Oskar Fischinger

Oskar Fischinger originally chose music as a career, studying violin and organ building (for mathematical harmonic theory) before 1914. Too young and unhealthy for war duty, he was forced to learn architectural drafting and tool design. At the beginning of April 1921, he was thrilled by the first performance of Walther Ruttmann's Light-Play Opus No.1 (an abstract film with a live musical score) and vowed to devote himself to absolute cinema, which could best combine his skills at music and graphic art.

His first films of the early 1920s are among his most radical, perhaps because he felt challenged to create something quite different from the romantic choreography of small figures in the films of Ruttmann or the static development of graphic intricacies in the work of Viking Eggeling. Fischinger was also influenced by Tibetan Buddhism toward meditative mandala structures. In Wax Experiments and Spirals Fischinger designed visual patterns of extreme complexity which often move in hypnotic cycles, yet he interrupts with radical editing of single frames of contrasting imagery. Similar virtuosity in editing characterizes R-1: A Form-Play, a spectacular abstract multiple-projection show (using five film projectors and slides) which he performed between 1925 and 1927.[1] Even when viewing the panels as separate films, one is struck by their dynamic vigor and fresh inventiveness.

He helped support himself during this period by making conventional cartoons, which demonstrate his mastery of realistic anatomy, perspective, and conventional story-telling. But his Spiritual Constructions shows the same radical consciousness and experimental techniques as his abstract films: the slender tale of two drunks who argue and stagger home becomes an epic voyage of warping shapes and thwarted perceptions, rendered again with single-frame editing and scratching directly on film frames -- devices that would only re-emerge thirty years later in the films of Stan Brakhage.

During the summer of 1927 he walked from Munich to Berlin, recording his journey in single-frame exposures -- again a premonition of the diary films two generations later. He was hired to make special effects of rockets, starscapes and planet surfaces for Fritz Lang's 1929 science-fiction feature Woman in the Moon, and broke his ankle on the set. In the hospital he began drawing animations on white paper in charcoal, which led to a series of 17 Studies.

By this time Ruttmann was no longer making abstract films, so Fischinger felt free to explore the romantic choreography of simple shapes. In each of the Studies he set himself a different visual problem to solve: in Study No. 6 a flexible aerodynamic movement that resolves into icons suggesting the eye as mandala or the splitting of matter in an Einsteinian relativity; in Study No. 7 a deep-space perspective of hard-edged figures contrasted with a flat surface where sensuous art-nouveau shapes metamorphose; in Study No. 8 an orchestral multiplicity and density of figures, etc.

The close synchronization of these Studies with music (originally begun as ads for recordings, thus a precursor of video-clips) made them immensely popular with audiences worldwide, but after the Nazi takeover, such abstract works were looked upon with disfavor, and Fischinger was denied permits to make any further such films. His involvement with inventing the GasparColor process allowed him new venues, since the 1933 film Kreise (Circles) was cleared as an advertising film, although it is essentially abstract imagery and the ad text only appears in the last few frames.

He secretly produced another color film, Composition in Blue, using small geometrical models. Fischinger exhibited Composition in Blue at foreign festivals without a proper permit, and it won the King's prize at the Brussels World Fair in October 1935, which placed Fischinger in a dangerous position.[2] Fortunately Paramount rushed him to Hollywood in February 1936, but they did not allow him to continue to work in color once he was there. With a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation (then called The Museum of Nonobjective Painting) he was later able to buy back from Paramount his short film Allegretto, which, printed in color, stands as one of the most perfect pieces of visual music: the layers of cels allowed Fischinger to develop rhythms, harmonies and counterpoints of forms, while the colors change from frame to frame to create lush hues on divisionist principles.

All Fischinger's filmmaking attempts in America suffered comparable difficulties. He composed An Optical Poem to Liszt's "Second Hungarian Rhapsody" for MGM, but received no profits due to studio bookkeeping systems. He designed the Bach "Tocatta and Fugue" sequence for Disney's Fantasia, but quit without credit because all his designs were simplified and altered to be more representational. The Guggenheim Foundation required him to synchronize a film with a Sousa march in order to demonstrate loyalty to America (American March), and then insisted that he make a film to Bach's "Brandenburg Concert No. 3" even though he wanted to make a film without sound in order to affirm the integrity of his non-objective imagery -- and secretly did compose the silent masterpiece Radio Dynamics which breathes slow pulsating rhythms and astonishing single-frame flickers of painterly images.

Frustrated in his filmmaking, Fischinger turned increasingly to oil painting as a creative outlet. Although the Guggenheim Foundation specifically required a cel animation film, Fischinger made his Bach film as a documentation of the act of painting, taking a single frame each time he made a brush stroke -- and the multi-layered style merely parallels the structure of the Bach music without any tight synchronization. Although he never again received funding for a film, the breathtaking Motion Painting No. 1 won the Grand Prix at the Brussels International Experimental Film Competition 1949. Three of Fischinger's films also made the 1984 Olympiad of Animation's list of the world's greatest films.
--Dr. William Moritz, courtesy Fischinger Trust
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A few minor edits were made prior to publication.
[1] These dates are questionable for the multiple projection performances. Research and publications by Dr. Jörg Jewanski and Cindy Keefer place the first performance in 1926; it is also possible they were performed after 1927. One of the side panels is believed to be some of Fischinger's Staffs experiments.
[2] This "secretly produced" statement has been widely misinterpreted. The making of this film was kept secret from Fischinger's employees as he did not want his techniques publicly known. No evidence has been found that Fischinger was placed in a "dangerous position;" actually this film was registered without difficulty.

Fischinger Research Pages: http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/Fischinger
Fischinger Trust: http://www.oskarfischinger.org
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IMAGE (C) FISCHINGER TRUST, COURTESY CENTER FOR
VISUAL MUSIC

Films