I See Music: How Oskar Fischinger Influenced Disney

An American March (still from CVM trailer)

Remember the pre-CGI visual beauty of Fantasia? Fischinger, who also worked with Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, among others, invented the "lumigraph" (a machine for "playing" colors on screen). This guy should be put on a stamp.

Oskar Fischinger: Visual Music
Oskar Fischinger

Center for Visual Music

28 Dec 2017


Painter and animator Oskar Fischinger created dynamic and seminal works of "visual music" that influenced Walt Disney, Mary Ellen Bute and many others. After meeting and becoming inspired by German avant-garde filmmaker Walter Ruttmann, Fischinger began producing short experimental works in 1920s Germany before coming to Hollywood in the '30s and working abortively for Paramount, MGM, and Disney, including concepts for Fantasia. His funding petered out in the '50s and he concentrated on a prolific career on canvas.

The Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles, which owns Fischinger's films and papers and has been working to restore many of the films, has just released a new DVD on his works. Oskar Fischinger: Visual Music serves as a follow-up to their 2006 release Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films. Let's glance at that previous volume before turning our attention to the newbie.

Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films

Ten Films is a reasonably wonderful disc, though if you Play All, you only get seven films running about 50 minutes. These show a progression from two films of black and white spirals without sound (dating from the '20s) to the addition of a classical music soundtrack in the third film. Then come dazzling colors in rapidly shifting combinations of geometries, sometimes employing the Gasparcolor technique Fischinger helped develop in Germany. The highlight of the German period is the 1934 color work Kreise (Circles), essentially an advertising film, though an especially hallucinatory one.

His American work includes Allegretto (1943), his colored revision of an abstract film originally created for Paramount but not used by them. Again, these are dazzling abstract colors and shapes set to music. The 1942 epic Radio Dynamics, conceived to play silent, is described so intoxicatingly by Jonathan Rosenbaum that we can but quote him: "a luscious and pulsating visual music that's simply too rich to be encapsulated as a Klee or a Kandinsky in a constant state of becoming, even if it fleetingly suggests such a conceit. Instead it's a visual music so generous, plentiful, joyful, and alive it finally makes musical accompaniment superfluous."

The culminating film is Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), which must have taken a long time to shoot. It presents one-still-at-a-time documentation of brushstrokes on glass to J.S. Bach's 3rd Brandenberg Concerto as the paint spins circles and new colors cover the old. It's beautiful, a perfect match of music and abstract image, and it foreshadows Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso (1956), which also followed the creation of a painting on glass in front of the camera.

The other three films out of the ten are in the Special Features and represent earlier 1920s experiments. One film is a compilation of photographed wax cuttings that mold and reshape themselves very slowly. Another film consists of rapid edits of live photography of a walking trip from Munich to Berlin, so that we see flashes of people, buildings, animals, trees, etc. Perhaps the most creative and exhausting film of the trio features squishy amorphous silhouette animation of two endlessly morphing men who twist into mad Basil Wolverton creatures in a violent and strangely erotic way.

Oskar Fischinger: Visual Music

Squares (still from CVM trailer)

The new disc also features a bonus section with several minutes of miscellaneous experimental material -- colors, waxes, pixillations and home movies -- from his German and American phases. These bonuses include one commercial release: the 1924 Pierrette 1, which consists of traditional hand-drawn animation that looks rotoscoped, and which tells a circular, surreal anecdote of a romantic triangle between two men and a woman of the commedia dell'arte school. This work drops in fragments of live-action imagery, or at least photographs of the real actors, in a manner reminiscent of Disney's early Alice in Cartoonland shorts.

The disc's primary attraction is the eight films assembled in the main program. Again, a sequential approach begins with early Studies, dating from 1930, that feature bird-like patterns of squiggles flitting and darting across the screen in regular formations. The first one is left silent, although it was originally played to advertise a new phonograph recording; therefore, an early kind of music video. The second film uses a jazz band recording.

The third film, Studie Nr. 8 (1931), uses Paul Dukas' The Sorceror's Apprentice and thus directly anticipates Fantasia. Along with a trailer from 1932 called Coloratura, its uses increasingly complex collations of black and white shapes and lines in what look like regiments of notes scrambling across the screen.

Brilliant Gasparcolor, emphasizing red, arrives in the 1934 advertising film Muratti greift ein. Though sometimes translated blandly as "Muratti marches on" or "Muratti gets in the act" (according to Wikipedia), the title actually means "Muratti intervenes", as in military intervention. The stop-motion Muratti cigarettes begin by waltzing and gradually begin marching in formation, engaging in carefully drilled lyrical maneuvers while other cigarettes watch from the stands before the rising of a red sun. We hope this is either an unintentional prediction of the newly militarizing Germany or a parody of the same via death-sticks. Perhaps everyone was too delighted by the colorful stop-motion animation to reflect on deeper implications.

(Still from CVM trailer)

The black and white, live-action Swiss Trip, scored with Bach's 3rd Brandenburg Concerto (like Motion Painting No. 1), is kind of a nature or travel film cut via noticeable (in-camera?) edits that give the impression the film is constantly blinking and foreshadow techniques Stan Brakhage would use in the '50s and '60s.

For many viewers, the highlight of this disc is the 1935 Composition in Blue, in which three-dimensional shapes come into being before our eyes, passing through walls or bursting across grids as they grow, travel, vanish and change color in a mad psychedelic explosion that eventually becomes a dance of planets shooting towards the viewer. It can be rewatched endlessly and, as with Shakespeare's Cleopatra, custom cannot stale its infinite variety. The music comes from Otto Nicolai's German opera The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Starting with the American flag and stars, Fischinger performs similar magic to John Phillip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever for An American March (1941), a film apparently commissioned to prove he wasn't an enemy alien. It must have worked.

Rosenbaum identifies Composition in Blue as using paper cutouts suspended on sticks and wires, and he states that this technique was developed further in the 1938 MGM short An Optical Poem, the only film to be commercially released from Fischinger's stint at three American studios in addition to Fantasia. This is the only film not owned by CVM and it's not on either disc. Sometimes on Youtube, it was included on a monumental box called Unseen Cinema, but CVM's Cindy Keefer states (in the above Rosenbaum link) that the colors on that print are wrong. It can also be found in the essential 2015 collection Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970. It's dazzling.

Fischinger's biography includes work with Orson Welles (unrealized ideas in the '40s), Fritz Lang (the special effects for 1929's The Woman in the Moon), and the invention of a "lumigraph" (a machine for creating colors on screen) that was used in the 1964 B film The Time Travelers. This guy should be put on a stamp.

So we thank CVM for putting these titles out, though a few frustrations must be noted. The one that probably can't be helped is the lack of one coherent orderly collection of everything, for surely this dream is subject to the time and money of the restoration project. The one that might be helped is the poor or lacking information on discs or liner notes. Not even the music gets identified, and the brief bio of Fischinger only fleetingly puts some works in context. On the other hand, we're directed to other sources for more info about the films.







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