Computer Graphics (1967).

In their joint presentation to the Fall Joint Computing Conference in November 1968,[viii] Citron and Whitney state that the user of these programs as ‘can be expected to have the sense and sensitivity of an artist in manipulating given geometric figures’, which strongly indicates that Whitney himself is the model ‘artist’. As such, the model of animation process remains modeled on the working practices that he had already developed:

With a working knowledge of this language [i.e. GRAF], an artist can compose choreographic movements of simple or complex visual patterns and exercise control over such elements in ways never before possible. With additional darkroom techniques, he can make still further use of technological developments to add color and even sound as well as indulge in the purely human process of editing.[ix] (1968: 1305)

This account of the production process developed by Whitney attests to the shortcomings of the 2250 for the creation of a new art of digital motion graphics – or rather, it illustrates the lack of a clear break between the analog and digital in any such art. This is apparent from the three stages of animated image production outlined by Citron and Whitney:
the 2250 is used to programme the parameters of the image sequences (‘static program’ mode);
the punched data cards are used to coordinate the display of the image sequences on the 2250 with the operation of a modified 35mm motion picture camera;
the 35mm negative is printed on high contrast stock allowing for the sequences to be processed and coloured using Whitney’s hand-made optical printer.

Such a process is clearly dependent upon the analog process of optical printing, but the use of punched cards as data storage is no more ‘digital’ – and no more so than the spinning disc of an optical hard drive, of course.[x] If Permutations is one of the outcomes of such ‘computer assisted movie production’, then we might ask to what extent it is accurate to describe it as ‘digital animation’ when the transfer between digital and analog processes are crucial to its production. What Whitney encountered, as Gene Youngblood pointed out at the time, was the ‘curious nature of the technological revolution… that, with each new step forward, so much new territory is exposed that we seem to be moving backwards.’[xi] What Whitney had once described as his ‘delayed double-take’ – that glance from analog mechanisms to digital systems – thus remains instructive for our present moment, in which the exponential curve of technological development is so often summarized by an unquestioned turn to ‘the digital’. For if the Whitney-Citron collaboration is one of the crucial filaments out of which the history of ‘computer animation’ is braided,[xii] it raises some interesting questions about the technical, material and aesthetic genealogies of so-called ‘new media’ – and in particular the ongoing ‘legacies’ of analog systems and mechanisms within the ‘digital’.

Using abstract film and computers, John and James Whitney experimented with image and perception from the 1940s to the 1960s, predating work with video image synthesis. Interestingly, these West Coast experimental filmmakers used graphic notation and computers; in particular, John Whitney further pursued this approach to explore parallels between language and music systems. In 1962, John Whitney produced computer films, first with an IBM analog computer (since 1966 only digital computers can be used in film). In the works Matrix I-III (1970-1972, USA), Whitney developed an abstract film with the computer by programming a system of moving graphic patterns. These films by John Whitney, together with James Whitney’s film Lapis (1963–1966, USA) in which he used an analog computer, John Stehura’s Cybernetic 5.3 (1965-1969, USA), and Stan VanDerBeek’s studies of Poem Fields (1966, USA), set the precedent for computer film. The role of early computer films to create an abstract and systematic visual language was further carried out in video, where the primary interest lay in the development of a “lexicon of electronic vocabulary” -Woody Vasulka.

The brothers John & James Whitney created their remarkable series of Film Exercises between 1943 and 1944. These films are visually based on modernist composition theory, the carefully varied permutations of form are manipulated with cut-out masks so that the image photographed is pure direct light shaped, rather than the light reflected from drawings as in traditional animation. The eerie, sensuous neon glow of these forms is paralleled by pioneer electronic music sound scores composed by the brothers using a pendulum device to write sounds directly on the film's soundtrack area, with precisely controlled calibrations. At that time, before the perfection of recording tape, these sounds - with exotic "pure" tone qualities, mathematically even chromatic glissandos and reverberating pulsations - were truly revolutionary and shocking. The brothers won a Grand Prize at the 1949 Brussels Experimental Film Competition for the Film Exercises.