Born in 1900 near Frankfurt, Oskar Fischinger trained as a musician and an architect before discovering film. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin and this was where is began producing abstract animations that ran before feature films (Crow, 2014). These abstract animations gained popularity quickly, however this declined when National Socialists came to power. The Nazis hated anything non representational and were known for being the harshest critics of art during this time. In 1936, Fischinger fled Germany in order to pursue the fame and appreciation of Hollywood. The problem was that Hollywood was really not ready for Fischinger. There was no doubt that Fischinger was talented and producers identified this, however his work was seen to be too ahead of its time for broad audiences.
Fischinger pioneered a new wave of animation as he diverged from all previous work that was produced during this time. His work is all about dancing geometric shapes and abstract forms spinning around a flat featureless background. With today’s highly advanced technology, it seems relatively simple to manipulate shapes in a computer, however Fischinger approached his film making without these advances. Using bits of paper and fishing line, he individually photographed each frame, somehow doing it all in sync with composed musical pieces. Fischinger was also involved with the development of the three-strip GasparColor film process (The Fischinger Archive, 2006-2013). Although experimentation was still proscribed, colour opened up new venues for Fischinger’s animated and abstract works in the field of commercial advertisement.
Fischinger’s ‘An Optical Poem’ (1938) is one of his most well known films. The short is eight minutes of precision geometric movement in bright, primary technicolour, with shapes moving beautifully through three-dimensional space to the music of Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’. This work was inspired by a short sequence at the end of one of his earlier works ‘Composition in Blue’ (1935), in which a group of circles rise from the background and, in depth, head toward the viewer. In producing ‘An Optical Poem’ his practice was building elaborate scaffolding in his studio from which he could suspend various geometric cut-outs from extra-fine fishing line. According to William Moritz he also used “…lights hung from various vantage points to create strong shadows that would emphasize depth. The geometric figures in the film circles, triangles, and rectangles were cut from paper and painted in specific hues, then attached to a fish line that could be tied to one of the overhead cross beams. With a painted background behind, each of the paper figures would be moved a millimetre before another film-frame could be shot, then moved a millimetre, etc.” (Miller, 2010). This monotonous process highlights how even the smallest miscalculation could ruin a shot and lead to the scrapping of many hours of work. As the film creates an abstract journey it can inspire a number of interpretations, however Moritz predicts that it’s the keen sensation of depth that becomes the conceptual part of the action. (Miller, 2010). Fischinger’s experimentation with practice by using unconventional materials and setups in order to create the geometric shapes encapsulates his core concept.
Furthermore, Fischinger’s earlier work ‘Allegretto’ (1936) eventually came to be recognised as one of the most accomplished pieces in the history of visual music. The film depicts diamond and oval shapes in primary colours performing a sensual, upbeat ballet to the music of composer Ralph Rainger. The geometric dance is set against a background of expanding circles that suggest radio waves. ‘Allegretto’ was his first project following his arrival in Hollywood and was originally commissioned as a segment of Paramount’s ‘The Big Broadcast of 1937’, but the production changed from technicolour to black-and-white, and only a butchered version of Fischinger’s film found its way into the final release (Short Cuts, 2009). This film is a perfect example of how visual music was being adopted by early abstract filmmakers as Fischinger imports musical notions to the structuring of abstract imagery. The dynamic relationship between sound and image, and the film’s unique combination of visual and aural tonalities never ceases to amaze and charm. Fischinger utilised a cel-layering technique to animate visual equivalents of rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint (Lee, 2012). By doing so, he managed to form a dialogue between the media and material. It is Fischinger’s passion for experimentation and invention that have led to the fame and appreciation of his works.
Correspondingly, Fischinger’s film ‘Motion Painting No. 1’ encapsulates his concept of conveying sound into painted movement. The idea behind this work originated by the thought of making “a grand and glorious film to be accompanied by Bach music” (Barrier, 2004). His practice in making this work was to begin painting on a board fixed tight to a specially constructed easel with even lighting on each side to prevent reflection, and after each small brush stroke he rocked backward in a swivel chair and pulled a shoe string attached to the single frame lever on a camera set up behind him focused exactly on the painting. He painted every day for over five months without being able to see how it was coming out on film. As the camera records, frame by frame, the activity of his brush, Fischinger himself is a constant presence in this film, unlike in all his other works. The artist’s unseen hand makes this work so moving too. It is at once the most abstract and the most personal of films, and that is why it is so powerful. Furthermore, Fischinger restates the importance of music and the visual as the accompaniment of Bach’s third ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ is so abstract in itself that it compliments the abstract visual qualities of the painting in the film.
There is an integral connection between abstract animated films and music. Oftentimes, without music, a piece of animation loses its power and emotional appeal. In other cases an artist’s insight, through animation, illuminates a musical selection, forever changing the way we hear that piece of music. Fischinger successfully combines animation and music in all of his short films by experimenting with the practice and materials. Although Fischinger struggled with the film industry, he created influential animations that combined his strong sense of audio-visual awareness. His method of conveying sound and rhythm with colour and shapes is the basis of visual music, and his influence is obvious in contemporary music videos and other forms of audio visualisations.
Crow. 2014. Open Culture. ‘Optical Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Animator Hated by Hitler, Dissed by Disney.’ September 19th 2014. Available from: http://www.openculture.com/2014/09/optical-poems-by-oskar-fischinger.html [14th April 2016]
The Fischinger Archive. 2006-2013. Centre For Visual Music (CVM). Fischinger Pages: Oskar Fischinger Biography.’ Available from: http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/Fischinger/OFBio.htm [14th April 2016]
M. Miller. 2010. Turner Classic Movies (TCM). ‘An Optical Poem (1938).’ Available from: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/400710/An-Optical-Poem/articles.html [15th April 2016]
Andrew. 2009. Short Cuts. ‘Avant-Garde: Allegretto (1936, Oskar Fischinger).’ May 2nd 2009. Available from: http://shortcutcinema.blogspot.com.au/2009/05/avant-garde-allegretto-1936-oskar.html [15th April 2016]
Lee. 2012. The Creators Project. ‘Original Creators: Oskar Fischinger, The Father Of Visual Music.’ June 25th 2012. Available from: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/original-creators-oskar-fischinger-the-father-of-visual-music [16th April 2016]
Barrier. 2004. Michael Barrier. ‘Capsules: Motion Painting No. 1.’ January 24th 2004. Available from: http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Capsules/Fischinger/fischinger_capsule.htm [16th April 2016]