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September 28, 2014

Optical Poetry - An Oskar Fischinger Retrospective

Presented in association with Center for Visual Music

Decades before computer graphics, before music videos, even before Fantasia (the 1940 version), there were the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger (1900 - 1967), master of ‘absolute’ or nonobjective filmmaking. He was cinema's Kandinsky, an animator who, beginning in the 1920's in Germany, created exquisite ‘visual music’ using geometric patterns and shapes choreographed tightly to classical music and jazz. – John Canemaker, New York Times

Oskar Fischinger is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, embracing the abstraction that became the major art movement of that century, and exploring the new technology of the cinema to open abstract painting into a new Visual Music that performs in liquid time. – Biographer William Moritz

In Motion Painting Number One, for the first time, visual music was born, creating that deep, emotional, almost pleasurable feeling (as we know it) that we get from good music. – Oskar Fischinger

Early in his filmmaking career, Oskar Fischinger established a pattern of alternating commercial work with personal, experimental filmmaking. While it seems clear that he preferred working in an avant garde way, commercial work afforded both income and access to the most advanced technology, and Oskar was, among all of the radical film-makers of the Twenties, the most technically knowledgeable and adventurous. Oskar supported himself during this period by making conventional animation, which demonstrates his mastery of realistic anatomy, perspective and linear storytelling. Yet his personal film Spiritual Constructions shows the same radical consciousness and experimental techniques as his abstract works: the slender tale of two drunks who argue and stagger home becomes an epic voyage of warping shapes and thwarted perceptions, rendered with single-frame editing and scratching directly on film frames—devices that would re-emerge thirty years later in avant-garde filmmaking.
Hired to make special effects of rockets, starscapes and planet surfaces for Fritz Lang's 1929 science-fiction feature Woman in the Moon, he broke his ankle on the set. While recuperating, he began drawing animations on white paper in charcoal, which became his remarkable series of Studies, comprised of 17 short black-and-white film experiments tightly synchronized to music, in which he set out to solve a different visual problem. At this time, Fischinger was also pursuing a series of film experiments with drawn synthetic sound (Ornament Sound Experiments). The close synchronization of the Studies with music (originally begun as ads for recordings, thus direct precursors of the music video) made them immensely popular with audiences worldwide, but after the advent of the Nazi regime, abstract works were classed as degenerate art, and it became more difficult to make experimental films.

Fischinger was involved with the development of the three-exposure GasparColor film process, a European rival to Technicolor. Although "experimentation" was still proscribed, color opened up new venues for Fischinger's animated and abstract works in the field of the commercial advertisement. One of the first color films in Europe, Kreise (Circles) was cleared as an advertising film, but it is essentially abstract imagery with the ad text only appearing in the last few frames. Fischinger’s animated color films, Muratti Greift Ein (Muratti Marches On) and Composition in Blue received great critical and popular success—attracting the eye of Hollywood.

In 1936, Paramount brought Fischinger to Hollywood and commissioned him to create the opening number for their Big Broadcast of 1937 feature. When Paramount would not pay for the color film stock he had requested, he resigned and later bought Allegretto back from Paramount, completing it in color. Fischinger used a cel-layering technique to animate formal visual equivalents of the musical concepts of rhythm, harmony and counterpoint. He implemented a "divisionist" technique of changing colors from frame to frame in order to achieve particularly luminous and chromatic hues that could not be produced by normal methods of animation photography. Shown all over the world, Allegretto eventually came to be recognized as one of the most accomplished pieces in the history of visual music.

Fischinger found it extremely difficult to work in studio situations, enduring episodes at Paramount (1936), MGM (1937) and Disney (1938-9) for whom he designed the Bach "Toccata and Fugue" sequence in Fantasia. He finally quit because his designs were simplified and altered to be more representational. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (Guggenheim Foundation) supported Oskar's work during the difficult war years and commissioned him to synchronize a film with a Sousa march. Afterward, Oskar proposed a film without sound in order to demonstrate the artistic validity of non-objective imagery, but the curator insisted that he make a film to Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3." While carrying out his commission, Oskar discreetly composed the silent masterpiece Radio Dynamics.

Although the Museum of Non-Objective Painting specifically required a cel animation film, Fischinger made his Bach film as a radical documentation of the act of painting, exposing a single frame each time he made a brush stroke. The film parallels the structure of the Bach music without slavish synchronization, and rediscovers some of the playfulness inherent in Bach's sense of formal invention. Although Motion Painting No. 1 won the Grand Prix for Experimental Film at the Brussels International Experimental Film Competition in 1949, Fischinger never again received funding for one of his personal films and turned increasingly to oil painting as a creative outlet. During the last twenty years of his life, Fischinger worked on a few commercial projects, several unfinished film and multi-media projects, many unfinished animation drawings, and by the end of his life had completed a substantial body of graphic work which included over eight hundred paintings.— excerpted from the Center for Visual Music’s Oskar Fischinger biography,

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome curator/archivist Cindy Keefer from the Center for Visual Music to introduce the works of this master of animation.

Prints were preserved by Center for Visual Music, Academy Film Archive (marked with *), and EYE Film Institute (Studie nr. 8 only), with the support of the Film Foundation, Sony, and private donors. Studie nr. 5 was preserved by CVM with support from EYE.

Introduction by Cindy Keefer
Sunday September 28 at 7pm

All films directed by Oskar Fischinger


Germany c.1926, 35mm, b/w, silent, 3 min


[Walking from Munich to Berlin]

Germany 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 3 min*


Spiritual Constructions

Germany c.1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 7 min *


Studie Nr. 2

Germany c. 1930, 35mm, b/w, silent, 2 min*


Studie Nr. 5

Music: “I’ve Never Seen a Smile Like Yours”
Germany 1930, 35mm, b/w, sound, 3:15 min


Studie Nr. 6

Music: Jacinto Guerrero, “Los Verderones”
Germany 1930, 35mm, b/w, sound, 2.5 min*


Studie Nr. 7

Music: “Hungarian Dance no. 5,” Johannes Brahms”
Germany 1931, 35mm, b/w, sound, 2.5 min


Studie Nr. 8

Music: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Paul Dukas
Germany 1931, 35mm, b/w, sound, 5 min



Germany 1932, 35mm, b/w, sound, 2.5 min*


Kreise (Circles) (Tolirag Ad Version)

Germany 1933-34, 35mm, color, sound, 2 min*


Muratti Greift Ein (Muratti Marches On)

Music: Excerpts from Josef Bayer’s “Die Puppenfee”
Germany 1934, 35mm, color, sound, 3 min*


Muratti Privat

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Germany 1935, 35mm, b/w, sound, 3 min*


Komposition in Blau (Composition in Blue)

Music: “Merry Wives of Windsor Overture,” Otto Nicolai
Germany 1935, 35mm, color, sound, 4 min*


Allegretto (early version)

Music: “Radio Dynamics,” Ralph Rainger
US 1936, 35mm, color, sound, 2.5 min*


Allegretto (late version)

Music: “Radio Dynamics,” Ralph Rainger
US 1936-43, 35mm, color, sound, 2.5 min


Radio Dynamics

US 1942, 35mm, color, silent, 4 min


An American March

Music: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” John Philip Sousa
US 1941, 35mm, color, sound, 3 min*


Motion Painting No. 1

Music: “Brandenburg Concerto no. 3,” Johann Sebastian Bach
US 1947, 35mm, color, sound, 11 min*


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